The Weakest Link in the College Admission Process

Just how prepared are high school counselors to do their jobs?

The College Board has released a new report that suggests that counselors don’t believe they received adequate training to perform their jobs at the level they would like.

I am mentioning this study because it focuses on an area that I feel passionately about. Many high school counselors are failing their students because they aren’t providing families with the type of information that they desperately need to help them find colleges that are both academic and financial fits.

I believe that the vast majority of high school counselors don’t understand how families can make college more affordable even though this is often the second biggest expense that families face. This dreadful state of affairs is a national scandal.

Here is an excerpt from the College Board study that illustrates that counselors are frustrated at being able to do their job:

Dropping the Ball

Countless parents have told me how disappointed they have been at the lack of meaningful college advice that hey have gotten from their high school counselors. The overwhelming negative feedback that I’ve received coincides with a report funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that noted that 67% of Americans who were surveyed, ages 22 to 30, concluded that their counselors did a fair or poor job of helping them with their college choices.

The survey responses, the report noted, “suggests that the existing high school guidance system is a perilously weak part of the nation’s efforts to increase college attendance and ramp up degree completion.”

Blame the Grad Schools

Why aren’t counselors being properly trained?

Considerable blame can be dumped on the hundreds of graduate schools of education in this country. To work in public schools, most counselors must earn a master’ degree in counseling, but these grad programs rarely offer even a single class in college planning. Instead the coursework focuses on such issues as mental health and careers. Careers but not college planning? Really, I’m not making this up!

Counseling master’s degree programs ignore college issues that high school counselors need to know. I’m not just talking about all the financial topics that families must face with their college-bound teenagers. These hidebound programs also don’t touch upon other issues of critical importance such as evaluating schools academically. If you asked many high school counselors what are the differences between a college and a university, I bet they’d be stumped!

Here’s what surveyed counselors told the College Board:

Answering Critics

Whenever I have written a post on this subject, I have heard from counselors who complain that not all counselors are deficient in this area. I agree. There are some amazing counselors in this country, but unfortunately they have to train themselves. And most counselors aren’t bothering to do this.

Bottom Line:

What parents and teenagers need to know is that many of them will be on their own as they navigate their college options. Families need to empower themselves so that they can make their own informed college decisions.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of the second edition of The College Solution:  A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price.


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  1. Hi Lynn,

    A colleague of mine recently bragged to no end about you (Annette Davis), as she has recently joined our ranks at Valley Christian High School in San Jose. She actually thought it would be better for me to register for your class than the UC classes she took for a counseling certification. I have enjoyed the little reading at your sight and I have signed up to be informed on your next class date. In the interim is there any way I may receive your book? It looks incredibly intriguing and surely missing from our library. As you know the socio-economic climate here in San Jose makes it interesting conversation when you start talking about ways to save money, especially since money seems to be the thing that our parents do not want to skimp on for a good education, especially if it is hitched with a big name school of reputation. I am not a product of a bad master’s program, I am simply working newly in the arena of counseling after years of wearing too many hats at a small Christian High School in Antioch, CA. I am one who can speak to extraordinary debt however, seeing I went to the University of Spoiled Children (USC), but I forgot…I am not fortunate to be spoiled:)I am paying back six figures and feel like a slave because I bought into the rhetoric of a big name school. I would love to be a counselor who helps each and every family regardless if they are so fortunate to slap down 200,000 like it was nothing, because my experience has given me new perspective like never before on the dire cost of education, if one is not careful. Thank you so much for your time and I look forward to hopefully one day meeting you.

    Isaac Lewis
    Valley Christian High School

    1. Hi Isaac,

      I am so glad that Annette Davis was so happy with taking my online course, The College Cost Lab!

      I think my class would be extremely helpful to you because it focuses on a HUGE topic that the UC courses don’t cover or cover fairly superficially. And that is how can parents make college more affordable.

      My next course will be starting up sometime in mid September. Here is the link to learn more and, if you’d like, register: I just opened the registration is now open for the fall course.

      As for my book, keep in mind that I wrote the second edition in 2011 and it is outdated and contains just a tiny fraction of what is in my online course. The cheapest place to obtain a copy of The College Solution is on Amazon.

      I am sorry that you have such a high college debt! If you haven’t looked at the federal Pay As You Earn Plan, I’d highly recommend it! There are also options for refinancing private student debt.

      Good luck and I hope to see you in The College Cost Lab next month!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  2. Is it possible to get a copy of the workbook? I know this post was from a while ago, but I did see that you were offering free copies to high school counselors. I am a new counselor at a high school and could really use the resource. Thanks!

    1. I just found this blog and i am very excited about it. I am hoping to receive much feedback. I know it has been a while since anyone posted but this topic of counselors is what I plan to write about in my doctoral courses. I think counselors need more training and college master’s programs are a contributing factor. Colleges train counselors to be mental health professionals and schools require counselors to be academic counselors. However, many counselors yet feel high schools treat them more like secretaries answering phone calls, planning meetings, lunch duties, and covering classes for teachers. What are your thoughts on this?

  3. Thanks so much for the workbook! I’ve had the chance to read your book since my last post. I learned so much! Thank you for the work that you do! I’ve recommended to all of my parents to consult your books, and I will heavily integrate your advice in my guidance sessions with my students. Thanks again.

    1. HI Quaynteece,

      I am so glad that you found the workbook helpful! And thanks for spreading the word about my blog and book.

      Thanks for reaching out and good luck.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  4. Hi Lynn,

    I am a high school counselor working in a community steeped in the college going culture. I, too, am a product of an inadequate graduate program and have had to educate myself on college admissions, financial aid, etc. I’m quite happy to and capable of doing so. However, I’d like to step my game up and become more adept at college advisement and gain more nuanced information to share with my students and parents. I would love a copy of your book which I assure you will be devoured. Also, I’d really appreciate if you would provide me with specific resources and tools in addition to yours to use to continue to grow in the area of college advising. P.S. Love the blog! It’s my new favorite!

    1. Hi Quaynteece,

      I do give any counselor who wants one a copy of my workbook, Shrinking the Cost of College. I’ll send it to you email address.

      I would also suggest that you read the second edition of my traditional book, The College Solution.

      One thing you might consider doing is join some LinkedIn higher-ed groups. You could also learn more about how colleges tick by reading Inside Higher Ed, which is a free, 5-day a week online newspaper. The Chronicle of Higher is also wonderful but many of their articles require a subscription.

      I love College Completion (just google the term) to look at grad rates. The workbook and book will mention other ones.

      Good luck.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

      1. Dear Lynn,

        I would be grateful to receive a copy of your workbook and plan on ordering The College Solution as soon as I am able.

        I am a counselor at a private school (Pre-K through 12) and serve the junior high and high school student population.

        I am eager to dig in to a new resource.

        Thanks so much,


      2. Hi Lynn! I just saw your blog today. I am very interested in your material. I hope it is not too late. I am currently writing about high school counselors and their training for my doctoral work. I feel colleges train us to be mental health professionals and now we are mandated to ensure all students are college and career ready. At the same time, counselors are still stuck with other administrative duties. Thoughts?


  5. Although difficult to hear, I’m thrilled about this discussion. As we speak, I’m preparing to go into my 10th grade classes tomorrow to complete IGP’s (Individualized Graduation Plans). Ideally, these sessions occur on a one-on-one basis with adequate time to map out a students academic pathway and discuss post-secondary college and career goals. As a school counselor, I face the same dilemma that so many counselors face. I alone have 665 students. This really does present a challenge as far as giving students the time they truly need. Having said that, whether it be a Masters Program or an entire school district, the fact is that systems are flawed. But, it certainly does not excuse our individual responsibility to make it better to the best of our ability.

    Working in a predominately Latino community, I have found it to be extremely critical to make sure students and parents are properly informed about college and financial aid options. In fact, the first slide of my presentation tomorrow offers recent College Board data: Why College Matters? “Latino youth represent the largest minority group in U.S. K–12 schools and are the fastest-growing segment of students, yet they represent only 19.2% of students completing college, far below the national average of 41.1%.” I will ask students their thoughts about this and go into discussing research based reasons why even some college education is critical to their success. We will then of course discuss academic preparation, college options, and financial aid.

    I know as counselors we are super overwhelmed. But when we recognize gaps in our learning, it is important to find the information we need in order to properly inform students. Lynn, I have found your blog to be so helpful. I also take the time to read research and reports and actually test out college search links and attend college fairs. Finally, I make sure to link students to programs on campus such as Education Talent Search and EAOP that are designed to assist students through the application process, especially knowing that I may not be able to do this for all of my students.

  6. As someone in the midst of getting her Master’s in School Counseling (to be able to get a job as a college counselor or school counselor) and working overseas as a college counselor I can definitely see the bigger picture of this problem. I only took one class on career counseling that touched on college counseling, but in general my program is based on school counseling. I think it is important to recognize the difference between school counseling and college counseling. College counseling is a part of a school counseling program. No one person could possibly provide a student with the academic, personal/social and career/college counseling needed in all areas. I have been fortunate to work at small international schools that allow me to work one on one with students just for college counseling (which I have learned and am still learning on my own). In a school counseling department ideally you would have someone specialized in college counseling (and not necessarily with a master’s in school counseling as it is not needed, the UCLA program would be a good start). With the changing environment it is so important to get the best support to our students and that is just not happening sadly. Thanks for the Lynn! I read your blog often as I need all the help I can get.

  7. Dear Lynn,

    Thanks for your comment and offer….I had bought your book a couple of years ago when a friend of mine/consultant from the Jamul area recommeded it to me….and I will gladly take your workbook (please send it to my email address in this message).

    I have attended many professional workshops traninings and even presented at some of these. However, everytime I did it, it came out of my personal funds.

    Although, there are wonderful books out there like yours and others, I am a firm believer that if colleges made this process more streamline like other countries then we wouldn’t be having the issues we are now having. Again, it boils down money and all the businesses around it that it creates.

    I strongly feel that every student in this country should be prepared and identified as college bound. If the kids decide that attending a tech school (for example culinary arts) or joining the military, or simply entering the workforce (which is requirin more advanced skills) then it is their right to choose but we as educators didn’t make the decision for them. Parents neeed to undertstand that high school is the diving board into a bigger, happier, and purpose driven life. That the high school years are only the “transportation” to get to where they are meant to be.

  8. We have great couselors at our large public high school but each student needs make the effort as with anything in life and to go and seek help. No one is going to come to you. College applicants need to go and make an appointment and be ready with questions to ask. Shows they are college material!

    The very best schools in this country have many involved parents. Our school has an organization of nearly 100 mom’s who are available to help in the counseling office, organize college fair and help in many small and large tasks… and it is fun! That way the counselors who are very hard working can help our kids! Parent involvement is essential to creating a top notch school.

  9. I appreciate reading the article and coming the awareness of the deficiencies of the Counseling Industry. However, having worked in many roles inside and outside a school district, I feel the weakest link here is the ever changing nature of the business (college admisison that is) since there is a wealth of information both online and offline and most of the professional development trainings school counselors can attend such as the College Board or NACAC are extremely expensive (over $2,000 when it is all said and done).
    I have never come across a counselor who wanted to misadvise a student or who wasn’t afraid to say the wrong thing when it came to college admission. It is time to reframe the problem and see how universities in this countrt will make the process of admisison more streamline so students and their parents won’t be confused with all the different deadlines, types of schools, etc…but I guess while this confusing continues to generate money and creation of other ancellery business services the jargon will continue and so is the confusion. Reforming graduate programs to include college admission and financial aid classes will be also helpful

    1. Hi Beatriz,

      Thanks for your comments. I want to address a common (and frustrating) misconception that counselors need to attend high-priced conferences to become knowledgeable about college issues. That’s absolutely NOT TRUE. As someone who has gone to a lot of these conferences, I have found them to be valuable mainly for networking, not for learning about how to better afford college.

      I suggest that spending time on my blog and reading my book, The College Solution, will provide you with far more information about paying for college than a college conference would. Total outlay if you use Amazon to buy the book — $16.35! My workbook, Shrinking the Cost of College, would also be extremely helpful.

      I am willing to send an electronic copy of my workbook for free to any high school counselor who promises to read it. I hope I get a lot of requests.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

      1. Hi Lynn, I am a college counselor at a small private school and have been following your blog for quite some time. I am pretty much self-taught, mostly from going through it with my own 4 kids! I think your advice is extremely relevant and helpful, especially with regards to financial issues. I purchased your first book (College Solution 1st ed.) awhile ago and have found it to be extremely helpful. I’m in the process of training an additional college counselor and would love to have an electronic copy of your workbook. I promise to read it!

        The role of high school guidance counselor is crucial and very much needed. ; In my opinion, college counselor should be a separate position, also crucial and very much needed. The college search process has changed so much just since I began seven years is definitely a field where on-going education is necessary. I spend a part of every day (except these days during crunch time) researching what is new–mostly on the internet. Thanks!

      2. Lynn, I would be pleased to read your book. I need help!

        I have been a school counselor for 12 years (6 elem, and 6 hs) and I can barely hold up under the increasing demands of my job. It is nearly impossible to manage the expectations of the teachers, parents, and students, let alone myself. Lynn, I have 360 students (9th-12th) with a half-time principal, no vice principal, and I am expected to be an expert in child development, identify mental illness, case-manage Section 504 of IDEA, manage special ed referrals, suicide risk assessments and prevention, eating disorders, bully prevention, ESOL case-management and paperwork (60% ESOL), Migrant case-management, zero clerical support (and I mean zero), testing coordinator, social service referrals, threat assessments, academic interventions, ALL aspects of scheduling from entering all student course requests and teaching assignments and building the master schedule (because school counselors are supposed to do scheduling, right?), regular meetings with probation officers, coordinating services/tutoring for teen mothers, new student intakes, etc., etc., etc.

        Yesterday a girl came to see me and she told me she thinks she’s anorexic. In the past month I’ve had three students that have been cutting on themselves. I help kids who are kicked out of their homes (by their parents) or who are homeless. 90% of my students qualify for free breakfast and lunch.

        Until last year we had a “College and Career Center” and we had a college/career specialist. Now the career center is a snack bar and we’ve lost the career specialist position. I now have to take on all the duties of the college/career/financial aid specialist. Are you starting to see why I am failing my students in the area of college/career/financial aid? When my students don’t get into college and don’t get scholarships, everyone will look at me and wonder why I’m not doing my job. Is it really my fault? Am I really the weakest link? As I read your blog entries, I am struck by a particular tone that seems very harsh towards school counselors and shows little understanding of the reality of being a school counselor. Is there no blame to share with principals, school boards, and superintendents?

        When I read on your site how these parents think their child’s school counselor is unhelpful, inept, etc. it’s painful to read.

      3. Hi, Lynn –
        I work in a New Jersey public school.
        I promise to read your workbook and share what I learn with the families I work with.


  10. Although I have completed the UCLA College Counseling Certificate Program, have my own college consulting business and have been a HS teacher, I cannot be hired as a HS Counselor in my District because I don’t have a master’s in guidance counseling. The sole goal of the local HS guidance counselors is to get the student graduated. Anything beyond that is up to the student and parents. Counselors here don’t know the basics of the WUE Program or even which schools participate. And THAT’s why independent counselors have lots of business! (Even those of us who don’t deal exclusively with the highly selective schools.)

  11. I remember the first time I spoke to a group of high school counselors about college finance. I had expected that I would be talking to a group that had at least some parity of knowledge about some of the topics I would be presenting. I was shocked to find out most of what I was describing was brand new to them.

    We could argue till we are blue in the face about the reasons for school counselors’ lack of information about college, but the crux of the issue is they lack understanding. This means students and parents need to educate themselves and not rely upon someone else at their school to tell them what to do.

    Does this mean that counselors are not doing their jobs? No, I don’t think so. They are just trying to do the best job they can with the resources and education they have. Unfortunately, their job has been incorrectly defined in many cases. Too many school systems think of college as an afterthought, therefore, the counselors don’t get the training and resources they need to be effective in this field.

    Now I have seen some shining exemptions to this assessment. Many of the high school counselors in the Chicago suburbs are doing great preparing students for college. I have been very impressed working with counselors from the Noble Street Network of charter schools throughout the Chicago area. They have obviously put more time and attention to getting their counselors the training and resources they need.

  12. To back up what Jennifer says … First, I have to say up front that my son’s school has two exceptional college counselors and it’s a Catholic college prep school with a lot fewer students than most public schools. But the smaller size is not why they’re exceptional.

    They hold group sessions on several weekday evenings beginning in early high school years with increasingly detailed information. They give handouts that, even as my son applied to schools this month, were still helpful, in addition to links. They have a wealth of knowledge and they share it and continue building on it so that even if you never meet with them, you’re way ahead in terms of understanding issues, how to find best fits, trends in admissions, tips on what matters/what doesn’t, financial aid (there are entire evenings on that topic alone), and so much more.

    Of course, because the school is relatively small, they also meet with the kids individually. But what they present to large groups of kids and parents, the knowledge they impart, is something any counselor could do and should do.

    1. Denise, I see your comment was made quite a few months ago, so you may not even see this message, but it’s worth a try. I am in my first year working in a position similar to the one you describe–counseling focused solely on preparing students for post-secondary education–and I work at a public high school. It would be tremendously helpful to collaborate with people who are already doing what we’re trying to do–would you feel comfortable sharing the name of your student’s school or being in contact through email?

  13. School counselors primary job is to help students successfully navigate high school. In the public school setting the typical load is over 400 students per person. So in 180 days they are supposed to deal with emotional, social, academic and physical challenges of their case loads. In addition to helping their students with issues of abuse, truancy, hunger, and homelessness. School counselors spend many hours guiding struggling students through high school course selection and graduation requirements. They also face an enormous amount of paperwork and state mandated documentation. These amazing professionals deserve our praise for all they do. As a public school Career Specialist I see the benefits of the work they do on students behalf every day. Until case loads are half what they are today it is not reasonable to expect extensive one-to-one college selection and application assistance.

  14. Lynn, I cannot agree with you more. The counselors at the high school my kids attend do not even help with the college search. Sure, they will send out mass emails to the parents about upcoming college fairs and local scholarship deadlines, but that is all they do. Our particular counselor calls up the seniors to talk about college in mid to late October. Excuse me, some applications are due October 15th. By the time my son was called in, he already had his college list narrowed down to his top 3, a few interviews already completed and all but 2 applications completely finished and submitted. He had visited all the schools he is applying to except for 2. He even received a few acceptance letters when he was finally called into his meeting. The unfortunate situation leaves the parents scrambling to help their kids. I was fortunate enough to know how our school counselors lack in this department so we only ask them to fill out the recommended forms and we handle the rest on our own. It would be so nice to see a college counselor at each high school, similar to what private schools have to offer. I cannot imagine how many missed opportunities these kids are giving up just because the counselor cannot do the job they are hired for.

  15. Sadly, the counselors at my daughters’ high school are outgunned and understaffed. There are three counselors for ~1500 students. Each counselor has a mix of grades.

    1. I agree completely! Devastating budget cuts for public schools here in California have pushed the counselor/student ratio closer to 1000:1. To put that in perspective, the American School Counselor Association suggests an optimal student-counselor ratio of 250:1.

      It also makes me wonder if the lack of college advice might be contributing to the huge student loan debts that students are taking on. With such paltry advice on college admissions (and presumably little financial aid advice), is it any wonder that students are taking on such high debt loads?

  16. I graduated from one of those programs a few years ago and I’m trying to work as an independent educational consultant instead of a school counselor because I think I could be more effective on my own. I didn’t have a single class that even touched on the subject of college. The overwhelming focus was on how to do one-on-one counseling. While that’s a necessary skill it started to feel like I was being trained for a bygone era–especially when I did my internship. Counselors are being asked to do more with less, probably more so than ever. We’re not trained in scheduling classes either, but that’s what more and more end up doing. Counselors are a valuable asset and they’re not used to their fullest.

  17. In their defense, there is way too much to know. If you are looking out of state and/or looking at an unusual area of study, you are off the grid.

    1. Thanks Andy for your comment. I don’t think, however, that this is an excuse. There are lots of college search engines that counselors can use or direct their students to use.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

      1. We found that having more input from multiple sources helped immensely. Admissions officers and their reps at multiple college fairs were generous of their time, and helped on diverse issues. Financial aid speakers at college fairs were an invaluable resource. Private college admissions consultants, parents, and many other contacts all chimed in, too, once asked. The Internet is replete with feedback. A counselor is just one (usually overworked) person who, unless you fully explain your needs, cannot be expected to mind read, and can’t be all things. Reading books by college admissions advisors (both those working at high schools as counselors, and those in college offices) vastly increases your stategic advantage — I highly recommend a trip to the bookstore or library.

        1. Re-reading what I just wrote, I would further comment that, yes, I agree with you that college admissions counselors are not trained as broadly and deeply as they need to be, but also, my overall point is that relying on even the best counselor for everything is not adequate, as we found out. It all worked out for us by widely diversifying our info and advisors. Best luck to all!

      2. We are being directed to use the search engines; I assumed that directing but not actively helping with the search was being judged as “a fair or poor job of helping them with their college choices”. As you are well aware, there is a lot more to it than finding the best engines. Schools have very similar fields of study listed under different names in different departments. Researching and getting feedback on small out of state colleges can be very time consuming. I don’t expect anyone but us to be willing to put in all the necessary effort to find the best match. I only expect the counselor to be one of many advisers. If they are failing to meet expectations, I think it isn’t all due to job performance.

        1. Hi Andy,

          I think one thing that counselors can do is explain the types of institutions that are available for students. I think what would be extremely helpful is for counselors to explain to students what the differences are between colleges and universities. That can help narrow a search significantly.

          What can also narrow a search considerably is to look for schools that will be generous to a particular child. Some schools have very good to excellent financial aid and others have very poor aid packages. Counselors should be telling families how they can differentiate between schools. This is not hard. There are excellent tools that are available on the web that can help families find these more generous schools. If counselors don’t know about these tools, they aren’t doing their job.

          Lynn O’Shaughnessy