One Strategy that Gets More and Better College Planning from your Teenager’s Guidance Counselor

Perfect World versus Reality

In a perfect world, guidance counselors would be able to focus a significant portion of their daily activities on helping students plan and prepare for college.

In reality, college counseling is only one of seven job duties that the majority of high school counselors identified in “The College Board 2012 National Survey of School Counselors and Administrators.”  The other six job duties are personal counseling, student scheduling, career counseling, academic testing, family and community outreach, and “other non-guidance” activities.

Green tree, Green EarthIn a perfect world, guidance counselors would have a manageable caseload of students that allow them to meet with each of their students frequently and get to know them individually.

In reality, the average guidance counselor at a public high school has 367 students on their caseload (The College Board, 2012).  One counselor for 367 students leaves little time for frequent, individual meetings over the course of a school year.

Therefore, when we talk about the quantity and quality of college planning our students are receiving in high school, we must deal with the reality of high caseloads and other job duties that serve to limit a guidance counselor’s time with our students.

Heavy Lifting 

So, how can your teenager get more college planning time from their guidance counselor?  The answer is simple.  Engage in rigorous career and college exploration before meeting their guidance counselor.  This can eliminate one or two of the initial counselor meetings that focus on reviewing basic career information and allow your teen to move directly to more advanced college planning conversations with their counselor.  As I stated above, this is a simple solution, but the fact remains that virtually no student takes the time to do this.  One reason is that students are not told specifically that they need to do this.  They are not asked to complete an assignment on college exploration, so they don’t do it.  To engage in “rigorous” career and college exploration, a student needs to devote at least 100 hours to the process.  Yes, 100 hours.  It’s at that point that I consider students “informed and prepared” for advanced college planning conversations and activities.

Before we move on, let me be clear about the concept of being “informed and prepared.”  First, it doesn’t mean that your teen’s exploration results in knowing the exact career, job, and college they want to pursue.  Determining what you want to do in your professional life is not the goal of career exploration.  The goal is learning what you like about different careers, jobs, and colleges.  For example, your teen could answer the following questions:

  •  Which careers match your specific interest for salary, location, and training?
  • Which careers have job responsibilities that match your strengths?
  • Which careers have educational requirements that you are willing to work toward?

There are many high school students who think they know what they want to study in college to prepare for their “ideal” career.  Many of these students want to be Doctors, Lawyers, Scientist, or Corporate Executives, just to name a few, but they can’t tell you why they want to have these careers or base their interest on a single characteristic such as a high starting salary or working with a certain population of people.  Other students base their interest in careers based on bad information about job projections, the type of work required, and false reports of job security. Some students who have not engaged in rigorous exploration may have genuine interest in certain careers, jobs and colleges, but more often than not, these students have a limited understanding of the important characteristics of the career field.

The “informed and prepared” student has explored, researched, and sought out information about the careers, jobs and colleges of interest so that they can evaluate their professional aspiration more fully while also making more informed decisions about which classes and extra-curricular activities will best prepare them for future success.  Let me show you one example of what this looks like.

Meet Charlotte

Charlotte, April blog

High school or college ethnic African-American female student sitting by the desk with books and copybook in class

Charlotte is a tenth grade student who stops by to see her guidance counselor, Mr. Reed, on the first day of school and says,

“Mr. Reed, I spent 100 hours this summer researching careers in the Health Science field and you will not believe what I found.  I also reviewed the 15 colleges that have a Health Science major in a 200-mile radius.  In this folder, you’ll find a two-page summary of what I found. I’d like to come back in two weeks to hear what you think about my research.  I would also like to talk about courses in the school that will prepare me for this career field and identify any people or businesses you think I should connect within the community that can help me get special experiences in this field.”

With the work that Charlotte has done over the summer, her meeting with Mr. Reed will be miles ahead of the students that did not do any career and college exploration over the summer.  Can you guess how many meetings it will take for Mr. Reed to help his other students to become as informed and prepared as Charlotte?  One meeting, two meetings or is it possible that the other students will never catch up to Charlotte?  What are the odds that Mr. Reed will ever be able to have the type of college planning conversations with a student who is uninformed and under-prepared?

The Bonus

Let’s also consider the impact of Charlotte’s summer work on Mr. Reed’s motivation to work with her.  After seeing the work and effort that Charlotte put into her career exploration, is there any doubt that Mr. Reed’s attitude toward helping Charlotte in her college planning has increased?  We all get a boost of energy when we see students take the initiative and go above and beyond our expectations.  In fact, Charlotte has made Mr. Reed’s job a lot easier because she’s already done some of the heavy lifting and he can step right into the on-going process of exploration while also moving into the next phases of college planning.  I don’t know about Mr. Reed, but if Charlotte wasn’t one of my favorite students, she would become one of my favorites.  It’s no secret that our favorites get a little (sometimes a lot) more attention and support than our others students.  In addition, if that wasn’t enough, do you think that Mr. Reed will write Charlotte glowing letters of recommendation?   Probably so.  He certainly has great examples of Charlotte’s initiative, persistence, and exploration of her interest to reference in the letters.

Bottom Line

Bureau of Labor & Statistics Occupation Outlook HandbookIn most schools, you will find some students who know exactly what they want to do, some students who have no clue about what they want to do, and the rest of the students somewhere in the middle.  However, what’s most important to take away from this reality is the fact that your teenager has the opportunity to do a considerable amount of research and exploration about careers, jobs and college before they ever step foot in their guidance counselor’s office.  And if they do complete that work and become more informed and prepared students, they will find that the resulting time they spend with their guidance counselor will be focused on more advanced levels of college planning.


If your teenager doesn’t know where to start, then send them to my favorite website for career exploration: Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).  Don’t get thrown off by the name.  This federal agency has great resources for career exploration and I suggest that your teen start by looking at the “Occupational Outlook Handbook.”  Here is the website’s description of this handbook:

“Welcome to the Nation′s premier source for career information!  The profiles featured here cover hundreds of occupations and describe What They Do, Work Environment, How to Become One, Pay, and more.  Each profile also includes BLS employment projections for the 2010–20 decade.”

Your teen can spend 100 hours easily this summer:  Two hours a day, five days a week, 10 weeks in the summer.  The ball is in your teen’s court.

Good Luck


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