As private college counselors, we are well-versed in the criticisms of school-based counseling.  Unavailable, inexperienced, misinformed—these are the words that some within our industry often use to describe the professionals who work hardest to establish safe and supportive learning environments for our children.  Research consistently shows that school counselors improve the academic achievement, health and psychological and emotional well-being of students—not to mention their college prospects (we recently published an article on this subject); yet many continue to argue that our counselors are becoming obsolete.

We’d like to assert that this argument is not only unproductive, it’s untrue.  While growing caseloads and increasingly manifold job roles have limited the extent to which many counselors can focus on college planning, most school counselors can still prove as powerful advocates during the college application process.  In the spirit of full disclosure, here are a few things that your school counselor can do (and that your private counselor cannot do) to help you get into college:

Provide a letter of recommendation.  Most colleges still require a letter of recommendation from a school official. At most high schools, this letter is written by a school counselor and is submitted as part of the secondary school report. Counselor-written letters that provide a personal, thorough and comprehensive account of the student can have tremendous influence on an admissions decision.

Engage a college admissions office.  At most high schools, counselors serve as the point of contact when admissions offices have questions or concerns about a student’s application.   In the case of a “borderline application,” counselors may also provide an additional key piece of information or point of persuasion that moves a student into the “admitted” pile.

Offer school-specific information and strategies.   How many applicants from your high school have been admitted into the college(s) of your choice? Which teachers write compelling letters of recommendation?  What courses are sufficiently rigorous and/or draw high praise? It is likely that a school counselor can answer these and other similar questions.  In doing so, they direct students to the information, personnel and activities that improve their college credentials and help them make the most out of their high school experience.

Evidently, school counselors can still do a lot for college-bound students; however, reaping the college-related benefits of school-based counseling requires that students be proactive. Today’s typical school counselor, though competent and hard-working, faces time constraints that preclude him from forging a deep and productive relationship  with every student on his caseload.  Therefore, you must take initiative, in particular, by:

Starting early and visiting often.  Introduce yourself to your school counselor as soon as possible, preferably before junior year, and make it a point to provide regular updates about your life inside and outside the classroom.

Staying organized. This is especially important during your senior, as you and your counselor strive to negotiate the deluge of demands associated with the college application process. Staying organized requires that you complete application-related tasks on time and provide your counselor with all of the information she needs to submit a secondary school report, letter(s) of recommendation, and any other school-specific materials—well before the admission deadlines at your prospective colleges.

Respecting boundaries.  Do not make same-day requests and do not demand or expect that your counselor answer emails or phone calls outside of school hours.  Being attuned and sympathetic to the many job demands placed upon your school counselor can go a long way in building rapport, as well as mutual commitment to your college-related goals.

In sum, it is true that expanding job responsibilities have taken school counselors away from certain college planning activities, but these dedicated professionals can still have a positive and significant impact.  Students and parents are wise to consider the multitude of benefits that school counselors may bring to the college admissions process. Private counselors are wise to do the same, while acknowledging that cooperation—not criticism—is the only way to provide our students with the college-related guidance they need and deserve.

Andrew Belasco
A licensed counselor and published researcher, Andrew's experience in the field of college admissions and transition spans more than one decade. He has previously served as a high school counselor, consultant and author for Kaplan Test Prep, and advisor to U.S. Congress, reporting on issues related to college admissions and financial aid.