How Admissions Counselors Work

Sen. Richard Durbin introduced the Pathways to College Act in the Senate in 2008.
Sen. Richard Durbin introduced the Pathways to College Act in the Senate in 2008.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

In July 2008, Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois introduced the Pathways to College Act, a bill that was also sponsored in the House by Rep. Tim Bishop of New York. The bill aims to increase college attendance among low-income and first-generation college attendees, which may explain why it has the support of both Republicans and Democrats. After all, an economy with a large college-educated labor pool tends to be a healthy economy. Although both Congressmen are Democrats, the bill has gained bipartisan support in both houses of Congress.

If passed, the act will create secondary school grants designed to help bulk up their college admissions counseling programs. To know how this may increase college attendance is to know how college admissions counselors work. Essentially, it's their job to get kids into colleges and programs that will tap their innate abilities and expand their talents. It's a difficult, one-on-one job; multiply that by the number of students in a given high school, and you'll have a rough idea of just how daunting a task it can be for a single counselor. This is why Durbin and Bishop introduced the Pathways to College Act.


Admissions counselors can be generally divided in two categories: those who serve in secondary schools, and those who work for colleges. In high schools, admissions counselors are also commonly called guidance counselors. In colleges, they're sometimes referred to as recruiters. Private admissions counselors straddle the line between the two. These counselors are generally hired by the parents of a kid seeking to attend college. Depending on where an admissions counselor works, their jobs will vary, but all admissions counselors have the goal of getting kids to attend and graduate from college.

In this article, we'll look at what admissions counselors do and what factors are involved with making the right fit between student, institution and course program. On the next page we'll discuss college admissions counselors.



College Admissions Counselors

College admissions counselors often staff booths at college fairs like this one at Wuhan, China.
College admissions counselors often staff booths at college fairs like this one at Wuhan, China.
ChinaFoto/Getty Images

If you've ever attended a college fair, you've encountered rows of booths set up and staffed by friendly people who can rattle off loads of information about the college they represent. Chances are that some of these people were college admissions officers. While large institutions generally maintain a separate staff of recruiters, some -- smaller colleges especially -- have made student recruitment part of the admissions officers' job description.

Admissions officers are often assigned to a particular school within a college, like the medical or business school. This helps cut down on recruitment quotas. It also allows the officer to become a walking encyclopedia of knowledge about the particular tranche of the college they represent. A potential student who can't stand math and had a high verbal SAT score probably wouldn't fit in at the engineering school, for example.


An admissions counselor also should keep abreast of the school's financial aid status. Identifying and assisting a student who fulfills the school's aid requirements can lead to securing a student who may not have otherwise have attended college -- and another addition to the counselor's quota. Part of admissions is advising students and their parents on financial aid and managing the large amount of paperwork associated with financial aid requests. Scholarship expertise is also a key skill for admissions officers.

College officers also play an instrumental role in creating policy that will help get the right students into the right school at their college. A better fit between a student and a program course generally leads to a higher graduation rate. This, in turn, leads to a better public image for the school, as most people intuitively associate high graduation rates with a good school [source: Gold and Albert].

For example, in 2011 New York University is instituting a new undergraduate admissions policy that allows applicants to choose what combination of standardized tests to submit with their application. The school's admissions counselors examined the data on various standardized tests against graduation rates and found they could increase their student body while maintaining a high graduation rate if they expanded the types of standardized tests they accept [source: NYU].

Clearly, college admissions officers have a lot to consider in their jobs. One could argue that high school admissions officers have an even more daunting job.


High School Admissions Counselors

High school counselors often deal with huge caseloads due to slim resources and overcrowded student body.
High school counselors often deal with huge caseloads due to slim resources and overcrowded student body.
White Packert/Getty Images

A student attending high school with an eye toward attending college may find the whole concept Greek to him. The role a high school admissions counselor plays is to help a student transition from high school student to college grad by uncovering the student's interests and applying them to a good college program. They serve a pivotal role at a pivotal time in a student's life.

Like their counterparts in college admissions offices, high school counselors are expected to know the ins and outs of applying for financial aid and scholarships. They're meant to steer their young clients toward a school that fits them best. They should know what kinds of classes will best transfer from high school to the student's chosen college track. High school counselors must also speak frankly with their students. They must be aware of the admissions rates and requirements at various universities to guide students to the right school, even if it's not the one they long to attend. And they, too, have a tremendous amount of pressure on their schedules.


This isn't always the reality, however. If college admissions counselors have administrators breathing down their necks about recruitment quotas, high school counselors have their own boulder to push in the sheer number of students they're required to assist. In 2009, the National Association for College Admissions Counseling released disheartening statistics. In California, the student to counselor ratio was 986:1. Counselors in Minnesota didn't fare too much better with a ratio of 799:1 [source: NACAC].

In addition to preparing their students for college, high school counselors also generally pull other duties as well. Admissions counselors are often called guidance counselors because they also handle behavioral problems among their students. They may serve as a sounding board for students with personal issues at home, or questions about risky behavior.

A 2008 study from the California Community Colleges board concluded that students are better off getting college information directly from the schools themselves. Why? The high school admissions officers were overwhelmed by enormous workloads and the scant resources [source: Fong-Batkin].

Because of the current climate of recruitment quotas and high student to counselor ratios in high schools, a third type of admissions counselor has developed -- the paid, private admissions counselor.


Private Admissions Counselors and Doing It on Your Own

Private admissions counselors have cultivated a cottage industry for parents who want their students to receive personal attention during the admissions process.
Private admissions counselors have cultivated a cottage industry for parents who want their students to receive personal attention during the admissions process.
Andersen Ross/Getty Images

As faith in high school and college admissions counselors dwindles, a private industry of college counseling has developed. Because they're beholden financially to the student and his or her family, private counselors may have more success finding the perfect school for that student.

A private admissions counselor is hired to help the student navigate the college admissions process from start to finish. Essentially, they do the jobs of college and high school counselors; the difference is private counselors offer personal attention that can help a student actually identify, get into and pay for the right college for him or her.


The services that private counselors provide are usually comprehensive. They help students come up with ideas for admission application essays, identify what kinds of extracurricular activities and classes can help make the student a more attractive applicant and find financial aid to help pay for school [source: College Admissions Partners].

There is an ethical debate that people looking to hire a private counselor should be aware of. A number of people who work as high school or college admissions counselors moonlight as private admissions consultants [source: Jaschik]. To some, this dual role is disingenuous; these counselors should be lending their full expertise to all students, not just those who can afford their private services. To others, hiring an industry insider for private services is a reasonable tapping of their unique expertise.

Regardless of where you sit on this debate, private counselors can be expensive; their services can cost thousands of dollars. Families that can't afford private services can still help their children get into college. The services provided by high school, college and private admissions counselors can all also be carried out by the student. For example, a student with low verbal scores doesn't need advising to know that he or she should bulk up on English and literature classes. There are also a large number of Web resources administered for free by the federal government to help students find financial aid and search for the right colleges [source: O'Shaughnessy].

Allotting time to find and apply to the right schools makes all the difference. So does being prepared. Click here to read about questions you should have to prepare yourself to speak with admissions officers. For more information on the college application process, see the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American School Counselors Association. "Why secondary school counselors?" Accessed April 22, 2010.
  • College Admissions Counseling Services. "College admissions counseling." Accessed April 22, 2010.
  • Fong-Batkin, LeAnn. "The role of college counseling in high school." California Community Colleges. August 13, 2008.
  • Gold, Lawrence and Albert, Lindsay. "Graduation rates as a measure of college accountability." American Academic. March 2006.
  • Jaschik, Scott. "Ethics and private admissions counseling." Inside Higher Ed. February 4, 2008.
  • Library of Congress. "S.3326." Thomas. July 24, 2008.
  • New York University. "New standardized testing policy for 2011." Office of Undergraduate Admissions. Accessed April 22, 2010.
  • O'Shaughnessy, Lynn. "What high school counselors don't know (but you should)." CBS MoneyWatch. December 23, 2009.
  • U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Counselors." December 17, 2009.