I might be the worst college counselor ever. I don’t scream when my students get into the most prestigious schools. As pleased as I am, I don’t even scream when they get into schools that I have attended. I don’t see my letters of recommendation as artistic masterpieces that make or break a student’s admissibility at any given institution. And, I don’t presume any special or secret influence with admission personnel (much to some of my parents’ and families’ chagrin.) I don’t even think that college planning is the most important part of my role. I’m awful.
But that might just be based on how I understand my role. I am not a college counselor. Or, a guidance counselor (yikes). I am a school counselor. And, I support the holistic development of my students in the academic, social/emotional, and college/career spheres of their lives. I talk about college, military, apprenticeships, gap years, etc. as new beginnings, not endings. I focus on the “why” when it comes to my students’ postsecondary aspirations, not the “where.” I discuss fit, match, financial affordability, and the students’ excitement about their own postsecondary plans. I work with my team of school counselors on lessons and programming to help students build coping skills (like resilience, mindfulness, etc.) for their impending transitions. I want students to have these life skills at their disposal no matter where they land after high school so that they will persist (not just matriculate). And, I tell them that they are unicorns…without a hint of humor or irony.
You see, I think my students are special. And, your students. (And, you, for that matter.) And, I think it is so incredibly important for students to learn as quickly as they can what makes them special—what skills, talents, passions, and perspectives they uniquely possess that can be harnessed to achieve their goals. That awareness is going to take them much farther than the school named on their new college gear or any misconceptions about my influence as a postsecondary support resource. That knowledge is going to help them recognize and overcome a variety of institutional, systemic, and personal obstacles that may otherwise stall or completely halt any forward momentum on their future endeavors.
So, this application season, as students experience a variety of complicated emotions about their postsecondary plans, I encourage us all to push back on superficial praise or disappointment for a decision to attend “such-and-such” university. Instead, let’s express a level of excitement for that institution and the special contributions the student will make upon arrival. Let’s celebrate students’ ability to name “why” that school or postsecondary program is the most viable option and how their decision-making model supports their choice. Let’s celebrate their ability to see themselves as uniquely important and worth investing in. Let’s see them as unicorns.
Brian Coleman is a school counselor and counseling department chair at Jones College Prep (IL) and the 2019 National School Counselor of the Year.