Applying to colleges: Seeking counsel when there are too few counselors

Many schools have too few counselors, which leaves some kids on their own in applying to colleges. (AP Images.)

Many high schools have too few counselors, which leaves some kids on their own in applying to colleges. (AP Images.)

One of my favorite quotes in the new book “College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step” comes from Stanford University School of Education senior lecturer Denise Clark Pope on the issue of over-scheduled teens:

“Imagine if Steve Jobs had no time to tinker in his garage because he had to go piano lessons and SAT prep class and art class and was on the travel baseball team that had practice five times a week and away games on weekends.”

Similar common-sense advice fills the pages of “College Admission,” co-written by former Stanford admissions dean Robin Mamlet and journalist Christine VanDeVelde with contributions from 50 admissions deans.

Like most guides, the book assures students that they will get through the admissions arms race and find a campus that suits them.

Of course, the reassurances are belied by the number of thick books on the market now to advise high school students how to get into college. I even found myself getting a little antsy when I read the timelines in this latest guide: The ninth grade to-do list includes discussing college finances with your parents, getting to know your high school counselor and starting a file of your achievements and honors.

I am pretty sure that my older children, as high school freshmen, did none of that prep in anticipation of the college application process. But I also know that their high schools had strong college-going cultures, and it was an assumption among them and their peers that they would apply and attend college.

That is not the case with all kids, and it’s often the students with the least family history of college enrollment who have the least help in getting there, VanDeVelde said.

“Interestingly, the majority of applicants to four-year colleges will soon come from students who are the first in their families to attend college,” she said. “Those students are the neediest in terms of information.”

The research concurs. A 2010 Public Agenda study found that although a student–counselor ratio of 250 high school students to 1 counselor is ideal, the national average is 460 to 1.

The study also found that students from families with less education were more likely to rate their college guidance as “fair” or “poor.”

“Students who are poorly counseled are less likely to go directly from high school into a college program — a step that research shows is highly correlated with dropping out of college,” concluded Public Agenda.

In a new survey of 5,300 middle and high school counselors by the College Board’s Advocacy & Policy Center, only 19 percent of counselors in high-poverty schools reported that college and career readiness was a focus of their schools’ daily mission.

With all the media reports on affluent students resorting to private college counselors and professional packagers to finesse their admission into select schools, it would seem that a poor kid armed only with a pencil and ambition would be at a disadvantage.

But VanDeVelde said she came away from researching her book convinced that admissions deans want authenticity and can tell when parents or advisers have authored the applications.

“They have many ways of seeing a disconnect, seeing another hand in an application,” she said. “Most of them can perform the parlor trick of reading an essay and predicting what the SAT verbal score may be. When they see a disconnect, they have to wonder what else may not be genuine in the application.”

She urges students to bring their own voice to their applications and to not discount their life experiences.

“Colleges are just as interested in the student who spent the summer working at McDonald’s to earn money for school as the student who studied in South Africa,” she said.

If family finances don’t allow college visits before applying, VanDeVelde urges student to at least visit the schools to which they are accepted. (Some campuses will help cover those costs.)

My college planning extended to a 30-minute meeting early in my senior year with my high school guidance counselor in which she tossed out a few college names and I dutifully applied.  I never interviewed at a college, visited a class or spent a night in a dorm, although I did take a tour or two.

And I worked as a tour guide myself in college. My memory is that parents asked more questions than students. And their questions were more about college classes, while students asked more about college life.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

32 comments Add your comment


November 28th, 2011
4:27 am

You are right that there does not seem to be enough counselors at most high schools. In fairness, my observation is that it has been that way for quite a while, before the recent trend in streamlining school staffs.

A staffing model that appears to help students is counselor looping, i.e. a counselor being assigned to each class rather than simply for each grade level. This allows counselors to get to know students over the course of the four years they are in school. I always wondered how counselors assigned to a grade level would have enough time to get to know the 200-400 students in the senior class to properly advise them.

I do agree that given some of the ‘life’ challenges many students are facing now, counselors seem to have less time for helping with college and career readiness. Students with active and involved parents are probably able to maximize counselor services in this are moreso than students that don’t have as attentive home resources.


November 28th, 2011
5:52 am

It is not that there are not enough counselors, it is that the counselors that our school has are sorry. My son and daughter both went to their counselor to ask for help with scholarships and they were both told, 4 years apart – same counselor, that they could find information online or in the file cabinet, but, they had to look for themselves. Way to help the students.


November 28th, 2011
5:54 am

I agree completely. I usually end up playing counselor to many of my students as do the other teachers in the school. We have three counselors for our school, but with the entire school’s focus on the bottom 25% of students that is required by NCLB, our counselors are always in triage mode. When the choice is try to keep one child from dropping out or help another child decide what to do after graduation, the choice is always the former at the expense of the latter. I teach many advanced 10th and 11th grade students who have never spoken to their counselor. My lowest level students who are taking the graduation test for the third or fourth time meet with the counselors weekly. It is sad, but this is what is happening at many schools that haven’t made AYP in years. It is all about the bottom because that is how we are measured.

The General

November 28th, 2011
5:58 am

I came here to say exactly what MA above me just said, and add that the counselors at my wife’s school are just as poor in the day-to-day things that teachers and students rely on them to do, not just help for college-bound seniors.


November 28th, 2011
6:50 am

I don’t really think it is the high school counselors’ job to help kids with the college search/application process! That is for their parents to do. The counselors have far too much to do with triage and helping high school kids get through high school and LIFE to worry about “what is next.” Does that mean kids without college-going parents are at a disadvantage? Most definitely yes. This is where we need mentors, family members, neighbors, and church folk to step in and help guide the student. Let’s face it–any student who aims for college has plenty of resources available in books and on line to show initiative and responsibility and do it themselves (or maybe they are not college material after all.) You won’t be able to take your parents or counselor to college with you to hold your hand.

I can truly say I never visited my high school counselor, nor did my kids, for any kind of information on high school or college.


November 28th, 2011
7:14 am

No worries…the DOE has an answer for this problem. It’s called TAA (Teachers as Advisors) and most college/career counseling will be handed over to teachers to cover during advisement. Also the legislature decided to come up with the Bridge Bill. I suggest you research all the requirements in the bill and investigate how different systems are meeting the mandates. Our system chose to meet the Bridge bill mandates by completing GACollege411 assessments and inventories.

So in addition to teaching and preparing for EOCTs, AP exams, etc., I’m now have a “career-guidance” hat to wear. To say my plate is full is an understatement.

Mom of 2012 Senior

November 28th, 2011
7:15 am

Ditto what catlady said. The state put together an awesome website,, that all students are required to register for. It contains way more information than any human being would ever be able to hold in their head and has lots of tools for students to figure out what they’re interested in and what they need to do to get there. You can fill out all your applications and apply for grants and loans on the site. The schools give informational meetings to go over the process of registering and how to use the site. If parents care to show up and their children care to listen, they would have all the information they need and then some.

Another Voice

November 28th, 2011
7:25 am

And perhaps what should be discussed first: what, exactly, are the job responsiblities of the counselor? From what I’ve seen, working as a volunteer in two highschools … the role is more about keeping kids in school, dealing with realities of life, such as how to get to school when you are homeless.

Most importanly, let’s recognize that not all college-going counseling has to be individual sessions.

If a school has 3 or 4 people in the “counseling office” – which seems about the level in a 1200-1500 student schooll, then at least one should be assigned to deal with college-going matters – even if just to hold weekly group sessions on how to interview, what you need to fill out FAFSA forms, sources for information, etc. Sessions for parents are very helpful, if the school remembers to hold multiple sessions at various hours/days to accomodate working families.


November 28th, 2011
7:28 am

College has become a major rip off to the public. the fail to educate, they fail to prepare students for the future, but they collect tuition, arrnge clases that make the students stretch it out five or six years, professorsc are looking for research and not class rooms, tuition and fees continue to rise well ahead of any other price indicatiors and you get less. counslers, why not get a trade and forget donating to the cushy lifestyle of the elite University system. At least that way one can earn a living and take care of themselves. The University systam has become another Ponsi Scheme by the elite!!

Dunwoody Mom

November 28th, 2011
7:29 am

I’m with catlady. While my children’s counselor has been great, I never for once believed it was her job to guide my children on their college journey. That’s the job of my husband and myself. GACollege 411 is a great site. There are also other great sites that provide scholarship information. College websites now contain just about everything you need to know about that college – many of them have virtual tours and places to submit questions. Parents shouldn’t be responsible for guiding their children in their college, or non-college choices? I don’t get it….


November 28th, 2011
7:36 am

@Ma – Your right most are sorry and there is No accountability for their work (elementary,middle and high). I have seen Community in Schools Grad Coaches do a better job!


November 28th, 2011
7:39 am

Americans now carry more college debt than they do credit card debt. “Every one needs to go to college” is a scam pulled on us by bugger eating leftists like Downey. A good auto mechanic can make more than Social Science graduate. An over the road trucker can make more than a Women’s Study graduate. An oil field worker can make more than a journalist. Americans have become the world’s most educated idiots. We have a whole generation of Master’s degreed kids living in their parent’s basement and collecting food stamps. The neighbor spent $55K sending his kid to college for 5 years. After graduating, the kid has not had a full time job in over three years and has pretty much given up looking. This scenario is becoming more and more common. He would have been better off skipping college, taking the $55K and starting his own business with it.

Maureen Downey

November 28th, 2011
7:50 am

@Buzz: I think it is important to look at the overall picture and not what is happening just to the kid next door.
This is from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, which is a leading research group on workforce trends:
Thirty-seven percent of all jobs in 2018 will be for workers who have either a high school diploma or incomplete high school education with some on the-job training. This number is down
from 72 percent in 1973, 44 percent in 1992, and 41 percent in 2007.
• Of the thirty-seven percent of jobs for workers with high school or less by 2018, only one-third of these will pay
the lower limit of the MET defined as $35,000 per year or better, on average.
• These better paying opportunities for workers with a high school diploma or less are in male-dominated fields.
More than 80 percent of the workforce in Manufacturing; Architecture and Construction; and Transportation,
Distribution, and Logistics is male.
•The overall share of employment opportunities requiring a high school diploma or less gets smaller for all
career clusters by 2018, except for Architecture and Construction, where there is a slight increase. This reflects
an increase in construction jobs as building projects put on hold during the recession come back online.

Georgia Matters

November 28th, 2011
8:02 am

Its funny, I dont remember having a counselor when I was in high school. I was taught to do for myself, to prepare for myself and stand on my own two legs. Its a shame that kids in todays society need to go to a counselor to make plans for college or to look up information. Its a you do it for me society. Thats why there are tons of occupy people protesting about the real world. You have to do things yourself now. That used to be what they taught you in school, to be ready and capable, not only in subjects but also in life. What a pitty.


November 28th, 2011
8:14 am

Another parent of a high school senior (class of 2012) here. I’m mostly with catlady and the parents agreeing with her, above.

My child’s high school has held two good evening information sessions for parents, so far. I’m quite sure the school does not have the resources “to hold multiple sessions at various hours/days to accomodate working families” as Another Voice suggested. (Come on! How much do you want to be paying in school taxes?”) However, the school has put the presentation materials from both sessions online, in PDF format, for families who were not able to attend in person. I think that’s reasonable service.

The school’s counseling department met with all seniors, in their language arts classes, early in the school year and distributed a lot of informative material on college application, plus a detailed college planning questionnaire. My child filled in the questionnaire, turned it in, and booked a session with the counselor to go over the information, as directed. Not only did they have a useful discussion, but the counselor actually had my kid called in for a follow-up session, to go over more details for writing a good recommendation.

Up until this year I had a pretty low opinion of that counselor (the school uses the “looping” model mentioned above) and the counseling department generally. I’ve revised my opinion upward. Clearly, when it comes to college admissions, they seem to be putting a good effort into doing a proper job.

Road Scholar

November 28th, 2011
8:58 am

My nephew was told in High School by his counselor that he would never have the ability to be an architect…his career by choice. He now is a principal in his architectural firm in Tennesse. Councelors are helpful, but not as much as parents that care, their teachers, and their mentors!

William Casey

November 28th, 2011
9:47 am

During my twenty years (’87-’06) as a teacher and administrator in North Fulton schools, counselors and teachers did a good job in advising students about the college admissions process. However, the heavy lifting had to be done by the students and their parents, as it should be. School people can help point students in the right direction, but, only the family can possibly know all the information required to make an informed decision. The best advice I ever gave my students was to simply go somewhere and explore. It’s a relatively rare high school student (maybe 25%) who knows exactly what career path he/she wants to follow. As ROAD SCHOLAR pointed out, no counselor can know the drive and persistence lurking in the heart of a high school kid. The only real help that can be provided is to inform the student what the specific requirements are for a chosen field of endeavor and what the odds are of gaining employment in that field. IMHO, the time to start getting serious about college admission is after the 10th grade year. Until then, the focus should be on improving performance in high school. The role of school counselors and teachers should be to encourage exploration of potential.


November 28th, 2011
10:06 am

I agree with the opinions above that the college process should be directed by the parents and the student, with helpful input as available from the counsellors and perhaps some organizational help in terms of issuing overall deadlines for college recommendations from teachers (a nightmare if you have to track every one of them down multiple times, as I did) and assistance if needed getting transcripts (which, thanks to APS disorganization, were late and wrong).

However, this is of little assistance in reality, most particularly to kids who do not have parents conversant with the process. And MidGA Teacher is right – counsellors focus on the bottom 25% as well as the kids who need social services, and the rest of the kids are expected to fend for themselves.

At Grady, a group of parents organized and set up a college counselling service, along with computer help in getting the kids to complete applications. The volunteer parents have contacted colleges to come and have information sessions with the students and follow up with the kids in reviewing essays and making realistic choices from financial and GPA perspectives. It’s been very popular and successful.

Teacher Reader

November 28th, 2011
10:06 am

Looks like a great business for someone to begin, helping kids select courses and apply to college. The counselors that I had as a child and have worked with as a teacher are not usually helpful when they are needed for the day to day things, and since in places like DeKalb, counselors are paid more than teachers, it’s a way out of the classroom and a larger pay check.


November 28th, 2011
12:08 pm

My high school counselor advised me to take Home Ec and stop taking so many science courses. Girls CAN’T be scientists! The world would end!!! Of course, I ignored him.

My kid’s counselor is much more in tune with what my son’s talents and interests are than mine was. He has really helped my son figure out what to look for in a college and what he needs to do to get into those schools.

But only because, as parents, we are considered (by our son) to be not very savvy about the whole college thing. Even though we are saying the same things as the counselor… And helped his sister get into a wonderful private liberal arts college that she just loves and would have never considered without our input… And so it goes…

the prof

November 28th, 2011
2:34 pm

Wow Cosby, weren’t quite capable of finishing the degree?

Good Mother

November 28th, 2011
2:57 pm

When I was in school we had one guidance counselor. I never knew what he did. I thought “guidance counselor” was a nice way of not calling a man a “secretary.” I thought “guidance counselor” was just a euphamism.

I met my guidance counselor only once. After the school received my ACT scores, he saw me in the hallway and congratulated me for earning a scholarship. That was it — my one and only “conversation” with him was a single sentence.

As a result of non-counseling, I was poorly equipped to go to college. I’d never seen a course catalong and didn’t know what it was for. My first semester was very difficult. It wasn’t the course material so much as all the other things I should have been prepared for.

I was unhappy but I got really lucky. I was going to drop out and just happened to stop by a friend’s mom’s office one day and told her how I felt. She immediately called her alma mater, showed me where to go to talk to her alma mater about transferring and that was all it took. I graduated from her alma mater.

I just needed someone to explain things to me like English 101 is the first English course you take in your Freshman year and so on. It was foreign to me. If I had some real guidance and a better orientation I would have had a much easier time. I had no parental support with this and if my friend’s mom just hadn’t been sitting in her office that day with her door open, I might not have finished college.


November 28th, 2011
3:42 pm

How do you propose that schools pay for additional counselors? Let some teachers go and raise class sizes?


November 28th, 2011
4:10 pm

@ Good Mother. The things you’re whining about are due to poor counseling by the college you chose, not your high school counselor.


November 28th, 2011
4:20 pm

@ FYI – That’s exactly what I was going to say.


November 28th, 2011
4:22 pm

There are plenty of resources on the internet to help with the college application process. Students and parents who are motivated about college have all the resources they need.


November 28th, 2011
7:16 pm

@ Good Mother.

You just want to give up, don’t you Good Mother?

Always an excuse, never an idea. Never a solution.

Just whine, whine, whine.


November 30th, 2011
10:09 am

My parents insisted that my high school guidance counselor be shifted in 9th grade to one familiar with 4 year colleges; she and I fought all of the fall semester senior year — she insisted that I apply to Emory — I insisted I was going north and skiing my way through college — look — 29 years later — I’m still in Atlanta…. counselors can be very effective. My son’s public school high school counselor was a friend and wonderful but had too much on her plate. We hired a private one (yes, they’re expensive but worth the money if you can afford it — there are 5000 or more schools out there — she really helped to narrow the field for us and was an incredible resource). Private schools handle college counseling very differently than public schools — private college counselor fill some of the gaps (not all of them — as they can not contact the schools or serve as references –they are just guides).


November 30th, 2011
10:12 am

Enough if on the internet. Allow these students the opportunity to do the admissions process themselves. This generation is internet ready however they are too lazy to read stuff. They use too many excuses about not getting the help they need….figure it out yourself, remember this is the first adult decision you will make.

Ole Guy

November 30th, 2011
3:28 pm

So, MA, what you’re saying is that your kids are incapable of self-help; of coming to the counselor with SPECIFIC questions borne of INDEPENDANT RESEARCH. What you’re saying is that your college wannabee kids want to be spoonfed the answers. Way to go, MA…your comments only solidify this attitude which they’ll probably carry with them through life.


November 30th, 2011
9:24 pm

The process is actually fairly overwhelming and unless you have a very “on-top-of-it” kid, they really do need help. There are alot of schools out there. The programs they offer are not entirely clear — for instance, my eldest is in an engineering program we didn’t know existed at my husband’s alma mater. There are “fit” issues that you can’t really determine with “on line” research that a “good” college counselor can give you input on (read David Marcus’ “Acceptance” for what one really looks like or “Gatekeepers” for another example). My eldest had 2 friends at one local public school who had their top choices –one was UGA, the other was Middle Tennesee –both from the same high school (both at the same Gwinnett school) — neither made it into their top choice — both had one — yes, one, fall back, Kennessaw– they are both at Kennesaw. A good college counelor — in my opinion (which wasn’t requested at the time although one is one of his best friends and he was dating the other) — would have had them have a list of at least 4 (if not 5 or 6) other schools that had a similar “feel” to their top choice schools — perhaps Syracus for Middle Tn and maybe U.South Carolina and FSU for UGA that would have beeing more “within reach” — financially, many schools (e.g. U Maryland) have money available if you know how to tap into — (e.g. the one might have been interested in Jewish studies and been able to get money or U.SC gives Ga. kids in state tuitiion) — see, the college counselors know how to “play the game” in a way that 17 and 18 year olds can’t figure out by themselve or with only a lit bit of guidance. Another friend’s sons (a DCSS kid) wound up at GA state because he missed all of his deadlines. Don’t shortsell the power of a good college counselor. We had the one we hire “check” him on engineering — I wasn’t convinced it was a good choice for him and she interest tested him on the Myers Briggs and 2 other interst based tests to confirm that engineering wasn’t a completely terrible idea. He is acually happy with his engineering curriculum but not so much with his engineering classmates as he doesn’t have an engineer’s personality (my hesistation from the get go).


November 30th, 2011
9:26 pm

I’m not done — sorry — my son, now a sophomore — knows at least a dozen kids who are no longer in engineering programs at his school and at other schools (GA Tech, GA Southern, etc.) and he knows another 10-20 kids who are no longer at the school they started at… a number of them failed out and a number have transfered from not being placed properly from the get go — so there is a lot to be said for “fit” in the first place. A good college counselor can help to get the “fit” right in the first instance.