I’ve never met a college counselor—high school or independent like those at Collegewise—who wouldn’t go the extra mile for an earnest student who deserved the help. But the pressures of application deadlines, the tendencies of teenagers, and the workload on many counselors can leave these heroes and heroines of guidance frustrated with some of the kids they serve. How can you not be when a student hands you a pile of work—like writing letters of rec or reviewing essays—at the last minute, over a weekend, during a holiday, or all of the above?
Patrick O’Connor is a thought leader in the counseling profession and someone whose writing I share frequently here. If you’re a counselor who’s been feeling the strain of high expectations and last-minute requests, his new post, Reading Essays on Thanksgiving? Let’s Talk Turkey, is well worth your read.
I particularly enjoyed this snippet, which is his response to a common frustration a counselor might express (the bold emphasis is mine):
“She e-mailed me Sunday morning with a new application that was due that day. What was she thinking?”
She was thinking you would respond, and you did. When a deadline falls on a weekend or over a holiday, my e-mail is on auto-reply, telling students I’ll be available when school reopens. I’ve given them advanced deadlines, communicated them to students and parents (and yes, teachers) regularly, and now I’m sticking to them. If an e-mail suggests I forgot to do something that’s due, I check, fix it, and respond. Otherwise, the student is suggesting they’re having a college counseling emergency, and those don’t exist. I’ll point that out to them when school starts.
But I’m going to push harder on this point for some counselors, including our own at Collegewise. Like O’Connor, I don’t claim to understand every counselor’s unique circumstances or the populations that each of you serve, so this extra push may be more applicable to some than to others.
When you respond to emails late at night, over the weekend, and in response to last-minute requests like this, in spite of your best intentions, you are often actually feeding the anxiety, not helping it.
As O’Connor points out, there are no legitimate college counseling emergencies. Many families don’t understand this because they have a lot less experience with the process than you do. An email response after hours might seem to quell their immediate anxiety. But the unintended message can often be, “It’s a good thing you emailed me—we needed to address this right away!” It’s natural for them to view future questions through the lens of, “Maybe this is another crucial question we need answered now?”
These kind of extra-mile efforts can often make your job harder with the very families you’re going above and beyond for. They don’t understand the boundaries (or maybe you haven’t communicated them?). When you respond to emails on Saturday night or over a holiday weekend, you’re telling them that this is something you’re willing to do and that they can expect similar behavior in the future. You didn’t mean to tell them that, but for many families, that’s the message they’ll hear. And worse, if you later decide not to respond to similar requests off-hours, they’ll panic even more.
My intention here is not to criticize counselors who do whatever it takes to help kids get where they want to go. That kind of dedication is what makes you great at your job. And none of us would be in this gig if we didn’t believe that students—even those who can frustrate us the most—deserve the help even when it goes beyond the normal workday. That willingness is something all great counselors share.
But like the parent who gets too involved in the process because she loves her kid so much, the best intentions don’t always produce the best outcomes. To keep us happy, engaged, and able to do our jobs well, it’s good to occasionally ask ourselves, “Am I hurting by helping?”