Top 5 Tips for a Successful College Counseling Experience

For high school students and parents (especially those going through it for the first time with their oldest child), there are few experiences more stressful than the college search/application process. From long hours in the car visiting school after school to questions from family members near and far about a future that feels so uncertain, it is easy for everyone’s frustration level to reach a boiling point.  After an eleven-year college admission career at three highly selective schools and now nine years in independent school college counseling, I can safely say that I’ve seen just about everything.

This process is supposed to be a wonderful time of exploration and self-discovery for young men and women.  Many begin to unearth their passions (if they haven’t discovered them already!) and take time to reflect about what has been meaningful to them throughout their high school career.  It is about recognizing strengths and coming to grips with weaknesses. Many teens think this is a time when they should have all the answers, when instead they should be looking at this as a great opportunity to ask questions.  Lots of them.

I have counseled students of all interest and ability levels through this process. I have seen what works and what does not, and while this is an individual process that will (and should) unfold differently for each student and family, I do have some general tips that I hope can help everyone.

1. Don’t start too early.

I have seen what happens when parents push their children to confront this process sooner than they are ready, and the effects are not too different from what happens when they lean on their kids about other things….the opposite happens. At MICDS, we assign college counselors to 9th grade students for a reason, most importantly to have maximum time to establish a relationship with the student and family.  But we don’t begin college-specific conversations until early in the second trimester of the Junior year for a reason as well, because we feel this allows plenty of opportunity for students to take advantage of what high school has to offer (without worrying about college) while still providing ample time to manage all of the different aspects of applying to college.  The more time students have to mature, the more thoughtful they will be in reflecting on their time in school as they think critically about what they want the next phase of their academic journey to look like. The student/parent/college counselor relationship is an important one, and it works best when all three parties are moving forward together on the same timeline.

2. Eliminate “we” from your vocabulary.

The college process is one in which students are their own best advocate.  The more they feel ownership of it, the more they will embrace the stress, excitement, nervousness, and joy that it can bring.  As I often tell parents, it is the student who will be attending college, not them.  The more parents can do to get away from “we are applying to college” to “he/she is applying to college,” the more students will be freed to feel they are in control of this decision.  Granted there may be factors out of a student’s control that dictate where they can attend, but the actual acts of identifying schools of interest and filling out applications is an “I” action for the student, not a “we” action for the parents.

3. Set aside time for college talk once the process begins, and honor that time.

There is nothing worse for a high school senior than to wrap up a grueling two-hour field hockey practice following a long day at school that included several tests, only to be bombarded with college questions as soon as she walks in the door at home when all she really wants is a shower, dinner and to get started on homework.  Establish a weekly/biweekly time just for conversations about college and stick to it. Your student will come into that conversation more engaged because the guidelines have already been established, and they won’t be worried that you will spring questions on them at the most inopportune or undesirable time.  High school students are all about their schedule-A period chemistry, play practice after school, etc—so help them out and make this part of their routine as well.

4. Recognize that this is already a focal point of their conversations at school.

The wonderful thing about MICDS is that it is a close-knit community where most students know many of their classmates. But often that means that they know/share a lot of much information with each other, the college process included. Therefore, remind them that this is an individual process that is theirs, and theirs alone. Support and encourage them to keep that in mind, and to the degree that they can, not be swayed by the thoughts and opinions of friends, classmates, teachers, etc. They need to always remember that they are the ones who will be going off to school, and so finding the right fit for them is of paramount importance.

5. Have fun.

I often get eye rolls when I conclude with this as my last tip, but to me it is without a doubt the most important. When I was in high school, I took two trips to visit colleges, one with my dad and one with my mom. The time we spent together discovering new places, and the long talks in the car about anything but the school we had just seen, are memories that I will cherish forever. Sharing in the joy of friends as they realized their dreams brought me so much happiness. There is often too much focus on the end result, when the joy of the process getting there is just as important, if not more so. As a parent, do whatever you can to help your child with this final tip because it is usually the one that is hardest for them to adhere to on their own. You can do so much in establishing a tone for this process for your child, so make it one of fun and support early and it will do wonders.