Episode Title: Managing Student Expectations: Counseling Tenets that Guide Nitin Jain of Oncourse.
Episode summary introduction: Students have a right to Dream BIG. The challenge for College Counselors is to morph those BIG Dreams into achievable ones, while still harnessing the arrogance of youth.
Nitin Jain, Co-founder of Oncourse, discusses how they set and manage students’ College expectations using Counseling Tenets they have developed over the last 10 years.
In particular, we discuss the following with him:
Topics discussed in this episode:
Memorable Quote: “I think the underlying principle, in my mind, is preference of fitment over brand.”
Episode Transcript: Please visit almamatters.io/podcasts.
Transcript of the episode’s audio.
To be young is to dream BIG Dreams. Anything is possible.
The challenge for College Counselors is to morph a student’s BIG Dreams into achievable ones, while harnessing the arrogance of youth.
Nitin Jain, Co-founder of Oncourse, a College Counseling Service based in Gurgaon India, is back with us on our podcast College Matters. Alma Matters.
Today, Nitin talks about the role of counselors to set and manage student expectations about Colleges using Counseling Tenets they have developed over the last 10 years.
So, without any delay, let’s talk to Nitin.
Morning. How are you doing?
Very well. banker and how are you doing?
I'm doing great. Thank you.
So welcome back to the show. I think we had a great discussion in our last podcast and enough, excited enough to want to do a deeper dive on one of the topics and one of the things we touched on.
So especially, I think, I think one of the things that intrigued me from the last discussion was, you had mentioned towards the end of the podcast about how to set student expectations when they come in for counseling, and then after that, managing that so I thought it you know, it qualified enough for a in-depth sort of discussion. So, without further ado, we can sort of jump into that.
Sure Venkat, sure. Thank you, and thanks for picking that up. As a specific topic, a) I think it's, it's very close to my heart. And b), I think it's extremely important as we engage with the student over a two to three year period when we work with the student and the family. So therefore, I think one of the initial things that I like to highlight here is, what are the key sort of tenants that govern that aspect of our engagement and why we are reasonably successful in in trying to achieve that over a period of time, especially coming from India where a lot of people are fairly brand conscious, given that they're sending the student all the way to the United States. So so I think I'd start off with, you know, what, in our mind are the key five sort of rubrics for success of why we've been able to deal with that? Sure. So So in my mind, you know, some of the points that I feel are important is first and foremost is experience.
I think, having worked with many students, and hence, you know, also the parents. They're able to take your word for it. More seriously when you've had experience of having bought the 10 1500 students over the, you know, time period. So I think that's the key first part.
Second, and probably the most important, is I think, is trust and empathy, when you work with a family for over a period of time, and they understand and realize that it's not a transaction that you entered into. I think that that's that that's when you're, the sanctity of your word is more given that, you know, they have trust and empathy with the student and the family. So that helps a lot.
I think, third part that, that has played out well and will never fail us is science and data. I think just being able to correlate previous year's acceptances, being able to draw maps out of faith to know what works where I just empirical data secured over the years mapping of what profile gets you where, always helps, right? So, so that that sort of puts things in perspective from a pure data analytics point of view.
I think the underlying principle, in my mind, is preference of fitment over brand. And I think this takes a lot more of everything else. But I think just the ability of the student and parents to understand fitment, which is bespoke, which is personal, unlike a brand. And that's where our work comes in a lot. But this is another key variable that we play on.
And lastly, I think which, which is specific to the fact that just having access to a very, very strong alumni network, you know, given that we've been around 10 years, and there is an alumni base where we can connect students where we have a lot of data points otherwise available. So that alumni network helps a lot in managing expectations by talking to them and we could discuss this more as we get along.
I think these, these key points is what, what you know, really, in my mind, sort of set up the tone. To discuss this further. Of course, I'm happy to take on any questions you have at this stage or we could delve deeper into it at a later stage.
No, I think I think these are, these are good guiding principles that you laid out, I think, I think they blend sort of expertise, experience and data, so to speak, so so that it's sort of a nice combination of all three things.
You know, as a as a, as a parent, and as a student, the first thing that, you know, you probably encounter as a counselor is a student and family show up and say, Hey, you know, my kid wants to apply to Harvard, or my kid wants to get into MIT, you know, so everyone comes with stars in their eyes, right?
So, you know, you as a counselor, I mean, you know, you know, you know, the facts, you know, what's, you know, what the acceptance rates are, and you know, the whole thing So, how do you initially deal with that when so that would be sort of Your first encounter. And at that point, obviously, they, you have what you mentioned about your experience and your sort of reputation. And so obviously, they're coming to you because of that. So how do you how do you deal with that? So I thought sort of a human angle there would be quite interesting.
I, I think it's very, very important. The first meeting, what we call is the initial counseling meeting is extremely important. Which is why when we doing that meeting, we make sure one of our senior partners or men.., you know, one of the senior managers are a part of that meeting, because it's as much trying to understand the whole family and the student aspirations, not only just the aspirations, but it's also important to understand what are the key sort of, you know, performance success metrics the student has achieved so far, what their aspirations are, what kind of choices they're looking at, and I think at this stage without making it judgmental on whether you can get into Harvard or not, what we try and cover is a large part of what does it take to get there?
I think, I think without necessarily trying to discourage, you know, a child or or crush their sort of what their aspirations would be, I think it's important for them to understand that this is what it takes to get to the very top, is as as much about knowing about the child's interest. You know, what, what are different activities they've done?
I think Venkat, the important part is that, then mutual trust is getting formed at this stage. I think so to set the tone of our engagement over the next two years, it's important to sort of fill in with a lot of information, so that they know Okay, this this, this this is, there. Half the time people will come, oh, I want to get into MIT and Harvard, without knowing what is the path forward? What are the key sort of what is the key construct of the entire puzzle? And that's what we do.
I think What is also critical at the initial meeting stage given that we have a whole range of mentors to work with, right? So I think when we're trying to meet the family, we're also trying to map who's the correct fit for the mentor who will be able to have a persona, which is similar to the student who has functional background and knowledge or experience of having worked with it's an engineering kid or an art history kid or an architecture kid? All of that is going on. So that's when the comfort is being set up with the family.
I think the tone is clear given that past placements have acceptances have been in various colleges, like we've had Stanford, Harvard etc, but I think they get the first glimpse of, of, Okay, this is all what we need to do. So I think that tone is getting set in the first meeting itself in a lot of ways.
Yeah. So I think I think that's a great, great thing that you said that you're not trying to pass judgment, instead, you're trying to sort of map out a route and the work needed to get there, and what their range gets defined along the way. Right. I mean, you know, what is getting there? And yes, so I think that, that I think, is, yeah, that's that sounds like a very smart thing to start with, rather than deflating them or, you know, diffusing the thing. And at that point, you don't even have enough data to even...I think so because
I think so because, I think they have a, you know, reasonable chance to make it to the top if they feel they can work themselves over the next two to three years and bring to that I think, it's, it's possible in a lot of ways.
But here's, you know, you had the first meeting, they, you've kind of set expectations and not really set expectations, but you basically tempered the thing by saying, look, we're not going to start with, we get into college A or B. We are going to lay out the work that needs to get done. And along the way we'll assess, you know, as to what, what the right thing is. And then of course, your fitment versus brand or, you know, is going to be a good mantra to use at that point in time. Right? And so, so, so what what happens next?
So, so, you know, what kind of steps or parameters or, you know, paths do you take to start, sort of evaluating the students, so to speak, in a broad sense, right. I mean, you because, right, in the, in the sense so, broadly, so, this is a two three year period that you go through, right, typically,
Right. It could, it could range from, let's say, three years to one year. Yeah, in the typical zone. Yeah.
So, so, what kind of, you know, so just broad strokes, what do you what do you kind of put the student through, what paces? I know that you have a tag team of mentor and a senior partner like yourself, working with the student. And how much is the family involved in that? And you know, when does, when does the, you know, child leave the mothership so to speak?
Right. Okay, so So I think the way we view every project is similar to, let's say, a consulting project that that's also governed by the how the way we structured the configuration of the work plan with the partner, senior partner, mentor working, I think we set out goals for every quarter sometimes even, you know, it could be six months, three months, but I think what starts working is reiteration of the key success variables every quarter.
So we map your academic performance standardized testing, your, your activity chart in terms of the different buckets that we expect you to kind of work on. So I think there's performance mapping against goals set out pretty much every quarter and and and then maybe with no defined frequency, but I think we do encourage parents meetings at least once a quarter apart from the student meeting, school, to go over those performance parameters in detail.
So I think somewhere what is happening in along that path, although not directly is also a rationalization of what we were set out to achieve and what we've achieved. If we want to get there. This is what we had set out to achieve. We're falling short by this, this this. So either we get up and sort of, you know, trying to achieve this in the next quarter in the next academic session or the next 10 days testing, or we are kind of going to be left behind in the race for Stanford, MIT, Caltech, etc. So, so that's, that's, I think, an important aspect where we map out your performance across every parameter.
One of the other things that we do, which which also is in a way, rationalizing that is we do a lot of alumni seminars, where we highlight successful admissions by the students every application season, right and when and where so it's more like you a interactive forum, we've had it with seven kids, 10 kids, five kids with that come in and talk of their journey over the two to three years. And it gives them a chance to know what does it take to get to the very top.
So at that stage, everyone is kind of getting conditioned to say that if I want to get into Stanford because this kid got that this is all what he did. Right? So I think those kinds of things help in motivating the child as also setting a tone to say that you need to follow this, this this path to get there. If you don't, then automatically, it's implicit that you may not get it to the very top.
I guess, I guess one of the decision points, if you will, would be when they take these standardized tests. I mean, you probably see that GPA when they come in, and you see what kind of student they've been and assuming they continue that, but then you look at standardized tests and depending on how they do on those would be sort of a determining point, I would imagine, right? I mean, so time to have sort of a chat saying, look, if you don't get these kind of things, then you won't even qualify to play. Right? in the, in that particular set of colleges. You know, what if they are aiming for some of the top brands? Is that right?
And to see how to and then how do you kind of go about doing that? How's that sort of work with the student and family?
Yeah. So I think again, that's where data and science will help a lot, right?
So empirical data on the 25th percentile, 75th percentile, our past track record of what percentiles what scores in standardized tests usually make the filter cut there. Of course, exceptions will be there. So you need to have a broad scale, you don't always need to go by numbers. You always also, because a lot of the students you've been tracking the standardized test practice test performance over the last three to four months in any case, you will also be in a position to determine whether this child has the potential to Maybe take a repeat performance and improve this course.
Because the, you know, ability is more than what you have achieved so so we'll always build that whole thing into our discussion that given that you're choosing at this genre of schools, these are the kinds of standardized test scores, I think you can take it again and get that. So I think that's when the trust is also getting built, because we believe and a lot of times we genuinely feel the student can move up this course will encourage them to take another attempt. Right?
So, so what is happening is that in that entire process, the child the parent starts taking a word seriously because then we know that you know, we're talking with a lot more data, a lot more history behind it, we've tracked things and then advising you so so it helps discussing it continuously with the parents.
How do students react? I mean, you know, poor kid has set his or her heart on some dream college, or colleges, and then, you know, as time progresses, you realize that that's not likely to happen. Is that, how do you motivate them beyond that point? Or, or is that not been a big, has that not been a big challenge?
No, no, it's, it's a huge challenge, Venkat. I think any student who signs up with a particular College in mind has that very, very strong feeling that we want to go there. I think the key really is, as you said, motivation, we cannot discourage students, especially if they're showing the potential at the same time, you need to give them sightings of what reality is.
That challenge comes a lot with repeated interaction. I think once you're meeting them very often, which could be once in a week, 10 days, two weeks, depending on the timelines, it it sort of violates that bit and then of course, there is a whole lot of because the range of schools is is quite something that we work on.
So let's say if you you've come out with a range of schools which mean it will be in the genre of, let's say Category B plus, then you can't just say that I'm looking at this school, then we start giving them input on similar schools, which they might not have heard about. Sure, which we will encourage them to research on to say that hey, if you're looking at this school with this departmental strength cetera, why don't you look at this, this this, that we've already brought in that range to about five schools of similar genre and and and he may have a shot at one of those five at least. So, so, a lot of that kind of work will also involve with the student.
So, do you, do lose business if, if a student if you, you know, they come to that point and figured out that they are not likely to make it to their dream place or do you find that people generally are more sort of understanding and accepting of this and try to make the best of it?
Well, I never, notably, lost any business on that account that I wanted to get into Stanford and I'm not making it. But I think I, there can be dissonance in the fact that I did not sort of do the right things to get there. But I think the larger part is, the student realizes over a period of time of continuous engagement that Listen, if they don't make it here, we can get to the second tier. Let's try for the first year in any case.
So what we'll do is, if we decide that, okay, they can still take a shot at one of the top schools, but that must have corresponding targets and safeties embedded into their processes. So, so I think that that happens all the time.
I don't think we've lost business because of that, I think and Venkat, the, the key factor here is one of the first principles I mentioned, which is trust and empathy. I think I think the child and parent must believe that we are two well wishers who want to strike the right balance. For the child, and, and that has happened, given experience science data, or regular sort of interactions with them. So I don't think we lose business, we may take a different recourse. So be flexible on different countries and different genres. As I said of this thing. I don't think we've lost the business but, but the trade off of ensuring your aspirationally get there yet striking the balance is a hard one comes more by experience.
Now, that sounds, that sounds like a good, good way to go about it. And I think and I think the key that you mentioned is that you're the well wishers I mean, you guys are on their side. They know you're all on the same team. And I know that that matters a lot.
You've gone through the process, the kid, the student has, you know, picked a bunch of colleges and, you know, hopefully get into a bunch of them where the right fitment has happened. How are you, I mean, now that you've done this for 10 years, are students happy with the colleges they end up going to, the ones that accept and go to please colleges? Is the is the happiness rate pretty high? I mean, the satisfied contentment rate?
Venkat, the, the feedback that we get from our students, a lot of them are in touch over the years. In fact, they do sometimes the transfer applications, it's required for GPA reasons we do their masters applications, as well.
I think the happiness index overall seems to be fairly high. And I'll tell you why that happens, because one of the key factors in our engagement with the student over the years is a lot of emphasis on fitment.
I think somewhere we are also cognizant of the fact that a child from India or somewhere is going very far, four years is the key four years of their life, but they need to spend that in a place where they truly belong. And this isn't, you know, this is a very, very key attribute that very often Parents or students are not aware of.
So when they come in and try and work with us counselors, we need to bring to them notice about what are the key tenets of fitment. So fitment doesn't necessarily mean a brand. Sometimes people say, Oh, my, what I'm seeking is a brand, Well, that's fine, but I think attributes such as, you know, the class size, focus, focus on research, are you a city kid versus are you Do you want a campus scenario in a remote location and the US offers a wide array of, you know, the kind of school opportunities you know, that could be a small school, it could be a rural, it could be suburban, you know, even even the departmental strength, what are the career opportunities that you are seeking?
The STEM classification of different courses, especially when it comes to international students seeking OPT post that right? Then, you know, some people have variables like diaspora of Indian students present their family and relatives present there, by What is the connectivity from other places? Whether preferences, so I think all of those need to be mapped. And the college list that we curate is a bespoke college list. But that takes all of this into account. And that that very often is something, by the virtue of having sent students to a wide array of schools, it comes to that.
And very often, we'll also have an alumni whom we can link up the student to to say, okay, you want to go to an Haverford location as a consortium? Do you want to talk to these two students who attended class of 2022, 2023? Why don't you talk to them and we'll connect you.
You know, that's wonderful. That is really good. I mean, I, I think that if, if there is a takeaway here, it is that, you know, setting expectations is, is a process is not an event, you know, it's not like a one, one thing you do and one it's really over a period of time like you mentioned You know, building trust building, using data, using a whole bunch of things along the way to determine that.
So it's not a, it's not something that, you know, someone walks in and says, I want to go to Harvard and you say No or Yes, it's, it's like, Let's..
It can never be that.
I know...Let's let's get started. Let's get started...
...because because you and I have Venkat know that sometimes we we are happy to be surprised the other way, right? Yeah, like, I may not on paper represent that, but you can't deny the opportunity. And he actually makes it to a top school. This happens every now and then. So, So I think we need to give it a fair shot.
So, before we wrap up this session, any other insight or gems of wisdom that you want to part on this topic?
I think Venkat, I want to just highlight the fact that, you know, the key principles that are laid out at the beginning of the podcast are extremely important as parents, students and facilitators for all of us. We are in it together.
So, so I think the point you made that we're on their side, they have to have faith in the fact that if you're working with a counselor, he's on their side and therefore would probably have the best interest to get your place in the best college. And given that I think we need to do this together as a team, work together, share our differences, whatever they may be, but, but eventually try and cross the journey together. That that's my only advise to the parents and students.
Fabulous. So Nitin, this has been very insightful as usual. And I thank you again for taking the time to dive into this particular topic. And…
Thank you Venkat for, for having me over to do this. Always happy to work with students and help them on any queries questions that they may have.
Absolutely. Take care now talk to you soon.
Stay safe. Bye.
Hope you liked this podcast with Nitin Jain of Oncourse. The approach Nitin outlined about setting and managing student expectations seems very robust. Certainly they have a lot of personal experience and data to support it.
Thank you so much for listening to today's podcast. In case you haven’t, please do check out our other podcasts with Nitin as well.
Transcripts for this podcast and previous podcasts are on almamatters.io forward slash podcasts [almamatters.io/podcasts].
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Till we meet again, take care and be safe.
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