At La Plata High School in Maryland, a college and career adviser shoulders some of the responsibilities that would otherwise fall on school counselor Janel Young and her towering caseload of 383 students. Young has found, however, that students sometimes feel more comfortable coming to her for help with the stress of the college admissions process.
“I suppose it’s because I’ve gotten to know them over their four years in high school,” explains Young. “For the majority of students, the college admissions process is the most stressful, soul-searching, life-changing process they’ve had to experience. It makes sense that they want to go to someone who knows them.”
More so than other helping professionals, high school counselors face a trio of responsibilities when serving their students: academic success, college and career readiness, and personal and social issues. During the past decade, many high schools have sought to relieve this pressure by designating additional staff to captain admissions tasks, but counselors such as Young are finding that the ties between college planning and personal well-being are not so easily severed.
Earlier this year, the National Association for College Admission Counseling reported that the average high school senior will apply to nine schools this fall. That statistic reveals the competing pressures of student, high school and parental expectations as well as the reality of indecision concerning what makes a “good fit” for a student. It also illuminates the veritable mountain of admissions paperwork waiting for school counselors, who earnestly want the best outcome for each student.
And in the current economy, affordability has become perhaps the most anxiety-inducing pressure for students and parents preparing for college. “My high-achieving students now, versus those in just my last graduating class, are far more cognizant of the pressure to find affordable colleges and scholarships,” says Young. “I have sophomores currently, but even as freshmen last year, these students were initiating conversations with me about how to set themselves up to earn scholarships as seniors in 2015.”
At Harrison High School in Kennesaw, Ga., school counselor Susan Strickland has found that parental involvement regarding scholarships and admissions sometimes can go too far. “There’s a lot of social pressure to get into certain schools, and parents feel that if they don’t do it, it won’t get done. Parents need to allow their kids to work with the school, and if that kid is sharp and has a shot, then the kind of student a college is looking for can handle that pressure.”
School counselors also find that the unfulfilled dreams of parents can be an inhibiting factor in the admissions process. “You have to work closely with parents so that they’re listening to their child and they’re realistic about options,” explains former school counselor Sylinda Gilchrist-Banks, president of the American School Counselor Association, a division of the American Counseling Association, and a faculty member at Norfolk State University. “Parents have dreams that they have to let go. I stress to the parent, support your child, but if you want your child to go to Virginia Tech because you went there, you need to make sure your child is comfortable wherever they choose to go to college.”
Eager parents are certainly not the only culpable adults in the process. Staff members at The Common Application Inc., a nonprofit that manages the Common Application used by almost 500 colleges and universities in the United States, have been encouraging high school counselors not to contact institutions about students’ applications, but to let the students take more responsibility and initiative.
“We don’t have a culture of allowing students to fail, as a whole. We don’t teach kids the value of failing at something,” says Strickland. “On the one hand, we want great students who get into the schools of their dreams, but we also want to make sure that we don’t take that from them and do it for them. It’s a fine balance between providing information and doing too much for them.”
In addition to promoting individual responsibility among adolescents, helping students maintain the balance between achieving academic goals and investing in activities that promote good mental health is perhaps the biggest challenge for school counselors.
“The students that seem to balance it the best are those who are organized, know how to manage their time and have some kind of outlet for that pressure build-up through sports or extracurriculars,” says Young. “They also have some type of established support network to lean on in those inevitable moments where the balance shifts and their mental health takes a wallop. Not everyone has a supportive family environment, but good friends, a school staff member or two, or a great coach can fill that void just as well sometimes.”
Certainly a high school counselor can be another valuable member of that support network for students. Because after all the cheerleading through the admissions process is over, they can remind these students that life does not hinge on the thickness of an envelope come spring.
Kathleen Smith is a doctoral student in counseling at George Washington University and a regular contributor to CT Online. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.