Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Are College Counselors Really Necessary?

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Admit it—at some point in your life, you didn’t really believe college counselors were all that important.

 After all, how hard could it be?  You point the student towards a great online college search program, they plunk in their grades, their test scores, and what they want to study, and boom—their choices appear in alphabetical order, right there on their phone.  Now they just turn in the forms, and it’s off to four years of missing every 8 AM class but never missing a single midnight pep rally.  This is work?

My two-word response to this question is—holistic review.

When college counselors hear a school uses a holistic evaluation process, they know students don’t have to hit the college’s average test scores  to get a close look—if there’s something else in the student’s application that is compelling, a lower test score doesn’t automatically get them voted off the island.  Depending on the student’s situation, grades, and scores, a holistic review can make a strong case for a student whose test scores aren’t quite there; at the same time, holistic review can reveal some real-life chinks in the armor of a student whose standardized test taking skills have been honed since receiving a set of SAT flash cards for their third birthday.
If this process sounds a little squishy, it’s supposed to be—and many college admissions officers like that.  They argue that colleges are attended by students, not test scores.  If a college wants to be have a thriving environment of successful inquiry, why not consider all of the factors that make a student more than the sum of their parts? If this means a student with lower SAT scores is admitted over a student with higher SAT scores, who’s to say that’s wrong?

The answer to that question is not:
a)      US News and other college rankings publications;
b)      College presidents, who know those rankings are used to determine the value of the college;
c)       Investment bankers, who use those rankings to determine a college’s credit worthiness.
No, the answer is d) All of the above.

There may indeed be many great applicants who don’t put their best foot forward on standardized tests, and many of these same students may have qualities that would prove to be worth far more than a good test score.  But these intangibles don’t translate well to a spreadsheet; and in a world where having a Best Colleges list means you have to have a list of Not-So-Best Colleges, the bottom line can’t be a Mobius strip.  So college presidents hate squishy, while many college admissions officers love squishy—and they work at the same college, which has to take in at least a few students now and then.

Enter the college counselor.  Knowing some colleges rely more heavily on test scores than others—and knowing which ones those are; knowing some colleges (try as they may) insist they are holistic but prominently display their high college rankings on their Web site; and knowing that Jane is an amazing writer who is so perceptive about author’s tone she really can see why every answer on the SAT reading test could be correct-- we greet Jane at the door, thank her for the printout of colleges the computer says are perfect for her, remember the day she wrote an entire Chemistry lab report in iambic pentameter,  take a deep breath, and say “So, you want to major in Writing?  This is really a great list.  But what about…?”

And when you think about that moment, not only do you realize people think college counselors are important. 

You realize they want to be one of us.

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