Monday morning Q & A: Counseling a large caseload

Jean asks:

“I work in a large public school. My greatest challenge is helping such a large volume of students and parents. Any suggestions on how I can get parents to have a more realistic expectation of their children’s chances for admission at highly selective colleges and universities? I have seen a huge jump in students applying to many highly selective schools in hopes of gaining admission to one. Help!”

Thanks for your question, Jean. And thanks for all your efforts to help so many kids. Public high school counselors are the heroes of this process, doing so much for so many kids that often goes unnoticed.

You’ve actually brought up two separate (but in your case connected) issues: how to service a large caseload, and how to help families make more realistic and manageable choices when composing their college lists. I’m not the best one to give advice around managing a public school counselor’s caseload as I’ve never faced that challenge. But I’ve had the good fortune of observing and learning from some of the very best of your public counseling compatriots, and I can cite a few things they all do to help manage such large caseloads.

First, they set clear and realistic expectations with families about the kind of assistance and attention they will be able to provide. Their tone is positive, emphasizing their commitment to helping kids get to where they want to go. But they are simultaneously clear about the limits of their help, and also those areas where the student must take responsibility and be accountable.

Second, they make a reasonable effort to share the vital information that’s appropriate for broad distribution. Deadlines for in-state public colleges, FAFSA reminders, announcements for available workshops or meetings with the counseling office—these reminders apply to a large percentage of their population. There’s so much more that could be shared that might apply to smaller segments, but these counselors know cramming as much information as possible into their messaging, and doing so repeatedly, can cause families to tune out of incoming communication. For more advice on this, here’s a past post about how to get families to read what you email.

And finally, the counselors who best manage large caseloads spend most of their time with those students who need and deserve their counselor’s help the most. Only you can define who those kids are in your particular student community. But they’re typically kids who’ve made earnest efforts to drive their own process, or who lack the resources at home to do so, or who the counselor has determined will benefit most from the assist. We have a structural problem in public schools when counselors have caseloads of 200 or 400 or 600+ kids. Even a superhuman can’t possibly give every one of those students all the help they need. So when forced to choose, the best public school counselors give the help to the nice kids who’ve done their part before they do so for the students who had every advantage, but then still showed up at the last minute and demanded the counselor drop everything to focus on them.

None of these steps make your caseload any smaller. But it’s helped some of the best and busiest public school counselors help those kids who need and deserve help the most. And I hope it helps you in some small way.

Now, the question of helping families adjust their expectations around their student’s admissions chances at highly selective schools—that’s the proverbial million dollar question for many counselors. But I’d start by identifying what’s driving that behavior.

For example, is it genuinely a lack of information or understanding that’s driving those choices? If the majority of those parents attended a workshop, or read a newsletter, or even met with you personally with the expressed purpose of explaining exactly how selective those schools are, do you think it would change their behavior? If so, then you’re dealing with a knowledge gap that you can fill.

But my experience has been that this type of parent community isn’t swayed by information to the contrary. They’ve made up their minds. They want their student to attend a highly selective college, and they just can’t allow for a college list that only takes a shot at a small number of those schools. If that’s the case, you’ve got a very different issue, one involving parental worldviews that are difficult, if not impossible, to shift. In that case, I’d try two things.

If your families are taking the lottery approach to admissions and applying to as many schools as possible in the hopes of getting picked, again, I’d set clear expectations. Many of those families don’t realize that applications are also work for the counselor to cull and send the necessary supporting documentation. Be clear about how many of those requests you can and cannot field, and the deadlines by which those requests must be made. It’s a counselor’s job to provide appropriate help and advice. But it’s not a counselor’s job to process 25 applications for one student who is not realistically admissible to any of the schools she’s applying to. Doctors, lawyers, contractors, personal trainers—all working professionals have limits as to how much they’re willing to do for those they serve. Counselors deserve to set those limits, too.

The other potentially powerful step you might take is to point out the methods used by those students at your school who were admitted to those schools. Our experience has been that it’s the focused students, not the lottery players, who get accepted to their highly selective dream colleges. If that’s been the case with your population, say so, as directly and clearly as you feel comfortable.

Imagine saying to a family, “We had kids admitted to all of these prestigious colleges that you’re interested in, but none of them took this [lottery] approach that you’re proposing. Are you sure you want to do this?” Some families spend so much unproductive and strategically unsound time trying to dissect and then mimic the apparent strategies successful applicants used. But in this case, doing so might drive some better behaviors.

I wish that more students and parents could see all the work that high school counselors do on their kids’ behalf. Thank you for your question, Jean. And more importantly, thank you for the work you do that matters so much to your students.

I’ll answer another question next week. You can submit yours for consideration here.