A TRIBUTE TO UNSUNG HEROES: College Counselors | James Wickenden | 7 Min Read

Having recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal about the declining percentage of applicants to highly selective colleges being offered admission, I decided to go public with an article about my admiration for the job done by many college counselors. 

I’ll start with the obvious.  When a young man or woman is offered admission to an institution of higher education that has an acceptance rate of under 10 percent, I suspect that the reaction of one of the lucky few could be described as “Well I worked hard and as a result, I deserved to be admitted.”

Conversely, when a candidate is notified that he or she was not admitted to one of these highly selective institutions, the applicant and possibly the parents might look for someone to blame.  Most likely, the college counselors would occupy the bullseye of that target. If such is the case, then bear with me for trying to identify the various forces that complicate the decision-making process of these highly selective colleges and universities. 

The complicating factors are as follows:

Institutions of higher education make decisions that are in their best interests.  

As has been mentioned in multiple articles about admissions to colleges accepting under 10 percent of those who apply, those who might receive special treatment from the Admissions Committee are Development cases (youngsters whose family could make significant donations to the institution), legacies (applicants whose parent or parents attended the institution to which the candidate has applied), candidates who are interested in majoring in under-enrolled departments that are staffed by tenured faculty members, and the offspring of children whose father or mother are tenured faculty members at the institution.

Institutions of higher education have admissions policies that usually are not publicized

One of the reasons why the admissions policies are not publicized is that they are subject to change. At the risk of stating the obvious, Affirmative Action has resulted in colleges and universities becoming much more diverse.  While many applaud this initiative, what most don’t realize is that Affirmative Action is difficult to define. Other candidates who receive special treatment are recruited athletes.  College counselors, however, do not know whether or not applicants from their respective schools are, in fact, included on the “special lists” that are submitted to the Admissions Office.  Another cohort that in recent years has increasingly populated the admitted classes of selective colleges and universities is first-generation college attendees. While it would be easy for one who is concerned about equity to justify special attention being given to the above groups, college counselors will find some of the admit decisions difficult to explain to the parents of applicants whose academic credentials surpass those of the aforementioned.  One more group that has received an increasing number of admit letters are international students.  Again, the uptick in international admits can be justified in many ways, but that does not placate the parents of legacies or valedictorians who were put on the waiting list.  (When I was the Dean of Admission at Princeton decades ago, we turned down more valedictorians than we admitted. I suspect that continues to be the case today.)


That which follows does not exhaust the number of inequities that exist in the selective colleges and universities admissions process. The inequities include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • The workload of the college counselors:  At many large public schools, the caseload of a college counselor will exceed 100 students.  At independent schools, it is not uncommon for each of the college counselors to have a caseload of as little as 30-40 (in some states, public school caseloads can be up to 800 students).
  • The quality or lack thereof of the Secondary School Reports:  If a college counselor has a caseload of 100 or more, the reports he or she writes will not be as informative or as compelling as the college counselor who is responsible for serving only 30 students.
  • The quality of or lack thereof of the Teacher Reports:  Based solely on what I experienced having worked for 10 years (albeit in two different time periods) in the Princeton Admissions office, the quality of the teacher reports varied enormously.  Some teachers went to great lengths to explain why a youngster was especially talented or had overcome significant adversity, while other teacher reports sometimes consisted of only two or three sentences.
  • The quality of Alumni interviews:  Some colleges and universities use alumni to interview candidates and write reports based on what they learned.  These volunteers could increase the chances of a candidate receiving serious consideration, especially when the alumni make a compelling argument about why candidates should be admitted. In some cases, the report identifies candidates from a school that was not well known to the admissions officer responsible for a given region.  Obviously, the applicants have no control over the length and quality of these alumni reports.
  • The visibility of the family or the candidate:  Right or wrong, the fame of a family can have a positive impact on the candidacy of the offspring.  That being said, I’m comfortable in stating that this “hook” probably would not apply to more than 10 or a dozen in a given year.

Luck of the draw:

  • The biases of the Admissions Officers: I know that the word “biases” has a negative connotation, but it is stronger than the word “preferences.”  An Admissions Office at an Ivy League university may have 20 or more officers reading the materials submitted by applicants.  The applicants, however, have no idea whether the admissions officer for a given region may have a passion for the arts, or be fascinated by technology, or be an aspiring writer, or former college athlete, etc.  Stated another way, the background and passions of an admissions officer can influence the rating giving to the candidates.  To offset this situation somewhat, two admissions officers are usually assigned to read and rate candidates from a given geographical region.
  • The biases and/or lack of training of the readers:  The use of the Common Application has resulted in a significant increase in the number of candidates applying to well-known colleges and universities. To ensure that all of the materials submitted by each applicant are read by at least two members of the Admissions Office, outside readers are employed.  While the outside readers receive some training and are supervised, they are not full-time members of the Admissions Office. As a result, their biases are not well known by those on the Admission Committee. Also, they may be reluctant to give a candidate a high rating for fear of being wrong.

A tribute to college counselors

Why did I entitle this article “A Tribute to Unsung Heroes?”  There are multiple reasons.  For example, college counselors need to have the courage to be direct with the students on the one hand and their parents on the other. Next, they need to have the wisdom and discipline to not overreact when the parents blame the college counselor for not being sufficiently supportive of their senior who might have applied to a dozen or so colleges, none of which offered the young man or woman admission.  Also of note is the fact that the college counselors are expected to develop a knowledge of the colleges and universities that usually receive each year a significant number of applications from the graduating seniors.  That’s a reasonable expectation if the caseload of a college counselor is around 30 or 40, but it is an unreasonable expectation if the caseload is three times that number or more.  

Another reason to recognize the work of college counselors is that to be effective, they must be skilled writers, have the personality traits of being honest without being brutal, knowledgeable without being arrogant, and sympathetic without being misleading.  Finally, the ideal college counselor needs to have a passion for learning as much as possible about the standards of literally hundreds of institutions of higher education, a desire to research the percentage of students who graduate from colleges in four or five years, and an eagerness to collect data on the effectiveness of the oft-used term “goodness of fit.”

College counselors who have those qualities should be provided with the administrative support that is necessary to serve the students well. Those who may not check all of the aforementioned boxes should receive the necessary professional development.

Jim Wickenden

Jim is a Principal at DRG and Founder of Wickenden Associates, an affiliate of DRG. Having been the CEO of one of the premier education executive search firms in the United States, Jim brings unparalleled experience and networks to best serve clients. With over 30 years of experience identifying and guiding Heads of Schools and other senior administrators of schools across the country, Jim approaches each search with flexibility and openness that responds to the individual needs and concerns of schools and their leaders. Before founding Wickenden Associates, Jim served as the Dean of Admissions at Princeton University and Director of Student and Alumni Affairs at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A graduate of Tabor Academy and Princeton University, Jim holds a master’s degree in Counselor Education from Rutgers University, a master’s degree in the General Purposes of Education from Harvard University, and a doctorate in Counseling Psychology from Boston University. As a former member of eight boards of independent schools with a wide range of missions and resource levels, Jim also knows firsthand the responsibilities shouldered by today’s trustees; and knows how to guide boards through tough transition processes and on good governance practices. Jim lives in Princeton, NJ, and when he is not at the office he enjoys reading enlightening books.

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