Top Tips from College Counselors For High School Students

It’s not easy being a College Guidance counselor. They are caught in the cross winds between helping hundreds of kids find the right spot for the next stage in their lives, keeping their parents calm and trying to stay current with the ever-changing college admissions landscape.

Parents and students may come into the college process with plenty of preconceived notions but it is high school advisors who live this every day and are the experts. We gathered advice for high school juniors and seniors and listed the most helpful reminders from college counselors below.

College counselors offer advice to high school students

Top Tips from College Counselors

1. When an application indicates a word limit, stick to it.

2. This is your life and yours alone. The adults surrounding you are not going to college. They may have useful information and counsel to provide, but in the end the college decision needs to be yours.

3. Try not to set your heart on a single school, but find a range of schools where you could be happy. Picking schools is stressful and getting rejected from a school you have come to love can be painful. Alice Kleeman, a recently retired college advisor at Menlo-Atherton High School in California, suggests an excellent way to dial back the stress. Every student, she argues, needs to, “Come up with one college where they are going to be admitted and where they would be excited to go. If you don’t have “excited to go”, forget it, that is not the one.”

She acknowledges that this has become more difficult as college admissions has become more holistic and less formulaic, making it harder to feel assured of admittance to any particular school. But she still believes that this is, “…pretty much possible for anybody to do this. One college where you are going to get in and you are going to be excited to go. Once you have that college, the stress is gone.”

[Related: College admissions is harder than you remembered. Here’s why.]

4. Deadlines are deadlines, not suggestions, so plan your time well. College counselors don’t make these dates up, the colleges do. So don’t come to your counselor hoping to negotiate, they are just the messenger.

5. Keep an open mind. This is a voyage of discovery. At the end of this process you should have learned a great deal about colleges and yourself.

6. Writing college recommendations is not a job requirement for most teachers but something they do to support and help their students. Long before admissions results are known, students should show their gratitude for this time-consuming task with a thank you in the form of an email or handwritten note.

7. If you have a problem with your applications, tests or recommendations do not wait until the last-minute to seek help. Counselors are there for you. But when students send them an email at 11:30 the night before the problem needs to be fixed, they make it impossible to help.

8. Find a school that fits you, not your friends and family. Finding that fit will mean going beyond “what everyone says” and finding out what a school is really like. Warning: many parents and other adults have impressions of universities that are 25 years out of date. Make sure your sources of information are current.

9. Remember your manners. In every email you write and every contact you have with interviewers, admissions officers and anyone at a college remember that you are making a first impression.

10. You have never been to college so assume you know nothing and explore your options. Don’t get your mind set on a certain type of college. In the US we have a wide variety of college from small liberal arts to large public universities to community college and everything in between. Don’t just look at one type of school, expand your search.

11. You do not need to discuss the college process with anyone other than your parents and counselor. If handling the barrage of questions from friends or the adults in your life is just increasing the pressure: don’t answer. Your scores, school list and anything else relating to admissions, is your private business and you can keep quiet about it as long as you wish.

12. One day you will get good news, please, please, please think about how this will feel to your classmates if you go shouting it from the rooftops. Overt jubilation in the halls of the high school can be very painful for those who have received unwelcome news that day. Try not to check your admissions status during the school day but rather privately at home.

13. Students need to research, research, research the schools in which they are interested. This does not mean simply going to a single information session or reading an online ranking. Rather it means digging deep and finding all of the available information on a school.

College websites are overflowing with information about their academic and extracurricular programs. The Common Data Set is a simple way to compare some factors about schools. College nights are a great chance to learn more about a college’s programs. Look at what graduates of that college do next. Most professors are happy to answer questions by email as are admissions counselors (email addresses to be found on college websites), though both of these should be consulted sparingly with specific questions not easily answered elsewhere.

The college admissions office at a college will also answer questions or put high school students in touch with current students who will answer questions or even arrange sleep overs on campus. Seniors can reach out to alumni of their high school who attend or attended colleges they are considering as a great source of information. Finally check out colleges on their social media and admissions blogs, these are some of the best places to find the most current information.

14. Try not to dash from campus to campus on a whirlwind college tour seeing little more than the information session and official tour. Most colleges campuses are fairly open places and it is worth exploring a bit on your own. Be sure to write down a few impressions from each visit as it will all start to blur very quickly.

15. You got this. It is important to remember that, “Colleges are not asking 17 year olds to do anything that 17 year olds are not capable of doing,” Kleeman explains. Parents, teachers and counselors can all have a role advising, but most seniors are entirely capable of doing what the colleges request in their application process.

16. Don’t pick a college for a single major. Sure you may think you know your interest but research suggests that up to 80% of graduates have changed their major from what they envisioned in high school. Make sure the college you select has lots of fields of study which interest you.

17. Colleges are interested in authenticity, in knowing who a student really is, not who the student thinks the college wants them to be. You do not need to have participated in community service, sports, the arts and worked at a job to be accepted to the college of your choice. You do need to have put effort into something that matters in your life and be able to convey that on your application. Pretending to be someone you are not is the wrong first step into adulthood.

[Related: Don’t let senior year slip away. Look at this Last Call List for Senior Year.]

18. Enjoy your senior year. This is one of life’s special years, a time when memories are made. Don’t let college admissions ruin that.


11 Reasons Why College Admissions is Harder than You Expected

Does It Matter Where You Go to College?  (interview with Frank Bruni)

About Grown and Flown

Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan are the co-founders of Grown and Flown the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. They are writers (Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author), moms, wives and friends. They started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and are co-authors of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

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