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Story Finders: How Counselors and Teachers Can Help Students Write Better College Essays (without Helping Too Much)

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September 30, 2011

Ten ways getting into college is like dating

I often tell groups of high school students and their parents that getting into college is a lot like dating.  What I don’t tell them is that I have a lot more demonstrated historical expertise in college admissions than I do in romance.  Still, I’ll forge ahead anyway here and share ten things to remember as you find your way to the right college. 

1. Don’t fall for a college just because it’s popular.  Popularity alone isn’t a reliable measure of the quality of a college or a person.  And it’s a totally unreliable measure of whether or not the two of you would be great together. 

2. There are plenty of potential matches out there.  There are over 2,000 colleges; you’ll eventually find and get into one that’s right for you, no matter what your SAT scores are.  (I’m trying hard to avoid the “plenty of fish in the sea” cliché.)

3. You should never fundamentally change who you are just to get someone to like you.  It’s one thing to take math classes after school because you love math.  It’s another thing entirely to do it because you’re hoping it will make Yale like you more.

4. Don’t fall in love too fast.  It’s easy to get seduced and believe that your dream college is the only place where you could ever be happy.  But trust me, it’s not.   See #2.  

5. It’s good to be confident, but it’s never good to be arrogant.  Colleges and people will be more likely to appreciate you if you believe in yourself, but also acknowledge your weaknesses and how much you have left to learn. 

6. Don’t try too hard to sound impressive.  Would you ever say to someone on a first date, “I learned a multitude of valuable lessons about leadership and working well with others during my time as treasurer of the student body”?  I hope not.  So don’t do it in your college essays or interviews either.  It’s fine to speak proudly about the things that make you proud.  But nobody likes a stilted sales pitch where you’re trying too hard to impress.

7. The pain of a rejection will be temporary.  Yes, a college rejection can be painful.  But you should know that the initial sting never lasts. That’s why you’ll never meet a 40-year-old who’s still smarting from a college rejection or a high school breakup. 

8. Speaking of rejection, if a college breaks your heart, it’s their loss.  Dust yourself off, move on and find happiness someplace (or with someone) else.  Lots of people don’t get into their dream colleges or marry their high school sweethearts.  They recover and are usually thankful later on after they find even better matches.  You will, too.

9. Remember that there is no such thing as the perfect college.  A school might seem that way on the outside, but the flaws will reveal themselves once you spend some real time together.  Expect it—it’s normal.  You’ll just have to commit to doing your part to make the relationship work.   

10. There is no magic forumla.  There are no such formulas for college, romance, or life.  If there were, someone would have found and profited from them already.  All you can do is work hard, do things you enjoy, be a good person, and trust that things will be OK.  They really will.  I promise.

September 29, 2011

Why the nice tuba player will be just fine

At 6:45 a.m yesterday as I was finishing my morning run at the local high school’s track, the marching band was just making their way to the field to practice their formations.  And the fact that the entire band was walking out together meant that they’d probably arrived even earlier to rehearse inside first.   It wasn’t even 7 a.m. yet, but there were the clarinetists, flutists, saxophonists, percussionists, and a lone tuba player who looked to be a freshman with a tuba almost as large as he was.  Just a bunch of high school kids happy to be there practicing with the marching band before school.

It’s hard not to be impressed when you see nice kids working hard at things they enjoy.   I feel the same way when I see the cross country team out running together during the summer or the kid working behind the counter at the local In-N-Out Burger after school.  Kids and parents should know that your work ethic, curiosity, how you treat other people, how you commit yourself to things that matter to you—those traits, not the name of the college you attend, are what will determine your future success and happiness. 

If you’re a nice kid who works hard, does your best, and plays a mean tuba in the marching band, you’re going to be just fine whether or not Georgetown says yes.

September 28, 2011

For private counselors: Consider the opportunities in the fringes

I was talking with an admissions officer from a highly selective college at a conference last week who’s thinking about leaving her job and becoming a private college counselor.  But she admitted,

“I’m worried that I might be a little bit of a snob.  I don’t think I want to work with 'B' and 'C' students.”

My reply:  “So don’t.”

I told her that there are plenty of private counselors out there who work with anybody who calls them.  There’s no way to stand out by becoming just another one of them.  Why not work with the fringes? 

She could specialize in the type of student she’s excited to work with and then build the service of their dreams.  If she became known as the city’s best college counselor for really high achieving kids who want to go to the most selective colleges, she’d differentiate herself.  People would talk about her.  And she’d be a lot happier.

The opportunity to stand out is by servicing the fringes and doing it better than anyone else.

September 27, 2011

For counselors: Beware of information overload

We just got back from the annual NACAC conference.  And I’m noticing now that some of the presentations I remember the least about are actually those that shared the most information. 

There is such a thing as information overload.  If you’ve ever read a work-related email that was way too long, sat through a presentation with far too many slides (and bullet points), or read a student’s application that included a long resume, newspaper clippings, and multiple letters of recommendation, you’ve seen information overload in action.  A person can only process so much information at one time.  When you give them too much, they’ll miss your most important points.  Or worse, they’ll get overwhelmed and give up.  Saying too much can be the same as saying nothing at all.

The next time you make a presentation, newsletter, or a printed resource for your students or parents, start by finding the most crucial information you want them to take away.  Be ruthless.  I know that everything you have to say feels important.  But it’s not all equally important.  Prioritize your list.  Then trim it from the bottom up until you’re left with only the most vital points.  More than five will be too many.  Now use your allotted time or space to hammer home those few points.  And just like a good college essay, brevity is a mark of good writing (and teaching). 

Here’s an old post with some specific examples of how you might do this.

September 26, 2011

How to get students to talk to you about college

30things A few weeks ago, I wrote a post sharing something smart that Katie in our Bellevue office was doing--printing a mock-up of my post on things you can do in college even if your school isn't a famous one, putting stars next to those she got to do when she was at Colgate, and posting the list in her office for her students to see.  Since then, all of the counselors in our Irvine office have done it, too (the photo at the left is Breanne's list).  And our counselor friend Teri at Palos Verdes High School shared it with her staff and teachers.  It's a great way to get kids to see that even the most responsible, professional adults were at one time just college kids trying to find their way.  We love how our students ask us about our starred items and how they want to hear our college stories. 

I wanted to make this a little easier for people to replicate.  So,

1.  Here is the version of the piece that Katie and our counselors used.   Download and print it.

2.  Put a star next to the items you did while you were in college.

3.  Write the name of your college at the bottom (our counselors pasted in the logos from their respective colleges).

4.  Post it prominently in your office or classroom.

5.  Forward this post to your colleagues so they can do the same.

How many more college conversations would be sparked between students and faculty if every teacher, counselor, administrator, etc. at a high school posted this? 

How many more colleges would kids be open to learning about--schools they didn't know of or consider before--if they found out their math teacher or band director or principal attended one of them?

How much more honest would kids be with you about their college dreams and anxieties if you were willing to take the first step by starring this list honestly and posting it?

Why not find out?

September 25, 2011

Questions and answers from The Choice blog

Last week, The Choice blog had several entries where readers submitted questions to be answered by authors (one of whom is a former dean of admissions at Stanford) of a new book on college admissions.   A lot of the questions, from course selection, to how well colleges know particular high schools, to the influence of athletics, are very common.  So I thought I’d share the entries here so readers can learn from the answers.  The answers came over three posts, here are #1, #2 and #3.

September 24, 2011

Figure out how to make it work

Last week, a student told one of our counselors,

“I don’t even know my high school counselor.  I’ve had a new counselor every year since I started high school.”

Here’s what we told him:

“I understand that’s frustrating.  Tough.  You’ve got to figure out how to make this work.  It’s time to go talk to your new counselor.” 

Sure, it would be great if you had the same counselor for four years.  But people change jobs.  People get laid off.  People get promoted and do different jobs.  That’s the way the world works.

What are you going to do when you’re out in the workforce and your boss you’ve been working like crazy to impress leaves or gets promoted?  Are you going to write off your career and give up?  Of course not.  You’re going to have to figure out how to make this work, get to know your new boss and do good enough work that she'll notice and appreciate you.

A lot of the experiences you have in high school make for good life training.  If you’ve had two or three different counselors during the high school years, you can complain.  Or you can figure out how to make it work.  And only one of those options will help you get into college.  

September 23, 2011

Five ways to improve high school fundraising

A lot of teams, school newspapers and other high school organizations try to solicit contributions from local businesses by selling advertising and promising “great exposure.”  But when’s the last time you saw a printed advertisement or a sign that made you say, “I am going to buy that product!”  An ad in your program, a sign on your center field fence, or listing as a donor in the event program isn’t real exposure for a business.  The audience wants to see the game, read the paper, or watch the performance.  They ignore the ads. 

Here are five ways you could make your fundraising more effective.

1. Let the students do the work.

It’s great that parents want to get involved with fundraising and help their kids.  But I’m going to be honest—it’s a lot easier to say no to a parent who’s doing this for her kid than it is to reject a nice high school student who’s asking you to help support the school’s marching band.  And please don’t tell me the kids are too busy to do it themselves.  I know they’re busy.  I’m busy, too.  Kids should be willing to put in the fundraising effort if they want businesses to give them money.      

2.    Don’t be afraid to be needy.

You need the support more than a business needs an ad.  And there’s nothing wrong with a high school organization needing some fundraising help.  So don’t present this as a win-win business opportunity for the business.  Telling someone, “Your ad will be prominently displayed in our 24-page program!” isn’t as likely to move a small business to contribute as being honest and asking for help will.  A smart business owner will want to support the community more than she’ll want faint “exposure.”  

3.  Tell them what you need the money for.

A small business is a lot more likely to contribute if they know and can feel good about what the money will do.  “Support our school lacrosse team” isn’t as compelling as, “Help our lacrosse team replace our worn-out equipment this year.”

4. Give them something real in return.

If you want a pizza parlor to buy an ad, offer to hold the team banquet there.  Tell them they can have a signed picture of the team in the new uniforms (see #3) that the business can proudly display to their customers.  Or offer to hand out coupons for their meal specials at your games so you can actually drive some business their way.  Those are small gestures that will go a long way towards convincing a business to give you the support you need.

5. Don’t forget to thank them.

I’ve run close to 100 ads in support of high school organizations, but nearly every time, the only thanks I get is an email from someone new the following year asking me to contribute again.  That’s not a good way to ensure repeat contributions.  No business helps in these situations just because they expect something in return.  But if you take the time to thank them personally, you’re much more likely to cultivate a relationship that will make the business want to keep contributing.  

September 22, 2011

How counselors and teachers can help students write better college essays

StoryFindersimage Earlier this month, we released our first book:  Story Finders: How Counselors and Teachers Can Help Students Write Better College Essays (Without Helping Too Much).    Here's some background on our essay process, why we wrote it, and what's included in the book.

How this book came to be

During the first few years of Collegewise, I could help every student with their essays by myself.  But as we grew from working with 20 seniors a year to over 200 and we opened additional offices, we had to find a way to replicate what I was doing.  I didn’t want something that would produce finished essays the way a fast food franchise churns out hamburgers.  We needed a system that could help 500 kids tell 500 unique stories all of which were genuine reflections of each writer.          

Today, we hire “essay specialists” and put them through a four-hour training program.  Students (and interested parents) attend a 90-minute college essay workshop.  Students complete a set of brainstorming questions at home, then come to a one-hour meeting with an essay specialist.  Our students then write their drafts and send them to us for feedback.  And we know exactly how to give helpful feedback without ever jumping in and doing it for the student.  One workshop, one meeting, and a couple rounds of editing means that in 2-3 weeks, our kids have completed several college essays.  That’s our college essay system that we explain in this book.

Why we wrote the book

We’ve shared pieces of our system at high school workshops, with teachers and counselors at regional NACAC conferences, and at in-service sessions at several trainings for the Los Angeles Unified School District’s AVID (Achievement Via Individual Determination) teachers. But we’ve never had enough time together to say, “Here’s everything we do with college essays—take as much or as little as you want back to your schools and use it to help your kids.”  That’s what we wanted to do with our book. 

What’s included in the book?

1. What counselors and teachers need to know about college essays

The college admissions process isn’t a featured subject in most credentialing programs for teachers and counselors.  But a lot of English teachers and counselors are expected to be experts when they help students with college essays.  I don’t want to make the same assumption of expertise here.  Our book explains exactly how colleges use essays, the differences between a college essay and one written in a high school English class, and the most common mistakes students make on their college essays.  

2.  The Collegewise college essay workshop

We walk readers through each section of our college essay workshop that we teach to our students and parents, and that we share when we’re invited to speak at high schools.  

3.  The Collegewise essay brainstorming meeting

We explain exactly what we do in our one-hour meeting with each of our students to help them find good stories.  This chapter explains how to do what we do in that meeting.  We include our brainstorming questions and describe how we use them, outline what we do in a brainstorming meeting with a student, and share how we recognize a potentially good story. 

4.  How Collegewise gives essay feedback to students

This section shares our complete editing process, along with some tips to get the job done faster if you have a large caseload.

5.  Recommended college essay lesson plans 

We recommend different ways to use the materials depending on how much time a teacher or counselor has to spend with students.  If you want to use the entire system and you have the time to do the class, brainstorming and editing, take it all as is and get to work.  If you just want to do the class, or just help kids pick their stories, or just review what kids write on their own, use just those parts of the system.  And if you already have your own system that works well and just want to cherry pick components of ours that might be useful, pick away. 

6. Access to free resources

Readers are also given a link to access clean copies of our essay workshop handout (teacher and student versions), brainstorming questions, and samples of our essay commentary.  

The finished product

We’re really proud of our system and the book, and the feedback we’ve gotten from teachers and counselors has been great.  I even bought a copy for my mom, a former high school English teacher, just so she has something to show her friends, and even she liked it (though she’s admittedly a little biased).

Over 3,000 students have gone through our Collegewise program.  Thousands of other kids have heard us speak at their high schools or sent us their essays just for a second opinion.  We’ve been able to help students of all levels of achievement and writing abilities find and share interesting stories about themselves.  We’ve done it in a way that doesn’t violate the integrity of the process and that keeps kids completely in charge of their stories and their writing.  And now we’re hoping that lots of counselors and teachers will be able to do the same with our book in hand.    

Where to buy it

We self-published the book at and it’s available here for $49.95.  We know that’s not cheap for a book.  But with the access to clean copies of our downloadable materials, buyers aren’t just getting the book; they’re getting our entire college essay system that we’ve spent the last 12 years perfecting. 

We’re really proud of the finished product and believe that we’re now going to be able to help a lot of teachers and counselors guide their kids through the college essay process.

September 21, 2011

How much positivity are you giving out?

Everybody—students, teachers and parents—needs a pat on the back every now and then.  One of the many great books from the Gallup Organization, “How Full Is Your Bucket? Positive Strategies for Work and Life,” talks about this using the analogy of a bucket.  The book’s premise is that we all have a personal bucket that needs to be filled with positive experiences like recognition or praise. So we have two choices to make about how to treat people.  We can always lean towards being critical and negative, which takes away from their buckets.  Or we can be positive, thankful and congratulatory, which fills their buckets and actually makes ourselves feel even more positive.  Yes, the premise may sound a little hokey and obvious, but how much time do you really spend consciously treating other people positively? 

There are plenty of applications here for managers, teachers, parents, and husbands/wives (as described in the book), but here are a few ways I think high school students could put this to use.

With your teachers

If you’re really enjoying a class, tell your teacher.  If your teacher stays after school to help you, tell her how much you appreciated it and how much good it did you.  If your teacher helps you with your college essay, or reads over a rough draft and gives you good feedback, or offers you any good advice that really helped you, say so and fill your teacher’s bucket.

With your parents

If you suffer a setback (like a low grade on a test) and your parents are understanding and supportive, tell them how much it helped you to know they were in your corner.  If your parents give you good advice to help you through a situation where you needed some guidance, thank them and let them know how much you benefitted from their advice.  And if they cheer you on when you have a big success, tell them how much their praise meant to you.  Here are a few more suggestions from an old post.

With your friends and classmates

If one of your friends makes the varsity team, sets the curve on a test, or gets accepted to his or her dream college, offer up a sincere congratulations and let your friend know how happy you are.  Congratulate the members of the cross country team when they win the league championship, the cast of the school play when they close out their final performance, or the writer on the school newspaper who writes a particularly good article you appreciated.  And if one of your friends is there for you in a time of need the way we all need a good friend to be every now and then, express your thanks.  Let your friend know the support didn’t go unappreciated.

The message here (and in the book) isn’t that you should lavish thanks and praise on everyone for no good reason—you won’t add anything to their buckets if you aren’t sincere.  But heartfelt positivity is free to you and so ridiculously easy to give if you’re conscious about it.  It will make you feel good about your relationships with people in your life.  And it will go a long way towards making people want to be there for you again in the future.