Here’s the cover for our upcoming manual, “Story Finders: How Counselors and Teachers Can Help Students Write Better College Essays (Without Helping Too Much).”
We’ve finished the book and the formatting. It will be available for sale in September.
Today, Collegewise is celebrating its 12th birthday. It’s hard to believe that in just two short years, we’ll be working with kids who weren’t born yet when I filed our paperwork with the County Clerk’s office in 1999 and started driving to kids’ houses to help them fill out college applications at their kitchen tables. We’ve since helped over 3,000 kids find, apply to, and attend the right colleges for them. And we’re still doing what we’ve always done—helping families appreciate just how many great colleges there are, not just the famous schools, and we’re showing them how to make the process enjoyable and exciting.
And while our counselors have been busy helping this year’s Collegewise students, Arun and I have been working to release our projects I mentioned back in May in this post. It’s taken us much longer to finish these than we thought it would, but we’re very close to bringing Collegewise to a much wider audience of families. Here are a few updates.
New page on our website
We’ve added a page with bios for Arun and me so we aren’t just faceless mentions on the blog. Neither of us is entirely comfortable being photographed (or writing bios of ourselves), but we’re trying to follow our own advice and share everything—and everyone—behind our small business.
The Collegewise Store
Our designer has done all the design and programming for us to offer a suite of Collegewise products. We’ll be testing it for the next couple weeks to make sure there aren’t any bugs, and as soon as it’s ready, we’ll put up some of the products below.
Is There a Future Doctor in The House?: A Guide to Choosing a College and Preparing for Life As a Premed
We’ve finished our guideline and will be selling it as a PDF that families can download from our store.
Online Collegewise counseling
Sometimes, you have to do the hard thing, blow up a nearly-finished project, and start again from scratch. We were just about ready to launch our online counseling where students anywhere in both the United States and the world will be able to meet with a Collegewise counselor by video chat. But we thought the interface was just too complicated and didn’t like that a user would have to click through 8-9 pages before they could buy a product. So Arun and I hunkered around our laptops one day at his loft, rewrote the entire project, and got it down to a much simpler, cleaner version for the user. Our designer says it will be ready to go in 2-3 weeks. After we test it, we’ll make a big, bold announcement here on our blog.
Story Finders: How to Help Students Write More Effective College Essays (Without Helping Too Much)
This project is done and is currently in the formatting stage. We’re going to sell this as an on-demand published book for teachers and counselors, sharing our entire Collegewise system of brainstorming and editing essays (and how we do it without hijacking the kids’ process and helping too much). We’ve also prepared a resource page where buyers will be able to download clean copies of our materials.
Collegewise seminar videos
Over the next two weekends, we’re bringing a film crew to our offices in Irvine and filming four of our most popular seminars.
We’ll then be selling them as streaming downloads, and also as DVDs for counselors and schools that want to show them to larger audiences. I’ll post some photos of our blockbuster-type video shoots (plus I get to say “video shoots,” which makes us sound so Hollywood).
How to Make your Common Application A Lot Less Common
We’re 90% done with our step-by-step guide to filling out the Common Application, sharing all of our tips to make your application more compelling. We also secured permission from the Common App folks to include screen shots in our guideline, which really helps make our explanations clearer. It’s currently at 54 pages, and we’re just finishing the final few pages explaining how to double check everything before a student hits “Submit.” We’ll be selling this as a PDF download on our store.
If you follow our blog, you’ve probably noticed that this isn’t our first mention of these projects. We’re learning just how long these things take as we go, but we promise that we are, in fact, working to finish all the cool products we’ve mentioned so excitedly here. We’re feeling a lot better about our progress now, and we promise to post loudly and proudly when they’re done.
We just finished collecting testimonials from our Collegewise class of 2011. I'm sharing the link here for two reasons, one of them admittedly selfish.
1. We're proud of them. Our counselors work really hard to make our families happy and it feels good to read their nice words.
2. The testimonials are documented proof that it is possible to enjoy the college admissions process. The students and parents in these testimonials are excited about their collegiate futures, whether or not the schools are prestigious. That's the right way to do this.
Congratulations–and thanks–class of 2011!
“Are there any essay topics that are off limits in admissions? I’ve heard it’s important for your essay to stand out, but I want to make sure I don’t go over the line.”
Good question, Jake. First, if you have a story you really want to share and you’re not just going for shock value, it’s probably OK. But don’t choose a story just because it’s risky or controversial. This isn’t a screenplay. It’s a story to help admissions officers get to know you better. Your life is interesting enough without injecting drama for drama’s sake.
You shouldn’t share anything so personal that it would embarrass the reader. Stories about romantic interludes and things you tell your therapist are usually better left unwritten.
Be careful being too dogmatic with religious or political ideologies, too. It’s fine to be passionate about what you believe, but remember that most colleges encourage students to think critically about different sides of an issue. Implying or outright arguing that everyone else should share your way of thinking can be risky (unless you’re writing about your religion to a school that’s affiliated with the same beliefs).
And lastly, any story that would cause the college to worry that you could be a danger to yourself or others will raise a red flag in the admissions office. Violence, drug or alcohol abuse, eating disorders, suicide attempts—remember that admissions officers need to believe that you and your new classmates are going to be safe once you get to campus. Some students have written about these topics successfully, but these stories need to be handled carefully. Probably a good idea to run it by your high school counselor before you submit it.
When in doubt, just be yourself. Write something that you can proudly stand beside and say, “If the college doesn’t like this, I guess we’re not a good fit together, because this is who I am.”
Thanks for your question, Jake. I hope it helps. If you’ve got a question of your own, email us at blog [at] collegewise [dot] com. If we pick yours, we’ll answer it here on our blog.
Every activity in high school has a shelf life. Whether you’re a section editor of the school paper, a pitcher on the baseball team or the vice-president of the student government, at some point, your term will end, you’ll graduate, or you’ll just move on to something else. When that happens, consider leaving some knowledge behind for your replacement.
Maybe you just finished your term as the publicity director in your student government. Why not write a document of everything you learned while you were doing it, what you’d do differently if you could, and what you wish someone had told you before you started?
It wouldn’t have to be long. Just a page or two would be more than enough. It might contain things like:
*If you’re making 2-3 signs a week promoting different events, you’re doing a good job. But if you make 5-6 signs, you’re doing a great job and people will actually thank you for it.
*Someone will always feel like you’re not giving their group enough recognition. Try not to take this personally. All you can do is be fair and try to give as many groups some attention as you can.
*Dr. Rider (Vice Principal) gets upset whenever the marquee in front of the school is outdated. He’ll call you out of class over and over and ask you to fix it. But if you update it once a week, he’ll think you’re the greatest.
*The activities that don’t normally get a lot of publicity are also the people who will be the most thankful when you give them some. Don’t make it all about the football team all the time.
*Recruit people to help you with publicity for homecoming week. And start early. I had to make 16 signs two days before homecoming and it took forever.
Imagine how much that would help a new person.
Even better, imagine how much stronger the entire organization would be if everyone involved did this. What if every member of your school newspaper, yearbook, or Key Club made it his or her job to share some advice with the people who eventually replace them?
We try to do this at Collegewise by having counselors train new counselors and then refine the training at the end so that the next trainer can benefit.. Experienced essay specialists join our trainings of new essay specialists so they can share what they’ve learned. It’s not something we even have to think about doing anymore. We’ve just made it a habit.
Colleges are always looking for students who make an impact. One way to do that is to set your replacement up for success. Pay some knowledge forward by leaving yours behind for the next person.
Too many business websites are filled with jargon and business-speak, afraid to just talk to their potential customers like real people. So I love it when I come across a business who gets it right. Here are a few examples of sites I think do a great job of not just explaining (clearly) what they do, but also who they are, what they care about, and what type of customer will enjoy doing business with them.
Full disclosure—we’re an Emma customer and we’re featured in their “customer stories.” But while I think their service is great, what drew me to them in the first place was their website.
I love the way they come right out and explain what their service does in plain, often funny, English. Check out the "Meet Us" section. You feel like you get to know the company, what they stand for, and the people who work there. And best of all, it feels like they’ve taken a lot of time to not only share what they want visitors to know, but also to figure out what a visitor wants shared.
I've never bought anything from Saddleback Leather, but I love that the founder, Dave, doesn’t try to sound like a big company—he isn’t one. He’s one-person shop who’s proud of what he does, passionate about his work, and comfortable sharing his story in real language, like this paragraph from the Saddleback story.
It all began when I had my first bag made while living in Southern Mexico as a volunteer English teacher to kids who needed a little help. I had looked everywhere for just the right bag, but with no luck…In my search, I walked into a little leather shop and met the fellow working leather in the back. I asked him if he could make me a bag if I were to draw it out. I told him that I wanted this bag to be made so well that my grandkids would be fighting over it while I was still warm in the grave. He said “Si” and I said “Bueno” and that’s how it all started.
And Dave’s got some swagger. He lists the websites of all his major competitors and tells visitors, "Go ahead… the more you shop, the better we look."
Contrast the feel of Dave’s site with that of industry giant Coach. Here’s a snippet from their “Mission Statement”
The Brand is our touchstone. The Coach brand represents a unique synthesis of magic and logic that stands for quality, authenticity, value and a truly aspirational, distinctive American style. Everything we make, advocate or engage in reflects the attributes of the brand.”
Does this make you want to buy from Coach? No. What does it even mean? It sounds like it was written by a marketing committee, not a real person who's passionate about making great leather bags. And I’m pretty sure “aspirational” isn’t a real word, but we’ll leave that alone for now.
Rivendell Bicycle Works
I’m not a cyclist, but it’s obvious that the folks behind Rivendell Bicycle Works are. They’re not trying to sell to everybody—just to people who are most likely to appreciate what they do. Check out how direct and opinionated they are on their big picture page.
For non-competitive riding, it's hard to justify tires smaller than 28mm. Actually, it's hard to justify tires smaller than 32mm. Unless your justification amounts to, "I just bought some, I ride them, I say I like 'em, and that's final." Logic always loses arguments with emotion!
"You may personally prefer welded frames, or fillet-brazed frames, and that’s fine. We prefer them lugged, and so that’s all we make."
"Modern bikes have too many gears…Our attitude toward the number of cogs on the rear hub is: Seven is heaven, eight is great, nine is fine, ten is kind of getting ridiculous, but it won’t kill you."
They even offer tips for happy riding. Here are a few:
Signal your approach to pedestrians, especially if they're old, and a bell is better than "On your left!" If no bell, try clacking your brake levers. If all you got is "On your left!" that's fine, but if you ride a lot on paths, get a bell.
"Carry an extra tube you can give to somebody with a flat tire and just a repair kit."
"If you're a guy, don't try to be a mentor to every female cyclist you meet."
"Put a $20 bill inside your seat post or handlebar and hold it there, somehow."
"Don't ride until you're confident you can fix a flat."
If you're not an over-the-top bike enthusiast and you just want something cheap, you aren't a customer who's going to buy from Rivendell. So they don't try to sell to you. If you're fanatical about pedals and frames and tires–you're just like folks at Rivendell. They make gear for you. Then they come right out and tell you what they're all about. There’s no boring writing here. The copy’s got oomph. It makes me wish I were a cyclist.
Whether you're writing a business website, a blog, a college essay, or even an email messages, it's always best to be clear, be honest and be yourself. Write like a real person who's writing to real people, because you (almost) always are.
Prospective families will sometimes ask us, “How are you different from (insert name of competitor here)?" I don’t think it’s unreasonable for someone to ask the question. But they’re not just asking us about Collegewise; they’re asking us to speak on behalf of our competitors, too. And that’s not something we can—or should—try to answer with any real accuracy.
It's not a good idea to speak for your competitors. We can tell a family everything you’d ever want to know about Collegewise. And I could give you my completely biased version about why I think we’re the greatest college counselors in the universe. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for me to speak on the specifics of our competitors’ offerings, or to tell you what I think their strengths and weaknesses are. I wouldn’t want a competitor speaking for us in that situation, either. And the truth is that describing why you’re “better” than your competition makes you look insecure more often than it makes you look confident.
So when a family asks us how we differ from our competitors, we reverse the question.
“Sure, have you spoken with any competitors in particular? Great. What did she tell you about her program?”
From there, the customer should do the comparison, not us. They can ask the comparison questions, like,
“(Competitor) said they offer career testing as part of their service. Does Collegewise do that, too?” (No, we don’t).
We always encourage families to look around and consider all of their counseling options. Meet with a few private counselors and choose the one that you and your kids feel most comfortable with. If they’d like them, we’re happy to give families the names and numbers of our most popular competitors. But we won’t speak for them.
This week, we’re welcoming our new counselor, Breanne Boyle, to our Irvine, Ca office.
While I’m putting the finishing touches on Breanne’s folksy bio for our website, here are a few things to know and like about her. Breanne went to Miami University of Ohio (which is decidedly not the same place as the University of Miami), then worked as one of their recruiters while earning her college counseling certification from UC San Diego. She also writes a blog about her dogs and how crazy they are. She definitely knows her way around words.
Why did we pick Breanne?
I write often on this blog about how important it is for students to pursue what they love, to be yourself, and to pick colleges that are most likely to appreciate you for exactly who you are. It’s also a pretty good way to find a job. Breanne has a passion for colleges and for the admissions process. She loved going to high schools and recruiting for Miami so much that she did the college counseling certification program at UC San Diego on her own time (with her own money). That’s passion.
When she started looking for jobs, she said that our ad spoke to her and that she liked our vibe. Her cover letter showed it. She just got us. And it wasn’t just because of the last line, “Plus, I had a Chinchilla once, too. His name was Babaloo. No last name.” That’s matchmaking and being yourself.
And when we met her, learned how excited she was about the oportunity to help kids apply to college, and saw for ourselves that she could really make some valuable contributions to our customers and to our programs, we knew we’d found our next counselor.
She’ll be working with seniors this summer, helping us do seminars for our families, and explaining to anyone who will listen that Miami University is not the same as University of Miami. So everyone, please say “Hi” to Breanne and welcome her to Collegewise.
I did a post yesterday about how we aprpoach training at Collegewise. Today, I thought I'd share a few examples of our materials from our essay specialist training (which I'm conducting today).
1. Here's our list of items to prepare for training. We update this every year and share it with our other offices when they train new essay specialists. It helps us make sure we don't forget anything and ensures a consistency in training across our offices.
We’ve got five new faces joining our Irvine, CA office next week—one counselor, two assistant counselors and two essay specialists. And just as we do whenever anyone starts at Collegewise, we’ve just finished revamping and preparing all three training programs for them to complete. We’ve spent a lot of time interviewing and selecting these people, and we want to give them every chance to be successful here. For us, that starts with great trainings.
We don’t do everything perfectly at Collegewise, but training has always been a strength of ours. We spend a lot of time on it and we’ve always enjoyed good results in the form of smart, eager employees who jump right in and do a good job for us. Here are a few training principles we follow and some advice about how you might use them in your school or business.
1. Make training a priority.
It takes a lot of time to create, update and deliver training programs like we do (our new counselors go through 40 hours of training and then complete a two-day final exam). But we think training is too important not to make it a priority. You’re not just training an employee. You’re demonstrating to this new person how you do things. You’re showing a member of your team that she’s important and that you expect a lot from her. And you’re investing time and energy that will pay off over and over again the longer an employee stays. Don’t say, “We don’t have time for training like that.” We’re busy, too. Making it a priority helps you get it done.
2. Tout your training.
We’re proud of our trainings. So we talk about them during our hiring process. We want people to know that we’re going to give them every chance of succeeding here, and that we’ll start by putting them through a comprehensive training. The people we hire seem to be attracted to that professional commitment. So when you’re looking for your next employee, don’t hide the fact that you have a plan for them. Be proud of it. Tout your training. And pay attention to who seems intrigued by the idea.
3. Let new employees learn from the best.
We don’t hire outside trainers at Collegewise and we don’t have an HR department. Instead, the best, most successful employees are invited to train new hires. For example, every new counselor here is trained by a Master Counselor (an award we give to Collegewise counselors who’ve been here at least three years and have personally helped at least 100 seniors apply to college). That way, new employees always learn from people who’ve actually done the job and done it exceptionally well. So don’t leave your training up to an HR rep or outsource it to somebody who’s never actually done the job. Make the role of trainer one that’s well-respected and recognized so that the best people will want to do it.
4. Train from a common starting-point.
Every new employee goes through training at Collegewise. I don’t care if the Dean of Admission at Harvard quit his job and joined us—he’d still go through our counselor training. Training is the best way to make sure that everyone in your organization knows how you do things, what’s expected of them, and what doing a great job looks like. And new hires will appreciate that everyone here—from the company leadership to the trainer to the counselor that’s only been here six months—went through the same training when they started. So don't skip steps. Have everyone train from a common starting point.
5. Keep training.
Trainings at Collegewise are ongoing. Experienced counselors go through special “Application Trainings” each fall to review the latest changes. Essay specialists later go through “Advanced training” to learn how to best help kids with more challenging essay questions. We’re in a profession where things change all the time. We can’t control what’s going to happen in the world of college admissions, so the only way we can be consistent and keep doing a great job is to keep updating and delivering great training.