Will Dix has worked in nearly every facet of the college admission process. He is currently a consultant to community organizations helping underserved youth apply to college. He also blogs about college admission issues at collegeculture.net and Forbes.com. Here, he discusses the role parents and counselors should play in the college application process. 

Early in my English teaching career, one of my seniors brought me his college application essay to review. I was flattered. I took up my red pen and did what I thought was a thoroughly professional job of editing and improving it. Proud of myself, I returned it expecting him to thank me effusively.

Instead, he seemed puzzled, even diffident. I was confused. Had I done something wrong? I’d cleared up his spelling and grammar, carefully reconstructed his narrative to be more coherent, and smoothed out some of his odd phrasing. What more could he want? After an awkward pause, he said, “Thanks, Mr. Dix, but I think I’ll submit it pretty much as I wrote it. It’ll sound more like me.”

That moment remains one of the most significant lessons I’ve learned about working with students in the classroom or on college applications. I was so anxious to show my own writing and editing prowess that I forgot to respect my senior’s voice. I didn’t consider what he had to say, the way he wanted to say it, or the way he was able to say it. I constructed my own essay instead of helping him with his. He rightly took it back, made some of the spelling and grammar changes and managed to do just fine without my heavy-handed interference.

I still admire his insistence on being his own man when it came to presenting himself to colleges. He refused to let anyone polish him up. It was up to them to evaluate him as he was, not as he was created by others, which begs the question, “How much should teachers, counselors, and parents let students ‘be themselves’ on college applications?” My short answer is, as much as possible.

We want to help our kids achieve their goals, but we also want them to be authentic. It doesn’t really pay, ultimately, to be accepted to an institution by having students present Potemkin village versions of themselves. And that’s what colleges say they want as well. There’s great pressure to do otherwise, but consider the following premises:

  1. The college application process teaches lessons about truthfulness, responsibility, authenticity, and other foundational aspects of being a fully mature person. As much as possible, then, students should do most of the research and application work themselves. That includes everything from communicating with colleges to writing their essays.
  2. Adults’ behavior signals a great deal to students. Being overbearing, frantic, intimidating (of high school counselors or admission officers) or rule-bending can invite students to indulge in future poor behavior. Demonstrating patience and integrity in the process is critical.
  3. Dictating decisions and demanding compliance kick the supports out from under an applicant’s sense of self. Initiating a discussion is much more important. If a student is considering going to trade school instead of a parent’s alma mater, talk it over to hear the reasoning.
  4. The young person in front of you is developing into a fully autonomous individual. You are witnessing a remarkable moment in your lives. It won’t be long before you’ll be dropping him or her off at the freshman residence hall, so it pays to take a moment to appreciate that fact.

Teachers and school counselors should pay close attention to the authentic college entrance materials their students are producing and respect them. And while parents have a critical role to play in helping their children explore colleges and find the best match for them, there are a few signs that they may be overdoing it or worrying too much about how the process is going:

  1. They obsess about everything that comes across their kid’s desk or desktop from colleges, testing agencies, scholarship organizations, and on and on.
  2. The ask about college every day in every way.
  3. They gather information on everything “college” themselves.
  4. They expect a fully-formed plan for college and career from a high school junior or senior.
  5. They worry peers already have everything taken care of and their child is the only one unprepared and behind the eight ball. (I guarantee that will not be the case.)
  6. They strategize obsessively about how to “get into college” instead of encouraging their children to do their best and be straightforward.
  7. They focus on getting their offspring into particular institutions instead of acknowledging the uncertainty of the process or appreciating the wide variety of worthwhile institutions that might be a better fit for their child.
  8.  Conversations with peers revolve entirely around children’s college plans.
  9. They dread the possibility of rejection from the “right” college, meaning, “We’ll have to explain where it is and why she’s going there.”
  10. They find themselves telling the school’s college counselor how to do his/her job.
  11. They insist that applications should be “packaged” or talk about developing kids’ “personal brands.”

Counselors aren’t immune to obsessing on their students’ college choices either. High schools, especially competitive ones, often use the admission results of each year’s class to advertise and grade themselves: The more students attending “elite” schools, the better we must be. As a result, counselors are under a lot of pressure to ensure advisees apply to and get accepted to those schools.

That pressure can also affect ambitious schools serving non-privileged students. One charter school I worked with insisted its students should apply to “elite” schools even though the average ACT score for the current senior class was a 17/36. (Privately, I was told that the school’s founders needed to show their funders “success.”)

In general, the same principles that apply to parents apply to college counselors. For better or worse, however, college counselors are beholden to their schools and parents even more than to students. If a student ignores pleas to discuss college or meet deadlines, who’s responsible? It should not be the counselor’s job to do for students what they aren’t willing to do for themselves, but that duty may be imposed on counselors anyway.

This situation may influence some counselors to go well beyond what’s reasonable, from a counseling viewpoint. My own experience tells me that college counselors should be involved but transparent: They should be experts on colleges, admission and financial aid policies, and advising, not dictating; they should offer good feedback about students’ ideas and goals; and they should put those goals front and center during the process.

Counselors should also encourage exploration and challenge assumptions while ensuring that their advisees take responsibility for results. Students who say they want to be pre-med even though they have poor grades in math and chemistry, for example, should be helped to work through their motivations and the realities of the field. Parents and other adults who know the students best should also be engaged in this conversation.

Unfortunately, pressure to “get kids in” can radically deform the process, putting college counselors in the extremely uncomfortable position of having to go against their own better judgment and the ethics of the college admission world. In the short run, this pressure may help certain students be admitted to college, but in the long run, it damages everyone involved. If you notice any of these elements when working with counselors, priorities other than simply helping students get into appropriate schools may be influencing the process:

  1. They don’t leave their offices, even for lunch, in case a student just happens to drop by.
  2. They take calls and answer emails at all hours, even on weekends.
  3. They adopt a messianic view of themselves as critical to every student’s success in the college process.
  4. They take on work that students should be doing themselves.
  5. They encourage students to over-reach with their applications even when the odds of admission are slim to none.
  6. They encourage quantity of applications over well-defined student/college matches.
  7. They spend hours walking individual students through each step of the process even if it’s been explained to the class, depriving other students of their counseling time.
  8. They encourage students to “package” themselves instead of presenting themselves authentically and devote excessive time to spinning negatives that might be important.
  9. They conceal or minimize aspects that may affect students’ admission, such as disciplinary records. (Unfortunately, threats of lawsuits often affect this situation.)
  10. They insist on seeing everything in students’ applications.

Most of my colleagues on the high school side would agree that, absent pressure from parents and administrators, they would work hard not to fall into any of these behaviors. Not doing these things would be better for counselors and students. Unfortunately, the currents of the modern college admission process keep pushing us away from our ideals. But we can still hold on to them as we help our students into the next remarkable phase of their lives. We should never forget that everything we do teaches our students something.

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