College Guidance Counselors 101: What Every Parent Needs to Know

Before you could blink, your child was only a year or two away from college. While most parents understand how important the college application process is, it can be confusing for some to figure out their role versus that of a college guidance counselor - specialists who are an important resource for families. To help, here is the low down on what parents can do, and on what guidance counselors should do, to ensure their children are soon happily off to their first day of college.

"According to [the National Association for College Admission Counseling], the average high school student receives about 38 minutes of college advising," says Elizabeth Venturini, founder of CollegeCareerResults.com, an online service providing personalized college and career plans for students. "Most parents do not have the luxury of making a $200,000 decision on such little information."

Nevertheless, adds Venturini, most responsibility for preparing teens for college does fall to parents. Thus, it's important they educate themselves on "the ins and outs of college admissions," she says.

Be on Your Child's Team

As parents, we are used to doing just about everything for our children. But when teens embark on their college journey, it's an important time to take a step back and let them lead the way.

As a first step, discuss with your child their college goals as well as short-term and long-term career plans, making sure you aren't swaying them to a certain school or major.

The goal is to listen to your child's dreams and to help give them more depth. For example, if your child wants to be a pro-football player, don't dismiss the ambition as too lofty. Instead, meet with the guidance counselor to discuss which colleges have the best recruitment rate, as well as ways to improve your child's chances of getting noticed by certain schools.

Furthermore, explore what non-athletic jobs involve football. The NFL employs people in all fields including IT, finance, law and human resources. If your student has clearer career goals, then they can decide on which high school courses are needed for their desired college major.

Visit Early and Often

There is no need to wait until your child's senior year to visit the college guidance counselor. It's best to see the college adviser once each year, starting from ninth grade.

While a lot of high school freshmen don't know where they want to go to school or what they want to major in, there is no need to pressure them into making a choice. Instead, visit the college guidance counselor to understand the academic benchmarks and extracurricular requirements needed to make it into the top universities. This might mean your child starts a varsity or club sport; joins an academic or service club, student government or other school-based group like the newspaper; or adds some honors classes to their schedule.

During your child's junior and senior years, your child will want to meet with the counselor more often, ideally every semester. These conferences will ensure that your student is meeting crucial deadlines, such as SAT tests, scholarship and financial aid deadlines and college application deadlines. A college guidance counselor will also help students come up with an appropriate list of schools to apply to, including their top choice college and others they would be happy attending.

Set Clear Goals

When you sit down to talk with the college counselor, it's helpful to ask for an academic evaluation of your child. Do their grades suggest that they need a tutor? Or perhaps more challenging classes? Do teachers feel your child is working hard enough or excelling already? All of this, in addition to the college and career goals you've already discussed, can help determine the academic and extracurricular plan your student should have during high school. The counselor will then be able to tell you what your child needs to do each year to reach their college goal and can also help set realistic expectations. You don't want to leave the counselor's office until your child has a game plan for the year. For example, when planning your child's junior year, your list might look like this:

  • Start studying for the SAT and take an SAT prep class in February
  • Sign up for clubs that your student is interested in to boost a college application
  • Find a volunteer position that can be done on the weekend
  • Get weekly tutoring in Trigonometry to keep grades high enough for Calculus their senior year
  • Start researching top school picks and arrange school visits

Don't Demand Too Much

While college guidance counselors are an important resource, realize they must guide hundreds of students each year. Don't depend on the counselor to remind your child of important dates for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®), college and scholarship applications, standardized tests or school visits. It would also be unrealistic to expect a guidance counselor to devote many hours to you and your child.

It's wise not to demand too much from your child either. Expecting your B student to ace the SAT or your average athlete to win a full-ride sports scholarship will only set you both up for disappointment.

Use college guidance counselors as a guide, but don't be afraid to do your own research too. The college application process can be a stressful one, but with preparation and a healthy sense of when to offer parental support and when to step back, it can be a successful one too.


FAFSA is a registered service mark of the U.S. Department of Education.