Uploaded: Thu, Jan 10, 2008, 12:54 pm
College counselors hurtful, Gunn grads say
School has already been looking at changing counseling system to build closer relationships, principal says
Their college counselors were unhelpful and discouraging, two former Gunn High School students told the school board and Superintendent Kevin Skelly Tuesday night.
One student said he was told he should join the military. Another said she left the counselor's office in tears.
"I was told I shouldn't go to college. I wouldn't make it. The military was the best option for me," 2003-graduate Paul Esber said.
Esber ignored the advice and attended Washington and Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, completing a triple major and going on to work for the intellectual-property firm Rambus, he said.
Esber and 2001 graduate Jenny Blake were the only students who turned out to tell the school board and Skelly what they thought of Gunn at the school district's invitation, delivered via a parents' e-mail news list, Skelly said.
If his mother hadn't been very involved in the district, he wouldn't have heard about the meeting, Esber said.
Skelly said he would likely use Internet social tools such as Facebook to increase future attendance at similar meetings.
The two alumni said Gunn prepared them well for college but their college counselors failed to help them.
"I left the office crying. I just felt so discouraged," Blake said.
Her counselor recommended obscure schools she had never heard of because her SAT scores were low, said Blake, who double-majored at UCLA and now works for Google.
After her disappointing session, Blake turned to a private college counselor, a common move among students, she said.
Nearly all his friends hired private counselors, Esber said.
Even without the recent meeting's criticism, Gunn has been thinking of changing its counseling system to create closer bonds between counselors and students, Principal Noreen Likins said this week.
"Regular contact with a caring adult is obviously fundamental in terms of building relationships," she said.
The current system assigns freshmen to counselors alphabetically and schedules a small handful of meetings during their high school stay.
Students must go on their own time during lunch or after school to get to know counselors, Student Body President Max Keeler said.
"At Gunn you only get to know your counselor if you make an effort," he said. Those who don't take the initiative "get called in once or twice a year," he said.
Keeler visits his counselor every few months and encourages freshmen to do the same, he said.
Counselors are not to blame if students don't try to get to know them, he said.
And students sometimes unfairly give counselors a bad rap, he said.
"I think rumors get spread that counselors just aren't here for us, which happens when one person goes in and the counselor's busy," he said.
His counselor, Linda Kirsch, now knows him well enough to write a good recommendation and was helpful in picking out schools, he said.
"She really knows her stuff. ... She knows how to fit kids to colleges," he said, but added he decided to apply to schools she predicted he wouldn't get into.
Despite his pro-active stance, he said the counseling system at Palo Alto High School was preferable to Gunn's.
Paly freshmen are matched with a mentor-advisor with whom they meet throughout high school in a class called "Advisory."
"I really like Paly's system. Their advisors get to know them," Keeler said.
In February Gunn's administration will survey students to ask if they want a similar system as part of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges accreditation process the school periodically undergoes, Likins said.
The process requires the school to examine its strengths and weaknesses. Student feedback is crucial -- particularly about how to fit an extra class of advising into the already-packed school day, she said.
"It has to be seen from the student point of view as not wasting their time," she said.
Keeler said students would complain for a bit but then "get used to it" if another 20 minutes were tacked onto their already-packed schedules.
Junior Keith Jones said he would welcome an Advisory-like counseling program because students "never meet" with counselors in the current system.
If students approve, an expanded advising program could begin with next year's freshmen, Likins said. Gunn has already tried to help new arrivals with a more comprehensive, multi-day freshman orientation in the past two years, she added.
Posted by Carolyn Lawrence,
a resident of another community
on Jan 13, 2008 at 3:32 pm
As someone who has been both a private college counselor and a school college counselor, several comments in the article and here strike home with me.
First, I believe that no parent should rely solely on someone else to help their students through the college admissions process. That goes for BOTH independent counselors AND school counselors. Parents know their children best, and they are almost always are also their best guides through the process. Am involved parent who is willing to educate themselves fully about today's college admissions environment is better than any counselor, be it school OR private.
Contrary to popular opinion, this is NOT rocket-science, folks. Anyone who is willing to do research, to really look at their child's strengths AND weaknesses, and invest some time into the process, can insure that their child ends up at the right college. This was true 30+ years ago when my mother, who had never attended college herself, helped me through the process, and it is true now as well. So, folks, if you are unhappy with the counseling at your school, don't immediately rush to hire a private counselor -- get yourself educated about what it takes to get into various colleges, what the median grades and test scores of admitted students are, and help your child make realistic choices.
Second, don't assume that hiring an independent counselor is going to automatically give your child an "edge." While there are many wonderful, experienced independent counselors, there are many people these days hanging up a counselor shingle who don't know any more than the average person on the street about college admissions. So, buyer beware. (For reliable independents, do a google search for the Higher Education Consultants Association or the Independent Educational Consultants Association, both of which have standards for the experience and education of their members).
Third, while it is true that many school counselors have heavy caseloads and many responsibilities unrelated to college counseling, I have found the vast majority of school counselors to be good people who sincerely want to help. School counselors have some advantages that independent counselors do not have. For one thing, they have knowledge about the high school's prior admissions records at various colleges (independents only have partial knowledge in most cases), and they are the only ones who can write recommendations for students (independents can't) and contact admissions people on a student's behalf (independents shouldn't). School counselor knowlege of the school's previous placement history means that they can be a better judge of whether a particular student's college application list is reasonable and realistic, based on past admissions and rejections. School counselor's ability to advocate for students is another reason why no student (or parent) should ignore their counselor or wait for them to seek them out. As someone noted above: it is YOUR responsiblity as a student to ask for more attention if you need it. True, some counselors are very busy, but if you have a parent who is giving you help and advice at home, you do your own research as well, you should not really need tons of time with a school counselor to apply to and get into college. (On the other hand, students who do not have parents to help need to be extra dilligent about getting to know their counselor and seeking out advice from teachers as well)
Think of it this way: If you were a busy school counselor with a caseload of several hundred students, wouldn't you be more likely to help the student who has consistently made an effort to get to know you, to seek out your advice on other things, and to THANK YOU for the help you do provide. They can be your best advocate if you work with them, but approach them right off the bat with an adversarial attitude, and you won't get much help at all.
Finally, and most importantly, it is important for students and parents to maintain some perspective on college admissions. This is where educating yourself and your child is so important. Someone who is fully aware of the admissions statistics for a particular school and knows that their grades and test scores are outside of the medians for students who are admitted shouldn't feel insulted if a counselor - independent or school - tells them what they already know: some colleges and universities have become very selective in the past five years and ANY weakness on the applicant's part - be it grades, test scores, personal characteristics, extracurriculars - can reduce one's chances significantly.
As a counselor, both a school counselor and an independent counselor, it is my responsibility to make sure that my students are fully informed about their chances. That may mean sometimes telling students and parents what they don't want to hear. But, if I am not honest, I can't help students find colleges where they do have a great chance of admission, and EVERY student needs at least some colleges on their list where their chances of admission are very good. That doesn't mean that you can't add a few "reach" schools in the mix, but you need to have the solid foundation to your list in place first.
Additionally, no one should be insulted if a counselor mentions schools you have never heard of -- they are simply encouraging you to look beyond the obvious choices like the UC's and the Cal States. I find that Californian students and parents are the most parochial college consumers of any part of the country. They don't want to look beyond those UC's and Cal States. They deem anything else as inferior. While the UC's and Cal States are great, it really is a shame to stop with them because there are over 2,600 four year colleges and universities in the U.S., and so many wonderful options to choose from if you keep an open mind and do your research. By the way, none of the UCs or Cal States meet the full financial need of 100% of their students -- in many cases, you will pay LESS or at least end up with less LOANS if you attend a private university, and I'm not talking just about Stanford, Harvard, and Yale and the other "designer label" schools folks in California seem so fixated on. Check out Oberlin, Grinnell, Lawrence U, Rice U, Trinity U, Southwestern College, Beloit College, Hobart & William Smith, Fordham, Rhodes College, University of Rochester, Reed, Northeastern, Villanova and many, many others for starters. These may not be names you've heard of, but they are all excellent colleges that will give any UC and Cal State a run for their money in terms of giving you a good education. The key is: focus on finding the best match for your child, not the best known name.
But, the bottomline -- when your counselor tells your child that perhaps they should add a few "safe bet" schools to their college list DO NOT think that they don't have confidence in your child, or are saying your child is a bad student. They are merely trying to get your child to add some safer options to your list. Again, given the admissions landscape of the most selective colleges these days, that is good advice, not bad.
A bad counselor is the one who tells a student: You can get into any school you apply to. The truth these days is: NO student, even one with straight A's and 2400 SAT scores is guaranteed of being admitted anywhere. Flying without a safety net of good schools where your chances are high of being admitted is foolhardy. Sure, take a chance on those highly competitive schools, but don't expect miracles. Miracles in college admissions at the nation's most selective schools are few and far between these days. If you're going to play with the big boys, make sure you fly with a safety net, and you will sleep a lot better at night while waiting for your college results.
So, listen carefully when your counselor - whether private or school - tells you that you need to maybe consider a few safer bets. They're not saying you aren't good enough, they're just telling you that you need a safety net. That is the best advice any counselor can give, and you should thank them for it.
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