For private counselors: our hidden camera concept

One of the criticisms of many private counselors is that they help too much, that they write essays and polish applications and take over the process from the person who needs to own it–the student. 

It's important for all of us in the private counseling community to set a good example for kids and for others in the profession.  Most of the private counselors I've met are good people who just want to help kids.  But sometimes it's not clear where your professional obligations cross with your ethical obligations.  When that happens and you're not sure what the right thing to do is, we have a concept here at Collegewise that helps us; we just imagine that there's a hidden camera in the room and that an
admissions officer from the student's favorite college is watching us.

Of course, it's important to use good common sense.  We don't need a formal policy to tell us that it's not OK to write an essay for a student or to encourage a kid to lie.

But whenever we're in a situation where we need reassurance that we're doing the right thing, the hidden camera concept is our way of asking,

"Would an admissions officer applaud what we're doing?  Would she thank us for taking good care of that kid, for keeping the process honest and even making the college's job a little easier?  Or would she see a violation and think, 'This is what I don't like about private counselors.'?"

Here's an example.

A student tells us she wants to write her essay about volunteering on a blood drive.  After discussing it with her, it's clear to us that she's picking that story not because it was important to her, but because she thinks it will impress the admissions office (bad idea, by the way).  It's our job to advise that kid without taking over the process. So we imagine the hidden camera, and say…

"Absolutely–you can write about that.  You've also got lots of other things you could write about, too, things that you seem a lot more excited about when you talk about them.  It's up to you, but those could be good stories, too.  What do you think?"

I think the admissions officer would applaud that.  She'd probably think, "Thank you for protecting me from yet another cliched, 'How a community service project taught me the importance of helping others'" essay.

But if the kid comes back and says, "No, I want to write about the blood drive because community service is really important to me," we're at a crossroads.  We're being paid to give good advice, and we know this essay isn't the best choice.  So we have two options.

One option is to respond, "If community service were really that important to you, you would have volunteered for more than just one blood drive.  You need to pick a different story if you want your essay to help you get into selective colleges."

But any admissions officer watching us on the hidden camera would throw a red flag.  In this case, we're not letting that student make her own decisions.  We're injecting perspective that the student doesn't have on her own.  The hidden camera tells us that stopping a student from writing what she wants to write is a violation, even if the advice is good.

The hidden camera tells us what to do.  In that situation, we'd respond,

"OK–then that's what you should do.  Maybe you can tell me more about that experience and what made it so important to you?"

Now we get a thumbs up from the viewer.  Chances are, that student will realize on her own that she really doesn't have that much to say about the topic.  But if she forges ahead anyway, we can keep giving her good advice–we'll tell her to include lots of details, to write in her own voice, and not to worry too much about trying to impress the reader–and will do it without actually taking over the process. 

If you're just starting out in private counseling, you should read the NACAC Statement of Principles and Good Practice.  It's the industry guideline for counselor and admissions officers. 

But when you're in one of those situations where it's not necessarily clear what the right thing is to do, the hidden camera never lets you down.