For counselors: The inalienable rights of students, parents, and counselors

All good counselors occasionally find ourselves disagreeing with students and parents.  And it can be frustrating when you have to argue to get a family to consider advice that you believe really is in the best interest of the student.

But one of our Collegewise counseling credos is that it’s not our job to fight with students and parents.  And we work with that credo by acknowledging that everyone involved, the student, parent and you–the counselor–all have certain inalienable rights.

Students and parents have the right to approach the college admissions process any way they please, even if it flies in the face of your advice.  That means…

  • Parents have the right to believe that personal connections will get their son into the six Ivy League schools to which they insist he apply.
  • Students have the right to write their college essay about whatever they choose, even if they ignore your advice and choose an inappropriate topic.
  • Parents have the right to require their student be a pre-med.
  • Students have the right to apply to colleges for the wrong reasons, like where their boyfriend or girlfriend is applying.
  • Parents have the right to dismiss what might be great colleges for their kids on the basis of what they think is a lack of prestige.
  • Students have the right to delay the completion of all of their applications until hearing back from an early decision school.
  • Parents have the right to choose all of the student’s activities, to select the colleges, and to get way too involved in the college essays, even if their efforts actually hurt the student’s chances of admission.
  • Kids have the right to apply only to schools that are reaches and to refuse to consider colleges that would be safety schools.
  • Families have the right to believe that’s OK to ignore the language on the application and place deposits at multiple schools, thereby violating the signed terms of the application and jeopardizing the student’s accepted status at all of her schools.  Sure, they don’t have the legal right to do it.  It’s dishonest, it’s risky and it’s not something any professional counselor would endorse.  But the family has the right to make their own choice.

But we–the counselors–have the right to respectfully and professionally disagree with all of those courses of action.  The fact that we disagree with each other doesn’t make either of us bad people.  It just means that we disagree.  And sometimes it means that maybe we shouldn’t be working together.

It’s not a counselor’s job to argue with a student or parent.  But it’s also not your job to capitulate and agree to a course of action that you believe is detrimental for the student.  So when you feel the debate coming on:

1. Explain, calmly and professionally, why you disagree. 

A family is under no obligation to follow your advice without explanation.  So explain it to them.  Do so without judgment.  Express your concerns while highlighting that your only agenda is to see this process go well for the student (It’s hard for someone to be mad at you when you’re honestly looking out for them or their kid).

2.  Never debate for debate’s sake. 

After you’ve explained your concern, there is no debating.  They can certainly ask for more information or for your assistance to help them understand it better, but debating for the sake of debate won’t get you anywhere. Remind the family that it’s their choice and ask them what they’d like to do next.  (By the way, backing off and reminding them that it’s their decision is often the fastest way help them become more open to your advice).

3.  Decide what your next steps should be together.

If the family elects to ignore your advice, how will that decision impact your work together?  Can you move on after agreeing to disagree?  Or do you simply have fundamentally different approaches to the process that can’t be resolved.  If a student wants to write his essay on a cliche topic, we can still do a lot of good work with that kid.  But if the parents want to write the essays for him (or if they want us to do it), that’s not something we’re ever going to endorse and we’ll probably need to part friends.