Five ways counselors can get honest feedback from students

The pressure of the college admissions process doesn’t just cause some students to measure and make every decision based on how they think it will affect their admissions chances. It also leaves many students out of touch or even completely unaware of their honest feelings, desires, and goals. For the counselors trying to not only advise them, but also help kids find happiness and fulfillment wherever they go, it can be difficult to get real, honest answers to college-related questions. Here are five ways to help students let go of the admissions implications and actually reveal what they really think and want.

1. “If you could never list this on your college applications…”
Do you have a student who’s debating between two concurrent classes? Or trying to decide whether or not to attend a summer program? Or asking if they should continue with their community service project, sport, or other activity they might now be second-guessing? Remove the admissions implication of the decision by posing the scenario, “If you could never list this on your college applications, what would you do?” This scenario often strips away the desire to please colleges and helps kids tell you what they actually would want to do if colleges would never be privy to it. Maybe they know which class they want to take but are just afraid they won’t do well? Maybe their parents are a lot more excited about that summer program than the student is? Maybe they’ve fallen out of like with an activity but are worried that leaving it behind will make them look like a quitter to their colleges? The student may or may not be best served by actually doing what they answer in this scenario. But at least you’ll have a better sense of what the student actually wants.

2. “What would you do if a million dollars were at stake?”
I call this the “million dollar scenario,” and it’s a great way to help a student differentiate between an excuse and a real obstacle.

“I can’t get to school on time for a class that early…”

“I’ll be too busy to study for the SAT this summer…”

“I can’t get a good grade in her class because the teacher doesn’t like me…”

A counselor can say, “If you were promised a million dollars if you pulled this off, what would you do differently?”

Now you’ve got the student thinking of solutions rather than excuses. The described actions might not be worth pursuing if it’s clear the student would be sacrificing too much sleep, sanity, or happiness to win the big prize. But as a counselor, once you’ve got the student proposing just exactly how something could get done, you can assess whether the proposed actions are actually in the student’s best interest.

3. “On a scale of 1-10…”
If you want to gauge how serious a student is about an expressed interest or desire, pose a “scale of 1-10” scenario, define the ranges, and then listen carefully to the answer.

“On a scale of 1-10, how important is it for you to play sports in college? 1 means you’d gladly leave your sport behind, 10 is that you would not attend a college where you would not have the opportunity to play your sport.”

“On a scale of 1-10, how hard do you work in your studies? 1 is you don’t work at all, 10 is that you couldn’t possibly work any harder.”

“On a scale of 1-10, how sure are you that you want to major in business? 1 is that you’d go to a college you liked even if it didn’t have a business major, 10 is that you would never go to a college that had everything else you liked except a business major.”

Bonus tip: if you sense that parents and the student aren’t exactly on the same page on a topic, pose the 1-10 scenario to both parties, and let each answer separately.

4. “It’s just you and me talking right now…”
Ever feel like your student is giving canned answers, maybe channeling their parents or what they imagine colleges would want to hear? Pause, assume a relaxed posture, and say, “It’s just you and me talking right now…” The emphasis you’re going for here is not confidentiality (although that’s important, too). You’re reminding the student that this is just a conversation, not a test, an interview, or anything that will later be transcribed to colleges. It helps students worry less about giving what they think is the right answer and concentrate more on finding—and sharing—the honest one. I’ve found this technique particularly useful when helping students brainstorm responses to a college essay prompt. Their most meaningful activity, their interest in the school, the time they failed or made a mistake–remind them, “It’s just you and me talking right now” and you’ll usually see them relax and open up with fewer reservations.

5. “If there were a state law requiring/prohibiting…”
If a student has trouble considering a scenario without letting go of the college admissions implications, take admissions off the table and replace it with a state law.

“If there were a state law prohibiting you from taking the SAT again, what would you do with that time you would have spent preparing?”

“If there were a state law requiring that every word of this essay response be not only true, but also sincere, how would you describe your reasons you want to apply to this college?”

“If there were a state law prohibiting you from participating in more than three activities, which ones would you feel OK leaving behind?”

With all of these tips, a savvy counselor will still need to evaluate and discuss whether or not a student’s honest answer is actually an advisable course of action to take. But one of the challenges of working with teens, particularly those who are pressured by the college admissions crunch, is uncovering the real thoughts and feelings behind the college applicant. When that pressure keeps a lid on students’ responses, use one of these techniques to help them open up.