High School Guidance Counselors: More Power than You Know

“How did X student get in?” It’s a question I am constantly asked by parents who want to understand what made X student unique or interesting enough to earn an offer from a selective university. And before I get a chance to answer, they often rattle off a litany of things they think might be “the thing” that put the student over the top.

I often hear “she was 1st chair in the orchestra” (no one cares unless you plan to major in music) and “he was captain of the basketball team” (no one cares unless you are a recruited athlete) and “that student got the President’s Volunteer Service Award for 500 hours of community service for Habitat for Humanity” (no one cares unless you plan to build houses, or dedicate your like to volunteerism).
But no one ever says “the high school counselor must have called the admissions office and advocated on behalf of that particular student,” (but maybe they should).

Sam Bigelow (Director of College Counseling at an Independent Boarding School 20 miles outside of Boston) stated as much in his article entitled “What have You Done for Me Lately? Advocacy in the College Process”. He states “…some colleges allow for counselor calls where each applicant is discussed.” In my experience, it is more than some, it is many. The National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC) boasts a network of “23,000 college counseling and admissions professionals.” And every year thousands of them descend upon a major US city to engage in information sharing, and to build and strengthen relationships between high school counselors and college admissions officials (2021 is in Seattle).

In fact, Bigelow notes “…advocacy can take various forms: a quick email to an admissions representative … a phone call … (or) an in-person conversation with an admissions friend at a conference…”. If I had to bet, Sam will be in Seattle on September 23, 2021.

In theory, counselor calls provide high school counselors an opportunity to add meaningful context or updates. An example of a meaningful update might be alerting a university that after submitting the application, Sally earned a spot as a “Regeneron Semifinalist.” But in reality, many public high school counselors don’t have time to call colleges and note each applicant’s post submission achievements. And for the high school counselors who do have time, how do they choose for whom they will advocate?

Imagine for a moment that 30 students from the same high school apply to the same college (very typical). Remember, the colleges already have all the grades, test scores, recommendation letters, essays, interviews, etc. Amongst the 30 possible students, how does the counselor decide? And, how does the counselor decide the content of the conversation? No one knows, except the counselor.

I’ll leave you with this question, imagine you are the admissions officer. What would you find more compelling: 500 hours of community service that is in no way related to the student’s academic future, or a call from a high school counseling friend you just visited in Seattle?

Referenced Article Link: What Have You Done for Me Lately – Advocacy in the College Process