Los Angeles—Walk into a room full of high-school counselors, and you’re bound to hear some memorable stories.
Over the last two days here at the annual conference of the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools, I’ve heard tales of parents threatening to sue schools after their child didn’t get into a selective college. I heard another about a student who publicly blamed her counselor after being denied by her dream school. And I heard one counselor say this: “I spend more of my time counseling parents.”
Despite such occupational hazards, people here say they like working with most of the teenagers they counsel. In fact, they’ve spent the better part of two days discussing students’ well-being. Of particular concern was what some described as an “error-averse culture,” in which some students perceive that they must get into the “right” college, or else.
During one session, Andrea Brownstein, director of college counseling at Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School, in St. Louis, posed an interesting question: How can counselors encourage students to think more independently about colleges while still inside the “cocoon” of a small, supportive school?
“They are in a consumer paradigm,” Ms Brownstein said. “They think that they are consuming something called a college education. … We’ve all lied to them for years. We’ve told them that if they get an A and get a certificate, everything will be OK. But we all know that asking questions is the most important thing.”
Christine Pluta, director of college counseling at Lycée Français de New York, described how her staff has tried to promote more dialogue among students. Recently, she decided to start splitting juniors into small groups for a series of informal discussions about applying to college. “They’ve heard enough from us, so this is a time for them to hear from each other,” she said.
To that end, Ms. Pluta has asked students to “teach” their peers. A student who’s just had an admissions interview, for instance, might discuss his experience and describe what lessons he took from it.
Ms. Pluta also invites recent graduates of the school to come and talk about their experiences applying to college. She makes a point of inviting students who had struggled in some way with the process. The message in all this: Everything’s going to be OK.
“We’re constantly reminding them that the process is messy, and that you can’t control all the variables,” Ms. Pluta said.
Kassy Fritz, director of college counseling at St. Andrew’s School, in Delaware, described how her office has long asked rising seniors to submit a list of colleges to which they plan to apply. Recently, she started requiring them to include written reasons why they’re interested in each institution.
“This at least gets them engaged in the conversation so that their decisions are not being made for them,” Ms. Fritz said. “If we empower our students with a sense of their own voice, when it comes time to make those difficult decisions, they’ll have a better sense of why, and not just where.”
Some students believe that not getting into a particular college is the worst thing that could happen. Counselors, Ms. Brownstein said, must “encourage them to learn that the worst thing can happen to them, and they’ll live.”
• Important note: In a post yesterday, I incorrectly attributed the quote “amygdala moment” to JoAnn Deak. In fact, this memorable catch phrase was coined by Christine Pluta, who, in addition to being a thoughtful observer of admissions issues, is a clever wordsmith.