A Stress of One’s Own

Crabby thinks college counselors could learn to de-stress, too.

Crabby has written about students’ college application stress, but he thinks college counselors need to take a deep breath, too. We tell students and parents to relax, but often our actions belie our advice. In order to be consistent, he offers a few moments where self-examination is in order.

Crabby doesn’t believe in college application “emergencies” that must be handled outside office hours. While deadlines, instructions and so on are important, in most cases where something untoward happens it can be remedied with a phone call, email, fax or scan. So please don’t interrupt dinner or weekends to spend hours on the phone with a frantic parent who has forgotten to include an application check or one of his daughter’s essays. (Thank goodness for caller ID.) In Crabby’s experience, by the time he arrives at the office and returns the call, the response is a cheery, “Oh that’s OK, we sorted it out! Thanks for calling!” Answering at home simply gives credence to the “emergency,” raises emotional stakes, and reinforces a dependence on the counselor, not to mention interrupts one’s own domestic peace. It’s a license for more intrusion, too.

Crabby also never answers the phone at home when he hears a weeping student or parent. He realizes it seems cruel not to do so, so he keeps a heavily stuffed pillow near his answering machine to drown out the sound. One’s office is the proper place for emotional outpourings, where options can be explored in a reasonable atmosphere. The clouds have usually parted by the next day in any case; Crabby has often been prepared to offer a kind word and some helpful guidance but instead usually gets a “What? Oh yeah, that. Well, I’ll have to think about my other apps now.” He is always delighted to hear that the student (and presumably the parent) has taken charge of the situation.

While in school, one can unwittingly transmit stress by one’s own behavior patterns. Remaining in one’s office the entire day, even to the point of eating lunch there so as not to miss even a single student’s knock, gives the impression that signatures can’t wait or questions can’t be asked later. Letting students know one is eternally reachable sends a bad message that everything must be taken care of NOW. To combat this, Crabby insists one have a signature stamp made and presented to one’s assistant, if there is one. As for students’ questions, most of them already have been answered on the form they have in their hands. Create a sign that says “Have you read the instructions?” That takes care of about 90% of questions. So by all means step out to lunch in quiet secluded spot and take a few breaks. No one will miss the college boat because the office is vacant for a few moments.

Whatever the situation, it’s unwise to allow anyone to monopolize too much of one’s office hours. Disappointment over a college decision or a tough-to-handle essay should not drag on indefinitely. A psychiatrist (who charges much more per hour than you would) would not allow a patient to take more than fifty minutes for a session. Doing so prevents constructive engagement with the issue at hand. One should steer one’s counselees to realistic ways of dealing with rejection, for example, not let them vent for hours while other work remains undone. Establishing a clear time limit of half an hour or so in these cases makes it easier to deal with the issue appropriately.

Don’t do everything in a hurry. Crabby has had parents and students expect him to leap up from his desk the moment they request something and fly around to get it done. He has never done that. Doing so buys into the idea that there’s no time, but there is. He has received more than a few nasty looks from those expecting instant action, but he’s managed to deal with them by taking off his glasses, without which everything’s rather a blur. No; it’s far better to stay calm and reassuring, make a note of the request and respond as a normal part of one’s duties. By modeling the proper behavior one can help everyone maintain some shred of sanity.

Crabby believes that counselors who fuss and fly about in a constant state of breathless action or who encourage 24/7 contact are trying to show how important they are, not providing a constructive service. When people see the college counselor running around, Crabby thinks they’re more likely to clench up than be reassured. They surely must be thinking to themselves, “What is she running from?” College counselors are not doctors, police officers or firefighters. It’s not necessary to act as if we are.

Advertising one’s devotion to secrecy produces much the same effect. Although plenty of confidential information crosses one’s desk, it’s not necessary to announce one will be “behind closed doors” all day or that one is privy to “insider information”  that simply can’t be revealed. Calling attention to one’s own secretiveness only makes people wonder what one is up to and feel that the process has national security implications.

If you think this advice is cruel or heartless, consider the counseling process: one’s “clients” must learn that issues can be dealt with in manageable units, rather than apocalyptic waves. Crabby is not heartless, although he can be impatient with those who prefer to moan than act. But the college process is also a learning process, so some tough love is always in order. Sympathy, yes; wallowing, no.

College counselors need to project calm reassurance and control during the process, whether they are dealing with students, parents, administrators, or colleges themselves. It wouldn’t inspire confidence to be on a sinking ship and see the captain running around the deck screaming, “Ohmigod, what’s happening???” would it? Crabby believes that college counselors should be clear-eyed and transparent; that is, present and providing expertise, guiding, not steering.

If one walks the walk of Zen-like mindfulness as one talks the talk of calm deliberation, one can actually reach a level of peace that, while not nirvana, may be close to it. Good luck!

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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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2 Responses to A Stress of One’s Own

  1. Alison Chisolm says:

    Right on Crabby. If our behavior is not aligned with our words, inauthenticity is the result. More importantly, teenagers will definitely do as you do, not as you say. If we want this process to help young people learn how to manage major life decisions and important projects in an effective, low stress, way, we have to model that!

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  2. Haha, great post! I think I have seen college counselors make just about every mistake you listed in this article. As a counselor ( http://thriveworks.com ), I throughly enjoyed this post 🙂

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