Who’s it not for?

For private college counselors running your own shops, one of the keys to standing out and doing great work is deciding who you–and your expertise–isn’t for.

What kind of guidance or support can a potential customer request—and be perfectly willing to pay you for—that you’d politely decline and refer them to a competitor who’s a better fit?

I don’t mean a family who’s requesting a service that’s wildly out of your expertise, like asking you to tell them what kind of roofing to put on their house. I mean a family who wants a type of college advising that you have actively decided is not where you hang your professional hat.

Maybe a family has an athlete who’s hoping to be recruited, or a student who’s not that engaged in the college process and needs someone to light the fire, or parents who are primarily concerned about the cost of college and are hoping you can help secure financial aid and scholarships. It’s hard to imagine any counselor who could help all of those families equally well. And if you can’t do great work for a family, don’t they deserve to find someone who can? And don’t you deserve the opportunity to do your best work? Saying no gives you both that opportunity.

It’s temping when running any business to say yes to anyone who’s willing to pay you. You want to pay your bills. You want to earn a living. You want to grow your business. Why shouldn’t you say yes, especially in the early stages, if all it will mean is a little extra work and learning on your part?

But saying yes to everyone is a path to owning a business that’s just like all the others. Deciding who your work isn’t for is step one to creating a business people talk about.

Imagine the wedding photographer who says, “I’m sorry, but I don’t shoot outdoor weddings.”

Imagine the caterer who says, “I’m sorry, I don’t cater events for more than 15 people.”

Imagine the accountant who says, “I’m sorry, I don’t work on taxes for people who aren’t business owners.”

Now the photographer can focus on becoming so good at servicing the unique needs of her clients that she becomes known as the one you call when your wedding will be indoors.

The caterer can put his energies into becoming the one in town that people talk about because of the show he put on for their dinner party.

The accountant can become the one in town that small business owners talk about because she helped them make their businesses more financially sound.

Sure, you’ll still need to do great work to stand out. You’ll need to create experiences for your customers so remarkable that they can’t help but talk about you. But it’s a lot easier to do that for a smaller segment than it is to do it for everyone. And the first step towards identifying your smaller segment is to decide which members of the larger segment just shouldn’t hire you.

If you have trouble deciding, consider three things.

1. Who’s your ideal customer, the person who’s predisposed to be thrilled with what you do and how you do it?

2. Are there enough of those people to sustain your business?

3. And most importantly, what could you learn, do, and provide to that group that would make them feel like you’d created the perfect service for them, one that understood their desires, fears, and hopes for their college process?

Now, who doesn’t fit in that group?

To find the groups that will buy, appreciate, and talk about your best work, start by deciding who your service isn’t for.

For counselors: What’s new with the Common App?

The folks at the Common App held a free webinar for counselors yesterday: “What’s New With The Common App: Enhancements.” If you didn’t get a chance to attend, our counselor Tom Barry shared the following summary for our Collegewise counselors.

You won’t need to find your way around a brand new Common App with your students this year. In fact, the key changes are mostly minor and will not affect all applicants.

1. Students can now self-report courses and grades within the Common App tab.
There aren’t many colleges on the Common App that ask students to self-report their courses and grades, but for those that do, the Common App now offers them a place to do so.

2. Students can upload Google Drive text files directly into the “Essay” boxes. 
This won’t replace the option to copy and paste. But one potential benefit is that uploading a document could help a student avoid those pesky formatting challenges that seemed to pop up so often.

3. The “Activities” dropdown menu will now include “Internship” and “Social Justice” categories. 

4. Students can select up to three advisors who will be granted access to their account in order to evaluate progress. 
This number is in addition to the formal school counselor and the teacher(s) submitting letters of recommendation.

We’ll also be releasing our updated annual Collegewise Common App guide around July 15. When it’s ready, I’ll share it here.

Counselors: Upcoming changes to the Common App

Counselors, if you’d like to get a peek at the changes to the Common App, they’ll be hosting a free webinar, What’s New With The Common App: Enhancements, on June 12 from 10 a.m. – 11 a.m. EST. All the details are here. And thanks to Collegewise counselor Tom Barry for alerting us.

We’re also planning to release our updated annual Common App guide around July 15. We’re waiting until then because the Common App folks plan to continue tweaking the app through July 1st. Once our new guide is ready, I’ll share it here.

Five ways counselors can get honest feedback from students

The pressure of the college admissions process doesn’t just cause some students to measure and make every decision based on how they think it will affect their admissions chances. It also leaves many students out of touch or even completely unaware of their honest feelings, desires, and goals. For the counselors trying to not only advise them, but also help kids find happiness and fulfillment wherever they go, it can be difficult to get real, honest answers to college-related questions. Here are five ways to help students let go of the admissions implications and actually reveal what they really think and want.

1. “If you could never list this on your college applications…”
Do you have a student who’s debating between two concurrent classes? Or trying to decide whether or not to attend a summer program? Or asking if they should continue with their community service project, sport, or other activity they might now be second-guessing? Remove the admissions implication of the decision by posing the scenario, “If you could never list this on your college applications, what would you do?” This scenario often strips away the desire to please colleges and helps kids tell you what they actually would want to do if colleges would never be privy to it. Maybe they know which class they want to take but are just afraid they won’t do well? Maybe their parents are a lot more excited about that summer program than the student is? Maybe they’ve fallen out of like with an activity but are worried that leaving it behind will make them look like a quitter to their colleges? The student may or may not be best served by actually doing what they answer in this scenario. But at least you’ll have a better sense of what the student actually wants.

2. “What would you do if a million dollars were at stake?”
I call this the “million dollar scenario,” and it’s a great way to help a student differentiate between an excuse and a real obstacle.

“I can’t get to school on time for a class that early…”

“I’ll be too busy to study for the SAT this summer…”

“I can’t get a good grade in her class because the teacher doesn’t like me…”

A counselor can say, “If you were promised a million dollars if you pulled this off, what would you do differently?”

Now you’ve got the student thinking of solutions rather than excuses. The described actions might not be worth pursuing if it’s clear the student would be sacrificing too much sleep, sanity, or happiness to win the big prize. But as a counselor, once you’ve got the student proposing just exactly how something could get done, you can assess whether the proposed actions are actually in the student’s best interest.

3. “On a scale of 1-10…”
If you want to gauge how serious a student is about an expressed interest or desire, pose a “scale of 1-10” scenario, define the ranges, and then listen carefully to the answer.

“On a scale of 1-10, how important is it for you to play sports in college? 1 means you’d gladly leave your sport behind, 10 is that you would not attend a college where you would not have the opportunity to play your sport.”

“On a scale of 1-10, how hard do you work in your studies? 1 is you don’t work at all, 10 is that you couldn’t possibly work any harder.”

“On a scale of 1-10, how sure are you that you want to major in business? 1 is that you’d go to a college you liked even if it didn’t have a business major, 10 is that you would never go to a college that had everything else you liked except a business major.”

Bonus tip: if you sense that parents and the student aren’t exactly on the same page on a topic, pose the 1-10 scenario to both parties, and let each answer separately.

4. “It’s just you and me talking right now…”
Ever feel like your student is giving canned answers, maybe channeling their parents or what they imagine colleges would want to hear? Pause, assume a relaxed posture, and say, “It’s just you and me talking right now…” The emphasis you’re going for here is not confidentiality (although that’s important, too). You’re reminding the student that this is just a conversation, not a test, an interview, or anything that will later be transcribed to colleges. It helps students worry less about giving what they think is the right answer and concentrate more on finding—and sharing—the honest one. I’ve found this technique particularly useful when helping students brainstorm responses to a college essay prompt. Their most meaningful activity, their interest in the school, the time they failed or made a mistake–remind them, “It’s just you and me talking right now” and you’ll usually see them relax and open up with fewer reservations.

5. “If there were a state law requiring/prohibiting…”
If a student has trouble considering a scenario without letting go of the college admissions implications, take admissions off the table and replace it with a state law.

“If there were a state law prohibiting you from taking the SAT again, what would you do with that time you would have spent preparing?”

“If there were a state law requiring that every word of this essay response be not only true, but also sincere, how would you describe your reasons you want to apply to this college?”

“If there were a state law prohibiting you from participating in more than three activities, which ones would you feel OK leaving behind?”

With all of these tips, a savvy counselor will still need to evaluate and discuss whether or not a student’s honest answer is actually an advisable course of action to take. But one of the challenges of working with teens, particularly those who are pressured by the college admissions crunch, is uncovering the real thoughts and feelings behind the college applicant. When that pressure keeps a lid on students’ responses, use one of these techniques to help them open up.

For counselors: two questions for student meetings

For counselors meeting with students and parents to discuss college planning, those 60 or 30 or 15 minutes are precious. Here are two questions to ask—one at the beginning of the meeting, the other at the end—to help you make that time count for you and for them.

Before we start, what do you want to make sure we cover today?

Asking this question right at the beginning, and paying close attention to the answer, shows the family that their needs are your priority. But it also allows you to triage the topics. Not all topics deserve the same amount of time or priority. Some may merit diving into right away. Others might make more sense to talk about after you’ve progressed through your own topics. You’re their counselor. And part of helping them means prioritizing their concerns and using your time together in the best way. Getting their most important topics on the table at the start puts the focus on them, but keeps you in control of the meeting flow.

What else?

“What else?” is general. It’s borderline vague. And that’s intentional. Asking, “What other questions do you have?” or “Is there anything else I can help you with?” makes people think twice about whether or not their remaining topic fits in with your proposed subject heading. But when you ask something as open-ended as “What else?” you give people room. And they’ll often surprise you with what they bring up.

Some counselors might resist that final question. After all, it’s not always helpful to have another item spring up on the agenda at the last minute. But that question, concern, or other topic is still there, unaddressed. Better to get the chance to address it now than to wait until the final application minute.

For counselors: how to help seniors pick their college

With just over one month to go before the May 1 deadline for seniors to choose which college to attend, the dust of  admissions decisions begins to settle and students finally begin deliberating. In many ways, April can be the best month for counselors. Instead of dealing with admissions hypotheticals, we finally get to discuss available options.

While some families have a clear first choice among their college yeses, many do not. If you’re a newer counselor who hasn’t yet experienced the wonderful privilege of helping students make this important choice, here’s a past post, How to help students choose which college to attend, with some ideas to help you guide them.

Tough private counseling love

At many of the counseling and admissions conferences we attend, at least one session will degenerate into a small contingent of private counselors who voice complaints that high school counselors:

  • don’t appreciate what we do
  • are biased against us
  • should be more open to collaboration, like taking our phone calls, communicating with us about our shared students, inviting us to present to their families, etc.

It’s always a small group. But once the complaints are raised, the tension—and tempers—start to flare. I can often see reasonable points from both camps in these debates, but I’ll use my space here to address the contingent I’ve been part of for nearly 18 years—private counselors.

First, are there specific experiences where one or more of those complaints above might have merit for a private counselor? Sure. Many of us have met that high school counselor whose biases run deep, who’s sure that all private counselors care more about making money than we do about helping our students, who acts as if they’d sooner invite identity thieves to connect with their campus community than grant similar access to a private counselor. Those instances are a lot less frequent than they used to be, but they still happen.

But there are some private counselors who never feel compelled to voice those complaints, who enjoy a good relationship with high school counselors, and who are able to work around the occasional bias and still do great work for their kids. What are they doing differently, and how can you do the same?

There’s no quick-and-easy checklist to follow, but here are five guiding principles that, if you stick with them, will go a long way towards winning over the high school counselors who haven’t fallen prey to industry biases or the occasional bad private counseling apple.

1. Give credit to get credit.
The first step towards earning respect is offering it where it’s due. The very best private counselors revere high school counselors for having a much harder job than we do. They counsel the student who’s failing algebra and field the calls from the parent who insists their student be placed in the now full AP class. But more importantly, they are on the front lines assisting students with a broad range of challenges—academic, emotional, psychological, physical, and family–that most private counselors aren’t expected to address as part of our work. And in between all of this, they somehow have to find a way to advise their students through the college admissions process. Private counselors, the sooner you recognize and appreciate the difficult and vital nature of the work our colleagues on the high school side are doing, the sooner you can expect due respect in return.

2. Don’t expect a space on their work plate.
Yes, there can be benefits to private counselors and high school counselors collaborating. But you are not entitled to a high school counselor’s time and attention. Why should it be their job to regularly take your phone calls, to invite you to campus, to help you access, enroll, and yes, even to do a better job for your students? Remember, you likely aren’t the only private counselor in town. Is the high school counselor responsible for speaking with all of them? I hope not. As I explained above, high school counselors have too much to do for too many students. Their job is not to help you, it’s to help their kids. The more time they can spend doing just that, undistracted by other demands, the better. Appreciate whatever time they can give you. But don’t expect it, and don’t assume that their refusal to give any necessarily means that they don’t respect what you do.

3. Don’t make their job harder.
We’ve all experienced the frustration when someone unravels the advice we’ve worked hard to impart on our student. The family friend recommends unrealistic schools. The neighbor belittles the summer plans the student left your office excited about. The parent rewrites (and unknowingly ruins) their student’s essay. Outside meddling often makes our job harder. Make sure you aren’t doing the same to your students’ high school counselors. Start by reminding your student that you do not replace their high school counselor. Encourage kids to meet regularly with their counselors and to attend their school’s college planning events. And most importantly, never tell a student that their counselor is wrong just because their advice seems to differ from yours. In those cases, are you sure it’s not your advice that needs correcting? And if not, assume good intent, extenuating circumstances, or even just a simple breakdown in teenage communication.

4. Be so good they can’t ignore you.
Steve Martin said it. Then a study skills author wrote about it. And any of us can follow it. Great work always stands out. It’s better than any marketing or advertising you could do. If you consistently make and keep your promises to your customers, if you run a business you can be proud of, and if you make reasonable efforts to contribute to the profession and to the counseling community as a whole, you’ll make a well-deserved name for yourself. And you’ll find that more high school counselors start to see you as a respected colleague instead of a suspicious outsider.

5. Grow with good apples.
All professions have their great and not-so-great representatives. Private and high school counseling are no different. You may run across a bad apple on the high school side who treats you unfairly without cause (just as a high school counselor may run across a private counselor who doesn’t exactly make the rest of us proud). When that happens, accept that you’ll never please everybody. Then get back to work earning the approval and respect of the people who matter most—your students and your fellow great counselors.

Better for you and those you sell to

There’s a lot of selling that goes on in college admissions. Private counselors and test prep tutors sell their advice. Colleges sell the features and benefits of their schools. Financial aid advisors sell their value. And all that selling frequently feels wrong in a process that’s supposed to be about educating kids.

But while there will always be some professionals in education who behave like the negative stereotype of a salesperson who’s just out for the quick money grab, many more are honest folks who genuinely want to help families. If you’re in the latter camp, if selling is not your favorite (or maybe even your least favorite) part of your job, if you wish that just being honest and treating people like you would want to be treated should be enough, take 25 minutes and listen to this interview between Seth Godin and the author of To Sell is Human. They agree with you, but Seth’s advice will help you do an even better job…for yourself and for the people you’re selling to.

Private counselors: deal with the real

For private counselors launching and growing their practices, one of the surest ways to distract yourself from making good decisions quickly is to invent problems that haven’t happened yet.

What if the counselor I hire and train decides to go out on her own later?

How will I handle overflow if too many people enroll for our workshop?

What if this price for juniors is too low, I enroll too many, and then I don’t have room for as many seniors later this year?

But none of these are real problems today. They’re tomorrow’s imagined problems. And the thing about imagined problems is that most of them never happen.

Sure, you want to make informed decisions. It’s never fun to have to fix something that could have been prevented if you’d just thought it through. But spending all your time avoiding obstacles that might not ever appear just plants you in a world of stress and uncertainty. And your decisions today don’t have to last forever. You can change them later if you need to.

So deal with what’s real today. You’ll make better decisions. You’ll feel more control over your own destiny. And you’ll have more time, energy, and resources to spend if a problem does present itself later.