Business basics for private counselors

We’ve all had frustrating customer service experiences, the kind that make it clear that sentiments like “Your call is very important to us,” “We apologize for any inconvenience,” and “Our goal is to serve you better” are just worn out words, not sincere expressions of concern. If you’re an independent counselor running a small business, chances are that you genuinely care about your customers and want to do great work for them. There’s a lot to running a good business and to being a good counselor, but you can undo a lot of that hard work by just missing the basics.

1. Keep your promises.
Yes, you’ve got to deliver on what you promised when they hired you, but you’ve also got to call back when you say you’re going to, forward the information you said you’d forward, and cover the agenda items you said you’d cover in the meeting. Breaking little promises like these makes customers worry that you’ll break one of the all-important bigger ones. Keep the promises you make. And if you can’t, make more realistic promises.

2. Show them you care.
Families are entrusting you with their student’s education. That means they’ll need to feel like more than just a customer. Remember that parent’s name that you haven’t seen since the first meeting. Take a minute to check in and find out how things are going before you dive into the work. Send along a note of support or encouragement when you hear the family’s dealing with a difficult situation. I’m not saying you need to invite your customers to your Thanksgiving dinner. But counseling is a personal business. And treating them like more than just a transaction will show them that you appreciate more than just their business.

3. Make things right when things go wrong.
Every business occasionally has to deal with unhappy customers. Sometimes those complaints aren’t reasonable. Sometimes they even blame you for things that aren’t your fault. This can be especially true in our business where the customers are parents, the product is their child, and the service revolves around college admissions, which can be a very stressful time for families. When handled correctly, you can not only turn an unhappy customer around, but often even turn them into one of your fans. Here’s a past post with some specific tips for handling customer complaints.

Yes, you’ll need to do more than the basics to run a great business. But basics are the best building blocks.

Fear of missing out or losing out

Ken Anselment isn’t just the dean of admissions and financial aid at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. He’s also the father of a high school junior who’s in the throes of college planning. As Anselment shares in his recent Washington Post piece, he recently received a piece of mail from a college financial aid planning company that preys on all of the fears so inherent in this process. And I am frustrated, though not surprised, to report that the company is using exactly the same letter, nearly to the word, that I first wrote about in January of 2011, a post I titled College Counseling Done the Wrong Way.

Anselment says it best:

“…unsolicited letters from complete strangers telling you that you ‘need to do’ something often come from senders acting more in their interest than yours. When these letters use your child’s future to pluck your heart strings, leveraging the desires they presume you have for your child, you can be almost certain their interest does not mirror yours.”

He also reminds readers just how many wonderful, qualified, and free resources there are to help you through your college planning journey.

No family needs a college admissions or financial aid advisor to successfully complete the process. In fact, most kids in college today got there without paid outside advising. There are plenty of legitimate reasons why you might hire a qualified advisor to help you with particular needs, especially once you’ve fully explored the resources Anselment recommends. But don’t let fear—of missing out or losing out—drive that choice.

Before you call or email a college…

Imagine you submitted a completed college application that you carefully prepared to make sure it included everything the college had asked for. And then several times a week for the next few months, someone from the college called or emailed you asking questions that you’d already listed on the application, like:

“What is your mailing address?”
“What major would you like to apply under?”
“What activities did you participate in as a junior?”
“Have you attended any other schools in the last four years?”
“What honors or awards have you won?”

After a while, you’d probably feel like saying, “I already told you all of this—just read the application!”

That’s not dissimilar to how colleges feel when a student (or worse, a parent) repeatedly calls or emails the admissions office to ask questions that are clearly answered on the website.

Most admissions officers I’ve met are nice people who genuinely want to be helpful to applicants. They would tell you that they are happy to answer your questions.

But they’d also tell you:

  1. They’re incredibly busy at this time of year.
  2. They always appreciate it when a student has taken the time to read the information they’ve painstakingly laid out on the website, particularly when it comes to the “Admissions” section, which spells out the requirements for a completed application.
  3. They prefer that you not harangue them with daily questions (see item #1).
  4. When a parent inquires, they can’t help but wonder why the student isn’t mature enough to handle it on their own (with the exception of questions that have to do with financial aid).
  5. They appreciate and recognize students who are polite and respectful. Please and thank you go a long way.

Start by carefully reading the directions on the “Admissions” section of the college’s website. If you have a question, take 5-10 minutes and make sure it’s not answered there. Then, if you can’t find the information you’re looking for, the student—not the parent—should feel free to reach out to the admissions office.

In collegiate memoriam

Today, my college friends and I are gathering on our former campus for a reason that’s anything but celebratory—we’re attending a service to say goodbye to a member of our group. My friend Jim, who I met my last year of college and enjoyed more than 20 years of friendship with, passed away last week at just 44. He was a dear friend. He was a Collegewise fan. And he loyally read my blog every day (he particularly loved those occasions when he earned a mention here).

We played our last collegiate guitar gig together at the UC Irvine Pub on graduation day. We lived together as we started our first post-college jobs. He and the group wished me well when I moved to New York in 1997, and were waiting with a warm welcome when I moved back to start Collegewise. He piled his family in their minivan and drove from California to Seattle to attend my wedding in 2012 as we all convened again to celebrate my nuptials. And the annual reunions our small group still enjoyed were always a highlight of my year. Those reunions may still happen, but they won’t be the same without Jim.

You don’t have to go to college to meet and make lifelong friends. And considering the investment of both time and money, I’d hope that any college student works to extract more from their four years than relationships alone.

But so much of the pressure, anxiety, dejection and general negativity surrounding college admissions comes from a lack of perspective. Your college education is important. It deserves to be treated that way. But basing your worth as a student or a parent on whether a dream school says yes? Sacrificing activities you enjoy, family time, or sanity in the name of SAT prep? And worst of all, treating a denial from a college like a tragedy? These aren’t rational behaviors. There is a lot more to life than whether or not your SAT score cracks 1200, or whether an Ivy League school says yes. And there’s a lot more to be gained from your experience at college than a noteworthy decal to stick on the car.

Jim understood this. He would have reveled in watching his kids go through the college process. He was responsibly thrifty and he wouldn’t have taken on huge debt just so they could snowboard or go to football games. But his first priority would have been to see his kids happy and successful wherever they went. He wouldn’t have cared one whit whether the schools were prestigious. He would have excitedly planned the college tours, celebrated every acceptance, and proudly worn the sweatshirts of whatever schools they decided to attend. He would have turned their passage from high school to college into what it should be—an exciting, positive experience his family could enjoy together.

When their high school years arrive, I’m going to make sure Jim’s boys get the full Collegewise experience. We’ll show them how to approach the process the way Dad would have done it with them.

Wherever you are in the college admissions process, take a minute today to appreciate what’s really important—your family, your friends, and your health. And remember how much you have to look forward to in life, wherever you, or your kids, go to college.

Will A’s make you successful?

I agree with Sallie Krawcheck, CEO of a financial services company, that career success is about more than getting an “A.” As she relates in her piece The Single Biggest Mistake I’ve Seen Women Make at Work (though I think plenty of men make this mistake, too):

“I can’t tell you how many women I’ve spoken to who think that delivering a great project on time, ticking and tying the budget, landing the new client are the keys to success. In other words, getting an A. With a bit of prodding, they further tell me that they believe that if they keep their heads down and ‘get that A,’ they will be given the next great project or be promoted or granted the raise. In other words, that they will be rewarded for a job well done. Maybe. I hope so. But what made us successful at school is not always the same as what can make us successful at work.”

I’m not sure I agree with her conclusions that networking and building a personal brand are the keys to success, but I’m also not an expert on the very different challenges so many women face in the workplace.

For high school students, and those students soon departing for college, I think your real challenge is investing the very worthwhile effort into earning good grades while at the same time recognizing that at some point, becoming successful will be more complicated than just following directions and getting the right answer.

Thankfully, you have plenty of opportunities to develop those other skills both in high school and college.

Here are a few past posts to get you started.

For high school students:
You can’t earn straight A’s in life

And college students:
How to build a remarkable college career
What can you actually do?

Counselors: take (and share) our NACAC notes

nacacnotesThe annual NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling) conference serves up some of the best, most up-to-date information about college admissions. But it’s expensive to attend, and many high schools aren’t able to send their counselors.

Back in 2009, our Collegewise folks began typing up our notes from the sessions we attended, bundling them together, and sharing them with any high school counselors who were interested. This year’s bundle of notes is finally complete. And you can download your copy here.

Please share them with your colleagues who might be interested (there are no copyrights or other restrictions). I hope you find them helpful.

Take the time

Last week, a YouTube video featuring teachers from Oak Park High School in Kansas City went viral and made news. As part of what they called “The Positivity Project,” each teacher identified one student who inspired them and made them want to come to work every day. I’ll admit that I was pretty moved watching the students’ reactions to such a simple but meaningful expression.

So I’d like to invite my blog readers to try it.

Counselors and teachers, tell that student who’s inspired you just how much they make you want to come to work every day.

Students, pick a teacher or counselor who made a difference for you and tell them so. It might be the teacher who made you want to come to fourth period US History every day, a counselor who helped you through a difficult time, or any faculty member who took the time to help, guide, instruct, or inspire you.

And parents, tell your kids how and why you’re proud of them. It might be the way they set goals, the way they help with their younger siblings, the way they forge through failure, take responsibility, or always earn your trust.

Do it while these people are still in your life every day, before these great kids, with the help of their parents, teachers, and counselors, move on to college.

Strike the balance

Some families find it absurd to suggest that the college admissions process can actually be taken too seriously. They wonder how anything could be more important than their children’s education. I don’t actually disagree with their priorities, just with their approach. Our children’s education is important. Coupled with the rising cost of college, it’s hard to fault any family for treating this time and these decisions with anything but the care and attention they deserve.

But taking the college process seriously and actually enjoying it are not mutually exclusive experiences. You can expect your student to work hard but ultimately praise their efforts over their outcomes. You can appreciate how much they love—and learn from—productive activities they actually enjoy whether or not they earn the honors and accolades that prestigious colleges seem to treat like prerequisites. And you can gather information, seek advice, and make informed choices without treating one grade, test score, or admissions decision like a permanent life-marring event.

In fact, I’ve noticed that families who find this balance, who encourage their kids to take ownership of the process, who want their kids to attend the right colleges—prestigious or not–and who resolve to enjoy this period for the exciting time that it is, have actually found the closest thing to a magic college admissions formula.

Families who strike the balance between informed planning and reasonable perspective have college applicants who take more ownership of the process. Kids who feel empowered to find schools that fit are more engaged in the search and end up with much better answers to the “Why this college?” questions on applications and in interviews. Students are more likely to talk—and listen to—their parents about college when they know those discussions rarely lead to escalating conflict. They’re able to appreciate and enjoy not just the exciting college future that’s to come, but also the relatively short remaining time they have together under the same roof and at the same dinner table.

And those kids almost always have more admissions success, including at prestigious colleges.

The college admissions process isn’t designed to be all fun, all the time. But there’s no reason it needs to be a terrible rite of passage a family just needs to grit their teeth through and survive. You’ll find more enjoyment—and more success—when you work to strike the balance.

Should you take a gap year?

Gap years have gotten a lot of press since Malia Obama announced she’ll be taking a year off before heading to Harvard. For the uninitiated, a gap year is planned time off—usually one year—before attending college. It can be an appealing option for students who intend to work, travel, or otherwise engage in something they likely couldn’t do while concurrently attending college, or for students who feel too burned out and want to refuel their intellectual and emotional gas tanks before starting their college careers.

Not surprisingly, that widespread coverage of the gap year option has led a lot of applicants to explore the option, or to flat out ask their counselor, “Should I take a gap year?”

The gap year is a wonderful option for some students. But it’s also an important and potentially complex enough decision that I shouldn’t try to dispense advice in a blog post to help you decide whether or not a gap year is for you.

So instead, I’ll just encourage you to do one thing—apply to college first, then make the decision later about whether or not to take the gap year.

Here are three reasons I recommend that approach:

1. If you choose not to apply to college because you intend to take a gap year, all of your options are now pretty much off the table. You can’t change your mind next spring (or if you do, you’ll have limited options). And I’d hate to see any student begin their gap year already wishing they’d made a different choice. Why remove options prematurely if you don’t have to?

2. If a college that admitted you agrees to hold your spot for another year, you’re all set on the college front. You won’t have to apply next fall, you won’t have to keep your fingers crossed that you’ll get in, and most importantly, you won’t have to explain what you’ve been up to for that last year in a way that makes you a compelling admit. I’m not suggesting that you should then embrace the opportunity to do nothing but watch television and eat frozen burritos. But why put unnecessary pressure on yourself? A waiting spot means you can direct your energy into deciding what to do for the next year without worrying about what will happen next.

3. When people ask you where you’re going to college, it will feel better to say, “I’m going to College X, but I’m taking a gap year first,” as opposed to, “I’m taking a year off and then applying.” The former is a student who’s embracing options and the freedom to do something interesting or necessary before beginning college. The latter is a student who could appear a little aimless. I don’t typically suggest that students make decisions based on what other people might think—you need to do what’s right for you and your family. But I know that there’s a very real psychological difference between having a college plan in place and waiting another year to find one.

Any student who decides to take a gap year deserves to get what they want out of the experience, without regrets or added pressure. In most cases, applying to college first, then ensuring that a school will hold your spot for a year, will help you get what you want from your gap year experience.

How to be a super champion

A recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology examined what separates the world’s most elite athletes, the “super champions,” from what the study called the “almost champions”—those who were once good enough to compete with the best, but ultimately fell short of reaching the highest levels. It turns out that the answer is not only more complicated than a combination of talent and work ethic. It also has applications that go far beyond sports.

This article gives a nice explanation of the study’s findings, but here are a few that stood out to me as being particularly applicable to high school students and their parents.

Follow your interests.
From a young age, the super champions loved their sports–not just competing, but also practicing. Interestingly, they also did not focus on a single sport at a young age and instead were encouraged to try different interests. The almost champions loved competing, too. But practicing? Not as much. And when questioned, they remembered feeling forced to pursue their sport

The goal: get better.
The “super champions” cared most about getting better, and they judged themselves against their own past performances. But the “almost champions” cared more about rankings and how they compared to their rivals. That focus on external benchmarks and constant comparisons leaves the “almost champions” more likely to get discouraged and give up.

Supportive, but not obsessive, parenting.
The parents of super champions didn’t push or get overly involved, and instead were happy to cheer from the sidelines both literally and figuratively. But the parents of the almost champions were “an ever-present factor, hovering over their every move.”

What if you pursued activities you genuinely wanted to do and worried less about whether or not those choices will help you get into your dream college?

What if you focused more on learning, making an impact, and just getting better, and less on whether those qualifications will get you admitted to an Ivy League school?

What if you stopped comparing your GPA and other qualifications to those of your friends and classmates, and instead just tried to be better than past versions of yourself?

And parents, what if you stepped back and allowed your kids to commit to things they genuinely want to do? What if you let them find their own way even if it meant they will make (and learn from) mistakes? And what if, instead of hovering, strategizing, and otherwise turning their high school years into a career that you oversee and manage, you stepped back and cheered them on, ready to lend support and advice without jumping in?

Sounds like the makings of a super champion.