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.

Counselors: Take (and share) our SuperACAC notes

A dozen Collegewise counselors attended the SuperACAC conference in Reno two weeks ago and, as usual, they gobbled up as much useful information as they could. Now, they’ve compiled their notes into a 55-page document that counselors can access here:

Please feel free to forward the link, or the document itself, to any of your counseling colleagues who might find it useful.

Here were a few tidbits and sessions that stuck with us:

1. UC Berkeley is taking letters of rec this year.

2. Slice the Page, Open the Conversation was one of the best professional development sessions we’ve been to in years. Several of our counselors commented that they walked away thinking, “I’m a better counselor having attended that.”

3. The session on IB with Kirk Brennan from USC also had some nice tidbits for even the most knowledgeable counselors.

4. The average acceptance rate among the Colleges That Change Lives is 67%.

If you’re a high school counselor who wasn’t able to attend (whether or not this conference is part of your ACAC region), we hope you find it helpful.

For private counselors: step into students’ shoes

The best independent counselors know that the only way to be an expert is to commit to learning everything they can about admissions and counseling. But that learning isn’t limited to books, blogs, and conferences. In fact, one of the best ways to become a better counselor is to regularly put yourself in your students’ shoes.

Are there colleges within an hour of your home? Schedule tours and visit all of them. You won’t just learn more about the schools. You’ll learn what college tours are like for the tourists. You’ll figure out how to get the most out of them. And you’ll pass that information along to your students.

Want to learn about colleges? Pick 25 of the most popular schools for your student population and research them, just like your students will need to, using websites and college guidebooks. You’ll learn a lot about those 25 colleges, but you’ll also learn how to navigate each of the websites and what kind of information is most helpful. You’ll start deciphering marketing-speak from real information. Yes, your students still need to go through this process themselves. But doing it yourself first will make you a savvy college shopper, and you can then teach that skill to your students.

Want to get really good at guiding kids through applications? Complete your own application for each of the schools your students are applying to. You’ll learn how to decipher confusing directions, how to adjust when no more than five activities will fit into the space provided, and how to navigate through the most confusing sections. Don’t complete the applications for your kids (and obviously, don’t submit them). But the only way to give expert advice is to actually do the work yourself—for yourself—until you actually understand it well enough to teach it.

When you can successfully navigate your own way through the college admissions process, you’ll feel that much more confident in your ability to help your students do the same.

Here’s a past post on how to get started as a private counselor, another about the pros and cons of online college counseling certification programs, and a final one encouraging you to just get out there and help kids.

For private counselors: match their work output

Our Collegewise counselors work with A students, C students, and everyone in between. We don’t care what your grades or test scores are—we’ll go all-in to help you find and apply to the right colleges, and hopefully, we’ll help your family enjoy the process together.

But we can’t do the work for a student. Instead, we promise to match the student’s own work output.

Sometimes a parent is hoping we can get a student motivated. Motivation is a frequent by-product of our work, but it’s not something we can sell, promise, or just install into a student.

An imbalanced working relationship between a student and a counselor isn’t good for either party. A student who sits back and waits for his college counselor to pick the schools, assemble the applications, and somehow transform half-hearted essays into compelling writing isn’t just being lazy—he’s turning over his college process to someone else. It’s the student, not the counselor, who will ultimately have to live and learn for four years at whatever the final college choice is. Good help and advice is one thing. But it’s not a good idea for any student to be a passive observer during his own college planning process.

This works both ways. A private counselor who doesn’t spend time to suggest appropriate colleges, doesn’t talk about the options, doesn’t give good advice or reply to questions or take some responsibility for the process isn’t offering the kind of expertise and support that the family has every right to expect for their money.

So we make this promise to every student—we’ll match your work ethic. As hard as you’re willing to work on your own behalf, that’s how hard we’ll work for you.

We don’t do it as a punishment. We do it because it’s the only way. If you research your schools and have detailed feedback, we have a lot to talk about. If you take the time to give detailed, thoughtful answers to our essay brainstorming questions, we’ll have plenty of potential stories to invite you to share with us. When you complete your application drafts on time, we’ve got work to do right away to start reviewing them.

But when a student doesn’t do those things, there’s just not that much work for us to do. We’re not playing favorites with the students. We can only work where there’s work to be done.

The best private counselors feel a deep sense of responsibility for the students. It’s not just the smart way to run a business—it’s what you should feel when you’re entrusted with a student’s college process.

But that responsibility shouldn’t translate into doing the work for a student. When you feel that happening, step back, invite the student to step up, and promise to match their work output.