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.

Letters of rec: five sources for teachers

If you’re a teacher who writes letters of recommendation for college applicants, here are five sources of information and advice to help you even better support your kids:

Two past posts of mine, here and here, each have five letter of recommendation tips.

Here’s a reminder that great letters don’t need to be long.

This article from The Atlantic shares some good advice, particularly for teachers who write letters for first-generation or other students who have overcome significant obstacles to become college-ready.

And MIT’s blog shares some excellent tips for teachers here.

When families ignore counselors’ advice

Counselors, how do you handle it when a student (or parent) won’t take your advice?

A family insists that their student apply to a long list of schools you know will not admit the student.

A parent wants their student to write an essay on a topic you know to be overused, like “Sports taught me the value of teamwork and committing to my goals.”

A student continuously retakes the SAT even after achieving a score that’s good enough to please any college’s standardized testing expectations.

Any person in the consulting, advising, or counseling profession faces the challenge of people who ask for your help but then won’t take your advice. But college counselors, both independent and those in high schools, feel deeply responsible for—and protective of—their students. These are kids, and we’re talking about their futures. I’d hate to have to calculate how many hours of sleep counselors lose worrying about students who aren’t following the advice they have access to.

If there were a quick solution to this challenge, someone would have found it already. But I can offer some advice and encouragement via the past posts below.

First, remember the inalienable rights of students, parents and counselors.

When you’re on opposite sides of an issue, start by anchoring with agreement.

Rather than debating, share your concerns.

Here are some tips when a parent gets too involved in the college essays.

How counselors can connect with each other

Every counselor at Collegewise is part of our larger group we call “The Hive.” We don’t all get to sit together every day, and many of our counselors work in one-person shops. But if a counselor has a question he or she can’t find the answer to, we can pose it via email to The Hive. Groups of counselors meet regularly on Google Hangouts to swap advice about college lists, best practices, and challenging counseling scenarios. We do an annual company meet-up so everyone can spend some time together in person. It’s nice to have the camaraderie with—and support of—over thirty other people in the company who do the same job that you do.

But even with a hive, counselors who work solo can still feel lonely from time to time. If you’re a high school counselor or private counselor who’d like to be more connected to people in your industry, Patrick O’Connor offers up some great advice here.