My Thoughts on Engaging an Independent College Counselor

Students applying to college today need the support of an independent college counselor, even if they are receiving top-notch counseling at school.  I say this because the college admissions process has evolved into a runaway train that can eat up hours, days, weeks, and months of your child’s life.  With appropriate support, it does not have to.

Applying to college has become far more demanding and complex than it was a generation or two ago.  Back in the day, getting through the process felt like playing a game of checkers:  You identified challenges and then jumped over them.  On the east and west coasts, for example, you took the SAT and in the midwest you took the ACT.  Schools gave clear directives on any additional tests that they wanted you to take, like what we now call the SAT Subject tests (formerly called “SAT 2’s” and, even earlier, “Achievement” tests).  Applicants wrote a couple of essays—maybe one of 250 words and another about half that length.  The process prompted some stress, but what I would call tolerable rather than toxic stress for many.  Today, getting through the college admissions process feels more like a game of chess than checkers.

Modernization and change have certainly brought efficiencies and choices that feel beneficial.  The Common Application (and other broadly accepted templates) make it possible to enter much of your information once and forward it to multiple schools.  Gone are the days that applicants had to type the same details into separate applications over and over again.  In addition, students may now choose between the SAT and ACT (or not testing at all, depending on the schools to which they are applying).  The two tests differ from each other in key ways, making it possible for students to strengthen their testing profiles if they choose wisely.

These efficiencies pale in comparison, however, to the additional accompanying baggage that can weigh kids down.  Students now waste a tremendous amount of time and energy over-testing, given the choices that they have.  The multi-billion dollar test prep industry has kids spending hours a day studying, often with a questionable focus on how to game the test rather than on what we know from cognitive science about how kids learn.  Finally, although the Common Application and templates like it were supposed to streamline the essay-writing process for applicants, they have had the reverse effect.  Schools now routinely require applicants to submit supplementary essays in addition to the essays that they submit with these universal applications.  I randomly checked several college websites in writing this post:  Highly selective schools required students to complete anywhere from four to nine additional short-answer questions and essays, ranging from 35-250 words each.

Pile on top of all of this the family dynamics around your child going away to college.  Young people are leaving home, often for the first time, and must decide how far they want to go and the kind of environment in which they want to live.  Parents have to figure out where they fit into this whole process.  We are asking teenagers to pull off an incredible feat in applying to college, in addition to the requirements of their day-to-day lives and the continuing challenges of developing on the path to adulthood.

Other practical reasons underscore the value of an independent counselor.  The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommends a student to counselor ratio of 250 to 1; however, the national student to counselor ratio more closely approaches 500 to 1.  Even the low end of that range places an obstacle in the path of students seeking individual attention.  School-based counselors may also have variable strengths.  They may do well referring students to in-state institutions, for example; however, in the absence of a travel budget that allows them to visit different parts of the country, they may not know as much about those out of state.  In public schools especially, students may find that their counselors have good intentions but that they face significant structural barriers that complicate their ability to do their job.

Students who attend independent schools often receive high-caliber, individualized attention from their school counselors.  When I was researching my book, The Thinking Parent’s Guide to College Admissions, I called a former colleague at Yale and asked him for the names of some of the top directors of college counseling in the country.  He gave me several right off the bat, all at independent schools.  These folks knew both their students and the colleges and were able to do some extraordinary matchmaking.  At the same time, the college process in many independent schools starts in junior year.  In some ways, that start date works.  Kids do not need to think about the college list or the college essay before then; however, waiting until junior year to think about standardized testing or course selection, for example, could raise stress levels at the end of junior year higher than they need to be.  A private counselor could fend off some of that stress with some advance planning on standardized testing, before the school-based college process formally starts.

Families often have valid reasons for seeking private college counseling support.  Finding the right person, though, can present a challenge.  What used to be a cottage industry has grown (unfortunately) into a “booming business” with steep price tags and sometimes unethical operators.  In a follow-up post, I will suggest how to identify a qualified and ethical private college counselor and how you can access this support at reasonable cost (including potentially for free).