You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

SurfUpVector/Getty Images

I counsel my students that the college search isn’t ultimately about college admission. The college process is part of a larger journey of self-discovery, where the objective is to discern who you are and what your unique purpose is.

It’s taken a long time, perhaps too long, but I’ve finally figured out my own raison d’être. I’m determined to spend the rest of my days trying to demythologize the college admissions process. “Demythologize” might be the wrong verb, because the beliefs and assumptions I want to investigate, clarify and stamp out aren’t myths per se, but closer to urban legends. Like urban legends, they are plausible but never happen to anyone you know.

I prefer to call them “suburban legends.” They are the “truths” about college admission that are shared as gospel in the grocery store, on the sidelines of games and at any social gathering where parents of high school juniors and seniors congregate. They are believed and propagated by people who are educated and affluent. Some of them may be true, but many aren’t.

A recent New York Times article included a classic suburban legend. The article wasn’t about college admission but rather about the efforts of independent schools in New York City to address their histories as privileged and predominantly white institutions. Many have adopted antiracist policies and language, and the article shows why the debate over critical race theory has become so politicized. Schools trying to do the right thing in becoming more diverse and inclusive and helping students and parents come to grips with the vestiges of systemic racism must navigate dangerous waters. On one shore is the Scylla of right-wing legislators trying to score cheap political points and on the other the Charybdis of diversity consultants arguing, in an example from the Times article, that “individualism, worship of the written word, and objectivity” are tools of white supremacy.

What caught my attention, though, was a sentence in the middle of the article: “A letter or call from the counselor at a top private school can work wonders with college admissions offices.”

The notion of the college counselor as Hollywood agent, cutting deals for students, is a popular trope. Jacques Steinberg, then a New York Times reporter, used the relationship between a high school college counselor and a Wesleyan University admissions officer as a narrative device in his 2002 book, The Gatekeepers. In an article titled “Fenced In by Delusions,” adolescent psychologist Michael Thompson describes the “relationship delusion,” whereby independent school parents believe, or at least hope, that schools have “special” relationships with certain colleges whereby their child’s counselor can facilitate admission by picking up the phone and calling a buddy in the admissions office.

But is it true? Can college counselors at independent schools “work wonders,” tipping the scales of justice -- or at least admission?

The answer, in my experience, is no. I’ve been a college counselor for nearly 40 years, and if I have that superpower, I’m not aware of it.

When I started in the college counseling profession, it was common for independent schools to talk about college “placement,” implying that schools “placed” students at various colleges. I’ve never been comfortable seeing college counseling through a sales lens, and if it was ever the case that a well-placed call could influence admissions offices, that disappeared long ago.

Or has it? In the wake of the Times article, I reached out to members of ACCIS, the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools. In a short time, I received more than 50 thoughtful and passionate responses from counselors at schools in 24 states plus the District of Columbia.

The consensus of the group was that the Times article misrepresented the influence that independent school college counselors have. The advocacy call has largely disappeared, especially at the nation’s most competitive colleges.

Early in my career, it was common to have a call with admissions officers at institutions where my school regularly sent applicants before decisions were finalized. It was a discussion, not a negotiation, but I had the ability to ask for a second look at candidates on the bubble. Occasionally a decision would be changed from deny to wait list or wait list to accept.

Gradually the nature of counselor calls changed to a reporting function, providing context on the applicant pool that helped us explain decisions to students and parents. At some institutions those calls more resembled infomercials, with the message often sounding like “We’re so excited that we could reject so many of your students.”

Today many institutions won’t have conversations at all, not sharing decisions with counselors until after the students have received them. The rationale is equity. Is it fair to have calls with counselors from some schools when we can’t have calls with all schools? As an ethical principle, that makes sense. The unanticipated consequence (or maybe it is anticipated) is an erosion of the collaboration across the desk that has allowed college admission counseling to claim to be a profession. I worry that college admission offices and high school counselors are no longer part of one profession but exist on a dual track.

While there is an overwhelming sense from the ACCIS respondents that the kind of influence suggested by The New York Times is fiction, there is also nagging suspicion or even paranoia that some prominent schools and counselors may retain that influence. Several counselors wondered if there is a secret society most of us aren’t privy to where schools and colleges make deals using the college admissions equivalent of the Bat Phone or the White House-Kremlin hotline. Do schools in Boston, New York, D.C. and Los Angeles have relationships with colleges that are off-limits to the rest of us?

If they do, no one is admitting to it. I received responses from college counselors at two different prominent independent schools in New York City, both of whom were distressed by the implications in the Times article. One described the counseling team reacting to the article with “a mixture of sadness and open hostility,” while the other commented, “If my school’s communications department wouldn’t blow a gasket I would write a letter to the NYT to tell them that what they wrote is BS.”

That second comment provides insight into where the belief that independent school college counselors are like Hollywood agents originates. It comes not from college counseling offices but from the marketing arm of many schools. Clearly one of the reasons parents choose independent schools is for a perceived benefit in the college admissions process. A few years ago, a colleague attended an open house for the parents of kindergarten applicants. Those parents leafed through the packet of information casually -- until they got to the college list, which they perused in depth.

Should schools promise either explicitly or subtly that the school and its counselors can provide access and advantage in the college admissions process? Of course not. Today the advantage that independent schools provide is an excellent education and a college counseling program that helps families navigate a process that is confusing and stress-inducing. That kind of support is worth its weight in gold, or at least tuition dollars. Schools should be trumpeting process, not results.

It’s time to retire the college-counselor-as-Hollywood-agent trope. I’d suggest replacing it with the idea that college counselors are trail guides. At a time when the college admissions world increasingly resembles the Wild West, that’s an appropriate metaphor. We help students and parents plot a course through dangerous and uncertain terrain, anticipate what’s around the bend, and make sure they don’t miss the scenery.

Now if only The New York Times and other media outlets would promote that view of college counseling.

Next Story

Written By

Found In

More from Views