What’s Wrong With High School Counselors?

I wrote this post a year ago, but I wanted to share it again because I think it’s important that families understand the limitations of many high school counselors when it comes to sharing advice about critical college issues. Parents and teenagers need to know this because if they rely exclusively on their counselor’s advice, they could make poor college choices.
I know I will receive angry emails from high school counselors over this post just like I did in the past, but that’s okay because it’s critical that families understand what their counselors can and can’t provide!

What’s Wrong With High School Counselors

Is your teenager’s high school counselor an expert on college?
Probably not.
In fact, the odds are high that your counselor’s knowledge about college admission strategies, standardized testing and scholarships is limited.  Ironically during this period of skyrocketing college costs, financial aid is often the subject that high school counselors know the least about.
Many high school counselors are unfortunately overwhelmed with work, but it’s not just the crazy schedules that explain why the college IQ of many counselors is stunted.

Why Counselors Don’t Know Enough

As I discovered in talking to experts about this issue, here’s the chief reason:
Before counselors can begin working in a public high school, they must earn a master’s degree in counseling. Graduate school programs, however, rarely offer even one class in college planning. Consequently,  the majority of counselors arrive at high schools ignorant about critical college issues even though for many families a bachelor’s degree represents the second biggest expense they will ever face. In my opinion, this is truly scandalous.
This lack of training on the graduate level is “pretty scary,” suggests Bob Bardwell, a public high school counselor in Massachusetts and a vice president at the American School Counselor Association. A few years ago, Bardwell was a member of a NACAC task force, which experienced limited success in encouraging graduate schools to add even a single college planning class to their curriculum. While there are hundreds of these graduate programs across the country, Bardwell estimates that only two dozen or so offer a college counseling class.

Mental Health Preparation

College admission issues are simply not on the radar of graduate schools, which are more focused on mental health issues. A lot of people in the program are mental health professionals, who are territorial about what they will include in their curriculum, Bardwell says.
Without formal training, new counselors rely on colleagues at their schools to show them the ropes.  Carl “Sandy” Behrend, a former NACAC president and an educational consultant in Buffalo, NY, told me that it usually takes four or five years of these informal apprenticeships before counselors feel comfortable.
While this lack of training is common knowledge in the higher-ed world, I know that parents would be shocked to learn that most high school counselors are not college authorities. Many parents believe that high school counselors would be able to answer all their questions if they could only get some precious face time with them.

Why the Knowledge Gap is Unacceptable

This college knowledge gap in high schools is unacceptable, says Steven Antonoff, an independent college counselor in Colorado and the author of College Match:  A Blueprint for Choosing the Best School for You.
“The stakes are higher and there hasn’t been an increase by and large in public schools and even in private school funding for college counseling,” Antonoff told me. “It’s a very difficult situation that has created a gap between the needs of a student looking at schools today and the level of expertise available to them.”
As a general rule, experts suggest that counselors are better prepared at private high schools because they are often able to spend a majority of their time focused on getting their students into college. Public school counselors, who can devote their time exclusively to college admissions, are a rare luxury. Many private schools use their college counseling services as a lure for attracting students, but there is definitely no guarantee that these counselors are experts either. I have run into plenty who aren’t.

What Do You Think?

I’d love to hear your take on this controversial issue. Please share your thoughts in the comment box below.

Read More on the College Solution:

Why High School Counselors Are Failing
Are School Counselors the Weakest Link?

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  1. There is so much misinformation and conjecture in this smear piece that it’s a bit hard to take seriously. I also find many of the comments entirely lacking of the training and responsibilities required of modern school counselors. Maybe you should talk to some high school counselors before you smear them.

  2. I am disappointed at my daugher’s high school counselor for college preparation. The school has only 60 students graduating this year and she was not knowledgeable about admissions on some prestigious colleges. My child missed the opportunity to apply for a scholarship because she never told her about it. I am assuming she didn’t know. She has been accepted but the deadline passed for the award.

  3. It’s been very disappointing learning how inadequate the counseling services are at my daughter’s high school. Students are not aware of the resources available to them because the information is not communicated to them. I try to share as much as I can with other parents and students at to help fill the information gap but it still makes me sad.

    1. totally agree. I have the same problem, my child met her counselor many times and counselor and nothing helpful, finally this counselor told my child: You have to figure it out, I can not help with your college list! unacceptable. now I can complain but she will be the one who is going to do the letter of recommendation so.

  4. Pingback: What are College Career Services Good for Anyway?

  5. I graduated from high school in 1971, the school guidance counselor dealt mainly with helping students with college selections. I spent hours with our counselor going over colleges that I would most be suited for. He helped write letters to colleges, helped find places that were giving ACT tests, helped pick courses to prepare us for what we wanted to major in, helped find our interests. Now students are on their own. Counselors are playing physiologist with out a license, spending the day as a waste of or tax dollars doing nothing. According to students, they have no clue as to what their counselor does. They don’t work with students anymore, my counselor worked one on one with any students that came to him. Seems like counselors now days are getting a free paycheck

    1. I’m sorry Mark. My five years of mental health work and my Masters Degree in Counseling, which also enables me to work as a therapist in a clinical setting, certainly allows me to counsel struggling students. However, I know my ethical boundaries and limitations and appropriately refer students to long-term solutions when the scope/severity of student issues warrant it. This allows me to get back to supporting all students who n being successful with college/career, academic, and social/emotional skills.

  6. My daughter is only a high school freshman, so her situation is a little different. My daughter is currently struggling in algebra. She went to her guidance counselor to talk and this is the advice she was given. Dont have such lofty goals. Some kids get it and some dont. Be realistic I dont see Harvard in your future. So my daughter started to cry. Then she was told see the pressures getting to you. My daughters tears were from a ridiculous defeatist attitude and feeling like..why bother youll never achieve much anyway. I am terribly disappointed in her school counselor and not sure where or if I should go anywhere with this.

  7. “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:
    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.
    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.
    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.
    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:
    They obsess about everything that comes across their kid’s desk or desktop from colleges, testing agencies, scholarship organizations, and on and on.
    The ask about college every day in every way.
    They gather information on everything “college” themselves.
    They expect a fully-formed plan for college and career from a high school junior or senior.
    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.)
    They strategize obsessively about how to “get into college” instead of encouraging their children to do their best and be straightforward.
    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.
    Conversations with peers revolve entirely around children’s college plans.
    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.”
    They find themselves telling the school’s college counselor how to do his/her job.
    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. As a result, counselors are under a lot of pressure to ensure advisees apply to and get accepted to those elite schools.
    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:
    They don’t leave their offices, even for lunch, in case a student just happens to drop by.
    They take calls and answer emails at all hours, even on weekends.
    They adopt a messianic view of themselves as critical to every student’s success in the college process.
    They take on work that students should be doing themselves.
    They encourage students to over-reach with their applications even when the odds of admission are slim to none.
    They encourage quantity of applications over well-defined student/college matches.
    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.
    They encourage students to “package” themselves instead of presenting themselves authentically and devote excessive time to spinning negatives that might be important.
    They conceal or minimize aspects that may affect students’ admission, such as disciplinary records. (Unfortunately, threats of lawsuits often affect this situation.)
    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.
    -Will Dix

  8. I am writing an essay on this topic for a client. As far as I am concerned, we ought to just gut the entire baby-sitting dummy factory called the modern school system. They were never designed to create smart, creative, intuitive, bright adults. They were designed to literally destroy the creativity out of your son or daughter and turn them into a mindless debt slave. John Taylor Gatto explains quite succinctly the whole history of modern schooling; it’s a huge scam.

    1. I agree. My daughter’s HS counselor is so aweful, she has become my main source of stress during the college admissions process. Very difficult to get hold of, get accurate information, etc. , very slow in responding, providing incorrect forms and the list goes on. No wonder with this kind school counselors the kids unless have full time parents running after counselor and doing as much as they can on their own cannot succeed !!!!

  9. I have an endorsement on my Pupil Personnel Services certificate in Vocational Counseling. I have had many professional development workshops, networking opportunities, etc. and love this field of service to students.
    HOWEVER, my admin. has saddled me with myriad tasks unrelated to anything that contributes to post-secondary planning for my students, and my caseload is beyond believeable. Until the people at the top who control “vision” and hiring get their priorities in line and make this a focus, school counselors will continue to be overpaid secretaries. We just don’t have the power to control the way schools use us – the admin. has it.

    1. That is so sad but so true. You get into the profession to truly help students one on one and then its all about scheduling and grades and updating paperwork, transcripts etc. Something that a skilled, knowledgeable secretary could do for you.

  10. The rate of change in every aspect of sociiety exceeds the abiility of thevsystems and subsystems of society to respond.
    Parents do not appropriarely counsel children because tgey usually need counseling themselves.
    The traing and education of counsellors is done by old counsellors who are drowning like everyone else.
    The grwoth in the variety of addictive situations alone requires a whole set of new teahing. Prescriotive and treatment approahes.
    I dont even know what national effort woukd look like because I am afraid who woukd shyjack tgecproject.
    Sorry for the spelling mistakes

  11. College Admissions Offices routinely invite private school counselors on trips to visit their schools – expenses paid. Often, too, their private schools will send them to visit schools on their dime. This doesn’t happen with public school counselors, which puts us at a MASSIVE disadvantage in learning about individual schools’ programming, financial aid processes, admissions review steps, not to mention forging relationships with admissions staff. If college admissions offices would pay closer attention to public schools – and devote their resources there instead of towards the independent school counselors who will get funded anyway, this particular playing field will be much more level.

    1. Ms. Dunning,
      Have you checked with colleges and universities to see if they have a Counselor Connection or Counselor Preview Day? I work at a 4-year state institution and we invite high school counselors to our campus for a three day event, all expenses paid.

  12. Our high school counselor does not send transcripts to students’ choices of colleges and often misplaces paperwork. She has laughed at the top 3 students in the 2017 graduating class and said things like “It sucks for you guys”. I am appalled and don’t know what to do. I am at the point of addressing this issue in front of the school board. My son had an exceptional score on the ACT and had his paperwork in her office a week ago, upon checking in today, she laughed at him and said she had not sent it and could not even locate his paperwork. With the 2/1/2017 FAFSA deadline a few days away, I am afraid she has ruined his college options by her lack of skill, concern for the seniors and ability to perform her job satisfactorily. I believe she should be fired as he is not the only senior to experience these issues with her.

    1. I’m currently a Junior and try to ask my counselor as many basic questions about college and testing to make sure I’m on the right path. However, they always seem to lack knowledge and aren’t very helpful. My parents and teachers tell me to seek advice from them, but I just end up with unanswered questions. I’ve also heard others students struggling to get college advice. One counselor basically told a student that going to an Ivy League university isn’t realistic and should consider going to a different university even though she has a lot of potential and has a high ranking.

    2. I feel ya on this. My son’s applications never got sent after he asked the counselor and her assistant 4 times to send them. Also he graduated with honors she never let him know about scholarships he would be eligible for. So now my son’s going to a college 3hrs from home because now it’s too late when we finally found all this out. Also the counselors own daughter graduated and trust and believe she got a full ride with schloarships!! A little birdie told me a teacher outted this young lady about her mom writing her papers so the girl dropped the class and took it online said due to aniexty. I’m so mad right now I’m seeing red!!! She’s done this to other kids too so it’s not just my headache!!! She’s a joke!!! She needs to be canned!!! I think maybe even investigated!!! I mean okay do for your kid fine just don’t forget the others!!! They deserve a chance too!!! I feel better I needed to rant!!!

      1. You have to rely on the counselor to send in college applications??? I so think it’s up to students to to research scholarships they’re eligible for and can ask counselors for additional support. We shouldn’t have to find the scholarships and tell each student about them. If your child is going to college, they should take steps to be self sufficient and advocate for themselves, whatever that means to them.

        1. disagree. parents and children do their work trying to find scholarships, but counselors have to help, they need to advise, and they have knowledge of scholarships so they should let the children know about this, please read what is role of a counselor, you are a counselor probably who doesn’t want to do your job.

  13. As a high school counselor, I can agree with some of what you said, only because school counselors are trained as helping professionals under the ASCA (American School Counselor’s Association), which focuses on helping students in many areas, not just specializing in the vast array of differing admissions processes from college to college. With that being said, school counselors are very familiar with their state’s graduation requirements because that is part of their job. They know which set of classes will put their students on a college-bound pathway or a vocational-bound pathway. School counselors are indeed required to handle a wide variety of school and personal issues. School counselors are educated to be able to guide students in mental health, academic concerns, and career and college readiness. Being trained in mental health is a definite positive and needed beyond belief in schools where there are too many individual and social issues to even begin to list. If there is a concern about certain college admissions or requirements, it is always a good idea to check with that college directly.

    1. In addition, in response to the first paragraph of the article concerning financial aid and scholarships, in our state we have organizations, multiple workshops, websites, and other year-long efforts to help educate and assist with these, and a terrific success rate.

  14. What is really most unacceptable and most problematic is the lack of knowledge that principals have regarding the role of the school counselor. Principals typically receive no training related to the role of the counselor, school counseling programs or program implementation. Consequently, principals are ignorant about such things and fail miserably at deploying counselors effectively. Instead, principals use counselors like a “utility player” or “handyman” and assign them tasks that everyone else is presumably too busy to be bothered with. Instead of supporting students, school counselors are often inundated with duties and responsibilities that have absolutely nothing to do with the role of the school counselor. As long as principals remain ignorant in regard to such things, it really doesn’t matter how much of an expert the school counselor is if counselors are crippled with non-counseling duties.

    1. This rings true to my experience of 20 years. My previous principal “got it” and we had a more effective impact in the post-secondary planning arena. The current principal uses us as the catch-all and then blames us for not “having a program” to address these needs. We have increasingly “clerical” duties that occupy hours and days of precious time that we could be using to educate, advise, and facilitate the college and career decision-making process.

  15. I have ran into many high school guidance counselors who are great and those who are terrible. Given the circumstance I would like to share my thoughts on the ones who are terrible. I was an Army Recruiter for three years and before I even went onto recruiting duty I had deployed over seas 3 times for a total of 38 months, and had been in direct combat with the enemy (if your political and don’t like the word enemy because were not at war fine then I’ll say someone who was trying to kill me) every time. Myself, knowing the benefits of the Post 9/11 GI Bill available for veterans who serve 36 months of active service, wondered why anyone wouldn’t want to join the Army if they did not have the means to pay for college. Now with this said, only 7 jobs in the Army actually are made for combat, the other 163 entry level jobs are SUPPORT. Those support jobs have a chance to be in combat rest assured, but that is by chance and they are never purposely put there like the job I do. So 3 years of active service duty for a job that I can pick to get 4 years of 100% tuition paid for to any public institution that I get accepted to plus a 1,200 dollar yearly stipend for books and labs, and housing allowance based off your zipcode at a rank that most wont obtain within that 3 years of service. Now with all this said, too many guidance counselors (I know they hate being called guidance counselors) push so hard for college whether these kids could afford it or not. Too many times kids told me their counselor told them to apply for FAFSA and they would be ok. I was removed from a school showing that only the Pell Grant you didn’t have to pay back and the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized loans were compared to the Post 9/11 GI Bill (aka doing my flipping job as a recruiter). Where counselors did not care about what the child was interested in only if they had applied to at least three colleges and report back with results. Most counselors focus only on the bottom 20% and the top 20% of the the student body performance wise, as they simply do not have time to focus on each student. Guidance counselors who told children they were stupid for joining the military because they were going to die in Iraq or Afghanistan even when the student told them he joined as a cook, or cyber security analyst (haha this makes me laugh just typing it). They’d also be the first ones to come shake my hand and thank me for my service. Being a recruiter for three years was the most horrible thing I have ever done in the Army. I would have rather spent that ENTIRE time in Iraq or Afghanistan again rather than speak to another guidance counselor or deal with know it all kids who think FAFSA is the best answer for their education. As far as teachers, I have the utmost respect for because they are the most unappreciated job in America yet the most important! They are underpaid and understaffed. I recruited a teacher after he heard about the student loan repayment program. He is now a Major and making almost twice as much as he was as an educator and has no student debt.

    1. Also I have a 4 year degree as well that I obtained for free while I’ve been in the Army. I have 9 more years to go until I can retire and I will most likely have my Masters degree by then, again for free. In fact I still get my Pell Grant considering I only have applied for it 3 times I still have 2 more times where I can collect it, even though my tuition is 100% paid for by the Army. The counselors the Army hires are superb and have never steered me wrong, that means telling me the hard truth, telling me the answers I do not want to hear, telling me that a career in this or that sounds ideal but is flooded and will be hard for me to find occupation even after 20 years of federal service. Considering this thread I wonder if my comments will even be accepted.

  16. I would hope that the thousands of veteran HS counselors at private international schools around the world aren’t accidentally lumped into this category of “know nothings”. Please give some credit where credit is due or plan to attend the sessions at our annual summer conference sponsored by Intl ACAC. Expertise is evident throughout those four days!
    Painting the entire group of HS counselors with a massive brush stroke doesn’t suggest respect for our colleagues. We are all in this together….no need for divisiveness when so much is at stake.

  17. thank you so much for this positive article. it helped me alot with my college essay on what maryland high school counselors should do to prepare students for college. my response is simple, be straightforward with them because not every senior in high school is prepared for college, yet forcing them to go with be a fincial burdan on them in the future.

  18. Back to 1971. I get a 4 year regents scholarship. My life at home is such that neither of my parents are willing to do the financial stuff required for college admission.My father is spending a lot of time angry and inebriated- not enough to not look like a model citizen most of the time, but my request for help with this issue gets me an angry tirade, not help. My mother, who never wanted me in the first place, and considers it uppity of me to have gotten the scholarship in the first place, flat out refuses to do it, although she has already done it for both my older brother and sister. It’s not that she doesn’t know how- she works in a bank and these kinds of forms are second nature to her. I’m guessing, in hindsight that she is slightly off mentally, but again, not enough for anyone to notice out in the world. All of which is merely background for the question- why didn’t my high school guidance counselor know enough to intervene? After all, what got thrown away was 4 years of college, which BTW, would have made a huge difference in my life….

  19. Just curious, how many years have you been a high school counselor or even worked with high school students and their parents?

  20. Thank you so much for writing this. I thought that I was the only one who noticed.
    P.S. I’m still in 10th grade and I learned not to trust my counselor.

  21. Some of these comments are crazy. I gave a masters degree in k-12art Ed. My best friend went to the same school as me simultaneously for school counseling. My classes wete note rigorous, and it took me half a year longer. My friend took no college admissions type courses and received no knowledge of the fact, she knows nothing of he process. She graduated and got an initial nys cerifiaction with no testing at all, the entire way through. Not one test. Hell she barley had homework, her internship was a joke, she sat and watched counselers. It took me an additional 10months just to complete my certs, I had to hire a tutor. During Student teaching I was a slave! She said she would never want to be a teacher because her job is so much easier… She also just moved to NC in one of thepooresr worst towns in the state. She has way more responsibilities than NY counselors do inclusing teaching two classes a day, but she stil says she could never be a teacher. Meanwhile art teachers in elementary sxhools in ver affluent districts are asking art teacher’s to take no lunch and teach straight through the day.

  22. The number one problem that school counselor face isn’t what they did or didn’t learn in college. The biggest problem that counselors face is that they are trained to implement guidance programs but then go out into the world to work in an institution where no one but the counselors know what a guidance program is or what it takes to implement one. Counselors are not in charge of deciding how many counselors will be hired–or whether there will be any counselors at all. They do not decide what their duties will be–school administrators do. School administrators typically have no training or knowledge related to counselor evaluation, counseling program components or program implementation. So, Instead of doing what they were trained to do, counselors are often assigned duties that make them into glorified clerks and quasi-administrators. Counselors are then often perceived as being ineffective or uncaring by students when in fact, they are simply inundated with duties assigned to them by their principals that are unrelated to the role of the school counselor. No matter how well trained counselors are, it will make little to no difference until and unless school administrators are required to receive some minimal training related to counselor evaluation and program components and implementation.

    1. Incidentally, what I discussed in my initial post is very well documented in the literature. In Michigan and many other states, universities that train counselors have been mandated to train them to the state standards (based on the ASCA National Model). However, elsewhere on any campus where future school counselors are being trained, you will find students taking classes in preparation to be principals; these are people that will supervise counselors and assign them duties–but they are not learning anything about school counselors or comprehensive guidance programs.

      1. Bob – thank you for clarifying the real issues for school counselors. I am teaching a graduate course in college counseling where I earned my degree in school counseling and I work as a school counselor in NYC and have been saying this for years.

  23. Interesting article. Has the situation changed in the last 5 years? .do private companies offer those kind of counseling services?

    1. Hi Gail,
      No the situation hasn’t changed. There are private college consultants, but if money is an issue I would make sure that the person you hire understands the financial side of college.
      You’ll learn a lot about college on my blog for free – I’ve got years worth of content. I also hold periodic online courses for parents on cutting the cost of college. If you are interested, just sign up for my newsletter on my home page.
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  24. Guidance counselors traditionally were supposed to assess students’ career aptitudes and abilities based on testing and grades in high school, for the simple fact that many students aren’t going to college nor should they. This is a worth while goal for students and seems sorely lacking in high school where “everybody is gifted and talented” these days, Not so.
    The same aptitudes and abilities should be assessed for college bound students and selection of schools and majors. All it takes is one bad semester in the wrong major and kids are toast.
    I don’t think career counselors should necessarily be “college entrance” experts–namely, what the requirements are of such and such a college–what tests are necessary, what if the kid has a “D” in trig and that type of stuff. That to me is job overload.
    The student and the family need to research the particulars on each college the kid is applying to. Call the college–visit the college. Get out and do some research since it is a big cost. A high school counselor isn’t trained in this so don’t expect it. High school counselors have a broader picture to deal with.
    It’s unfortunate that parents probably won’t listen to the guidance counselor anyway–since their kid is “special.”
    George DeMarse
    Labor Relations Specialist
    U.S. Office of Personnel Management (Ret.)

  25. Hi. My son is sophomore. we need to find private guiding counselor to monitor my son if he is on the track to go to college. Thank you

    1. I’m also going to be sophomore soon too! Perhaps it is not what you are entirely looking for or maybe it is, but the website I used (66buddy) helped me greatly with SAT help and any questions I had on college info. I hope you or your son can find it useful! I just really want to share this opportunity with others based on the success I had!

  26. I graduated HS many years ago, but to this day am still haunted by the complete indifference and ineptitude that was displayed by my HS guidance counselor. I received NOTHING of substance from that counselor, who was a former business teacher and sports coach in the school…. and sports was ALL that they focused upon.
    My large family was quite challenged financially, and I had no “college fund” per se, and found few options at that time for loans (Sallie Mae did not exist back then (in the late 70’s) , and banks were not giving educational loans due to high default rates. The counselor offered NO assistance in finding scholarship options or even colleges who might be able to offer some financial assistance….NONE.
    I considered the military, and pursued ROTC options (without any help from my “lack of guidance” counselor. The counselor pushed me toward applying only to well-known, more expensive college options (since it looked better for the HS to send students to the “better” schools. My grades were very good, but not good enough to get notable assistance or scholarships with the higher-end schools. At that time I did not want to join the military outright…. in retrospect I probably should have, but again, that guidance counselor was trying steer me away from that decision (it looked more prestigious for the HS to have more students go directly to college)..
    I was accepted to 5 very good schools, but had no $’s to attend…..I finally struggled my way through college at night (graduating 10 years later than all my peers). In speaking with work colleagues my own age, I found out that many of them were able to go to colleges and universities where they got substantial financial assistance….when I pressed them on how they did it, they told me that their guidance counselors found them college options to help them (and they all had much worse grades than I did).
    Thanks again to my lousy guidance counselor for ZERO guidance. Years later when my kids were in HS , I was their guidance counselors’ WORST nightmare…….

  27. My HS college counselor was inept. She was a former athlete and apparently cared more about athletes than a non-athelete like me………..I could read and write and I think that really threw her. I was in a private school in NE so one would think she would have had better skills…….not so though. The list of schools she printed out from her Naviance scatterplot was a practically a joke. She basically told me I had little to no chance anywhere even in the top 20 of small liberal arts schools. I applied to schools she told me point blank “would be nearly impossible to get into” despite her unfortunate judgment of my worth. I was accepted at some of the best schools in the country…..several of the top liberal arts schools within the top 20. When she found this out she acted as if she had thought of the schools I picked and said the one I was going to attend was just the match she thought was perfect for me. Thank goodness I thought more of myself than she did of me.

  28. I work in Massachusetts, the #1 ranked schools in the country and # 8 internationally and as a “Public School’ Counselor I have nothing against private counselors, I have even done some advising on the side. I feel that I know my students much, much better than the private consultants and know colleges very well, admissions trends and have the luxury of meeting regularly with a variety of admissions reps from across the region and country. Also, we have the benefit of the internal part of the process – what teacher to ask for recommendations, classes, essay review, etc…..I have come up with similar list too often – which is not a bad thing – with students that have hired college ‘professionals.’ Like I couldn’t come up with a college for an A- student with a low 600’s looking for a mid-atlantic college: Lafayette, Lehigh ring a bell?

  29. From the beginning this sounded like a push for Independent Counselors, who can claim they are more of an expert than the counselors at a public school. Truth is High School Counselors are pulled in many directions, but have a vast knowledge of colleges and the admission process for a wide variety of students. Does the counselor have time to do all the work? No, nor should they. This is a process whereby all stakeholders need to do their part. School Counselors will assist and direct as well as advise. Independent Counselors are no more “qualified” than an employee of the district. I have seen way too many times parents be scammed be claims of what an independent contractor can do (at a high price). All things that can be done if students and families work hand in hand with their high school counselor and college admissions officers. If families have money to throw away, pay an Independent Counselor to do your job.

    1. As for your apparent ignorance, I am disgusted. Everyone else, don’t listen to this silly person and their broken logic full of cliches (i.e. “if students and families work hand in hand with their high school counselor” “Does the counselor have time to do all the work”). Don’t expect much out of your counselor, on that I am certain. High school counselor? How laughable. Good day.

      1. Mr. Chris Fields,
        I do not even know where to begin in replying to your blatantly ignorant and hurtful comment, but I will try my best. 1) Pretty much everything stated by Suzanne and Brian is correct- especially for those of us- yes, me too- seasoned, knowledgeable, and hard-working high school counselors. I agree with everything except the fact that Independent Counselors are equally knowledgeable as we are when it comes to college advising. Do they have the time? Sure. The competence? Certainly not always. In fact, they have so many times mis-advised my students to the point of causing them to miss important deadlines and information specifically and strategically provided to our seniors throughout the college admissions process, telling them that their personal statement is great, when in fact it is cliche and not written in their own voice, and allowed them to pick a topic that is not compelling nor a representation of who the student is. Not to mention they don’t know our school, nor the rigor of our courses, and often advise students to take classes that are not appropriate for them- yet again, because they do not know the kid!
        You know who does know how to provide students with the BEST guidance? US! Public School Counselors.
        Yes, our caseloads are high, the demands on our time are literally harmful to the counselors who care enough to work 10-12 hours per day and on the weekends in an effort to serve our students in the 3 critical domains of school counseling:college/career/academic/ and social/emotional.
        So, let me tell you a bit about me- and my counseling team. This is my 12th year as a certificated high school counselor at one of the top performing public high schools in the state of CA. We have been ranked #1 in San Diego County for over 5 years running and this year #2 in the state, #7 in the country. My caseload has ranged from 400-630 during my 12 year tenure as an educator; this year I am serving 477 students. Just this year, one other counselor and I spearheaded the college application process. We provide/deliver a highly detailed presentation for the students (and a complementary presentation to their parents in the evening) as early as possible once the school year starts (not including all we do to prepare students in grades 9-11), the presentation remains up on our website for review as we know not all students are in the same place in their application process- we also purposely hyperlink to information students and parents need to know more about in the presentation, so they do not have to scramble to find this information on their own. Additionally, we provide several resources on our website to help parents and students throughout the process- including but not limited to- a College Counseling Calendar (so they know what to do when), a 4-year college checklist and an Application Guide by Type of Application (CSU, UC, Common Application and all others), and a college app FAQ so information needed to complete their applications is easy to access (ie what is your school’s grading scale, your class size, school address,etc.) We also host college app worshops presented by admission reps for CSU and UC schools, and two counselors run a Common App workshop- these are mandatory workshops that add value for our students- as we have 85% of our students attending 4-year colleges on average each year. We also host a Financial Aid night for parents that is presented by a college financial aid advisor- which covers how and why to complete the FAFSA and CSS profile, as well as educating families about the cost and realities of financial aid. This is all in addition to running an actual class devoted to this process- “College Application Seminar.”
        On top of that, we offer individual meetings with seniors either alone or with their parents to address individual questions and needs. We help them identify colleges that are a good fit (in every way), assist them with managing and creating their college list, drafting essays and even logging into their applications with them when they are confused or need something reviewed/fixed. This is on top of the over 50 letters of recommendation I had to write and submit by Nov.1. Students who access me, get the BEST from me- I will call a college, advocate for my students in every way (including doing a lot of heavy lifting when a student decides to appeal an admission decision). And back to the letters of recommendation- they are time consuming if done well- and I, personally, have been recognized by admission reps from Harvard, Yale, UPenn and USD (to name a few) regarding the quality of my letters, and spent two full weekends of my personal time (not counting so many hours after school) to writing these letters on behalf of my students. Private counselors are NEVER asked to do this part of the job and no little about that aspect of the process.
        So, in short I know my shit- and shame on you for slamming an entire profession- not knowing the whole picture.
        Let’s also get into what else we do simultaneously on top of all of that- the Master Schedule and constant schedule changes, implement academic interventions for struggling students (often requires collaboration with teachers, parents and admin), be knowledgeable about most mental health diagnoses and learning disabilities- including Psychopharmacology-the symptoms, how to see the signs & provide “real counseling,” (see CBT techniques as an example), read and interpret outside Psych Reports, plan for and run 504 meetings (I alone have 24 students with a 504 plan, but not that you have a clue what that is), attend litigious IEP meetings in which staff have unnecessarily (way out of line) been brought into lawsuits, oftentimes because entitled parents with too much money on their hands, demand that their student reach a potential that data does not support (despite the great progress that their child has made since attending our school).
        I also deal with suicidal ideation so regularly it is horrifying, not to mention cutting, depression, anxiety and being the go-to person for every question you can think of.
        I put my own health and sanity below the needs of my students this year and it came at a cost to my relationship and happiness. That may not be the best practice, but don’t you ever slam us again. I’m sorry that your experience has been so awful that you feel the right to acost people who want to help students whole-heartedly.
        I feel sorry for you.
        -Yale Educator of the Year (2017) Award Winner

  30. found this while searching the internet for something else……I think people have a misconception of the role of high school counselor.guidance counselor and college admission counselor…….we have some how mixed all of their duties together, when in fact they are not…….You should not expect counselor to be the know all for getting your children into college…..do some things for yourself………….

    1. Great posts by all. Definately lots of work yet to do. Thanks Lynn for all that you are doing. Was able to hear you for the first time this past year as you came out to speak to our families.
      For all those interested, check out the National Office of School Counselor Advocacy. They have a “Owning the Turf” campaign aimed at helping counselors become stronger leaders within their communities. Check it out. http://nosca.collegeboard.org/
      National Office of School Counselor Advocacy
      The Colleg Board

  31. When you are a 17-18 year old high school senior, there is going to be no time in your life when good counseling will be more important. And sadly many are not getting it.
    I graduated from a small-town rural Nebraska high school in the 1970’s. I excelled in math and science and had an intelligent mind, but like many kids who have those abilities, also shyness and lack of self confidence.
    The counselor in my school was a drunk and a skirt chaser who gave me almost no real guidance. His most common advice for the boys who came to his office was to hand out brochures from the local farm equipment factory for welding jobs.
    Parents—if you care about your children’s school—don’t look at things like how much science or math they have or how nice the gym is. Look at who is doing the counseling because that is the most important thing your kid is going to need!

    1. Having worked as both a high school and college counselor, I am baffled at the remarks made, such as “worthless” and “useless” in describing high school counselors. Counselors do the best they can with the resources that are available to them. Before making these statements, please keep in my their caseload, job description, and additional responsibilities that are assigned to these individuals. My high school counselor was phenomenal which was why I decided to pursue a counseling career.
      I echo an earlier remark about attending a board meeting to voice your concerns, but to keep in mind of the counselors case load and duties assigned. The voice of a parent, even more so, the student is the most powerful voice at a board meeting. As a counselor, my advice to those that are frustrated with the way a counselor is being utilized is to attend a local board meeting.
      Good luck and hats off to all of my fellow hard-working and devoted counselors that support our students and their families.

      1. Hi Katie – I appreciate your comments, but it’s cop out to say that a large caseload prevents counselors from being effective. If counselors understood the basics of paying for college they could hold schoolwide events and explain how families can make college more affordable. Most counselors do not know how to cut college costs. So even if a counselor’s caseload was a dozen students he or she would be ineffective in helping with this giant issue. Instead counselors invite local college reps for “financial aid nite” for seniors which only explains why families should complete the FAFSA and PROFILE. That is a miniscule part of the entire process!
        Lynn O’Shaughnessy

        1. Thank you for writing this. While there are some good counselors, there are counselors who are not – like in any profession. I thought a counselor is there to help the kids. I find that as a parent, after leaving several messages the counselor does not get back to you , how does a kid have any chance to talk /get guidance… The comments that counselor make… It scares me that he is one that my kid is to trust.
          Your blog helps bring out the topics, and it helps to know that there are parents with the same concerns. Also, with the situation I went through, it reminds me that the kid can be scare of the teachers and counselors. Therefore, they need the parent’s help to push through the system, even when the counselor and teachers don’t like it. Things have changed so much since I was in high school.
          I will look into some of the suggestions from people’s comments. Thank you.

        2. I’m sorry but have you ever worked as a public high school counselor? Do you know what it’s like to know what you’re talking about and how to help, but struggle with the confines of having between 500-630 students on your caseload, on top of several demanding adjunct duties? Clearly not. That many students does make an impact and does not mean we do not know how to assist our families, nor give our students everything we can. It is not an excuse for a lack of knowledge and certainly not a lack of hard work. Shame on all of you who took your experiences and are projecting them on us. I love my job, but it is often thankless and the last thing I (and countless others) need is to be ridiculed by all of you. My counselor didn’t help me either- guess what, I figured it out on my own and landed a full-ride to one of my top schools on an academic scholarship. I don’t shame him- they didn’t know better then.
          I also know I am good, because now 3 former students are in grad school pursuing this career outright because they were inspired by me and their experience with the counseling services they received at my school.
          Please find another helping profession to hate on people! How about Nurses? They certainly suck, too, huh? (Raging sarcasm)

      2. Complain all you want about workload and lack of resources, the comments are first hand accounts of failure to guide these students. If your job is to guide these young people towards their future in university, military, or the workforce, you better be doing that job to the best of your ability, you have chosen a profession in which you have a heavy hand in the transition from adolescence to adulthood. A heavy workload is something that many professions deal with, it is not an excuse for failure.

        1. Jack, with all due respect, try for even a day, to be a counselor. Immerse yourself into this job. Stating about having a heavy workload doesn’t mean counselors aren’t doing their best. You probably are not in helping profession that is why the nitty – gritty parts of the helping process isn’t familiar to you. Counseling itself is just ONE of the various roles of a counselor and this isn’t the advising and chatting you know of. Counselors are assigned with system support load – which entails support to the ENTIRE school, district, local business community. It is not the kind of job you describe to be JUST LIKE ANY OTHER PROFESSIONS out there. Try for once and see how light you can make the load.

  32. As a recent college grad from UGA, how difficult is this process for people to grasp? I figured it out by myself at 16. The only thing that i was clueless about was fasfa, and highschools could easily put together assemblies for this and have 1 less pep rally.

  33. I attended Tuscaloosa (Ala.) High School from 1958 to 1961.
    It was a huge, modern, new building. Enrollment was about 1,500 — and all white students.
    My senior yearbook does not list a counselor. However, a woman is designated as “Dean of Girls.”
    I wonder why there was no Dean of Boys?
    If anyone ever needed a counselor, it was I. Yet, as far as I recall, I never met a counselor during high school. Nor was I ever tested in any way to determine my learning capability.
    I had a serious learning problem, and scored 13 on the ACT test.
    I joined the U.S. Air Force, where I immediately took a voluntary college GED exam and passed all four parts. As a result, the Air Force handed me two years of college on a piece of paper.
    Later, at the University of Alabama, while flunking out, I went by the psychology department, where I was administered an I.Q. test. I scored 124 on it.
    My question to you is: What were the duties (and capabilities) of high school counselors in the 1950s? Was I short-changed?
    I just want to know.
    Thanks so much.
    Huntsville, Alabama

  34. Lynn,
    I agree that the educational training required for public high school guidance counselors is focused on mental health, with little or no training in college counseling, financial aid, and so forth.
    In addition, guidance counselors are required to wear many hats in a public high school: they are schedulers, disciplinarians, and psychological counselors. To wear one more hat (for which they are not trained), college counseling, is just too much.Not to mention the dismal guidance counselor to student ratio, which can be 300-500 to one, depending on the size of the pubic high school.
    These caring, hard-working professionals do a great deal of good, and have my utmost respect. However, they are burdened by lack of specific college counseling training, too many roles, and a highly unfavorable counselor-student ratio.
    Given this situation, there is certainly a legitimate role for independent college admissions consultants, for those families that can afford private assistance. The situation is similar to the tutoring industry, in which families who are dissatisfied with the one-on-one attention their children can garner from teachers will reach out to tutors if that is a feasible approach for them.

    1. Thank you Kris. It’s not getting better for high school counselors with deep budget cuts…we don’t have the resources needed.

    2. Kris,
      Being that I am a high school guidance counselor in the public sector and have been for nearly 9 years, I appreciate you recognizing that HS counselors, particularly one’s in states like California who have some of the worst counselor: student ratio, are set up to fail. A part of me can’t help but take offense the title of this blog “What’s wrong with high school counselors”- it should be “what’s wrong with public education.” I can understand why some families make the decision to hire private college counselors, however I am appalled by the rates these private consultant charge. In my opinion, some agencies and independent consultants are taking advantage of students and their families. They are riding the coat-tails of the fear mongering produced by the media, US World & News Report rankings, etc… Obviously what is needed is educational reform. While this seems like a distant or near impossible goal, one thing parents can do is get involved in their community and attend board meetings. Board members in districts can make a huge difference and can vastly change the climate and expectations of a school district.
      That being said, I have a few additional comments in response to the above threads:
      I wholeheartedly agree that graduate programs are lacking in their preparation offered to future high school counselors. I was a product of one such (expensive) program, and have had to commit my own time and money outside of work, to educate myself about college admissions and the ever-changing admissions policies and trends. Public school districts rarely emphasize the need for or support professional development due to lack of time, lack of funding, and the fact that professional development often means time away from the office.
      RE: professional college counseling certificate programs, while some beneficial information can be gained from participation (I went through one on my own dime my 3rd year as a counselor), they are overpriced (at least for educators whose annual earnings are barely sustainable, and aren’t we the one’s who supposedly need them the most?) and only as good as the people (and the experiences of the people) who are leading them. When I went through the College Counseling Certificate program, two of the adjunct professors were younger than I (and I was only 28 at the time) and had never worked in a secondary school, meaning they had no familiarity w/ public education and the resources that are/are not available to create a college counseling program they are teaching us to. These certificate programs have also given some people (who now call themselves qualified private college consultants) a false sense of knowing more than they really do. Nothing can be more valuable than experience, and that requires experience of being in the trenches with the students and their families as they are navigating their high school experience. There are valuable things that the guidance counselor at the school knows that the private college counselor meeting at the students house doesn’t. Countless times, I have had students come see me to change their schedule because their private counselor told them they needed to take a certain class so they could get into certain schools, when I knew taking that class wasn’t right for the student based on my experience working with them. I have yet to come across a private college consultant who takes the whole student into consideration (social and emotional needs and dynamics, personal goals, academic limitations, etc.). Sometimes, that means going against what the students parents may want for their child- which I would imagine would be difficult being that the parents are the one’s paying the private college consultant to “get their kid in” to XYZ colleges. I am just not yet convinced that private college consultants are “the answer,” and I am still insulted that high school guidance counselors are being framed in a light of being wrong, giving bad advice, and being useless. Guidance counselors are extremely useful and while it may seem biased, I know that many (not all) of the students I work with have benefit greatly from my support and guidance throughout their high school experience. The sad part is that we are given a monumental task with little resources and time, meaning that yes, some students (especially the ones who are not self-starting, intrinsically motivated, or have parents who advocate for them) can fall through the cracks. This current year I have over 530 students on my caseload. The question is not are counselors useless, it is are counselors being used effectively? And if I have to answer that question, I would say no. But the only way that counselors can be utilized more effectively and for students to benefit from a more comprehensive guidance program (that is free) is if the administration at your students school understands the needs of his/her community, supports change and restructuring (instead of just doing things the way they always have been done), advocates for the necessary changes, and understand that counselors are stakeholders in student success. One thing I will give my graduate program, is that it taught me the importance of program evaluation, program implementation and restructuring (based on the ever-changing needs of students), and emphasized the importance of a student-centered ethical framework which has empowered me to speak out in support of what my students and their families need.
      RE: Financial aid, I couldn’t agree more that HS counselors don’t know enough about this. Our school has partnered with local universities financial aid staff to offer evening sessions to our parents and students as this is their area of expertise. This model has been effective as it allows us to offer expertise knowledge to our families at no cost. We also have over 80 colleges visit our college & career center each year, so that students can gain first hand information about a college from a person who works in the admissions office of that college.
      RE: Private college consultants on the whole- I am not naive to their benefit… but…I have some qualms. They seem to only benefit families who can pay for them, which (while it may seem radical for me to point out) has long term implications, such as the loss of the middle class. School counselors, on the other hand, help every student, regardless of their socio-economic status. Additionally, my experience has been that there are two types of students who work with private college consultants: The student who has parents who micro-manage their every move (i.e have hired consultants/ private coaches for everything their student does); or, the student who has done little/no research or information seeking on their own about college. I really worry about this student because they are often the ones who are probably not ready to go off to a 4-year college as they have shown little to no ability to be independent, self-managing, etc… I have also seen students with competitive GPA’s, impressive extra-curriculars, and other distinguished accomplishment hire private college consultants, which I never can really understand. Didn’t they get to where they are because they are bright, motivated, organized, talented, etc… To me, these are usually the type of students who have been thinking about college since they could say the word, and therefor, they’ve done their research, gone on college visits, even contacted admissions reps themselves (who by the way, are the best resource and LOVE hearing from students rather than adults/parents) and have taken advantage of resources available to them at their school. I don’t know, call me crazy, but it seems that it is unnecessary for these students parents, in particular, to pay a private college consultant thousands of dollars to help them get in to colleges that they do not need help getting into. That money would be better saved to pay for the books that their student will need to get through their O-Chem class at U Penn !
      Thank you for reading… I dream about the day that education makes a huge shift, and all services, private or public become more equitable and effective for students.

      1. Thank you for taking the time to write that response! I learned so much from you thoughts and comments. You make me what to go out and attend my local board meeting.
        I want to do things that will help counselors help more students. Sounds like there is lots of opportunity.
        I am glad there are counselors like you out there that care about students and spend their life making a difference. Keep it up!
        James O Smyth

      2. I am also a high school counselor and I agree to a great degree with this response. In addition to learning as we, counselors, go (and by seeking out knowledge on our own time and dime to help students), we wear one of the widest set of hats within education. I go from college planning meetings to helping a suicidal student to dealing with an upset parent in the course of a few hours. And that is a “normal” day…you don’t want to see a crazy one.
        Another aspect that I think is important to point out is that there are THOUSANDS of colleges in the US alone and to be expected to know the ins and outs of even 20% of them is pretty outlandish. We know our local and popular schools pretty well, but if a student wants to apply to some back water school in Maine, I am going to have to have the family do some research and probably call the college itself.
        Secondly, many parents and students expect to sit down in my office, tell me “I want to go to college and study engineering” and expect me to lay out the plan for them based on that info. I then ask them to start coming up with lists of must haves and deal breakers (i.e. ideally in southern CA, 15,000 students or less, single sex dorms, etc.) to help us narrow the list down – and they come back with nothing…
        This is where I feel many of these replies are stemming from – you cannot expect anyone to tell you the perfect school with surface level info from the student who is going to school. That is like going online to research a car and say “I would like a car with 4 wheels” and then expecting the perfect car with everything you need to magically appear. We are expected to be an expert in such a broad range of topics (bullying, academic planning, college advising, financial aid, suicide prevention/intervention, testing, master calendaring, marketing/communications — and all without making one single mistake or risking the deep dark backlash of the parent) that makes are jobs only get more difficult each year.
        The idea of a team approach and the idea that actually speaking directly to the experts at the school itself seems to get pushed to the side. Parents also have to realize (and something I make clear to them at work to make sure they know what to expect) is that we have hundreds of students with both college and non-college related issues and non-student duties that take our attention, so I won’t be able to meet once a week with your senior on applications and essays like a dedicated college counselor charging $75/hour with 20 clients may be able to. I wish I could, but the fact is we cannot.
        Just like politicians, a few bad counselor experiences often taint the public and media perception of our jobs. I help students of all colors, financial status, and abilities get into great schools each year with tons of scholarship/financial aid money to boot. All that plus saving multiple students’ lives each year through crisis intervention, helping students be successful in their high school academics, and supporting their personal/social health — etc. etc….
        We, school counselors, care and we (99% of us) do a great job at it – often working 10-12 hour days even though our contract only states 7. It is often a thankless job and we prize the cards, hugs, and treats that more seldom come in. I hope those of you who had a bad experience or have a negative image of our profession, take a step back and think about how diverse the position is and that we too would like things to change for the better – but still do our jobs to the best of our ability and sacrifice much to ensure that as many students have the support they need and deserve each year.

  35. HS guidance counselors are worse than useless, they are dangerous! Many including myself receive totally out of date and dangerous career counseling. HS kids usually have little real idea what to go to college for or how to pick a major. Often they bring bad baggage from home and friends about what careers to look at. HS counselors are so out of touch with the real job world they have NO CLUE about the “job mines” a young college grad will encounter and which will blow up their career. They just “go with the flow” that the parents want and the poor kid ends up eventually figuring it out on their own after blowing several years of college in dead-end majors or traps where the lack of specific aptitude means a dead-end. (I.e. if you can’t do math don’t go into engineering, despite what your Dad wants you to do!) HS needs to apply modern, up to date aptitude testing and real-world interviews with young college grads who are already out in the job so the the HS kids that they are advising will actually get good advice on what to do before their college and major are locked and loaded.

    1. Hi Ron,
      Career counseling isn’t my forte, but I roll my eyes at the thought that most teenagers can have any idea of what kind of careers they want, much less what majors. There are so many disciplines that aren’t even taught in high school that I think the best advice is to sample lots of different subjects as soon as you get to college. My favorite book on this subject is The Thinking Student’s Guide to College by a professor at Northwestern University.
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

    2. I love the bashing, let me say that again, the bashing of HS Counselors (I am kidding of course). As a Public School Counselor and a Private College Advisor I have to step up a stand up for HS Counselors. Like any profession, there are some that are not competent, nor passionate about what they do – I could say the same for College Consultants (btw, ‘anyone’ can claim they are a College Counselor and become an expert). I know of a woman – who had no Guidance or Admissions experience – yet is charging uber-bucks for her services (talk about scary). HS Counselors can be over-worked but by FAR (in most cases) know their students MUCH better than College Advisors and know the intricacies of the inner-workings of the school – advising on specific course work, teacher recs and the ability – each year – to meet a variety and deep number of College Admissions Reps across the state, region and nation (thus, keeping up with specific and currents admissions trends – and particular for that school). Be careful in blasting professionals in this role – I know at our HS we send over 90% to college and again – being a Private College Advisor and Public School Counselor – most lists ending up being the same or close to it (ex: College Advisor came up with a few schools in PA for one of my students who had a 3.7 and mid-to-high 600’s and they rec’d Lehigh, Lafayette and Bucknell, the exact same list as mine – surprise).

    3. 100% ditto. As a California high school counselor, you pretty much summed up everything perfectly!! Thank you! No one ever seems to know (not even me), what a typical day in the life of a high school counselor entails- because as you said, we are expected to be a experts in so many areas and are pulled from one area to another with oftentimes less than minutes to switch gears… and that is a normal day! A crazy day would crush most people.
      I love to hear other counselors voice how much they love the work we do, and be honest about the time and energy it takes to do it well- but it’s because we care. And we don’t ask for much in return… a simple thank you can make my day, and then an angry parent email can ruin my week. We want to help, and we go above and beyond, given so many limitations. We should get to feel good about the work we do, not shamed for it. ❤️

  36. Lynn, I absolutely agree that HS guidance counselors have little or no training in college admissions. When my oldest was in HS I made an appt w his counselor to discuss his options. The advice was: “He could go just about anywhere”. That was the sum total of what we got.
    A long-standing interest in college admissions stemming from being a first gen myself coupled with my experience with my eldest led me to enroll in and complete the UCLA Certificate in College Counseling program. I’ve done lots of volunteering since and parents continually tell me that they are not getting the kind of help they need from their high school regarding the college process. Yet despite my degree and gobs on knowledge about individual schools, merit scholarships, majors, financial aid, etc, I cannot get a job as a HS counselor in my district because I don’t have a MA in Guidance Counseling.
    Personally, I think there’s room for both types of counselors but I don’t see things moving in that direction in my state. I am appalled that capable students get to senior year and have not taken any Subject Tests, do not realize that the SAT is not the only game in town, don’t have the requisite foreign language study for highly selective schools, look only at “no merit scholarships” schools, etc. There is a BIG gap to close!

    1. Hi Paula,
      I applaud you for learning so much about the college process and completing the UCLA certificate in counseling. (I got one of these too.) Ironically, UCLA started the certificate program with the intent that it would help public high school counselors, but it was the private counselors or those wanting to get into that profession who have taken advantage of this resource.
      I think it’s sad that you can’t get a job as a high school counselor just because you don’t have that master’s degree! You probably already know that the master’s degree isn’t an issue at private high schools.
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  37. Thanks Sara, Jonathan, Patty and Denise for your thoughtful comments. Obviously there is a serious problem with our counseling system in this country. And Jonathan, I think it’s worse than you might assume.
    I hope to address some of the points you all made in my post on Friday!
    Thanks again for your observations. I know everyone has benefited from reading them.
    Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  38. I just read an article in the LA Times this week that profiled a high school girl who had no knowledge of the college admissions process, and no one in her family to help her figure it out. It seems that the knowledge gap of college counselors is probably less of a problem for upper- or middle-class kids or kids in affluent neighborhoods who grow up assuming they’ll go to college and have some knowledge of the resources available to them. For others without that background and set of expectations, college is a complex, alien world and they need high school counselors who can shepherd them through the admissions process. Are counselors trained in meeting the needs of these students and everyone else in between?
    My experience is a good example. Upper-middle class home, parents with graduate degrees, parents died young. Working, I put myself through community college. Time to transfer and I started on the road to a Cal State when a counselor said “why aren’t you applying to UCLA?” I had not considered it, it seemed too expensive, out of my league. But because of that counselor, that’s where I transferred. This conversation could have happened in high school … if I had received that level of guidance. Not every family home is filled with talk of college. Kids need to hear it from school, too.

    1. Good point. If we assume that upper- and upper-middle class kids will be relatively fine when it comes to college admissions, it becomes a matter of the role of high school counselors. Given the range of problems that counselors have to deal with, it seems wildly irresponsible to have one person doing all these different things. Should the same person who focuses on getting the bottom 10% to successfully graduate also be the person who focuses on getting the top 10% into the right college?
      Maybe the problem’s not that there’s a lack of training, it’s a lack of clarity on the role of the high school counselor. Consider colleges, which usually have different people covering different roles (mental health counselors, academic counselors, etc.) Maybe the solution isn’t more training, but more people–having three experts rather than one person struggling to cover three areas?
      Now we’re talking economics (still a big hurdle), but a problem that’s easier to understand and work on.

  39. My eldest daughter’s high school counselor is not someone I trust. Each time we’ve asked him a question over the years, he points to Naviance and says “there’s software for that”. She had to sign up for a college essay writing class put on by another high school (since her school didn’t offer such a thing). I only found out about it because my younger daughter will go to the other high school for their IB program. High school policies in our school district essentially prohibit one from changing counselors: they have to go through the district grievance process similar to the process used to change teachers. So my eldest is stuck with the lame counselor she has.
    My friend’s mother is a retired high school counselor, who they say was beloved in her community (in another state). We’ll have to try her. I’ve been reading everything I can to gain knowledge about the process but I feel for those who don’t have this option.
    It reminds me of my high school days where my counselor was the football coach. All he cared about was that I had enough credits to graduate. I met with him once during high school – that was enough. Sadly not much has changed in service while the complexity has skyrocketed. Thank you for running your blog – it’s a lifeline for many of us.

    1. Hi Patty, I have a 17 year old applying to college and her high school counselor is very reluctant to help her and get into the details. Her counselor is very inept and will not represent my daughter well. She attends a Cupertino Public school and I am wondering how to get another counselor. Do you have any advice. Thanks.

      1. My daughter has aspergers and needed help applying for college. Since she would be the first in our family to do so, she needed help so she asked her high school coounselor for help. But she was met with “I’m too busy” and told her to leave her office. My daughter stood firm (which is pretty difficult for her due to her disability) until finally the counselor got a STICKY NOTE AND WROTE: find a school, appy for fin. aid. Thats it, no explanation. And sent her away. Didn’t even warn her about fees or tell her about scholarships. I couldn’t help my daughter because like I said she’s the first in our family to pursue college. So I brought it up at her IEP and the counselor tried to blame it on my daughter saying it was her fault because she didn’t tell what college she applied for! So my daughter goes onto her first year only to get a financial hold due to lack of funds and her counselor not sending in a gpa form? So my daughter had to withdraw from her classes (poor thing thought it was the right thing to do) and got stuck with a bigger fine which took 2 years to pay off. Now my daughter is back in college as a freshman! When she shouldve been in her 3rd year. RANT OVER

        1. Hi Geri,
          I am so sorry that you and your daughter had such a terrible experience. What the counselor did was inexcusable! I wish her all the best!
          Lynn O’Shaughnessy

    2. I was looking for something about how to change a teacher when I run across this blog. Apparently, if a child have a problem with a teacher, that student can’t even change to another class. The counselor will not do it… Can’t do it because they would have to do it for all other kids… I several kids want to transfer out of a class there is something wrong. Another counselor admittedly tells me in so many words, it’s politic… They are human and say things they shouldn’t have… I don’t know how a teacher’s job is, but I would be fire at my job if I say something that is inappropriate. Some teachers act as though they are untouchable. They intimidate the kids and the parents. Well, the principal, and the counselor do back them up. I don’t feel it is right and at the same time, I feel that there is nothing I can really do about it. I don’t have the knowledge about the whole system. Imagine how it is for parents who don’t speak english. I’m not saying all teachers are bad. Some teachers are great; they are really good at there job. I think it is important to have the right teacher… Unfortunately, the kids don’t get a choice of picking. Same goes with the counselor, some are out of touch and definitely should have change their job. I haven’t even got to the college level yet and it scares me.

  40. Thought-provoking article, but how dramatic is the problem? Does the lack of training necessarily lead to a knowledge gap? It’s not that I entirely disagree with you, I’m just curious how big the problem is. The fact that most graduate programs don’t involve college planning training is worrisome, and the theory that this negatively impacts high school students is a good one. The problem is, the weakest link is the “knowledge gap.”
    How much of college counselors’ job knowledge comes from formal graduate school education? Human capital formation occurs in many ways, and in this specific case I can think of one example, college admissions counselors. In my public high school—I’m a senior in college, now—we would have visits from college counselors and college representatives all year, particularly during the application season in the fall. These representatives are, or better be, experts on admissions policies at their particular schools, and I think a high school counselor meeting with these representatives on a regular basis could definitely bridge any knowledge gap. Of course, that might not be enough, but I think high school counselors make up their gap in formal training with more than just mentor-apprentice relationships with colleagues.
    And similar to how you quoted the author of a book on college admissions, high school counselors can seek advice from other resources (books, websites, professional organizations, &c.)
    I don’t disagree that a gap in formal education is problematic and could have severe impacts on future counselors’ careers, but I’m not sure it’s dramatic enough to stress too much over. It might be a huge problem, but I’ll need to see more substantive proof before I start worrying. Has this become a real-world problem, or is it limited to theory and rhetoric right now? I really hope it’s the latter—something to pay attention to, but not something to freak out about yet.

  41. I think you bring up an interesting argument. Guidance Counselors have a very busy job and are pulled in many directions and knowledge about the college admissions process is a bit shaky. I work at a public high school as a College Counselor. I have the most current information about all things college; admissions, financial aid, and other trends. I am able to help students with everything leading up to senior year, assisting with the application process, helping students and families complete the FAFSA and CSS Profile, loan paperwork and more. This position allows me to take part in a variety of professional development to keep very up to date with the trends in this field. I recently graduated with my master’s in School Counseling and my program had 1 class on college admissions, it was a weekend course and covered a few basic topics. Like you said, not enough to be an effective counselor for the college admissions process. College counseling is a full time job. Many schools don’t have a college counselor, maybe that position should be considered by more school districts.

    1. We had a college counselor at my old high school, but she got pushed back into the normal high school counselor position this year. She would always gossip about people, and stress us out so much about applying to college. She was rude and whenever you liked a particular school that was a perfect match for you, she would always tell you that it wasn’t the right match.It was frustrating, but nobody listened to her, and my entire school went to college. My old high school and school district are both ranked #1 in education and API in its state, but our college counselor was very bad, and 100% of my graduating class got into college and 79% went to 4-year colleges.