What Is a College Counselor’s Role?

Having just parted ways with the private school at which I was doing my college counseling, I’ve had even more time than usual to think about the college counselor’s role in the whole process of college preparation, application, and enrollment. Those of us who do this sort of thing on the high school side are in a peculiar situation, since we are responsible for so much yet in control of so little. Our students can accept or reject our advice (not to mention do well or poorly in their courses), colleges can do what they want, and parents can decide we don’t know what we’re talking about whatever their own experience. {I learned just before I left the school, for example, that one parent thought I wasn’t a good judge of college application essays; this despite 13 years as an English teacher, eight as an admission officer at Amherst College—readings hundreds of essays a year— and six as a counselor at that high school. What this parent meant, of course, was that his child hadn’t been admitted to the school the parent thought he should have been…} Without support from savvy administrators with backbones, we have to be extremely careful when someone asks the question, “Will my kid get into Yale?” or, even worse, comes into our offices with the expectation, no, the conviction, that their kid will get into a powerhouse school.

In the other direction, we have to keep an eye on what colleges do in relation to our students. If we are truly conscientious, we want to make sure that our students are treated properly, have their own choices and timelines respected, and are allowed to live their academic and high school lives in general as they see fit. But as college admission becomes increasingly dominated by business and marketing tactics, and as colleges operate as businesses as much as educational institutions, at least on the front end, we are sometimes confronted with tactics we consider, if not strictly unethical, at least unsupportive of the educations we are trying to provide our students in high school. Should we speak out about these practices? To whom? What’s the proper channel to express our concerns and how can we change them if they are truly not in our students’ best interests?

I have spoken out frequently about practices I consider unreasonable, such as encouraging students to begin applications as early as March of their junior year and even making decisions before the senior year has truly begun. I’ve named the institutions that do this and have been excoriated by them for doing so (including having a letter sent to my principal stating that they would not accept any applications from my school), yet I have also been supported extensively by my high school colleagues, albeit surreptitiously in private emails. I find this curious because it’s clear that important but scary issues do concern high school counselors but other forces (like the threat of losing a job) cow people into silence. I’ve been accused of “alienating” my school from certain colleges because of my viewpoint, even though we had managed to have more students accepted to those schools after my comments than before. In other words, I had no avenue to object to a poorly considered practice (I had, in fact, tried to discuss this issue privately with the admission office to no avail). And despite the colleges’ reactions to my personal viewpoints, they were capable of making decisions based on their evaluation of the students, not the counselor, a situation I knew would be the case and for which I congratulate the colleges. Our national organization, NACAC, has taken up these issues through various committees and discussions but is often stymied by the fact that it is a membership organization more than a policing group.

Are college counselors providing a service or are they merely servants, obligated to carry out the will of parents and students regardless of what their expertise and experience tell them? When should we be consumer advocates and publicly protest inappropriate intrusions from colleges on the lives of our students or other actions that impinge improperly on educational goals set by students’ high schools? Are we compelled to “please the parents” no matter what? When does advocating for a student become empty posturing without substance? Not that we shouldn’t support our students as much as we can, but when is too much not enough?

If we are condemned to simply work to get our students into college regardless of realities and costs, what is our value as part of a school? I consider what I do to have a teaching function. I take that role seriously having been a classroom teacher for many years. So I feel compelled to “teach” as a college counselor: I don’t do things for students that they can’t do for themselves, although I show them how to do things. I don’t edit or “transcribe” application essays any more than I consider necessary or more than I might as an English teacher helping a student.

This means that not every student can get what he or she wants, not can I work magic or stretch the truth when I talk to a college admission person. It means that I want to teach my students to be independent researchers, confident personalities, and self-sufficient persons, not people who depend on others for everything or who end up thinking that there is only one route to “success” in life. The things I can do for them I do, such as calling to make sure an application is there or putting in a last minute good word for a good student, but the burden still rests on the student and his or her family, I feel, especially when that student comes from a well educated, upper middle class family who has grown up surrounded by collegiate expectations. A student’s own willingness to do the work required to apply tells me something about his readiness for college. The student who sits in my office and expects me to do all the work, or the parent who says, “You’ll have to follow Sammy around and make sure he gets all his forms in” tells me that that student isn’t ready to consider the process yet. I can discuss, urge, offer suggestions, and cheerlead, but I can’t make the proverbial horse drink. Perhaps that’s not the right thing to do for those who can afford to expect more…

I also believe that the “counseling” part of “college counseling” can be overdone. There’s no question that the process intersects with and calls up many issues related to family dynamics and personal hopes and fears. But it’s important not to turn college counseling INTO personal counseling. I have had colleagues who delve far more deeply into family lives than I think appropriate for the college process. Since I’m not a trained “counselor” counselor perhaps I’m simply not well enough equipped to do so. However, when family issues overtake the college process, I believe a counselor without college ties needs to be brought in or an outside expert should be consulted. The college process was not meant to be a focal point for family issues and the mixing of the two muddies the water without really helping either side. (Again, that’s not to say that it isn’t but there are issues and there are ISSUES; college counselors should try to keep the lines clearly drawn for the family’s own sanity as well as their own.)

The whole college process has become overburdened and Byzantine in ways that no one ever expected. I said years ago that it would eventually collapse of its own weight and I think that’s begun to happen. College counselors are caught between parental expectations and, increasingly, the demand from schools that everything be subordinated to “getting the kids into” college. We can keep our heads down and just be servants or we can speak up for sane educational and application practices; I don’t think we can continue to do both much longer.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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