What Do We Teach?: The Lessons of College Counseling

What Do We Teach?: The Lessons of College Counseling

Nicholas Soodik
Associate Director of College Counseling
Pingree School

John Allman, the Head of Trinity School in Manhattan, recently made the New York Times for an unusual reason: his end-of-summer letter to families at his school. In it, Allman seeks to establish a new sense of community at Trinity, an environment that attends to both individual well-being and the common good. The letter makes a point to call out the divisive forces that cause disconnection at Trinity and independent schools more broadly. He worries that students view their schoolwork simply as a means to “set themselves on a path of lifelong superior achievement,” and he censures “consumerist families that treat teachers and the school in entirely instrumental ways.”

His language is powerful and his message important. Allman has me thinking about what I do as a college counselor to advance the larger educational goals of our institution – goals geared toward the building of character and citizenship rather than the next big accolade or award. The letter has led me to ask what I want my students to learn as a result of my college counseling. Surely, the whole point is not just to know the difference between early decision and restrictive early action. As college counselors, what do we teach our students? What makes college counseling integral to their high school education? How does it contribute to the common good?

While these questions are open-ended, good college counseling seeks to develop the following qualities in students:  

  • Self-awareness: In thinking about what they want in a college, students should be encouraged to reflect on themselves. The best college lists emerge from students who most closely examine their own interests and look for institutions that will enable these characteristics to flourish.  
  • Independence: Students should work to articulate their own hopes and goals – apart from what their families and the larger culture may want – as they imagine what’s next in their education. They should also take responsibility for the labor of searching for colleges, planning trips, and meeting the requirements to apply.    
  • Self-confidence: The college admissions industry is flooded with rankings and perceived measures of prestige. Good college counseling, however, should help students learn to measure their self-worth in internal or intrinsic ways.
  • Tolerance for uncertainty: There are several months between the stages of developing a balanced list, sending out applications, and receiving decisions. Although data can help make predictions about eventual decisions, students should work to grow comfortable with the long wait and the element of uncertainty inherent in the process. 
  • Navigation of complexity: Applying to college is hard work, and while the sometimes labyrinthine requirements may seem mundane, students should learn the value in avoiding shortcuts, remaining organized, and staying ahead of deadlines.   

Make no mistake – this list is not exhaustive. There are a host of additional goals in college counseling, objectives focused not on outcomes but on life skills useful to any long-term decision. I have also left unanswered how college counseling might contribute to the common good, which is perhaps Allman’s central concern.  

When parents and counselors concentrate on cultivating these more lasting skills, we make better partners in the education of young people. In so doing, we also work to shape more prepared citizens, self-aware young people with the autonomy and confidence necessary to navigate an uncertain world. Together, of course, we still rejoice in positive decisions and bring comfort after disappointing news. The most authentic victory, though, derives from the values we aspire to teach and the students who best embody them. 

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