Get to know your counselor

A 2010 study by the Gates Foundation suggests a majority of high school students believe their guidance counselors don’t give them sufficient advice about colleges or careers. Half of those surveyed rated their counselors “poor or fair” at helping students with the college application process. Nearly half said their counselors made them feel “like I was just another face in the crowd.” 

I think the study says more about students than it does about counselors.

I often hear students and parents say they don’t feel well supported by their high school counselors. Yet whenever I ask one of those families if they’ve ever actually requested an appointment with their assigned counselor, most of them haven’t.

Do these families wait at home expecting their doctor or dentist to show up and give them a check up? I hope not. Why should you expect your counselor to track you down and force you to talk about your college future?

A day in the life
First, let’s face some facts. In 2010, only 26 percent of public schools reported employing at least one counselor (full or part time) whose exclusive responsibility was to provide college counseling. 

Public school counselors surveyed were able to spend only 23 percent of their time on postsecondary counseling in 2010, and even their private school counterparts only spent about half their time on college counseling.  

The Gates Foundation study also pointed out that the student-counselor ratio nationally is 460 to 1 (in California, there are nearly 1,000 students for every high school counselor). If you feel ignored by your counselor, it might have more to do with how many students are at your school and how many responsibilities your counselor has than it does with a lack of interest in helping you.

So what should you do? 

Get to know your counselor
Take initiative. Schedule meetings with your counselor, and don’t wait until your senior year to do it. Starting early will help you establish a relationship with your counselor so she can get to know you and give you even better advice.

If you have just two 10-minute meetings each semester and do that from the day you enter high school, you’ll have more than two hours of one-on-one time with your counselor by the time you apply to college as a senior.

There’s no need to schedule a formal meeting more than once or twice a semester. But you can also make contact with your counselor outside of those meetings. If you’re really enjoying a class or teacher she recommended, stop by and thank her. Email her about the colleges you’ve visited and tell her which ones you liked. Say hi to her in the hallways and at the homecoming dance where she’s a chaperone.

Even if you attend a high school with a huge student population, counselors will always remember and appreciate a nice kid who goes out of his or her way to talk to them.

Another advantage of building this relationship: just imagine how much more she could say about you when you ask her to write a letter of recommendation to college.

Are there some bad high school counselors? I’m sure there are (just like there are some bad doctors, lawyers and accountants). But the vast majority of counselors I’ve met are good people who want to help kids succeed. Give your counselor the opportunity to do that for you and you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised.

Five questions to ask
When you first visit your high school counselor, here are five questions to get your college planning started.

1. Am I taking the right courses to be competitive for college?

2. What are some appropriate colleges for me to look at?

3. Are any college reps visiting our campus this semester?

4. Does the counseling office do any college planning presentations or have any guidance materials that I should take advantage of?

5. Are there any special instructions you like students to follow when requesting transcripts, school reports or anything else from your office?

(Reprinted from If the U Fits: Expert Advice on Finding the Right College and Getting Accepted)