Just-in-time College Advising

This article originally appeared in the February 2022 American College Application Campaign newsletter.

White male in button up shirt, standing in front of a bookcaseI was making my final sweep, late one afternoon, doing my best to tidy up our team’s common space where we counseled with our students. A student’s silhouette caught my eye against the setting sun’s glare through the window. He sat at a computer, completely focused with a stare of concern and worry on his face. I knew help was needed.  It was late in the day, late in the week, and late in the year for college applications. Tomas looked at me, “Mister, I am not sure what I need to do to get my application in? I feel behind and so late in the game that maybe it’s not worth applying now. I hate to bother you.” I walked up and glanced over his shoulder, “Let’s take a look at where you are.”

For those who counsel one-on-one or one-on-many, it is critical for us to keep a pulse on the overwhelming stress students experience who feel “late” to the college application process senior year. Late winter is the right time of year for counselors to be intentional and bring into focus those students who may need our support and extra level of care.

Why does this stress kick in for students? Well, as some students start to celebrate early decisions and acceptances across the school, others may feel like it is too late for them to apply. This is far from the reality for most and we must remind students that “early acceptances” represent a small percentage of students. There are many articles  on early decision and early action (The College Post breaks it down easily for your reference) but the headline for students is: only about 25% of colleges offer early decision and 38% of colleges offer early action. There are lots of options still available.

Often just sitting with students to provide reassurance that “now is their time” and they are not late can help reduce their anxiety. So, remember to take time to remind students that this process is not a race. In fact, for students who seek out counselors and are more patient in the application cycle, taking this extra time leads to a better college fit for them. And better college fit, as we know, leads to greater student success.

After I met with Tomas, I realized that there were probably more students like him. I also understood that the stress students carry can include the fact that they do not want to bother us or bring more work to us because they feel like they have fallen behind. I prioritized a list of students that I thought might need help. Fortunately, our team used a variety of resources to monitor students’ tasks that we assigned. This allowed me to help students, including those who had not met with a counselor in fall semester, had yet to request their high school transcript for applications, had not logged into their college planning account for more than two weeks, and did not have a final college application list.

The school day is packed with meetings, counseling, and crisis interventions, so with my priority list of students I was able to advocate for time with our school leadership to make sure follow up was built into my schedule during the last few weeks of February.

Finally, my time with Tomas that late winter afternoon reminded me of a concept I first learned from the book SWITCH. The Heath brothers do a fantastic job breaking down why it is so hard to make “lasting change” in companies, communities, and in our lives. As a counselor, my takeaways from SWITCH are:

  • students may not yet have developed academic behaviors required to be successful in the college application process; and
  • like adults, students can become overwhelmed when they try to visualize or make a plan to reach a big goal.

The Heath brothers share some strategies to help with making a plan to reach a big goal, which they call Shaping the Path and Shrinking the Change.

I needed to break down Tomas’ steps in the college application process. I gave him specific tasks and he created his own completion deadlines.  (Here are some quick start guides for students to create a myOptions profile and steps to build balanced college list.) I committed to checking in with him weekly to check on his progress. With all this in mind, I knew that my time with other students would require help to “shape the path” towards a complete college application, but they would also need me to “shrink the change” by chunking out tasks.

Counselors and teachers are stretched, especially this year. The traditional college application stress students experience has been amplified over the past two years. The role counselors play in helping them to understand how to manage stress can unlock their potential and success.  So, three steps you can take to help students like Tomas:

  • encourage the student;
  • take inventory and champion for time; and
  • Shape the Path. Shrink the Change.

For more resources to help guide your students, check out the free student college planning resources and time management tips at myOptions with these two great student advice blogs: Staying Organized in Your College Search and  Making Time for Your College Application.