Why would a parent hire a private counselor to help their teenager through the college admissions process? Many are puzzled by this question. I once wondered the same thing. After all, every high school worth its salt has a college counselor on staff—sometimes several of them. Can’t these professionals help their students ace the process without outside assistance? In theory, yes. In reality, it’s not that simple.
A high school counselor—whether at a private or public school—must represent the interests of the entire school, not those of an individual student. That means getting the largest possible number of graduating seniors into college. The school’s success or failure is judged in the aggregate, not by one, two or even a handful of seniors.
Playing the numbers game
In part, it’s a numbers game—a matter of probabilities. To succeed, a high school counselor needs to prod each student toward the schools where he or she is most likely to be admitted. And that depends in part on where their classmates are applying.
Colleges try to build a freshman class with regional diversity. Even at the best private schools, there’s a limit to how many qualified applicants can be accepted at each college. That means the counselor must distribute their student applicants over a large number of colleges. It won’t do to encourage 25 seniors to apply to Yale, as qualified as every one of those students might be. That would set up too many teenagers and their parents for disappointment. And that’s bad for a school’s reputation. Better to manage expectations by lowering them at the beginning.
That’s why high school counselors often discourage students from applying to the colleges they’ve always wanted to attend. Every “match” school may become a “reach.” Every “reach” may be dubbed “improbable.” These counselors aren’t being mean—they’re trying to be realistic. But here’s a question worth asking: if you can’t reach for the stars when you’re seventeen, when can you?
Developing a college admissions strategy
Aside from the numbers game, there’s the issue of strategy. With so many qualified students competing for a limited number of spaces at the top 50 colleges, a successful candidate needs more than a strong academic record; he or she needs to develop an individual and coherent application strategy. That’s something that takes plenty of thought and planning.
Most high school counselors just don’t have the time to think deeply about each student’s special qualities and talents. So they’re not in a position to help each applicant devise a personal admissions strategy. A private counselor, on the other hand, can take the time to think all these issues through and offer advice carefully tailored to the particular student.
Writing the personal essay
Then there’s the question of the personal essay. The college essay is one of the most important tools an applicant has for presenting himself or herself in a compelling and coherent way. When done correctly, the essay works as an integrated part of the student’s broader college admissions strategy. It telegraphs who the person is, what makes him or her special, and why the college should want to have this student on their campus.
A well thought-out, well written essay can sometimes tip a candidate into the “yes” pile, while a poorly conceived, badly-written essay can move them from “maybe” to “no.”
Unfortunately, few high school students know how write a strong personal essay because most high schools don’t teach that skill. That’s partly because many English teachers never mastered the art themselves.
The personal essay is a special form of writing that is qualitatively different from the academic or argumentative essays generally taught in school. If you look, you will find examples in newspapers and magazines—the product of experienced writers and editors who’ve spent years developing the form. To learn how to write an effective personal essay, it makes sense for a student to get help from a professional.
High school counselor vs. the private counselor
None of this means high school counselors don’t play an important role in the college admission process. They can be powerful figures and may help an applicant in many ways. The best of them form strong relationships with a group of good colleges. A counselor may be willing to pick up the phone and speak on a student’s behalf. That’s why it’s wise for high school students to get to know their counselors and stay on good terms with them.
At the same time, it’s naïve to rely solely on the school counselor for help and advice. For the best chance of success, a student also needs an outside advisor whose loyalties are not divided—somebody who will take the time to get to know that person, help analyze his or her strengths and show how to present themselves persuasively. Most importantly, a private college counselor can help develop an overall strategy for the admissions process and create an application package that stands out from the crowd.