Wednesday, May 27, 2015

School Counselors, as seen by a College Admission Officer

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

College admission officers work hard, long days.  Fall brings many days far from home, visiting five or six high schools a day, and meeting students and parents at college fairs at night.  Winter finds them reading student applications, a labor of love to be sure-- but a challenge when you have to work through up to 30 files a day.  By the time spring comes around, and you've finished your last phone call with a student who didn't get in, it's time for a well-deserved rest.

Unless you're Jessica Fowle.  An associate director of admission at Kalamazoo College, Jess launched a private practice in college counseling this spring, guiding students and families through the college selection process, and helping them find colleges that meet their individual needs.  Jess is doing this work in addition to the many hours she volunteers doing work for the Michigan Association for College Admission Counseling, and her work at Kalamazoo. While she's just getting started, Jess has an impressive number of clients, and can work with students from around the world, thanks to the power of technology.

What would inspire someone to take on this demanding work on top of a busy professional life, and what does that say about our work as school counselors?  Jess explains.

It is spring, and commencement is in the air--the season of new beginnings, of change, of emerging from a chrysalis and spreading one's wings to embark on new adventures. This year, in the midst of my fifteenth year as a college admission professional, I find myself stretching and embarking on a new role as an independent college counselor.

This evolution comes from a personal desire to work with students and families in a more meaningful way than I can as an admission representative for a single school, but also from a recognition of the dire need for great college counseling. As this column has addressed many times before, the nationwide student:counselor ratio is 471:1; in my home state of Michigan the ratio is even higher at 706:1.  These numbers mean that however well-prepared and passionate, counselors only have a few minutes per year to meet with each student. Even when (and I say when with eternal optimism) our education system is able to move the high school counselor caseload down to the recommended 250 students and ensure that these counselors are adequately trained in college and career counseling, there will be students and families who want or need more focused, individualized, personal attention.

My new role provides an eye-opening new view into the world of college admission. From the outside it is an overwhelming web of nearly 4,000 institutions from which to choose, and a population of high school students who have no frame of reference for what being a college student is actually like (romantic comedies about fraternity parties and cheering at Big 10 football games notwithstanding).

In a flood of emails and brochures from colleges, overdramatic media articles instilling terror about being admitted to and then paying for college, and intense questions from Uncle Billy at the Thanksgiving table, it's no wonder that an inherently anxiety-ridden process becomes completely overwhelming.

From my perspective as an admission counselor, it both frustrates and amazes me that students and parents don't read official communication from our institution about important things like scholarship and financial aid deadlines. "How can they ignore opportunities for more money? They tell me this is their top choice, but don't respond to my outreach to meet with them!" My internal and water cooler dialogue is frustrated and impatient with "kids these days."

As a college counselor, I get a whole new perspective of how little preparation students and families have for this onslaught of information and pressure, and how little time they have in their busy lives to assimilate, absorb, and triage this information into a coherent plan for the college search. The language in which I am fluent--that of rolling and precipice deadlines, superscoring, and loan default rates--is nearly incomprehensible and definitely overwhelming even to the savviest high school student.

The college counselor serves as a port in the storm, translating this new language, helping students tune out the external noise to focus on their strengths, personality, learning style and preparation. To help weed through those 4,000 colleges to find a manageable number for consideration, and then walk them through whittling that number to the one that they choose to attend. As an independent counselor with many years of admission experience under my belt, I have the luxury of really focusing on each student's individual situation, laying out a plan for both the nuts and bolts of the college visit and application process as well as the deeper moments of self-reflection. It is a joy to help these students navigate this path, which is much more varied and personal than the path I traveled with them as an admission counselor.

Jess invites you to send your thoughts and comments to

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