Guest Opinion: College counseling system isn't working for anyone | January 23, 2008 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - January 23, 2008

Guest Opinion: College counseling system isn't working for anyone

by Chloe Zelkha

I'm a senior at Gunn and I read the recent article about college counselors (Weekly, Jan. 11). It was really interesting, especially the perspectives from graduates.

However, I think important points were not expressed.

This year at Gunn I received a new counselor: Paige Johnson, who has a reputation as being one of the nicest and most understanding counselors. I really like her. In helping me with my college search, she was as good as a stranger could be.

However, I disagree with a student's statement that counselors are not to blame if students don't try to get to know them. That implies that it's the students' fault, when really neither counselors nor students can truly take action to get to know each other in the current system.

My counselor gets all students with last names T-Z in all grades. That is a lot of kids. That's why it makes sense that when students come in at lunch or after school, counselors have a line of kids waiting to see them, or they're out on a well-deserved break.

I don't think there's much time just to talk. Paige most definitely is a kind and qualified woman that I have shared a few sentences of small talk with in the halls and she does know my extra-curriculars from the sheet I gave her — but I wouldn't necessary say she knows me.

For example, my friend, Jacob Savage, recently tried to see his counselor multiple times, but says she's always busy or not there.

"I've done lunches, I've done after school, I've done during my preps, you know? I'd say I have about a 10 percent contact rate." he said, laughing.

Lots of students say their counselors don't know them well.

"She knows me on paper, not my personality. It's not her fault, though. I think she's a nice person. She just has a lot of other kids. That's why we turn in a college packet with words describing ourselves and a note from our parents, so that the counselors can write a recommendation," senior Neva Hauser said.

Some kids feel the system is not tailored to the needs of anyone.

"I've liked my counselors pretty well, but I've only had each of them for one year. The system gave me two counselors freshman year, and sophomore year I didn't even have one," senior Alexandra Codina said.

"I was never called in for the yearly meeting, so I had to go in and ask. They replied by sending me to multiple sources to tell my story over and over again. Last year I had this really nice lady, but then she went to Paly. This year I have Mr. Christenson. He's really nice and I think he gets me pretty well, because he asked me all these questions," Alexandra said.

"But he doesn't know the system of the school, so he doesn't really know how to manipulate it for my benefit. I've had to be more independent."

Some students say that the counselors are discouraging in the college-selection process.

"I said two words and then she just started talking. She talks real fast. The way she acts around me makes me really nervous. She speaks like she's angry at something, like she doesn't want to be there," another senior said of a counselor.

"I said, 'Well I want to study this,' and I didn't have a chance to say where I was applying. Finally, I said I was applying to Brown, and she said it wouldn't be a good idea.

"I just didn't see the harm in applying, though. It made me feel a little bit bad about myself, that's all. She's honest, and I need that, because I am a kid. But, she doesn't soften the blow," the student said.

Some kids feel lost in the college-application process.

"My counselor takes a personal interest in me. I like her and she wants me to succeed, but she just didn't tell me anything about the college-application process," another senior said. "I don't know if she assumed I knew or if she thought I had already been told, but I didn't even know what the college packet was before the day it was due.

"The counselors are doing the job well; it's the system that is horrible. They have to just give up on kids and be like, 'Oh well. Guess I'll never get to know that one,'" senior Katelyn Hempstead said.

"The counseling is so much better when you're a freshman. Then they're holding your hand in the great race of high school. When you're a senior they just tell you to figure it out," she said.

"I had one counselor up until the middle of senior year, and then I got a new one. That's not the best time to switch, but I have Ms. Compton now, and I love her!

"However, it's not possible for them to give everyone the information that is necessary to get into college. There's just not enough time. I thought it was almost absurd that they had to write a recommendation for students."

Katelyn explained that parents write a recommendation called the "Brag Sheet" that the counselors use to formulate their own "rec."

"Even if I'd had the same counselor, they couldn't possibly know me after spending five minutes with me each year, senior Genna Lipari said. "I turned the college packet in like a week late, it took so much time to figure it out. I'm the oldest sibling, so there's no one to point me in the right direction.

"My friends were the ones who helped me with the college packet."

I don't know if the Advisory (at Paly) is the best method to switch to, just because then teachers have to spend 20 minutes more unpaid time, and we already ask a lot out of them.

Maybe there should just be an optional weekly informal meeting with counselors where you just get to talk, but with other kids there, too. Then you don't have to go if you don't want to, and different kids can get to know their counselors in a non-pressurized arena that doesn't necessarily always have to do with college.

But the current system doesn't seem to be working for anyone, kids or counselors.

Chloe Zelkha recently applied to 12 colleges, mostly liberal arts schools on the East Coast. She can be e-mailed at


Posted by Hulkamania, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 22, 2008 at 7:14 pm

"But the current system doesn't seem to be working for anyone, kids or counselors."

No kidding!

Posted by David Cohen, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jan 22, 2008 at 9:08 pm

Teacher advisors at Paly are compensated for their work. Advisory duties are counted as one class in the teacher's contract. Thank you, Chloe, for not expecting teachers to take on extra work without pay.

Posted by =), a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jan 23, 2008 at 8:33 pm

I think the great thing about the Teacher Adviser program is that it pretty much eliminates all the troubles mentioned here. I think the schedule-makers try to put students in at least one class with their adviser, so that there is some personal connection. That isn't always possible, but I know of at least one class made up almost completely of a certain teacher's advisees.
I don't have to worry about not being able to contact my TA-- I can send an email or drop by whenever I have an issue. It's really nice, because each TA is only responsible for 30 or so recommendations each fall, rather than hundreds. My TA is wonderful-- each student has his or her own file with all the pertinent information in it. When rec season comes around, it's just a matter of remembering the details of each achievement, rather than trying to remember the student.
I was actually unaware that Gunn didn't use the TA program. I don't know what the objections are, but perhaps it could be implemented?

Posted by Paly mom, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 26, 2008 at 10:01 am

I think the district needs to revamp the counseling program for both high schools. It doesn't sound like Gunn's system works very well, but Paly's advisory system doesn't work very well either. It seems to depend a lot on who one's advisor is, but many of the teachers don't do much in the advisory in terms of teaching students about college options and the whole college application process. I think many in our district assume that the majority of families will pay a private college counselor to guide their kids through that process. Since not all families can afford pricey college counselors who charge over $100 an hour, the school needs to make sure that all students get the assistance they need.
I was surprised to hear that the advisory takes the place of a class in the teacher's schedule. While I'm sure some teachers take the advisory seriously, some advisors don't even meet with students every week, and some let them leave early. (My son's girlfriend only met with her advisor twice first semester.) Perhaps more administrative oversight is needed.
My recommmendation would be for the district to replace the advisory system in both schools with several experienced guidance counselors. In addition to advising students about their schedules and grades, they would assist students in making decisions about colleges and careers. They would also be the contact people when the student is having academic or social problems. (In the current system, many parents say that it is unclear who one is supposed to communicate with.) This system works well in some of the other high schools in the area; maybe PAUSD should consider a different model.

Posted by Student, a resident of Gunn High School
on Aug 3, 2008 at 9:04 pm

It would be interesting to look for any difference in the admissions rates for Paly and Gunn High school students, given that the systems in use are so different. I know this doesn't take into account any emotional distress and such which fellow students such as Chloe Zelkha seem to feel, but it would be nice to have that as a starting point statistic before making any changes. Frankly, I would be surprised if any serious student (can't comment on parents) would prefer a non-pressurized counseling environment if it turned out that it was not effective in accomplishing its task of helping students get into college. I would suspect that Paly and Gunn show very similar admission rates as well as very similar student populations. If this is the case, there is little to convince me that the system "isn't working for anyone," in terms of the undeniable main purpose for its existence. The way I see it, application season is inherently a pretty painful time, regardless of the degree of counselor hand-holding.

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