The recent headline news detailing the corruptive state of the undergraduate admissions process at certain ‘selective’ American universities comes as no surprise to those of us on the front lines of the college admissions process – counselors who guide high school students and parents through the Byzantine American undergraduate admissions process every year. Sadly, while most high school counselors are committed to maintaining high standards that foster ethical and social responsibility among those involved in the process of transitioning from high school to college, we counselors often witness student and parent behavior that ranges from questionable to outright unethical.
While some of my colleagues who provide college and university counseling to students and families may be dispirited and even demoralized by what the spotlight on our profession has revealed to the general public, I believe this is exactly the wrong reaction to the current admissions scandal. Instead, those of us who got into this field in order to expose young people to their myriad post-secondary options and to inspire students to enthusiastically - and ethically - take ownership of their futures must harness the power of today’s headlines as a means by which to increase transparency within the admissions process for American colleges and to promote honorable behavior by our students, parents, and schools.
With this in mind, here are four actionable ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ international high school counselors should keep in mind in order to decrease the chances that our students, parents, or schools will make international headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Do Educate Families About College Admissions Consultants; Don’t Deny Their Existence
Too many high school counselors have one of two extreme reactions upon learning that their students are working with outside college admissions consultants, who have become increasingly popular. One common counselor reaction is to remain in denial about families’ usage of consultants and never speak about the topic with students and parents. The other common counselor reaction to consultant usage is to childishly become offended when a student or parent confirms using a consultant. I’ve even known high school counselors who threaten to stop helping a student in their caseload when they hear a student is working with an independent consultant. Such reactions are ridiculous, and in fact, inadvertently encourage students and parents to act in an increasingly clandestine manner throughout a student’s college admissions process.
Instead, high school counselors need to proactively educate families early and often about the reality of the college admissions consulting industry: there are many consultants out there: some are good, some are bad, some are ethical, some are not, some are cheap, some are expensive, and all are unnecessary if a family has a qualified, dynamic, and readily available counselor at their disposal within their high school. Even so, some families will want extra guidance, and high school counselors owe it to these families, their schools, and themselves to educate families about the characteristics of ethical value-added consultants versus unethical and detrimental consultants. When I worked as a Director of College Counseling in both U.S. and international schools I created a fact sheet explaining our school’s philosophy regarding students working with third-party tutors and consultants and how to spot ethical tutors and consultants from ones without many scruples. I also would ask students and parents directly about whether or not they were working with a consultant and if they hedged or replied in the affirmative, I reminded them of what the consultant can and should be able to do for them and what the consultant will never be able to do for them – namely send to colleges students’ transcripts and letters of recommendation. Students’ school-based counselors can only perform these latter tasks, and as a result, families can’t simply disengage with their school-based counselor if they are going to be able to reach their post-secondary potential. This carrot will help encourage families to keep you in the loop regardless of what they are doing with their outside consultant, and being kept in the loop with each of your students and their trajectories is exactly what you want in order to best support and advocate for your students for the duration of their college application process.
Do Demand Essay and Resume Drafts from Your Students Starting in Grade 11; Don’t Allow Students’ to Keep Their Writing Secret
Regardless of whether or not you know if your student is working with a consultant, it’s a very smart idea to keep track of his or her extracurricular resume and college application essay drafting process for clues as to whether or not the student is receiving some sort of ‘supplementation’ in the writing department. As a high school counselor, I always asked for my students to produce a first draft extracurricular resume and Common Application essay as early as possible in junior year in order to get a sense of their baseline writing skills and provide constructive feedback. Every few months I would ask for a new draft of each of these important pieces of writing to observe the advice they were taking and the direction they were heading. Yet, every year, I would note a few students who either refused to share their writing or who went from writing on the eighth grade level to writing like an accomplished novel writer in just a few weeks. Both such examples raise major red flags. Students shouldn’t be writing about topics on their college applications that are so private that they can’t share them with their high school counselor. Similarly, students don’t become amazing writers overnight. The smell of an unethical consultant is all over both of these examples. Ethical consultants will implore their clients to work very closely with their high school counselors; unethical ones will either explicitly or implicitly encourage their clients to remain as far away from their high school counseling office as possible, disregard their high school counselor’s requests, or provide them with written content that the consultant is too dim to realize reeks of being written by anyone but the student. By working to keep your students engaged with you in their college application process you will be of greater support to them when they need it and capable of steering them down the most ethical path if you begin to notice things getting sketchy.
Do Develop a Clear and Objective Rubric for Reporting IB Predicted Scores; Don’t Allow Students/Parents to Bully Teachers/Administrators Into Inflating IB Predictions
When I first started working with students in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program (IBDP), I was shocked to learn that while many American colleges have a preference for receiving applicants’ IB predicted scores from counselors at the same time as applicants’ official high school transcripts, manyIBDP students’ counselors never send their students’ IB predicted grades to colleges, and those who do often do so too late in the admissions cycle or only after having students and parents successfully lobby for such predictions to be inflated before they are sent to colleges. What a mess! If at all possible, international high school counselors at IBDP schools should develop an objective process with their school’s IB coordinator for collecting IB predictions in all IB subject areas by no later than October 1 of students’ senior year. These are not the same IB predictions that are developed at the end of students’ junior year - these are up to date predictions developed for the purposes of keeping students informed about their progress early in their senior year and informing colleges and universities of how to consider students’ past grades in the context of students’ current prognosticated final performance upon earning their IB Diploma. Many colleges that accept IBDP students care more about applicants’ IB predictions than they do about applicants’ American-style A-F grades; therefore, a lot is riding on these predictions. Yet, at far too many international schools, students, and parents get away with lobbying teachers and administrators to inflate such predictions, which hurts the reputation of the school because college admissions officers learn pretty quickly when a school seems incapable of making accurate predictions. It also hurts the students when their IB final scores don’t rise to the level of their predictions. Students are increasingly finding that their offers of admission at American colleges are being rescinded - as has long been the case at UK and Canadian universities - for having final IB scores that don’t reach the heights of their predicted scores.
As an international high school counselor, for your protection, the protection of your teachers, the protection of your school, and the protection of your students, you need to develop a clear timeline, process, and rubric by which teachers are able to develop and submit to you data-supported IB predictions for their students early in students’ senior years. Allowing a patchwork process where each teacher can be bullied or lobbied fosters teacher harassment by the worst behaving students and parents and undermines the objectivity of the predictions themselves. No parent or student, by meeting with teachers, a counselor, an IB Coordinator, or other administrators should be able to influence the IB predictions you send to colleges on behalf of your senior college applicants. Often high school counselors find themselves in the unenviable position of having to speak with their principals or heads of school to explain to them that increasing a student’s cumulative prediction from 38 to 41 may seem like a small deal to them but it’s a very big deal for the student and the school’s reputation. The sooner you create an iron-clad rubric for how predictions are developed and reported to colleges, the sooner you can rest assured that those up to no good or those who don’t know any better won’t be able to corrupt the information that you send to colleges and universities on your students’ behalf.
Do Ensure that Your School’s SSD Coordination is Conducted Ethically; Don’t Look the Other Way When Accommodations Don’t Add Up
As the recent admissions scandal highlights, a lot of bad acts are occurring in the lead up to and during accommodated administrations of the SAT or ACT. Many international high school counselors are also their schools’ Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) Coordinator, but many are not. In either case, as a member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) or International ACAC, you have certain standards and principles that you must uphold, and ensuring colleges receive scores from your students that are earned fairly is certainly one of them. Sadly, many learning support coordinators and principals don’t adhere to the same standards and don’t have the same fidelity to ensuring the college admissions process is fair and equitable for all comers. In the minds of many principals and even learning support coordinators I have spoken to, they are only helping students by working to ‘get them’ as many accommodations as they and their parents are requesting in order to give them any and all advantages on the high stakes SAT and ACT. This is not fair or right. As a high school counselor, you should know better. Make sure your voice for ethical college admissions is heard regularly and loudly within your school.
Well before test day, make sure that your school has a clear process by which students can learn about certain ACT and SAT accommodations that may be appropriate for them based on any long-term diagnoses they have brought to the attention of the school that have also been diagnoses that the school has consistently provided accommodations for in the context of school-based tests and assessments. Make sure such students and their parents know the process by which and the documentation necessary to apply for such accommodations on the SAT or ACT.
From what I have seen with my own eyes and heard anecdotally from colleagues, far too many students these days are waking up at the beginning of their junior year in high school only to magically realize that they have ADHD, migraine headaches, or Crohn’s Disease - all of which can open the door to special accommodations on the SAT and ACT. If your school does not have ongoing documentation regarding the veracity of such diagnoses before junior year, your eyebrows should be raised to the roof. Never simply take a student’s or parent’s word for it. But even when you receive documentation that supports diagnoses for in-school accommodations for such diagnoses, make sure you fill out the online applications for ACT and SAT accommodations honestly and not in such a manner to ‘get’ your students the accommodation they (or their parents) are seeking.
Once test day does arrive, make sure the proctors of the ACT and SAT are working on behalf of the SAT, ACT, and school and not on the behalf of students’ earning the highest scores they can ‘get'. This means training proctors carefully about process, procedures, appropriate timing, break etiquette, and more.
Bonus: Do Explain to Families the Particularly Subjective Nature of the American College Admissions Process; Don’t Deny that College is Big Business in the U.S.A.
Finally, international school counselors have the wonderful opportunity to regularly compare and contrast cultures when educating their students. International student and parent audiences need to be educated that the application process in the U.S.A. is particularly subjective and capricious. As counselors we owe it to our students and their parents to be honest about the true nature of the beast with which they are dealing.
Two huge reasons for the unusual admissions processes in the United States are the profit and political motives that underpin so many admissions decisions. Education is a commodity in the U.S.A., whereas in other countries it just isn’t. Sadly, when money and politics are all involved, crazy things happen.
Though as counselors to high school students we can’t remake the world exactly as we would like, we can at least educate our students, parents, and colleagues about how to navigate the crazy world of American college admissions as successfully and ethically as possible. Just because the system of undergraduate admissions in the U.S.A. is broken, we as counselors shouldn’t have to break our ethical codes of conduct - and our students should never feel pressure to compromise their ethical codes of conduct. We must always remind our students and ourselves that no offer of admission is worth losing our morals over.