Like the students they help, college counselors are always learning. In the ever-changing landscape of college admissions, even seasoned college counselors will admit there’s always something new to learn or improve upon.

By tapping into my foundation of counseling skills, I have found college advising to be a most fulfilling career.  First and foremost, you have to enjoy working with teenagers and parents.  But additionally, devising best practices and an organized work structure will make sure that you meet your own goals and the goals of your clients.

Here are five key traits that I strive to improve and grow as I work with students and families every year.  

1. Communication is the foundation

Critical thinking and clear communication with students is the bedrock of counseling. Equally important is the ability to withhold judgement or personal opinions. Many students tend to be very literal and don’t always understand my ironic wit. When it comes to understanding important matters, I’ve found being straightforward with students is the better way to go.

“Many students tend to be very literal and don’t always understand my ironic wit”

Still, having a sense of humour in this business is essential.  After all, we’re working with teenagers. If you don’t find them a bit funny, you may want to reconsider your profession.  

Always ensure a clear channel of communication that includes both students and parents. Tech has only made this easier! Using the tools of technology will help you connect to your students in a way that is easy and convenient, resulting in the personal attention and detail that they appreciate.

2. Constructive criticism – hard but necessary.

There’s a myth that counselors are always neutral. To me, this connotes a lack of investment, and isn’t true. Aim for objectivity with a personal touch and maintain a sense of advocacy for your students. Students can handle constructive criticism when they know you care about them and their best interests. Sometimes students cannot envision their best selves and potential and need a push to get there.

My goal is to enable my students to gain admittance into the best possible college that fits them, academically and beyond. Saying things that might be hard to hear is part of the job. Encouraging an overly-modest student to add a little more emphasis on their accomplishments will boost their competitive edge and hopefully, their confidence. Sitting down with a student to limit their extracurricular activities to help them remain academically successful can be a tough, but important conversation.

3. Speak, I’m listening.

This is a general life principle, but even more important in the counselling profession. Students can either have many dreams and aspirations or be struggling to envision themselves past the next two days. Sometimes they focus on the wrong criteria or make impractical decisions in their college search.

“Just because we can connect the dots quickly, doesn’t mean the student shouldn’t be given the chance to figure it out for themselves.”

Often, students need an opportunity to work the right answer out for themselves. Learning to listen first is a process that takes time and patience.  Just because we can connect the dots quickly, doesn’t mean the student shouldn’t be given the chance to figure it out for themselves.  Regardless of how we are often pressed for time, it’s important to take the time to be in the moment and really listen with adolescents, and even more so with their parents.

4. Stop and think about it.

Our students demand our utmost attention and dedication to them. Part of that process includes taking the time for self-reflection: admitting that you’re smart enough to know that you’re not that smart. Be open to new ideas and opinions, whether they come from students, parents or your colleagues.

Go out of your way to seek a second opinion from another counselor. Attend workshops and courses designed for counselors.  Join professional associations and tap into their resources.  Not only will this develop a better work process for yourself, you will create an opportunity for engaging with your peers in a constructive and collaborative way. The next time you’re unsure, stop and ask for help. You were never meant to do it alone. And it is always better to tell your client that you will get back with them, rather than dispensing incorrect information.

5. Find the positives!

Stay positive in your work and your attitude towards your students. You will inevitably work with students resistant to your advice or methods, or those who are struggling academically. Take the opportunity to highlight their positives and develop a mindset that promotes a “can-do” attitude. Set them up for success that lasts far beyond their academic phase.

In my practice, I have often been “assigned” to the most difficult students and demanding parents.  By looking at each situation with a positive lens, I have been able to harness a positive relationship with families.  After all, we all want each student to find their success.  Having a positive, supportive mentor in their life can make all the difference as they prepare their path for higher education.  

And lastly, don’t focus so much on your students that you forget yourself! If you feel yourself getting frustrated and negative, take a step back and recenter.  

Want to become a better counsellor? Find six essential tools Cialfo counsellors use.

Kristin Sullivan

Posted by Kristin Sullivan

Kristin has worked as a college counselor and director at a prestigious private college prep school in Arizona where she helped over 500 students find their path to meet their educational goals and dreams. Kristin focuses on getting to know her students and families to help them find their best university fit. Kristin has a BA in psychology from the University of Michigan and a Master’s degree in counseling from Michigan State University.

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