An Inside Look at College Advising

By Elizabeth LaScala, PhD

Applying to college can be one of the most bewildering as well as rewarding experiences for high school students and their families. Today, I thought I would paint a vivid picture of a scene that gets played out in my office with some regularity. Most recently, it was Ryan’s first college advising appointment. He walked in with an easy grin and four family members. After everyone sat down, we began a conversation about current coursework, classes planned for junior year, standardized testing and colleges the family was currently considering.

On Ryan’s right side sat his mother, brimming over with questions about colleges and standardized testing. It had been 25 years since she applied to college. On Ryan’s left sat his father, who was concerned about financial aid and scholarships. Next to Ryan’s mother sat Grandma Rose, who had flown to the US from China 15 years ago to help with Ryan and his newborn sister. Rose had a soft smile and kind eyes, which spoke silently of the caring she felt for her grandson. In a corner of my office plopped down in a comfortable chair was Ryan’s younger sister, Heidi, with an expression on her face that clearly spelled “I’m next!”

As I sat opposite this family, I reflected on the role I play as an educational consultant—in this instance addressing the needs of an 10th grade student and his family, a family that clearly cared a great deal about Ryan and his future. They were in my office for assistance with the college search and possible majors for Ryan, as well as to receive my expertise and guidance with the ever changing and increasingly complex world of college admission. Pulling together the data about the student, his interests, needs and academic profile as well as family preferences and financial considerations to create a customized college list is certainly a primary outcome one can reasonably expect from hiring an college counselor.

However, as surely as I sat speaking with this family, I knew there was so much more I would do over the coming months. I would educate both Ryan, his parents, and perhaps Grandma Rose about the college admission timeline and associated milestones; I would act as a coach, cheering Ryan on through researching colleges, writing essays and preparing for interviews; I would caution him about the dangers of procrastination with college application deadlines and set deadlines well in advance so nothing falls through the cracks. Importantly, I often help students to understand their parents’ perspectives and help parents to better understand their children during this important life transition. More often than not, I act as a buffer between students and parents, an important role since everyone wants the student’s last year living at home to be an enjoyable one.

College planning can be a difficult and stressful period in the lives of families. Students sometimes express regret over missed opportunities or less than perfect grades. Parents might have unrealistic expectations about chances for acceptance to highly selective colleges or hold misconceptions and myths about the admission process. My motto is to work with what you have and focus on the things you can control. Much of what I do is to work with the student to develop a realistic game plan. I offer an array of resources in the form of books, articles and websites. But more often than not, my primary tool is to listen carefully to questions and concerns and respond directly. Often I hear the same question asked several times in different ways, and I am reminded that people are not perfect information processors. It takes time to understand and retain information, especially when that information is new and the situation is heightened by stress.

As we sit in my office, I’m excited at the prospect of working with Ryan and his family. I have a passion for helping students achieve their educational goals and I enjoy engaging parents as partners in the college admission process. I want families to understand that my work is not about “getting a student in” but instead about helping students understand themselves better, establish meaningful priorities and take logical, sequenced steps toward reaching their goals. After all, this is the most satisfying outcome for any parent—to have raised a child to be independent, self-sufficient and happy.