School guidance counselors shift into high gear

Fall gets busy as college-bound seniors, other students require time, attention


This is a stressful time for college-bound high school seniors. With everything else going on in their lives - daily coursework, extracurricular activities and part-time jobs - many struggle to find the time to complete their college applications.

They are not alone.

Time also is running out for high school guidance counselors, whose job it is to steer students in the right direction as they finalize the college application process.

"I feel a lot more pressure," said Ingrid Morton, a guidance counselor at Atholton High School in Howard County. "I don't feel as much pressure during other times of the year."

As students gather teacher recommendations, complete essays and answer application questions, counselors are busy meeting with students, writing recommendations and reviewing applications. Some counselors mail the applications.

"I would say the fall is the busiest time of the year for counselors," Morton said. "Not only do we have senior stuff, but we have things with the underclassmen."

Morton said each counselor at Atholton is responsible for about 75 seniors a year, as well as students from other classes. Counselors meet with every student in their caseload between September and November to talk about the students' plans, deadlines, and what they need from the counselor. That list generally includes recommendations from teachers and the counselor, and transcripts.

In Anne Arundel County, high school guidance counselors have an average caseload of 380 students. So guidance counselors ask that students prepare a resume to aid in the writing of recommendations.

"We can look and see what activities they've been involved in, what their major interests are, volunteerism, any student service projects - things we can write about to help them stand out," said Marilyn Graham, acting coordinator of guidance and counseling for Anne Arundel County public schools.

However, the rush is inevitable, Graham said, and because of the number of students each counselor is responsible for, it can be overwhelming. With early admissions deadlines, the rush begins sooner, and peaks about the time that applications to the University of Maryland are due, Graham said.

And though counselors ask students to try to get every application finished before the winter break, rolling admissions and late deadlines mean that some guidance counselors are even working on recommendation letters into the early spring.

College-application duties aside, counselors still have to spend the school day meeting with students from all classes. "I probably see anywhere from 15 to 20 students a day, and that's conservative," said Howard High School guidance counselor David Glenn. With all of their appointments, as well as students who drop by, it can be challenging for counselors to find time to complete recommendations.

"Some counselors can write recommendations at school," Morton said. "I find that very difficult, so I tend to do them at home at night. That takes a lot of my personal time."

While the guidance department at Atholton generally requests that students give counselors three weeks to complete their portion of the application, that isn't always the case. "Occasionally, we'll have somebody that needs a rush job. They've known about it for a while, but they just forgot to get their information into us, so we'll have to turn it over in a night," Morton said.

Counselors caution that the process should not be rushed.

"We encourage juniors to go visit colleges over spring break," Morton said. "Then we like to have them narrow their list of schools down so when they begin their senior year at the end of August, they will have a workable list of colleges that they're going to apply to."

Lisa Boarman, facilitator of school counseling for the Howard County school system, said, "If I could give advice to students it would be, `Get to know your counselor because they can be a really important person in this process.' A lot of time, kids are afraid to go in, or they think that something is wrong with them if they go into the guidance office."

Atholton counselors not only devote time to helping students with their applications, they also counsel the students after they receive word from their prospective colleges.

"We often will talk with the students when they are trying to make a decision," said Morton. "We often meet with them, and sometimes the parents are included in that, too, in weighing the important factors for them, for each school, and trying to make that ultimate decision of which they are going to accept."

Despite her large caseload, Morton tries to form a relationship with each student. "Hopefully by the time the student is a senior, we already know him or her pretty well. It makes it a little easier to meet with them, to meet with their parents about future plans and to write that recommendation."

No matter how stressful this time of year is, it is clear that counselors enjoy working with students during the college-application process. "It's exciting to see what the student's next step in their life is going to be," said Morton.

"It [is] just fun for me to go down that road. Just going through the applications is fun," said Howard High's Glenn. "I tend to learn more about each student from looking at their applications. It's nice for me to help them find their schools."

Sun reporter Anica Butler contributed to this article.

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