Private counselors: five holiday service extensions

Private counselors, there’s nothing wrong with sending a traditional holiday card to your customers. But there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about it, either. And most cards from businesses end up in the recycling bin anyway. So why not send something with more lift and a longer shelf life? Here are five holiday service extensions your customers will appreciate.

1. Pick up the phone.
Yes, much of communication is emailing and texting these days, and it’s a nice way to connect with families. But why not check in by phone before the holidays begin in full swing? You can remind them of final to-dos, offer to address any lingering questions or concerns, or even just wish them well and tell them what the next step will be in the new year. A phone call communicates that they’re not just a customer on a long list, and that you’re genuinely invested in them and in their student’s future. And heading off those questions or concerns at the pass makes it less likely you’ll get a panicked inquiry during your holiday time.

2. Express your sincere gratitude.
Have you enjoyed working with this student? What has impressed you or made you proud of them? What progress have they made, growth have you seen, or potential have they shown? Whatever the answer, write a short card and send it home to Mom and Dad. Sincere praise is the best praise, and I’ve never met a parent who doesn’t like hearing nice things about their kid.

3. Share a photo of a significant senior accomplishment.
Got a senior who’s submitting her final application? Adding their improved test scores to an application?  Clicking “Save” for the last time on an essay? Snap a photo of the moment and send it to the parents.

4. Help your student write a holiday card to their parents.
Imagine a parent receiving a holiday card from their own child detailing what they’ve been up to with their college counselor, and thanking their parents for supporting their college dreams. The card need not be more than a few sentences. But I promise you this will be one card that’s a keeper.

5. Offer a personal gift certificate.
Ask each of your students where their family goes out to eat together, or to name a family activity they all enjoy. Then send along a gift certificate to pitch in and help them enjoy it together. The amount doesn’t need to be big. It’s the (personal) thought that counts.


Counselors and teachers: need rec-writing help?

In the two weeks since its launch, over 70 teachers and counselors have enrolled in my online course, How to Write Letters of Recommendation. The video-based course is entirely self-paced—you can watch the parts you need, whenever you need them, as many times as you’d like.

No matter where you’d like some help in the rec-writing process—crafting, structuring, revising and editing, etc.—this course can help you do an even better job in less time.

The course is just $19, and the discount for blog readers expires tomorrow (Friday, November 4). Just enter collegewiseblog at checkout.

All the details are here, and I hope you’ll join us.

Learn how to write letters of recommendation

My first course for our 2016 Counselor Training Initiative is finally here. How to Write Letters of Recommendation, designed for counselors and teachers, is officially on sale. Click here to see the details. I think you’ll find that this course has the power to transform the way you and your colleagues approach these letters. You’ll give your students an even bigger admissions lift. And you’ll spend less time writing, rewriting, and wondering if you’re giving the colleges what they’re looking for.

The course includes videos and downloadable materials, all of which can be completed at your own pace.

Blog readers can save a few bucks by using the discount code collegewiseblog at checkout. The code expires Friday, November 4, 2016.

Letters of recommendation are required or recommended by over 1,100 of the nearly 2,000 four-year colleges and universities in the United States. They’re a college’s opportunity to see a student through two unique vantage points—the counselor and the teacher. But they take a lot of time to write, and too often, it’s not clear to the writers just exactly what the colleges are looking for. That answer isn’t particularly complex and it’s not intentionally secretive. It’s just yet another part of the admissions process where some clear, honest, straightforward advice can prevent a lot of unnecessary mistakes and anxiety.

I think this course will give that necessary direction, and maybe even a little relief. All the details are here and I hope you’ll join.

Texting in college counseling?

Many high school counselors are successfully using group texting programs as a way to 1) deliver timely college planning information to their students, and 2) actually get their students to pay attention to it. That second item isn’t trivial. Teens often suffer from information overload, especially when it comes to college admissions. A six-page newsletter, an email they have to scroll through, a 90-minute workshop overviewing the entire process—you lose a lot of students to diminished attention spans. But a timely text that says, “Here’s one thing you need to do this week” stands a much better chance of breaking through the information clutter.

Patrick O’Connor offers up some good advice here on how to do this effectively, including how to incorporate the White House’s new initiative, What’s Up Next?, which sends regular texts to students to advise them on various parts of the college process.

When once a day adds up

For private counselors looking to grow your businesses, what if on every workday for the next year, you committed to doing just one of these items from the list below?

  • Call or email a customer just to check in.
  • Write a blog post sharing free advice.
  • Record a video sharing free advice.
  • Invite your three strongest competitors to lunch.
  • Learn more about a relevant topic that you don’t know much about.
  • Learn even more about the topic you know a lot about.
  • Create a workshop on admissions, financial aid, or study skills and offer it at a local library.
  • Start reading a relevant how-to book and commit to changing at least one thing based on what you learn.
  • Sit at a coffee shop for one hour and write down ideas about how to improve your counseling or your business.
  • Train an employee or business partner to do something you do well.
  • Write a thank-you note to a customer who’s treated you well.
  • Write a thank-you note to a vendor who’s treated you well.

No single item done once is likely to substantially change you or your business. But there are roughly 200 workdays in a year. Imagine what would happen when those daily actions start adding up.

Unspoken, unexplored, or unresolved

Counselors, if a family believes that attending a prestigious college is a necessary precursor to success (or if they believe the corollary—that attending a less selective school is an inherent life disadvantage), chances are, it will be difficult for you to change their minds. No matter how many statistics, studies, or anecdotes you may bring out, it will likely be difficult to change their minds. It’s not unlike debating politics or religion—those beliefs are strong, and for better or for worse, many people are simply not inclined to change their minds.

If you’re helping a family who’s in that camp, you might not only consider these questions, but also discuss them with the family.

Do you agree with their approach?
Not everyone shares the same approach to the college admissions process, and there’s room for different, equally valid points of view. But if you’re not on the same side of the prestige question, it’s worth honestly and respectfully addressing that potential dissonance as soon as possible in the relationship.

If not, can you change their minds?
Asking a family, “Are you open to adding less selective schools to your list?” can reveal a lot about your potential work together. Some prestige seekers are also realists who understand how slim the chances of admission really are. Others want to play the admissions lottery or simply ignore the math.

If you can’t change their minds, can you still help them in some way?
Even a fundamental disagreement about the approach doesn’t always mean that a counselor and a student/family can’t work well together, especially if you agree to disagree about some components of the college application process, and willingly join forces in others. But you’ll need to have those conversations early and honestly. And all parties need to agree on who will be held responsible for which outcomes. For example, some families hire our Collegewise counselors to assist them with their applications and essays, but not to help them actually create the college list. We have open discussions with those families so everyone understands that we share responsibility for the quality of the submitted work, but not for the potential match or admissions feasibility of the chosen colleges.

In counselor/family relationships, disagreements cause the most disruption when they are any combination of unspoken, unexplored, or unresolved. Bring them to the forefront, talk about them, and then decide together if you can work around them.

For private counselors: How much should you charge?

One of the most common questions we get from people who are considering becoming private counselors is, “How much should I charge?” And built into the question is often an underlying, even more complex one—“How should I structure my services (hourly, yearly, pay-as-they-go, etc.)?”

There are no easy, one-size-fits-all answers to any of those questions. In fact, I think part of the learning in entrepreneurship is figuring out the answers to questions about things like pricing, not taking a shortcut or just trying to out-copy your competition.  So here are a few pricing guidelines to help you make that decision for yourself.

1. First, sell one hour of time.
The best place to start is to pick a price for one hour of college counseling and then go try to sell it to someone. If a family is willing to pay you for one hour of time, it means they trust you enough to see value in what you’re charging. But if you can’t sell even one hour, you’ve got a problem, either with the price, the offering, or both. Offer more, charge less, and see if you have more success. But start with one hour. If that works, you’ll already have at least one customer who may be willing to come back for more. And you’ll have a starting point for your pricing and your programs.

2. Remember that you’re choosing more than a price.
Your price isn’t just a number—it’s a signal of what kind of business you want to run. Do you want to be the most expensive private counselor in town, the cheapest, or somewhere in between? Whatever you decide, choosing a price means that you’re also choosing what type of customer you’re likely to draw (and repel) and what they’re likely to demand from you in return. You’re also deciding how many available substitutes there are in town, the number of clients you’ll need to enroll to hit whatever your budget is, and how much time you’ll need to spend on billing and looking for new clients. You may not have perfect answers to those questions if you’re just starting out. But it’s worth thinking about—and revaluating—those choices as you test your pricing.

3. Remember that price isn’t permanent.
Many budding entrepreneurs get paralyzed by the pricing decision for one reason—they’re afraid they’ll be wrong. But remember pricing isn’t a permanent decision. There’s no law that says you can’t change your mind later. Sure, you’ll have to treat your current customers fairly and make sure you don’t offer tomorrow’s customer the same thing for much cheaper than the customer who paid you today. But all the market research and business planning in the world still isn’t as infallible as actually testing a price, seeing what happens, and then changing it if necessary. And this is a lot less scary when you remember that pricing isn’t permanent.

4. Charge what feels right.
Would you pay this price for your own services? And more importantly, would you feel right asking a customer to pay that price? At some point, you’ll need to look a potential customer in the eye and say, “Here’s what I charge.” Make sure you feel good about that number. I won’t define what “good” should feel like. But “bad” can be everything from feeling embarrassed that you’re not really worth what you’re asking to feeling taken advantage of because you’re charging too little for too much. The way your price makes you feel may change with time and experience (in which case, refer back to #3). But find a number you feel good saying out loud to people. You can’t control how they react when you quote your price. But you get to decide how it feels to you when you quote it.

5. Remember the value of your value.
If you test a price and nobody buys, it’s likely because they don’t see enough value in what you’re charging. So lowering the price is just one option; increasing your value is the other. What change or impact are you offering to them? How do they and their kids feel when they interact with you? Do you inspire trust and confidence? Do they believe that you’ll keep your promises? If they can get the same thing someplace else but cheaper, they’re not going to choose you. But if your customer decides (and they get to decide) that your value is one that can’t be matched elsewhere, your price will become less important to them than your value is. And a superior value is much harder for your competition to match than your price is.

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.