College counseling at a small school can be an enviable position because of the opportunity to directly impact each student’s path and take pride in their college placement. However, come application time, you might not feel so blessed with competing demands on your time from student break downs to hundreds of emails from over-involved parents.
The truth is counselors at smallhigh schools wear many hats, often with fewer resources. At a session titled “Challenges and opportunities of college counseling at small high schools” at the NACAC 2012 conference in Denver, three high school counselors shared their tips on how to successfully navigate the challenges you face in this role.
Get to know your students in class
Try to teach students in their junior year so that you can get to know them better. This will eliminate the need to have one-on-one sessions just to ‘get to know’ students so that you can write their recommendation letter with ease. John Kurdelak from Trinity School at Greenlawn in Indiana follows this practice and uses 5 minutes of the start of his class to answer questions about the college application process since very often students have the same questions.
Take advantage of the ups and downs of the admissions cycle
You know things are going to get hectic close to application time so work ahead. Consider drafting school recommendations over summer break. You can finalize your recommendations closer to application time but at least you’ll have something drafted for every student that you can easily add to.
Help me, help you
Similarly, you should encourage students to draft their essays early so that you can have some time to review them. Set up sessions on financial aid/scholarships and the ins and outs of the Common App early. Make it mandatory for students to attend. This way you can save precious one-on-one time with the student on things like building college lists and giving feedback on their essays. Getting information out in groups is not only efficient but leads to more questions because students feel secure in groups. Even those who are nervous about asking questions might have the questions answered through another student.
Parents can be babies
College applications can make parents very anxious. They see it as an important crossroad for their child and have thousands of questions regarding the process. Ellen Masten, counselor at York School in California said, “ Worried parents need attention. Communicate with them. Always be firm, but fair.” One tactic is to create parent newsletters that can be sent home. These newsletters should contain college tips and reminders. Masten said she also schedules six special college related evenings for parents where she can answer their questions at once. She creates handouts on all the material she covers so that it can easily be emailed to those who could not make the session.
College admission reps want to be your friends
When you are a small school it is all the more important for college reps to get to know your school well so that they can better evaluate applicants from your school. If you don’t offer AP or IB classes, the burden is on you to explain the rigor of your curriculum. Encourage college reps to come to your school at a time many students can attend. If the rep can’t come in person, you can set up a Skype meeting with the rep and your students suggests counselor Judy Schmitt from Chandler Preparatory Academy in Arizona. She also suggested creating a consortium of small schools in your area and creating a students-only college fair to attract more college reps to your area.
Don’t go the distance alone
You’ve got a big task ahead. To make sure you’re using your time efficiently, that is, focused on actually counseling students, enlist help from others to help you with the less value-add albeit necessary tasks. You can enlist other teachers in your school or even parents to help students set up their Common Application, make endless transcript copies, advertise the college fair you have organized, etc. Just show them how to do it once.
We would love to hear from you! Do you have suggestions for small high school counselors on how to juggle competing demands on their time? Please comment below.