Being the "Voice of Reason"

Being the “Voice of Reason”

Let’s make a challenging statement: Students are not always right. Oh, and neither are parents. Neither are counselors, of course, but sometimes we might know a little something about the college landscape and admissions process that might be of some use to the families we work with. Now, we are generally very student and family directed advisors. We try to promote adolescent growth and development through an educational planning and college admissions process that is fraught with stress, uncertainty, and complexity. Our goal is for students to take the lead in their decision process, and to guide them as they make choices that will be integral to their own future well-being. Sometimes, as most experienced counselors know, that requires confronting students, and their parents, when they have misconceptions or mistaken assumptions about colleges or the admissions process, and presenting a “voice of reason” in what is often an emotional and confusing situation.

Several emerging and continuing trends have made this counseling role ever more important. We have touched on them before: the profusion and emphasis on early application plans; the proliferation of different tests, test dates, and score reporting and usage options; skyrocketing college costs and multiple financial aid and scholarship pathways; and the rise in the assessment of “demonstrated interest” in the admission decision process, to name a few. As families continue to get bogged down in the minutiae of these and other aspects of college admissions, they often do not have their facts straight about policies and procedures. Though information is increasingly available, from high school counseling offices, college admissions offices, testing organizations, state and federal government websites, and not-for-profit and for-profit organizations, as with many areas of life today, too much information can lead to paralysis, feelings of being overwhelmed, and a search for guidance and a pathway through the maze. Sometimes this even leads to students saying, “Please, just tell me what to do!”

Counseling and advising being as much art as science, we tread the narrow path between telling, suggesting, and questioning. Cards may be put on the table. Prodding is usually necessary. We have noticed increasingly that a lot can be accomplished by making clear the facts at hand. “I know it’s always better to apply early,” says a student. “Really? Early what?” This leads to a discussion of the variety of early plans, what an Early Decision commitment means, the fact that many colleges do not offer ED, while others offer two deadlines, others priority deadlines, others Restrictive Early Action, and so on. Then one can turn to individual circumstances and qualifications, the fit of the colleges and universities in question for the student’s goals and interests, and whether a particular early plan might be advisable. Oh, and the voice of reason says, “Actually, it’s not always better to apply early, and here’s why…” Has a student really evaluated her college options? Visited carefully? Is he just trying to get the process over with? How many transfer students have we seen who applied early for the wrong reasons or without careful analysis? Telling families stories about other students who have been through the process and what happened with them can be a very helpful way to make the conversation more real and memorable.

Testing is another confusing area that needs a lot of explanation and advice. Many students are now prepping for multiple tests, simultaneously, very early in their high school years. Families don’t understand Score Choice, Super Scoring, Test Optional, SAT versus ACT, Subject Tests, AP, IB. Basic factual information about all of these areas needs to be presented early in the high school years and repeated constantly. When parents sign up students for ACT plus SAT prep early in 10th grade because “it’s always better to start early and get it over with”, the voice of reason needs to explain why that just might not be the best approach. When a tutor suggests that a student take the SAT in August before 11th grade and “just focus on the Math, then we’ll have you focus on the verbal stuff”, well, you know what to do.

As we’ve long advocated, starting the counseling process earlier is usually better, when done in an age/grade-appropriate fashion, in order to set out a planning timeline and de-stress the admissions process as much as possible. Is visiting some colleges and interviewing when available important to show interest? Yes, sometimes it is. Here’s when and where you should do it. Is it wise not to apply to colleges with high sticker prices since we can’t afford it? Actually, let’s talk about need-based and non-need-based aid and scholarships, priority deadlines, and preparing to file financial aid forms as early as possible. There are many instances where playing the voice of reason becomes an essential role for the counselor, perhaps none more so than when a student has visited a college and is making a decision to commit ED, or to choose an institution in April after having been admitted. Lousy tour guides, rainy days, weird food, and reactions to seemingly random details like hills, clock towers, mascots, names of schools (really), can have outsized effects on college decisions. The voice of reason brings the conversation back to student goals and interests, academic programs and extracurricular offerings, broader assessments of a college’s culture, personality, and environment, and the things we might have perspective on that can truly help a student make the best decision.

A version of this article appeared in the College Bound Newsletter