Early spring means college acceptances and rejections will begin to flood in, and students along with their parents will be left celebrating or questioning the letters they receive. We’ve all had these conversations, and we know how they go.
“How did X student get in?” It’s a question I am constantly asked by parents who want to understand what made X student unique or interesting enough to earn an offer from a selective university. And before I get a chance to answer, they often rattle off a litany of things they think might be “the thing” that put the student over the top.
I often hear, “She was first chair in the orchestra” (no one cares unless you plan to major in music) and “He was captain of the basketball team” (no one cares unless you are a recruited athlete) and “That student got the President’s Volunteer Service Award for 500 hours of community service for Habitat for Humanity” (no one cares unless you plan to build houses, or dedicate your life to volunteerism).
But no one ever says, “The high school counselor must have called the admissions office and advocated on behalf of that particular student”—but maybe they should.
Sam Bigelow, director of college counseling at a boarding school, stated as much in his article entitled “What Have You Done for Me Lately? Advocacy in the College Process.” He states, “Some colleges allow for counselor calls where each applicant is discussed.”
In my experience, it is more than some—it is many. I have counseled hundreds of students from all types of high schools and aided their process in acceptance to all types of higher education institutions. This is a common—and often extremely helpful—tactic.
The National Association for College Admission Counseling boasts a network of “23,000 college counseling and admissions professionals.” And every year thousands of them descend upon a major U.S. city to engage in information sharing, and to build and strengthen relationships between high school counselors and college admissions officials. Those relationships exist and should be considered by applicants in their process. The advocacy of one professional in this field to another is wildly underutilized.
In fact, Bigelow notes, “Advocacy can take various forms: a quick email to an admissions representative … a phone call … [or] an in-person conversation with an admissions friend at a conference.” These are simple contacts that can add a great degree of color, personalization and humanity to an application that otherwise may be stuck in the middle of the stack.
In theory, counselor calls provide high school counselors an opportunity to add meaningful context or updates. An example of a meaningful update might be alerting a university that after submitting the application, Sally earned a spot as a “Regeneron semifinalist.” But in reality, many public high school counselors don’t have time to call colleges and note each applicant’s postsubmission achievements. And for the high school counselors who do have time, how do they choose for whom they will advocate?
Imagine for a moment that 30 students from the same high school apply to the same college (very typical). Remember, the colleges already have all the grades, test scores, recommendation letters, essays, interviews, etc. Among the 30 possible students, how does the counselor decide? And how does the counselor decide the content of the conversation? No one knows, except the counselor, and this subjective human element will often impress the admissions counselor.
Imagine you are the admissions officer. What would you find more compelling: 500 hours of community service that is in no way related to the student’s academic future, or a call from a high school counseling friend you see annually at industry conferences and seminars?
These additional contacts and personal touches are what is often missing from the conversation about college admissions. Too often, we are looking at performance metrics when it’s the humanization of an applicant that can make the difference. Everyone knows the traditional recipe for college admissions: the scores, the essays, the transcripts—but those immeasurable additions from a counselor may be the ingredient an applicant is missing.