As we look for ways to improve the college admission process in the wake of the recent scandals, an important place to start is in our high schools. In my professional career of 26 years, I have served as a high school guidance counselor, a college admission representative, and an independent educational consultant. Having seen the process from all angles, I believe we must do a better job equipping students and their families with the knowledge and perspective to embark on a successful college admission journey.
The school counselor can and should play such a pivotal role in any student’s college search and application activities. But due to oversized caseloads and often inadequate professional training, even the best school counselors are unable to provide the support most kids need in identifying and applying to the colleges that are best suited to their interests and needs.
NACAC and the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommend a 250:1 ratio of students to counselors. Yet our national average is 482:1, and many counselors across the country are saddled with 900+ students to advise. In my experience, a school counselor’s day is filled mostly with triage. There simply isn’t enough time needed to adequately assist juniors and seniors in navigating through the college process, let alone giving important early college advice and valuable perspective to younger students.
I have long felt that all high school students would benefit from some required curriculum around the college search and application process. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we taught 10th graders the basics about the college landscape, different courses of study, and the concept of thinking about college as a “match to be made; not a prize to be won”? (This is my favorite quote, by Frank Sachs, former NACAC president.)
Or, what if we showed every first-semester junior which online resources could help identify some of the 4000+ colleges in the US that might be a good fit for them? Too many students and parents rely on highly publicized college rankings to consider which schools they might attend.
How about if we gave instruction to all second-semester juniors on completing the Common Application or advice on developing an authentic essay topic? I recently worked pro-bono with a student whose brother has a severe mental illness. The parents would leave home for months at a time, leaving the student to care for her brother and the house, prepare meals, etc. Despite her good grades and part-time job, she felt ashamed that she had no honors or school activities to report on her applications. She had no idea that she could share her personal story on her application and that it would be so compelling.
There are so many possibilities for providing basic college information and application strategies for high school students during the school day. If we combined this approach with more support and training for school counselors, students would be more prepared to embrace their college journey with knowledge, confidence, strong ethics, and personal perspective.