With hundreds of students, funding cuts, and a multi-functional job, high school guidance counselors aren't able to spend much time counseling students about college.
A 2005 study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) reported that the average public high school student got about 38 minutes of college advising per year from their guidance counselor, and a 2009 study by the National Center for Education Statistics said the average public school had 457 students per counselor.
It's important for students to make the time they get to spend with their counselor count. Jim Miller, president of NACAC and coordinator of enrollment research at the University of Wisconsin—Superior, says there are things students can do to be better prepared to meet with a counselor.
Rather than thinking about specific schools, Miller suggests looking at what type of school you want to go to and, equally as important, considering what type of school you don't want to go to. Instead of going into a meeting with a counselor with a list of schools, go with a list of traits you're looking for in a school.
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"They need to think about why they want to go to college—think about what kind of learner they are, what kind of rigor they might be ready for," he says. Consider how far you're willing to go away for school, whether you want to go to a large or small school, and if sports are important, he says. "If they want to go to an ESPN school [with a top sports program], they don't come to my D-III school. If they don't want to go to the basketball game, but try out for the basketball team, my school might not be a bad place."
Instead of trying to make a specific school fit your needs, allow a counselor to narrow your choices until you find a good fit. Don't worry too much about majors, unless you have a specific interest—most students major in a subject offered at many schools, he says.
Although counselors at some schools have many tasks, most schools offer group counseling for both parents and students during sophomore or junior year that will help students get acclimated to the process. These meetings are crucial. "They set the stage," Miller says.
If you need extra counseling or don't have a counselor available at your school, there are other options. The U.S. Department of Education's College Navigator allows students to narrow preferred colleges based on schools' characteristics. And for people who need more individualized attention, independent college admissions counselors are available—for a price.
A firm like Aristotle Circle, which teams students with one of about 200 counselors and admissions experts based on students' school preferences, can help guide a student through the admissions process.
Parents can pay Aristotle Circle experts by the hour (between $150 to $500 per hour) or pay a flat fee starting at $3,000 to have a counselor work with the student until he or she is accepted to a school. Founder Suzanne Rheault says she knows many of the students who aren't receiving adequate counseling attend schools in poverty-stricken areas, so about half of the experts offer pro bono work to students who need financial aid.
"These counselors got into education for a reason. They want to help," she says. "The key is finding the right experts to match them up with."