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.

First ask, “Why?”

Counselors, how do you handle it when students make their process—and your job—more difficult than it needs to be?

It might be a student who consistently missed appointments, or never remembers to email essays for you to review, or who refuses to completely engage in the process even though deadlines are approaching?

The Gallup Organization’s groundbreaking book on management, First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, shares the following example of how great managers handle similar situations with employees.

A talented employee repeatedly shows up late for work. What would you do? Would you fire him? Give a verbal and or written warning? Lock the door and refuse to let him in if he’s late?

The best managers—and this is based on 80,000 manager interviews—all gave a similar reply that summed up their attitude about the relationships they strived to cultivate with each employee.

“I would ask why.”

An employee could be repeatedly late for a number of reasons, ranging from job dissatisfaction, to a change in bus schedules, to a problem at home. The second step for great managers might then be to take any number of different actions to address the problem. But the first step is always to ask why.

Like employees, your students won’t always have a legitimate or acceptable excuse. But you won’t know until you ask why.

For counselors: evaluating your counseling program

Patrick O’Connor, a high school counselor, is one of the most vocal advocates for adding more admissions advising courses to existing counselor training programs, so much so that he started offering his own course. And he’s recently penned a book, College Counseling for School Counselors: Delivering Quality, Personalized College Advice to Every Student on Your (Sometimes Huge) Caseload.

His most recent blog post shares 20 questions high school counselors can use to reflect on your school’s current offering and services. As O’Connor himself points out, “There’s nothing scientific about these questions; they just address some of the key pieces of a college counseling program students need to know about in order to make the transition as personalized as possible.” But it’s a good place to start for any counselor wondering what good college advising looks like and who might be looking for potential areas of improvement within their own school.

Counselors: are you hurting by helping?

I’ve never met a college counselor—high school or independent like those at Collegewise—who wouldn’t go the extra mile for an earnest student who deserved the help. But the pressures of application deadlines, the tendencies of teenagers, and the workload on many counselors can leave these heroes and heroines of guidance frustrated with some of the kids they serve. How can you not be when a student hands you a pile of work—like writing letters of rec or reviewing essays—at the last minute, over a weekend, during a holiday, or all of the above?

Patrick O’Connor is a thought leader in the counseling profession and someone whose writing I share frequently here. If you’re a counselor who’s been feeling the strain of high expectations and last-minute requests, his new post, Reading Essays on Thanksgiving? Let’s Talk Turkey, is well worth your read.

I particularly enjoyed this snippet, which is his response to a common frustration a counselor might express (the bold emphasis is mine):

“She e-mailed me Sunday morning with a new application that was due that day. What was she thinking?”

She was thinking you would respond, and you did. When a deadline falls on a weekend or over a holiday, my e-mail is on auto-reply, telling students I’ll be available when school reopens. I’ve given them advanced deadlines, communicated them to students and parents (and yes, teachers) regularly, and now I’m sticking to them. If an e-mail suggests I forgot to do something that’s due, I check, fix it, and respond. Otherwise, the student is suggesting they’re having a college counseling emergency, and those don’t exist. I’ll point that out to them when school starts.

But I’m going to push harder on this point for some counselors, including our own at Collegewise. Like O’Connor, I don’t claim to understand every counselor’s unique circumstances or the populations that each of you serve, so this extra push may be more applicable to some than to others.

When you respond to emails late at night, over the weekend, and in response to last-minute requests like this, in spite of your best intentions, you are often actually feeding the anxiety, not helping it.

As O’Connor points out, there are no legitimate college counseling emergencies. Many families don’t understand this because they have a lot less experience with the process than you do. An email response after hours might seem to quell their immediate anxiety. But the unintended message can often be, “It’s a good thing you emailed me—we needed to address this right away!” It’s natural for them to view future questions through the lens of, “Maybe this is another crucial question we need answered now?”

These kind of extra-mile efforts can often make your job harder with the very families you’re going above and beyond for. They don’t understand the boundaries (or maybe you haven’t communicated them?). When you respond to emails on Saturday night or over a holiday weekend, you’re telling them that this is something you’re willing to do and that they can expect similar behavior in the future. You didn’t mean to tell them that, but for many families, that’s the message they’ll hear. And worse, if you later decide not to respond to similar requests off-hours, they’ll panic even more.

My intention here is not to criticize counselors who do whatever it takes to help kids get where they want to go. That kind of dedication is what makes you great at your job. And none of us would be in this gig if we didn’t believe that students—even those who can frustrate us the most—deserve the help even when it goes beyond the normal workday. That willingness is something all great counselors share.

But like the parent who gets too involved in the process because she loves her kid so much, the best intentions don’t always produce the best outcomes. To keep us happy, engaged, and able to do our jobs well, it’s good to occasionally ask ourselves, “Am I hurting by helping?”

Counselors: what you do matters

One of the most recognized and respected high school counselors in the country posted this comment to colleagues on a college counselors’ Facebook group yesterday:

What you do matters, folks. #finishstrong

I spend most of my space here speaking to the anxieties of kids and parents going through this process. But one of the many unfortunate side effects of college admissions anxiety is that it can bring out the worst in some of those very same kids and parents. And that worst often lands right on the counselor’s desk, from irrationality, to unreasonable demands, to misplaced anger and even blame.

This process can be difficult for everyone. It’s difficult for the student filling out the applications. It’s difficult for the parent trying to help without hurting. It’s difficult for the admissions officer who travels, reads, and lobbies in committee for months on end. And it can be especially difficult for the counselor.

For those counselors who are working hard on behalf of your students, no matter where or for whom you’re doing it, thank you. The work that you’re doing is important, which is one of the reasons it can be so difficult. I know that you know it; otherwise, you’d likely be doing something different. But when I read that comment, it was a nice reminder from someone who’s been there—and is there again right now—that what you do matters.

[Ed. note: I didn’t share the name of the counselor who wrote the comment because (1) it’s a closed group, and (2) I didn’t want to bug him to ask permission during what’s already a crazy time.]

NACAC Notes: take them and share them

NACACLessonsLearnedCoverTwo weeks ago, a dozen of our counselors were out in force at the annual NACAC (National Association for College Admissions Counseling) conference in San Diego. In between the usual presenting, learning, and socializing, they also took meticulous notes during the sessions they attended with the intention of sharing them later with high school counselors who were unable to attend. Counselors, you can download your copy here.

I have a favor to ask in return—if you find them helpful, please share them with a colleague or anyone else you know who’s on the front lines helping kids get into college. There are no copyrights or other restrictions. We believe that accurate, helpful college admissions information needs to be more readily available (it’s one of the reasons I write this blog), and we created these with the hope that they would spread far and wide to counselors who might benefit.

Thank you to the Collegewise counselors who participated, and to Casey, Arun, and Allison who pulled them all together for distribution.

Counselors, we pulled these notes together for you.  Now please take them and share them.