Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Counseling for the Second First-Choice

By Patrick J. O'Conner Ph.D.

Is counseling for the unknown an art or a science?

It’s a question that’s plagued our profession for many years, and the dilemma only seems to be getting worse.  The recent round of college admissions decisions left thousands of students and parents (and their counselors) speechless, as acceptance rates at many colleges fell below 7%, with one college—the tuition free Curtis Institute of Music—falling to 3.5%.  That would be an exceptionally strong batting average for a baseball player, but to high school seniors, these numbers sound like there’s a better chance of getting hit by lightning on a sunny day than getting admitted to college.

The same is true for middle school  and elementary counselors.  Tryouts for the 8th grade football team are coming up, and a student is concerned he won’t make the team.  After talking with you, he decides to give it a try, and doesn’t make the cut.  He goes home devastated, telling his parents you talked him into the tryout. 

If his 5th grade sister comes home with the same scenario about not getting the lead in the spring play the counselor “promised’ her, you’ve got one unhappy family on your hands—especially if the oldest child is a high school senior who applied to Curtis and was rejected. In each case, the question is the same—didn’t the counselor see this coming?

The answer is yes and no.  Yes, the counselor knew there were only so many slots for too many students, so some students were going to be disappointed; no, they had no idea which side of the decision your child would be on.  Yes, your counselor could see strengths and weaknesses in your child’s abilities and experiences that could affect their chances of success; no, your counselor has no idea what the strengths and weaknesses of all of the other students are.  Yes, your counselor has probably advised many students about these activities, so they may have some idea of the standards used by those making the decisions; no, these standards are not always consistent from year to year.

Some real-life examples can give parents something to hold on to as they grasp for grounding.  If your son was one of two fast 8th graders to try out for wide receiver, there’s a good chance they’re in; if they’re one of twenty, the chances go down.  If the 5th grade musical always has lots of roles for sopranos, your high-pitched daughter is in great shape, unless the director decides to change things up this year and feature the altos.  If some small college that took everyone last year is the new hot school, there just won’t be room for everyone this year.

The final, essential piece here is developing Plan B before it’s actually needed.  Seniors apply to more than one college in case their top choices don’t work out; lanky wide receiver wannabes are encouraged to think about running cross country if there’s gridlock on the gridiron; elementary coloraturas can set their sights on the church pageant or the community playhouse if the spring play doesn’t work out.

The science of counseling involves discussing facts in ways that offer clear pictures to clients; the art involves creating a host of possibilities the client can feel good about without thinking they’ve settled for second best.  There will always be first choices, and the pains that come from not achieving them, but the beauty of good counseling is that students and their parents will see the opportunities they do earn as second first choices, eager to make the most of them

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