My Honest Thoughts on the Future of College Counseling

February 10, 2021

My experience with college counseling started early. Before I even entered high school, my mom was already looking for college counselors. At the time, I didn’t understand why I needed a college counselor when I didn’t even know what colleges I wanted to attend or what even interested me. Looking back now, I can see why they were anxious to find me a college counselor early on. My parents were both 1st generation immigrants who moved from Korea only a decade before, and they simply knew very little about the American education system. Seeing other parents hire college counselors for their children influenced my parents to also look for a college counselor for me.

After graduating from college, I can now look back and get a better sense of whether all that college counseling was worth it. Though experiences can vary greatly among different people, my personal opinion is that much of college counseling was not too helpful for me and many of my peers. In my freshman and sophomore year, I recall not having much to say to my counselors but my grades and test scores. They recommended certain volunteering opportunities and school clubs I could join, but they were already popular clubs that me and most of my peers were already participating in. I remember talking about colleges I was interested in, but it was not much more than what I could find out by searching on Google.  On the other hand, college counseling tended to exacerbate our anxiety and stress because of the common hymn of “high GPA, high test scores, leadership positions”. 

For many, counselors provide similar conventional wisdom of aiming for high grades and test scores. They are tasked with identifying what classes to take, and suggest summer programs and school activities that students should join. I’ve received the same kinds of advice from my own college counselors. They told me to take as many APs and Honors classes in STEM that I can handle; and they recommended me to look into prototypical summer activities like volunteering at a hospital. But the problem I see here is that this is all just talk – and no action. Sure, they may help with course selection or school activities, but should that really be the value proposition of college counseling?  Furthermore, there’s trends in the college admissions landscape that diminish the importance of these kinds of advice. Look at the following changes in the past year or so: top universities are making SAT/ACT optional, College Board is canceling SAT II Subject Tests, and Harvard’s report Making Caring Common discusses how the “intense focus on academic achievement” has hurt students’ ethical engagement and development of interests and curiosity.

More importantly, I believe that traditional college counseling would serve students better if it took on a more sustainable far-sighted approach. Because counselors are hired for the sole purpose of getting students into the best colleges, they may not extend their planning past high school. Their advice will naturally seek to maximize short-term gains rather than plan for the long term successes of students. This can explain a lot of the stressful toxic environment we see in many schools. Counselors often prefer to recommend prestigious summer programs to students rather than taking the time to actually find activities that meet the long-term needs of the students. Science research labs and math competitions may make sense for some, but it’s definitely not the best fit for others. In addition, because GPA and test scores are easy short-term metrics that are used to differentiate applicants for college admissions, there’s a tendency for students and parents to overemphasize their importance. When many point to 4.5+ GPA, 1500+ SAT, and expensive summer programs as the main objectives of high school, a rat race among high school students to get the highest scores is inevitable.  

It is true that getting into a good college is a meaningful pursuit.  However, it is also true that college is just a four-year subway stop on a long journey that is life. Students need to develop meaningful and positive social skills like collaboration and leadership. They need to expand their horizons outside of our community “bubbles'' and be introduced to a wide array of perspectives. They also need to identify interests early on and develop those interests into passions. Lastly, as technology continues to transform our daily way of life, there’s an urgent need for students to develop a high level of maturity and empathy to use those tools properly. As one can imagine, all these traits will not be developed by solely preparing for standardized tests or attending summer coding camps.

I believe college counseling should adapt to the changing needs of our students and our society. What students need is a carefully designed curriculum alongside a group of accomplished advisers who share the same long-term interests as you and your child. I find that those who recently went through the college admissions process and achieved a high level of academic and career success can be best at providing insights and direction for teenagers. Unlike most college counselors, these people are young enough to relate to the modern problems facing high school students, and they also have valuable knowledge and skills to teach and mentor the next generation. For example, a recent MIT grad working at a top tech company will know more relevant information about MIT school values and the trends in the tech scene than an average college counselor. Similarly, a recent grad working at a top investment bank will better know which colleges and what skills are best for a career on Wall Street. From my own experience, one of the most empowering and motivating experiences for high school students is to hear and learn from older college graduates’ experiences. Teenagers can be much more likely to listen to older peers than parents or adult counselors.  Imagine how empowering and motivating it can be for young high school students to have direct access to a network of these individuals.

This is exactly why I believe in the mission of Path Mentors. The combination of project-based learning and mentorship equips Path Mentors with the means to help the next generation of young minds strive toward their individual goals and success. With a network of mentors from top universities and a dedicated staff working tirelessly to design the right project curriculum, Path Mentors is helping reshape the college counseling industry for the better. I recognize that it is very difficult to sometimes deviate away from what seems to have been proven to be effective for generations. However, the pandemic and the recent events have shown us that the world is rapidly changing and that students need more guidance than in the past. They need a partner that not only will excel in preparing your child for college admissions, but also need a mentor to help develop interests and skills that are necessary for success in today’s world. 

- Written by a Mentor from Columbia University

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