Don’t let the movie fool you: a profession in college admissions is compelling, challenging and sometimes very competitive.
In the last few months, I received two notes from aspiring admissions counselors who had read an essay  I’d written about hiring college admissions officers. Both were leaving another profession, and they clearly demonstrated an understanding of and passion for college admissions work. While I was admittedly pleased they found the piece I’d written helpful, I was even more excited by their sincere interest in working in a profession I love dearly.
However, they also conveyed to me a frustration. Both thought they had the qualities to make good admissions officers and yet were struggling to "get a look" from admissions offices that were hiring. I was sympathetic to their plight, because I could see their passion and could picture both being successful. Moreover, I started to question whether I was so out of touch with the qualities that make for a great admissions officer.
As I got to know each aspiring counselor, I started to think about my own approach to someone applying for an admissions position after working in another field. How would I react? How would I treat their résumé and cover letter? What would I want to see? What reassurances could they provide?
As I thought more about this and the challenges that might be encountered by those trying to break into college admissions later in their career, I developed the following recommendations for those seeking to enter the field.
Be direct in your cover letter. In addition to providing a description of your background, describe why you wish to make a change. Don’t dance around it; be direct. Furthermore, emphasize your understanding of the aspects of college admissions work beyond working with students during transition. Let people know you understand that there are expectations for travel away from home and family, long hours, and pressure to achieve specific goals. If possible, connect certain parts of your previous job to the work you anticipate doing in admissions. For example, if deadlines and working independently have been core parts of your job, tie those experiences to what admissions officers do. In addition, identify realistic salary expectations in your cover letter. I think this is important because I’ve made decisions in the past about candidates thinking we’d not be able to afford someone who has worked in another profession. (I know now I was wrong in a number of cases).
Rethink your résumé. If you are like most people, your résumé describes what you’ve done and most likely is geared toward people familiar with your profession. This is deadly. If you’ve worked in journalism or social work, and all of your positions and experiences are described in terms understood by journalists and social workers, most admissions people will question your focus on admissions. Think about ways you can more directly tie your work experiences toward what a college admissions counselor does. One way to do this is to provide a skill summary as part of your résumé, to more clearly illustrate how skills you’ve developed in your work directly relate to college admissions.
Join the regional association for college admissions counseling (ACAC). The regional ACACs, affiliates of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC), present an excellent avenue to demonstrate your seriousness about being involved in the profession. In addition, many offices of admissions advertise openings in newsletters and websites produced by the regional ACAC, which means you’ll know about job positions. You may even think about joining a standing committee. Why? It’s a great way to make connections and there is no question that relationships really matter when it comes to hiring in college admissions.
Contact a nearby office of admissions and ask if you can shadow some of the experiences. Reach out to an admissions office and explain your interest in learning more about the profession. Ask if you can attend a college night with a counselor, or sit in on an afternoon’s worth of admissions interviews. You might even ask if you can sit in on an admissions committee meeting. Most deans and directors I know probably wouldn’t mind conducting an informational interview about contemporary college admissions. You will need to be sensitive to the time of year, so as not to be a burden. There may be other ways you can volunteer time to an office of admissions. This level of interest (in admissions we call it "demonstrated interest") will give you a better understanding of and connections with the world of college admissions.
Volunteer with a community-based organization (CBO) that focuses on college-bound preparation. If you can’t shadow or volunteer in an admissions office, you might think about volunteering for a CBO. Such organizations are going to play a larger role in the college admissions and selection process, and connections with specific CBOs might be attractive to admissions offices that are hiring counselors.
Beware: you might be seduced by the great work of a CBO, which would not be a bad thing at all.
Volunteer for your alma mater’s recruitment network. Many colleges and universities invite interested alumni to participate in recruitment to supplement office initiatives. Investigate which opportunities are available, and find out how you can volunteer. You could probably cover a college night, write or call admitted students, or even host an event in your home. Whatever the possibilities, if you are genuinely interested in admissions, you’ll participate.
While these suggestions cannot guarantee a job or even "a look" in college admissions, they can be helpful for aspiring counselors looking for a deeper connection with a great profession.
P.S. I recently received a follow-up note from one of the individuals informing me that she had since secured a position in graduate school admissions.
W. Kent Barnds is executive vice president and vice president for enrollment, communication and planning at Augustana College.