I had a first in my college counseling career last week when I went on an organized multi-college tour. When you’re the only person in your office—as I was for so long—getting away to see colleges is, at best, a one-day commitment, so the idea of taking an entire week away from the office to see nine college campuses was new to me. It also left me wondering if I could follow the advice I offer my students—to write down your impressions the minute the tour is over, so you don’t confuse the qualities of one campus with the features of another.
It turns out I didn’t have too much to worry about in that department. This tour has been going on for ages and those in charge leave no detail to chance. We were greeted with an itinerary that would have made any logistics expert shed a tear of joy, including a booklet that included a summary of the essential statistics and vital qualities of each school. I was free to add my own notes in the ample notes section in the back, but even if I didn’t, there was no way I was going home with nine schools jumbled in my head.
Overall, the experience taught or reminded me of three things about this profession, all lessons that were timely.
College admission folks are pretty amazing. A tour of this magnitude requires the organizers to pay attention to things that ostensibly have little to do with helping students choose a college—where do we park the bus, is the mascot going to be available for pictures with the counselors, what events do we hold for the tour group at night. Each college managed these details flawlessly, and when an all-day rain soaked the tour to-the-bone, the host school welcomed us to an hour lecture, replete with space heaters to dry our shoes, and a fresh pair of dry socks, adorned with the school mascot no less.
This is going on during the busiest time of the year for these college admission offices. All nine schools offer some kind of early admission deadline, requiring admission officers to give up most nights and weekends to reach decisions on each applicant—and that’s under normal circumstances. Throw in an organized tour of 35 or so school counselors who have never seen your campus before and the time management challenge can go from interesting to mind altering. Not with this group of hosts, who were gracious and warm from start to finish. If there isn’t a special level of heaven for these folks, someone should start building it now.
College students are nothing short of inspiring. Every college visit included a tour of the campus led by a current student, as well as a panel of student speakers talking about life at the college. Most of these students are paid by the college for their work, so it would be easy to view these events in a mercenary way, much like asking the waiter if the soup is good. Really, what are you expecting them to say?
All the satires of college tours underestimate the “x factor”—the genuineness of the students running them. Each of the nine colleges was getting ready for final exams, but each tour included no less than a dozen students who were telling us their stories, not the company line. The student studying math and science who will soon be doing currency analysis for Godman Sachs. The many students planning on bringing their social justice interests to light in years of service. The former Marine set to graduate from a highly selective college at age 39, who basically had to talk the college into accepting a transfer student. They all had other things to do—including the tour guide who was presenting his graduation thesis as soon as he was done giving the tour—but they also had a story and a desire to share it. There’s no way I’m mixing up those stories, so there’s no way I’m mixing up those colleges.
We do pretty great work. Part of being a good tour participant is looking past the presentations—which offer summaries of the school—to understand the pulse of the place itself. That wasn’t hard to do in this case. The nine schools we toured were distinct in mission and tone, but they all had one thing in common—their students were thrilled to be there and said they wouldn’t be happy anywhere else. From interactions at the bookstore to remarks made in classrooms, it was clear the students at those schools got up every morning with no intention of leaving anything on the table. So much for the “it doesn’t matter where you go to college” argument.
A lot of that has to do with us. It’s easy to let the media convince the world that college admission is a cutthroat endeavor, that there are only six great colleges in the world for everyone, and that no one can possibly hope to finish a college degree on time, unless of course they then go straight off to debtor’s prison.
Nine colleges and five days later, I’m reminded how little is understood about the college search—and how much we do to shed light on it. Our caseloads aren’t always optimal, the “other duties as assigned” are nothing short of maddening, and there is never enough time or resources to serve every deserving student. Stepping away from the office to see the aftereffects of our work—including a reunion with one of my former students, who works at a college admission office—I’m reminded of how much good we are doing in this world, making a big process personal to so many, even as there is more to be done. We have much to be proud of, and much to be grateful for.
NACAC Past President Patrick O’Connor is associate dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Schools (MI). He has served as president of the Michigan Association for College Admission Counseling and is the author of two books — College Counseling for School Counselors: Delivering Quality, Personalized College Advice to Every Student on Your (Sometimes Huge) Caseload and College is Yours 2.0: Preparing, Applying, and Paying for Colleges Perfect for You. You can read more from O’Connor’s on The Huffington Post and Counselors’ Corner blog.