Counselors: Try more “Here’s why…”

Counselors guiding students through the college admissions process have to spend a lot of time discussing what, when, and how to do things.

Here’s what you should do this summer…

Here’s when you should sit for the SAT…

Here’s how to plan a college visit…

But if you want your students to be even more engaged, if possible, spend a little less time on the what, when, and how, and a little more time on the why.

Based on what you’ve told me, here’s why a part-time job sounds like the option that would be best for you this summer.

Here’s why taking the SAT this spring will help you make better future testing decisions without sacrificing your time with the swim team…

Here’s why I think visiting these particular colleges will give you a better sense of other schools to potentially add to your list…

Over time, the whys can become so obvious to counselors that we see them as a given. And with both students and parents asking us what, when, and how to do things, we learn that just answering their questions often sends them away satisfied with our guidance.

But families going through this process can become jaded, often feeling like their every decision is measured only by whether or not it satisfied a stated or implied requirement that makes them more college competitive.

That’s what makes the whys so important. The whys rarely stop at, “Because that’s what College X wants.” Whys get to the heart of what’s best for each particular student, not just in terms of getting them closer to college, but also in helping them make decisions that will keep them happy, productive, and engaged. Whys remind students that their high school years shouldn’t only be about satisfying colleges, and that there is almost always some real purpose behind all this college prep.

If you want to help your students be more engaged, try to send them away from your next meeting not just clear about “Here’s what I’m going to do,” but also “Here’s why I’m going to do it.”

Holiday tips for high school counselors

With our Collegewise seniors heading into their holidays with completed applications, our counselors are about to begin a well-earned two-week break until after the new year. Last week, I delivered an internal webinar for counselors about how to not just get the most out of their vacation, but also protect themselves from the worries of work. Some of those tips might also apply for high school counselors, so I thought I’d share a few of them here.

1. Be purposeful with your planning.
If you had to request time off for a vacation, you’d almost certainly plan something worth doing. But a break that’s just part of your work calendar, like this upcoming few weeks for counselors, can be easy to let slip by without enjoying it as much as you deserve to. So take some time to plan what you want to do over your break. It might be a real vacation that you’ve already planned, but it could also just be spending time with your family, reading the books you’ve been waiting to get to, organizing your house or just relaxing without restriction. High school counseling is demanding work. This is your time to get back to doing those things you just couldn’t do as much or at all for the last several months.

2. Celebrate your first Monday off work.
As a specific example of purposeful planning, I’m a big fan of counselors celebrating their first day off work. Like most adults, you probably can’t entirely shut off all of life’s responsibilities for two weeks. But at the very least, plan something for yourself on that first Monday. Some examples from Collegewise counselors include spending an entire day with their kids, booking a massage, buying a gift-to-self they’ve had their eye on, seeing an afternoon matinee, getting a pedicure, or just enjoying a relaxing two-hour date with coffee and the morning paper. Whatever your version of a Monday reward would be, take the time and treat yourself.

3. Communicate conservatively.
Depending on where you work and your particular responsibilities, some counselors may not have the option of disconnecting from their students and parents completely. If that’s the case with you, communicate conservatively. The moment you start replying to every incoming email or voicemail from students and parents is the moment you send them a message, albeit unintentionally, that you are officially on the clock. And that raises their expectations of how quickly and frequently they can expect you to reply to what will likely be further communication. Some issues might need to be addressed right away, but many more do not. I’m not suggesting you intentionally leave people high and dry. But there’s nothing wrong with responding to a non-urgent inquiry with, “This is a great question—let’s add it to the list of things to talk about in January.”

4. Share your struggles and successes.
High school counselors exist to serve their students. And like many roles of service, that dedication often comes without formal recognition or praise. But your family and those close to you can still appreciate what you do if you tell them about it. Take the time to talk with them about your work. Tell them about your students, the challenges you’ve helped them overcome, and the victories you’ve enjoyed together. Most people who haven’t walked in your shoes have no idea how broad and difficult the responsibilities of high school counseling can be. But those who care about you most will understand and acknowledge it if you tell them.

5. Remember how much what you do matters.
High school counseling is a difficult job. But one of the benefits should always be that no matter what happens at work, no matter how stressful or chaotic or demoralizing a particularly difficult day might be, you never have to question the impact that you make. Whatever population you serve, whatever their background or advantages or challenges, they’re kids. And when you’re a dedicated professional who works on their behalf to help them be happy and successful, you’re doing something worth doing. During your holiday break, I hope you take a few quiet moments to reflect and remind yourself just how much what you do matters.

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.