College Counselor: Servant or Teacher?

More than once when I was counseling private school students, a parent would warn me that “you’ll have to chase after Johnny during the application process, keep on him” to get him through it. Well, I don’t do chasing and for the most part I never did, which may be one reason I don’t work with them any more. Nevertheless, it raises a question about what the college counselor’s role is. After a certain point, how much is the student’s responsibility, and isn’t the willingness to take it on one sign that a student is ready for college? When I did reach out to recalcitrant students (usually boys, by the way), I would often say, “Look, I’ve already gone to college so I don’t need to do any of this, but you do.” Sometimes that would be enough to get them moving, and sometimes not. Although I don’t remember anyone ever falling through the cracks or not getting into college because of not filing an application, it still gave me pause. Is this like pushing kids to get their homework done, or am I on the verge of ruining their lives because I won’t haul them in, sit them in front of my computer and make them fill out their applications while I watch?

Personally, I think that students who don’t do their research, information requests, recommendation requests, and applications (despite hours of workshops, class meetings, and individual appointments) aren’t really ready to face the end of high school. They’re saying that they have other priorities and are willing to let college wait until the last minute. Fine, I say. Why should I spend energy on you if you’re not going to spend it on yourself? I can help any number of students who are really grappling with the process while also doing their homework and keeping up with their extracurriculars. When you’re ready to fill out applications, let me know. In this respect, I believe that a college counselor is also a teacher, and one of the lessons is learning to plan ahead, make choices, and accept the consequences of those choices. In other words, to help them mature.

Now don’t get me wrong–I don’t wish for someone not to get into college or suffer for mistakes. I simply believe that “babysitting” is not part of the college counselor’s job description, especially if all the necessary information is presented many times over the course of several years and students come from college-educated families. The “chase after my kid” request is the same as the “why didn’t he get an A?” challenge to a teacher when the student has been AWOL in class–it’s not my responsibility to do his work for him. Besides, isn’t chasing after your kid part of the parent’s job description? (Although I would argue that by the time they’re high school seniors that should be only in extreme situations.)

When the current head of my former school first came on board a few years ago, we had a conversation in which he emphasized that college counseling was a “service” the school provided. While I agreed in principle with the statement, I also said, “But I am not a servant,” meaning that I was not at anyone’s beck and call and would not, in fact, could not, always accommodate every wish and whim of parents or students. Providing all the facts, deadlines, encouragement, and so on to those who will take advantage of them was often enjoyable and energizing. But making the rest of the horses drink was low on my priority list. As a teacher, I believed it was like doing students’ homework for them, and that doesn’t help them at all.

This distinction is important, I think, because while college counseling isn’t rocket science, it does have a complexity that makes it at times extremely difficult. Not only are there all the mechanistic elements to worry about, we also have to deal with the emotional, intellectual, developmental, and even financial issues that surround each student. As a servant, I would be obliged simply to do what was necessary if a parent insisted that her child should apply to an Ivy League school, even if that child didn’t have the record for it (or even the inclination, as happened more than once). To a certain extent, that’s fine–students in this country can apply anywhere they want. However, as a responsible teacher as well as counselor, I think it my responsibility, my duty, even, to indicate what the odds are, to be realistic about the applicant’s chances and suggest alternatives, and then to step back as the student carries out those resonsibilities. I was never reluctant to give a hand when I saw a student working hard to get everything done, but I was always reluctant to do things for him.

More than once, however, a parent would become enraged when I suggested that her child wasn’t “Ivy League material” or wasn’t getting applications done. Who was I, I suspect the reasoning went, to imply that Precious wasn’t up to snuff, despite clear indications in the transcript, test scores, and lack of activities? (Never mind the “What am I paying my money to this school for?” comments…) The expectation seemed to be that I should simply file the papers and write the support letter while holding Precious’s hand over the keyboard. But I would opt for educating every time, which means respecting a student enough to expect him to do his own work.

This kind of reaction reduces the college counselor to servant status (and belittles the child, incidentally) and reduces the college admission process to a sort of quid pro quo, although what the quo was I’ve never fully understood. I could bring up the changing face of college admission (it’s startling to learn how many parents still think “merit” is the only qualification for admission and that their child clearly has it), the imponderables, the history of admission at a particular college, the student’s own preparation (or lack thereof), but it didn’t matter. Just do it! they implied, don’t bother us with realities.

To state things positively: I believe that a college counselor is, and in fact has to be, a teacher as well as a service provider, and should be supported as such. College counseling should be recognized as a way to help develop adolescents’ maturity as well as simply a means to an end. Students aren’t just pegs to be fitted into the right holes, they are developing human beings on the verge of adulthood who have a wonderful opportunity to put their own ideas, hopes, and desires to the test in the college process. Done right, it can be an exciting time of reflection and self-definition; approached merely as a utilitarian process, it deprives everyone involved of their dignity.

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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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One Response to College Counselor: Servant or Teacher?

  1. Drammy says:

    Too bad more parents don't agree with you.A whole "culture" of collegiocentrism has evolved & to keep ahead of the herd I guess a lot of people are feeling pressured to conform ; if they don't college whore themselves away, however will they get into an Ivy?

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