Making Best Use of a High School Counselor

Question: Can you make some recommendations on how to make the best use of the high school guidance counselor?

 My children attend a college prep school that seems to have good relationships with top colleges and universities. I have heard some parents say that the school counselor “really fought for” their child to gain admittance to their dream school. Can the school counselor really have an impact on a college’s decision? Does my child need to ingratiate herself with the counselor?

Parents often choose private schools … especially the more celebrated prep schools … with the aim of boosting their child’s admissions odds at the most sought-after colleges. The parents are convinced that guidance counselors at these top academies are on a first-name basis with admission staffers at the Ivies and their ilk. And, indeed this can be true.

However, gone are the days when many private schools were labeled “feeder schools” because they provided a direct pipeline to snazzy colleges.  While the elite-college admission officials still endeavor to maintain strong ties to the private schools that have, over many eons, sent them students who are academically able (and often athletic and/or filthy rich), in this era of “diversity,” Ivy and elite freshman classes don’t have the room that they once did for multiple applicants from even the most exclusive private schools.

So parents and students at such schools must begin the admission process with the understanding that, while a call from their counselor can help to sway an admission official, it won’t carry nearly the same clout that it did some decades ago.

But if, none the less, you’re eager for a guidance counselor to pick up that phone for your child, here are ten tips on how to make it happen:

1. You and your child should promptly and thoroughly complete any questionnaires that the counselor requests: Some—although certainly not all–counselors will ask for a “brag sheet” from both students and their parents. The counselor may provide a list of questions about a student’s activities, strengths, ambitions, and preferences to give some structure to the responses. Occasionally there’s merely a broader, vaguer question like, “What should colleges know about Cooper?”  When completing a brag sheet, be aware that your counselor will be delighted to lift sentences or even entire paragraphs from it when writing the recommendation, so try to be quotable. Rambling on and on about Cooper’s amazing writing ability that began with his “My Summer Experience” essay in second grade is probably not as valuable as something pithier like, “Cooper is most joyful when composing poems, and no paper napkin or placemat is immune from his verse. He has a drawer full of magazine rejections and one prized acceptance (from a little-known journal) that attest to his efforts.” And although Cooper might have been the only boy at daycare who never hit or bit a classmate, put your emphasis on more current achievements.

2. Take the time to read the information packets or Web pages that the counselor provides: These probably cover the college application process in general as well as the school’s timeline and protocol. Don’t irk the counselor by asking questions that are already answered in this material.

3. Ditto your child. A student should not only read all the info offered but also attend meetings (individual or group) and take advantage of optional opportunities to get to know the counselor. The student should meet all deadlines without reminders and attend on-campus sessions when reps from colleges of interest are visiting. It’s a lot easier for a counselor to say, “Alexander is really interested in Hamilton” when Alexander actually acts interested in Hamilton.

Your child also needs to let the counselor know about undertakings that fall beyond the traditional scope of “extracurricular activities.” The student who collects vintage vinyl records or who won a community cooking contest may assume that these endeavors aren’t fodder for college résumés. Well, granted, whipping up a killer crème brulee might not be a short-cut to Stanford, but counselors ought to see a broader picture of the student than what school records contain. So if the counselor doesn’t request a formal brag sheet that could include such details, your child should not be shy about compiling a list of “Accomplishments, Accolades, and Little-Known Facts” and submitting it to the counselor, unsolicited.

 4. Pay attention to what the counselor advises you or your child, even if you eventually do otherwise: (More on this below.) For instance, if the counselor says, “Hamilton is a high reach for Alexander,” ask why. Look at your child’s “numbers” first (grades, test scores) to see how they stack up against medians at top-choice colleges. If the numbers are low, then an applicant will need different ammunition … unique or impressive extracurriculars, an atypical background, an athletic or legacy hook, etc.  At the Ivies and other hyper-competitive places, even outstanding test scores and grades will only get applicants to the front gate. Then admission officials ask themselves, “What’s special?” So you need to ask yourself the same. (“He goes to Deerfield!” is not an answer.)  If the school uses Naviance, check the data to see where your child’s numbers fall on the spectrum of contenders from past classes who were admitted—or denied—by favorite colleges. But keep in mind that Naviance won’t tell you who was a student of color, a stand-out soccer goalie, or Chelsea Clinton.

You and your child should be open to colleges the counselor suggests that you hadn’t previously considered. If a counselor gives a good reason to add a new college to the roster, don’t dismiss it without thought … or further research.

And also be open to a binding Early Decision commitment, if the counselor says that it’s your child’s best (or only) chance.  Granted, the advice can be self-serving.  Private school counselors tend to be big proponents of ED. It makes their own job easier (fewer forms to fill out) and also helps their school to look good by boosting acceptance rates. But experienced counselors usually know their stuff, and most have seen qualified applicants turned away in the spring who would have had a very solid shot in the fall. While kids shouldn’t be strong-armed into ED schools that they’re lukewarm about attending, a lot of prep school seniors can look pretty similar on paper. So if your student is on the fence between two colleges in October, you may want to heed the counselor’s suggestion to pick one in the Early round. (Keep in mind that financial aid applicants who apply ED can bail out of the commitment without penalty if the aid offer is inadequate.)

You will help your son or daughter get the most from a counselor if you do the homework yourself and gain a realistic sense of where your child will be admissible, and—even if you ultimately don’t adhere to the counselor’s advice–at least begin by listening.

5. Be as candid as possible*: If a student will definitely attend a particular school if accepted (especially when there’s no Early Decision option to prove it), make sure the counselor knows it. If you have a legacy or VIP connection at a college, spell it out (although these connections …  especially the latter ones … don’t go as far as many families think they will).  If certain colleges are likely to be unaffordable for your family, be sure to explain this, too. (While the counselors are likely to know who the scholarship students in their purview are, they probably won’t know that a middle-class family has blown their entire nest egg on the Choate tuition.)

6. Double ditto your child: When the counselor understands exactly WHY a student loves a particular college, the easier it becomes for the counselor to sell the student to the school. So the more specific the student can be, the better.

 7. Here’s the asterisk after #5 … the only place where you may not want to be candid: Even parents already paying pricey prep-school tariffs sometimes shell out for independent college consultants, too.  In a perfect world, the parents would tell the school counselor about the private counselor, and everyone would work happily together for the good of the child. But, more commonly, school counselors get their noses out of joint if they learn that a student has an outside advisor.  I knew of one boarding-school counselor years ago who told her students that she wouldn’t assist them at all if she found out that they’d engaged an indie advisor. So if you’re considering getting extra help (beyond the freebies from College Confidential), you might want to keep mum about it unless the Parent Grapevine gives you the All-Clear, assuring you that your child won’t be in the doghouse for bringing in a ringer.

 8. Ask the counselor to be an advocate for your child … or at least ask if you can expect it:  It’s okay to ask a counselor (point blank but politely) how … and how much … he or she will champion your child in admission offices. Typically, a counselor’s support doesn’t extend beyond the letter of recommendation, and these recommendations are rarely tailored to one college … at least not initially … unless, perhaps, it’s an ED school. But if your child does have a strong first choice (whether ED is offered or not), you can ask the counselor if he or she would write a special letter or even make a phone call to stress your child’s interest and suitability.  However, the counselor is most likely to concur only after an Early Decision or Early Action deferral or following a wait-list verdict in the spring.  Note that a few colleges won’t take counselor calls at all but will accept counselor emails and letters. Note also that a counselor is unlikely to go the extra mile to support a candidate who will not definitely enroll.

9. Accept that all counselors are not created equal. Even private school counselors can range from the best in the business to unseasoned rookies, wet-behind-the-ears recent college grads who are juggling their counseling duties with teaching AP Calculus and coaching JV lacrosse. I’ve known of inexperienced private-school counselors who grossly overestimate—or underestimate—an advisee’s admissions odds. And the newbie counselors won’t have the same connections as their more experienced colleagues will. If you find that your child has been assigned to a counselor who seems ill informed, you may have to call upon your best diplomatic skills to ask the head honcho to intervene. This can be a slippery slope because the assigned counselor will probably still be writing your child’s letter of recommendation, so you and your child have to tread a fine line between showing respect to this counselor and seeking a second opinion. And if you have any special connections at your child’s private school (through the head of school, the advancement office, favorite teachers, etc.) you might want to ask them if there’s anything else that the school can be doing to make your child’s college dream come true.

 10. Understand that at prep schools—more than at public schools—the counselors serve many masters. They must address the wants and needs of students, of uber-involved parents (some more influential than others) and of the school administration, including the fundraising folks. Private school counselors may try to divert a student (or parent’s) interest from one college to another in order to balance out the number of candidates applying to the most popular colleges or to help push the big-donor progeny closer to the front of the line. While admission officers will claim that applicants are never competing with their classmates, that’s only true in theory (like if two disadvantaged Hispanic All-American point guards with perfect SAT’s and grades are applying to the same place). In reality, colleges need to spread the wealth among candidates from a range of high schools and aren’t going to fill an entire dormitory with freshmen from Phillips Exeter, no matter how stellar they all are. So if your counselor says, “I see Ashley at Northwestern more than at Brown,” the subtext may be, “the Gottrocks girl wants Brown and I’ve got to lobby harder for her since the gym is named after her grandfather.”

Of course, your school counselor isn’t likely to clue you in on who else is aiming for your child’s target colleges or even to give up how many others are in contention (although your kid may have some scuttlebutt on all of that). And I’m not saying that any student should forego a beloved college just because a high school official is nudging (shoving?) them in a different direction. But when you ask how to get the most out of your counselor, it’s a no-brainer to recognize that following a counselor’s … well … counsel is likely to lead to the most emphatic endorsements.

 Bottom Line: (“The Dean” loves Bottom Lines and probably should have been an accountant … or a CFO 😉 )

Getting the most out of a guidance counselor can be easier at a private school than at a public one because, at private schools, the counselor workloads aren’t nearly as unwieldy as they are at many public high schools, and private school counselors recognize that their school’s reputation rests—at least in part—on parent satisfaction. Also, at private schools, the counselors tend to range from Amazing to Average, while at public schools, that range is more like Amazing to Awful (or even to Non-Existent!)  But, regardless of where a student attends high school, the best way to get a counselor in your corner is to adhere to the same rules of common sense and human decency that should always apply in almost every situation:

Be courteous, meet deadlines, do research and legwork, stay open to others’ opinions and advice, and don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself if you have to.

Good luck with the admissions maze ahead. I hope that your school counselor serves as a caring and effective guide.

(posted 10/27/2016)

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