Crabby Counselor Talks to High School Principals

You think you’ve got problems? Don’t get me started.I know you have plenty to deal with day to day and I don’t want to rain on your parade, but when you tell me I provide a “service” and then expect me to perform like a salesman, you can’t expect a cheery smile, that’s for sure. The “customer” isn’t always right in my office, and I have to deal with it, so it’d be nice to have you understand a little more about how this whole college admission thing works.

Let me explain that in more detail. First of all, by the time our students are juniors, many of them have ivy-wreathed stars in their eyes, god knows why. Expectations are high, shall we say. So a kid comes in with a 3.2 and a 26 or a 670/630 and wants to go to Princeton? Really? And his parents are who?

Well, of course I’m not going to stop him from applying, and I’m not going to smack him upside the head with reality. But I am going to have to be realistic. To be honest I don’t really know if he won’t get in; I just know what I’ve seen over fourteen years of experience, that’s all. So if his parents complain to you that I’m “crushing” their son’s dreams, you have to know that I’m simply the messenger, not the engineer of his fate. If I went all Suzy Creamcheese on them and said he was a shoo-in and then he didn’t get in, I’d look like I didn’t know what I was talking about. So how about a little support in that department?

Remember, I stride along the boulevard of broken dreams. I help my kids and their parents avoid the biggest potholes but it ain’t easy when I’m up against massive ego involvement and entitlement. Which isn’t to say that we don’t have great kids with amazing potential and achievement. We do! Really. And they will probably have plenty of choices. But if they’re gunning for the name brands and refusing to listen to reason about applying to a range of schools, well, I can’t make ’em apply to State, now can I? I know it’s nice to point to a list of “top” colleges when you’re talking to alums or the Board, but what’s the point when we spend so much time talking about “match” and “fit”? We don’t tell kids to buy Charmin’ instead of the store brand, we tell them to buy what fits their budget. So it’s not really fair at the end to praise the Elis and the F. Scotts and assume the rest will end up drinking swill on the prairie instead of ‘tinis on the deck overlooking the Sound.

You might want to sit in with me sometime to see how I try to acknowledge aspirations while tempering intemperate desires. You’d see me being diplomatic about that 3.2 kid, but also encouraging about another’s goals when they’re clear. You’ll see me praise students who can tell me what colleges have the programs and environments they like and try to nudge students away from blind faith in marketing. (“What is it about Cornell you like?”) When parents are in the room as well I’ll try to walk several tightropes to make sure I’m not stepping on anyone’s alumni toes when I suggest a certain school might not be right for their child.

You know, I try not to pooh-pooh institutions and I make sure everyone knows that if I do express an opinion it’s entirely my own and based on my own research. I encourage kids to go beyond anything I say and find out for themselves. You seem to think I control them but I don’t.

And I don’t control the admission process, either, strange as that may seem. You know I will speak for our kids as strongly as I can but I’m not going to push for a kid who clearly isn’t right for a college. That makes me look like an idiot to admission offices and I hate looking like an idiot. The idea that a word from me can change results is simply a misunderstanding of the process. What I can do is make sure that admission officers have a clear sense of our kids, which is one reason I write all those very detailed letters in the first place.

So when results start coming out and I tell you about all the places our students have been accepted, don’t turn around and ask where they didn’t get in. That’s just perverse. And don’t expect me to have an easy answer for “Did most of them get into their first choice schools?” because I have to ask you, “First choice when? Last fall? December? Now?” You’re worried about salesmanship and PR and I’m worried about kids and families, so take a deep breath and chill. Think about what a great school we have adn that the wheel of fortune seems to spin our way pretty steadily. I know plenty of schools that aren’t so lucky.

Bottom line for me, I provide a service, but I’m not a servant. Sometimes people can’t have what they want, and unfortunately I sometimes have to tell them that.

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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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