Don't Believe Your Guidance Counselor

Barry Lenson

Gulp. You’re in eleventh grade. Next year, you’ll be applying to colleges. So now it’s time for your “getting to know you” meeting with your high school guidance counselor.  You walk into the guidance office, drop your books - and start a process that could change the rest of your life.

So, how successful will that process be? Could be great – could be less so.

You have to realize that there are good guidance counselors, and not-so-good. But almost all of them are overworked. According to the National Association for College Admission Counselors, in 2007 the average American high school guidance counselor had the responsibility for guiding 488 students through the college process. (That’s not a typo – the number is 488.)  To make it worse, NACAC also reports that almost all high schools are cutting down on the number of their counselors. Since schools aren’t hiring, odds are pretty good that your guidance counselor has been on the job for quite a while – maybe five years, maybe three decades.

If you’re lucky, your counselor will have kept current on recent trends. If you’re unlucky, he or she will be stuck somewhere around 1975. (Distance learning means bird watching through binoculars, right?)

The following advice can be a signal that the advice you’re getting is as stale as last Friday’s fish . . .

“You need a grade point average of 3.7 to get accepted to that college” – This counselor is stuck in statistics. Today, you can do things after high school that can pave the way for admission to most any college that you want. You can take online college courses, or in community colleges, that demonstrate your ability to stand out in college work. You can identify a college professor at a college and volunteer to help in his or her research.  There is no longer one path to admission to any college.

“Apply to no more than five colleges” – This opinion is a favorite of counselors who think “everything was better in the good old days.”  The fact is that most high school students today are applying to about 12 colleges. They do it because competition is so fierce for every spot in most colleges, applying to a dozen is the only way to get a statistical edge on the process.  Note: This counselor is also likely to tell you, “Just take the SAT once and live with the results.” That’s what he did when he went to college back in 1974.

“Be sure to apply for all local scholarships” – Okay, it’s a good idea to fight for every dollar you can find. But let’s face it – 20 years ago when tuition cost about $3,500, a $500 scholarship from your local Elks Lodge or Rotary Club really made a dent in college costs. But today, $500 hardly pays for textbooks. (And you don’t really want to write an essay entitled, “What Being from Indiana Means to Me,” do you?)  Apply for local scholarships? Yes. But a good counselor should also be urging you and your family to spend a lot of time looking online for sources of aid – and that you need to investigate the role that distance learning can play in reducing college costs.

“If you don’t start college right after high school, your odds of admission drop” -  Here’s a counselor who is mired in the distant past. Today, more students are taking time off to gain real-world experience before they start college. If you are interested in political science, you can work for a local politician for a year.  If you want to be an environmental scientist, you can spend a year working for your state’s department of conservation.  If you want to go into business, the experience you gain on most any job can help you get into a program in business management. The life experience you gain during time off can be a powerful tool for getting you into the college of your choice.

And it gets worse . . . 

Some high school admissions counselors actually try to mislead students. This is not because guidance counselors are crooked. But there are some “from the trenches” stories of guidance counselors who did not level with students . . .

Guidance Counselor A discouraged an excellent student named Sarah (not her real name) from applying to a school where she was sure to get in. The reason?  The counselor wanted that acceptance “slot” to go to another, less-qualified student from the same high school who was applying to the same college.

Guidance Counselor B influenced a student named John (not his real name) to apply early decision to a college where he was relatively sure to get in. The counselor had a long-running relationship with the head of admissions at that college and could make a call that would nearly assure John’s acceptance.  This counselor was trying to help John, but she also wanted to easily boost her record of successful placements that year. Plus, she was eager to get John’s admissions process “closed out” so she could spend more time with other students.

The real advice is to question what you hear – and to have the determination to make your own decisions. If you think you should apply to a dozen colleges, do it. If you really want to apply to a college and your counselor says you shouldn’t, apply anyway.

In the new world of American higher education, people who think for themselves stand a better chance of building the lives they want. You can do that too – even if you’re only in eleventh grade.

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