For private counselors: managing families vs. leading them

Marcus Buckingham is the author of several best-selling books on management and leadership (two of the best are here and here). One of his insights is that management and leadership are not the same thing. Great managers turn each employee’s particular talent into performance, and they recognize that what works for one person may not for another. Leaders, on the other hand, rally people towards a better future. To do that, they need to cut through the differences and tap into the few needs that everyone in an organization has in common.

That’s why the best private counselors are both managers and leaders.

A private counselor must help each individual family achieve their goals. Students have different college dreams, different qualifications, different strengths and weaknesses. Parents hire counselors for different reasons, from advising students how to improve their chances, to acting as a project manager for the application process, to navigating sometimes complex discussions between students and parents. A successful outcome means recognizing that what will make one client successful—from their college list, to their essay topic, to interactions you have between the student and parent—will not necessarily work for every family.

But the best private counselors are also leaders. They rally their collective caseload to a better future by speaking vividly about it. They tell stories to help their potential followers clearly see the path they are being invited to walk down.

At Collegewise, we tell potential families that they can enjoy their college admissions process together. We tell them that there are plenty of wonderful colleges out there for A students, C students, and everyone in between—and we promise to help them find them. We tell students that we can help them take charge of their college future and offer their parents the opportunity to step back. And we illustrate that future with real examples. For example, we tell families that they will have the opportunity to enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner together knowing that all of their student’s college applications have been submitted.

Not every family necessarily wants to realize our particular vision for a better college future. But those who join Collegewise know exactly where we’re promising to take them. And that future resonates with them.

What do all of your clients want out of their college admissions process?

Most parents want to see their children happy and fulfilled. Most kids want to attend colleges that excite them. And most families will appreciate the opportunity to lessen their anxiety, to avoid mistakes, and to enjoy the comfort of knowing that they’re making well-informed, smart decisions.

But the better future for your particular client base might well be different depending on what you offer them (and why they chose you), your customer’s demographics, or other factors that they and you best understand.

If you can recognize what unites your families, if you can clearly articulate the better future that you’re promising and then offer to lead them there, you can then focus on managing each particular client in the way that will best help them get to the better future you’ve described.

For Counselors: Common App webinar

The Common Application folks are hosting a free webinar on August 16 for counselors interested in learning about the latest updates and changes to the Common App, including new features in the system for letters of recommendation. All the information, and the link to register, is here.

For counselors: your best season yet?

Counselors who will soon be helping the Class of 2018 apply to college have a lot of changes to contend with this year—a new SAT, the Coalition Application, and the Prior-Prior-Year for the FAFSA, in particular. Considering how dedicated most counselors are to their students, it’s no surprise that so many of the counselors I interact with personally or within our various social media groups are anxious about all the upcoming unfamiliar territory. All of us seem to want more information, more answers, and frankly, familiarity with a landscape that seems to keep changing no matter how fast we scramble to keep up.

But if you’re a counselor who’s unsettled by what’s ahead, please remember that your students have the wonderful advantage of a counselor who cares enough to be concerned.

It’s unsettling not to know exactly what lies ahead. And it’s frustrating when changes like these unravel your previous systems and create more work for an already overworked counselor. There’s no cheerleading around that.

But the fact that you care enough to be concerned, that you’re reaching out to colleagues and comparing notes, that you’re scouring our social media groups, collecting whatever information is available, and considering how to best help your students—all of those things are a sign that your kids are in good hands.

The most veteran counselors have seen big changes before, from the advent of online applications to the introduction of the Common Application, and previous big changes to the SAT (which seem to happen every 4-5 years). They were unfamiliar at first. They concerned you on behalf of your kids. They created frustration and additional work. And somehow, you got your students through it.

It’s not the easiest time to be a college admissions counselor. But your kids are going to need you even more this year than ever before. And given that kids are the reason that we all got into this business, that just might make this season your best one yet.

P.S. Nearly 400 counselors have signed up to be notified when we release our first batch of counselor training programs this fall.  Click here if you’d like to be added to the list.

Recommended reading and viewing

Here are a couple reads (and one viewing) worth taking in over the weekend.

For students and parents, Denise Pope of Challenge Success and her interview with Frank Bruni, author of Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, is well worth the hour of your time.

For counselors, Patrick O’Connor, high school counselor extraordinaire, offers his recommended approach to the significant changes we’ll see in this year’s admissions cycle, like the new SAT, the Coalition Application, and the Prior-Prior-Year for the FAFSA.

For private counselors:

Warren Buffet has a surprisingly simple 3-word secret guaranteed to make your business succeed. And here’s Basecamp’s Jason Fried with some thoughts on how to say you’re sorry (hint: “We apologize for any inconvenience” is not it).

Have a great weekend.

Evaluate your counseling program

Last month, I recommended that private counselors debrief their most recent admissions season. For high school counselors looking to do the same, Patrick O’Connor, one of the best in your business, just shared some of his own advice, along with specific questions to consider.

If you’re looking for more detailed advice, Patrick’s book is a great read. And we’ll be launching our own training programs for counselors later this summer.

When infractions and applications collide

Many college applications ask questions about whether or not a student has (1) been suspended, disciplined, or put on probation at school, and (2) charged with, or convicted of, a misdemeanor or a felony.

Parents, if your student ever does something while in high school that would constitute a need to check “Yes” for either of those questions when they apply to college, please read this past post of mine (maybe bookmark it now, just in case).

And high school counselors, since you’ll also be asked these questions about your applicants, check out Patrick O’Connor’s excellent advice here on how to handle these situations.

Lessons learned in Chicago

I mentioned earlier this week that I was traveling to Chicago to take a class with Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp (formerly 37signals), on how they run their company. I’ve always admired and respected the way he approaches everything about work and business. While Fried’s company builds web-based software, which is not at all similar to what we do at Collegewise, he has customers. He has employees. He wants to be proud of his organization and what they produce. And I think his approach has a lot of application not just for companies, but also for students, counselors, and parents who work in groups to get things that they care about done.

Here are a few of the lessons I took away. To be clear, this workshop’s purpose was to reveal their approach, not necessarily to suggest that these are all appropriate for any organization.

Your company should be your best product.
Your company is the product that produces all the others, so you should operate your company with as much love, attention, and care as you put into building products. Whether you run a private college counseling shop, a high school counseling department, a PTA, or a high school club, they’re all like companies. And even if they don’t sell products, they exist to do something as an organization, whether that’s advising students, unifying parents to help better the school, or producing a high school yearbook. And you can’t expect to produce great results without a great organization.

[If you’re not in charge, see this past post about creating a pocket of greatness.]

Share new ideas with only a few people.
If you have an idea you’re excited about, don’t share it with the entire group right away. Instead, share it privately with a few employees, colleagues, or members. New ideas tend to die in big groups. Too many questions about details that don’t matter yet. Too many worries about problems that haven’t happened yet. Too many “Here’s how we’ve always done its.” A big group slows down the progress before an idea even has a chance to develop. Instead, pick a few people to share your idea with. Have an open but focused discussion and really listen to their feedback. If you can’t get these 2-3 people excited, chances are, your idea wouldn’t have found life in the group anyway. But if 2-3 people have a chance to flesh an idea out first, you might be able to present it together, and do so more effectively.

And here’s a Collegewise alternative—if you don’t need the group’s approval, you might consider our “Here’s what I’m doing” strategy.

Approach big projects in six-week cycles.
A project should always have a deadline to ship (complete it). But big projects have lots of little projects within them, things that need to get completed along the way. When you assign specific deadlines to each piece, you’ll fall behind (and lose momentum) before you know it. Instead, try working in six-week cycles. Once a group agrees to take on a big project—a fundraiser, a new marketing plan, a revamping of an existing system, etc.–start with a six-week cycle and decide what to work on during that time.

For example, a senior class might need to plan a prom. There’s a fixed date when that prom is going to happen. But there are lots of things that need to get done in the months that lead up to it: finding a location, deciding on music and decorations, fundraising, promoting it, selling tickets, etc. It’s a lot to consider at once. So start with a six-week cycle. Decide on the most important things to focus on and who will be responsible for what (more on both of those decisions below). Then dive in and get going. At the end of those six weeks, your project won’t be done yet. But you’ll be surprised by how much progress you’ve made in such a short time. Progress creates momentum. And you’ll be fueled by plenty of what Fried calls “Quick wins.”

And here are a few ideas to try during one of those six-week cycles:

Assign pieces of the large project to small teams of 2-3 people.
You might need a lot more than 2-3 people to pull off a senior prom. But 2-3 people can focus on finding the location. Another 2-3 can focus on fundraising, another small group on promotion, and another on ticket sales, etc. Small teams work well together. It’s easier to communicate and harder for dead weight to coast on the others’ work. And best of all, multiple small teams focused on their own important pieces and parts get more done than one large team focusing on the same thing.

Use the inverted pyramid to decide what to work on now.
Journalists use a method called the inverted pyramid when writing a story. The most vital parts of the story come first. Every subsequent paragraph should be less important than the one before it. Start with the big stuff, then get to the details. If an editor needs to shorten a story, she never has to guess which part of an article to cut out. If your small team is in charge of promoting an event, what are the most important things you need to get done (it’s what Fried calls “Starting at the epicenter“)? Deciding on a date, time, and place, maybe? That’s the top of the pyramid. The color of your poster board for signs doesn’t matter at all if you don’t have an event to promote, so it goes towards the bottom of the pyramid.

I’ve also written about how this concept can strengthen your college applications.

Fix time and budget, flex on scope.
Projects are unpredictable. Not everything will go as planned during your six-week cycle. But a small team never gets to demand more money or time. Instead, they can trim parts of the project off, move them to the next cycle, and finish the remaining portions well, on time, and on budget. This is where the inverted pyramid comes in—you’ll know what to clip and punt to the next cycle. Fried calls this “scope hammering.” It helps you focus on the things that matter. It keeps progress moving and prevents the less relevant details from grinding progress to a halt. A small thing done well, on time, and on budget is better than a large thing done late, beyond budget, or poorly.

Separate by scope, not by role.
If you’re producing the high school yearbook, don’t put all the photographers on one team together for six weeks. Sure, they’ll take lots of pictures, but they won’t know or be able to affect how the rest of the yearbook is coming together. Instead, assign the necessary people to the appropriate project piece. For example, the sports section might have one writer, one ad salesperson, and one photographer—that’s a three-person team. They know their job, they know what each member must contribute, and most importantly, they never have any doubt about the status of the project—the sports section itself—as they approach a deadline.

Take a short breather.
At the end of each six-week cycle, take a breather for a week. Not to sit back and do nothing, but to focus on polishing or improving what you’ve just released. Then jump into your next six-week cycle.

If you’d like to learn more, I highly recommend Fried’s books, especially Rework.

New to the college advising role?

If you’ve recently moved into your first position where you can help students find their way to college, there’s a good chance you haven’t had much (or any) training.  Maybe you’re a new college counselor who’s still learning the ropes of admissions? Maybe you’re a teacher at a charter school who wants to do even more to help get your kids college-ready? Maybe you work at a non-profit or community-based organization and have opportunities to talk to teenagers about their journey to college? Whatever your role, here are a few recommended first steps to give you a jump-start and help you do an even better job guiding kids who depend on you. Some of these are shameless Collegewise plugs, but I promise I’m sharing them because I really believe they can help new counselors.

1. Don’t be proud; be honest.
College counseling is the rare profession where you can expect assistance without judgment when you admit that you don’t yet know what you’re doing. Most of us were once where you are right now—new, overwhelmed, and unsure where to start. So acknowledge what you don’t know, and ask for help when you need it. If you’re committed to doing your best work for the kids you serve, I think you’ll find that most people in our profession will respond in kind in the name of helping those who are on the front lines with students.

2. Read the two books shared below.
The first is my own book, and the second is by Patrick O’Connor, one of the nation’s most respected high school counselors.

If the U Fits: Expert Advice on Finding the Right College and Getting Accepted

College Counseling for School Counselors: Delivering Quality, Personalized College Advice to Every Student on Your (Sometimes Huge) Caseload

My book will give you a comfortable expertise with all of the necessary parts of the process, from planning courses, to choosing colleges, to applying for financial aid. Patrick’s tackles the next—and vital—step of how you can best deliver this information to students. He even includes advice for evaluating your counseling program and taking advantage of ongoing professional development.

3. Check out the “Counseling Professionals” section of the NACAC website.
NACAC (National Association of College Admissions Counseling) regularly produces publications and training webinars, as well as hosts regional and national conferences, all to educate both counseling and admissions professionals.

4. Join the “College Admissions Counselors” Facebook group.
This is a closed group, so you’ll need to prove you’re not a spammer (the easiest way to join is to get one of the 10,000 current members to add you). Every day, counselors and admissions officers post questions and share advice, all with the aim of helping everyone in the group become even more knowledgeable and better able to support their kids.

5. Sign up for Collegewise counselor training updates.
This year, Collegewise is launching a division to help train America’s high school counselors. If you’d like to be alerted when new offerings are made available, as well as be eligible for enrollment discounts and other special offers, just sign up here. I promise we won’t spam you or do anything to make you regret sharing your email with us.

For private counselors: when should you work for free?

The best private college counselors in our industry love to share, contribute, and do their part. They work with under-resourced students pro-bono. They present at conferences. They share information and best practices with others who need it. And they do those things without regard for payment. They’re not all about the money.

But smart business owners appreciate that there is such a thing as giving away too much. So how do you tell the difference? How do you know whether you should cheerfully work free of charge, or seek payment for your time and expertise?

Professionals who deliver something valuable always expect to be paid. But money is just one form of payment. Here are a few other forms that can be just as, if not more, valuable than a one-time payment for services:

1. Learning
Will this help you get even better at an important part of your job?

2. Exposure
The value of exposure varies from worthless (your article in a newsletter that nobody reads) to priceless (an appearance on Good Morning America). So be rigorous in evaluating exposure as a form of payment. A good start: Will this introduce you and your work to people who can help you spread the word to those who can pay?

3. Increased credibility
Is the benefactor willing to let you be open about your contributions, maybe even with a testimonial if you exceed their expectations? And even more importantly, will potential customers trust and respect you more to learn about the work you did and who you did it for?

4. Opportunity
Can you see a clear path from a first step that’s free to later steps where you could receive payment?

5. Personal fulfillment
Is this particular request something you love to do, enough that you don’t mind doing it for free?

Donations (of money, time, expertise, etc.) are not the same thing as working for free. When you donate to a person or organization that needs it, where you help people who will benefit from but could otherwise never access what you have to share, you do it because you believe in the mission and you want to make a difference. That’s why you expect nothing in return other than the joy of contributing.

But when you move towards working for free, respect your time and expertise. Smart professionals donate to make a difference, but they work for payment, whether it’s money or one of the forms above.

Yesterday’s news

For counselors and others who are deeply in-the-know, the college admissions landscape is going through dramatic change.

The FAFSA is changing. The SAT is being revamped. And the proposed “Coalition App”—a rival to the Common Application which would allow students to start building a college admissions portfolio as early as freshman year—is being simultaneously cheered and loathed depending on who you talk to.

For counselors, test-prep companies, and colleges themselves, these are potentially big changes, the kind that can be difficult and uncomfortable. And the best representatives from all those constituencies are right to keep asking, “How will this affect our students?”

It’s the right question to ask. It’s the right thing to discuss with your colleagues. But in most cases, it’s the wrong topic to actually discuss with your students.

If you work with high school students, remember that no matter how different some aspects of their process might be from those of past classes, they won’t have anything to compare it to. For them, what’s presented today is what’s normal. There’s no need to exacerbate admissions anxiety by discussing history that can’t be changed.

Imagine starting a new job and the boss spending much of the first day telling you all the details and implications of a policy change that was being enacted that day. Do you care how things were always done in the past? Do you want to know all the reasons this is better (or worse) than the former way? Do you need to adjust to this change? No—it’s your first day! Current employees might care about all of those things, but yesterday isn’t part of your reality at this job yet. How to do great work today is what matters to you.

I’ve seen representatives from test prep companies spend up to an hour in front of audiences of students and parents describing in detail how the new SAT will differ from the old one. I’m not suggesting that information isn’t relevant. But kids (and their parents) want to know about the test they’ll face, how to best prepare for it, and what scores they’ll need to get into the colleges they want to attend. They care a lot less about how their test is different from a test they’ll never have to take.

Keep up with the changes. Do whatever you have to do to understand their implications. Identify how your students will be affected, adjust your advice accordingly, and share your knowledge with as many colleagues as possible. That’s all in the best interest of your kids.

But when you sit down to actually help a student plan for college, don’t spend too much time explaining the past and how things have changed. For them, it’s yesterday’s news. Instead, focus on today and tomorrow. That’s where they need to be focused, too.