Are We Advisers or Prescribers?

For fourteen years now I’ve been a “liner” at the National Runaway Switchboarda national teen crisis line (Sure, no one knows what a “switchboard” is anymore, but the organization has been around for thirty years…If you can think of a better name, let me know.) Callers range from teen runaways to frustrated parents and school counselors. We listen, help sort out the situation and offer options, including access to thousands of resources all over the United States, like shelters, low-cost legal aid, counseling, and other programs.

Crucial to our interactions are the ideas that we are “non-directive” and “non-judgmental.” We are trained to build trust during calls and help callers identify the issues affecting them. We never tell them what they “should” do, leaving it to the caller to make the final decisions about what course of action to take. Doing so enables the caller to feel in charge of the situation, which is critical to successfully carrying out the options discussed in the call.

College counseling should follow a similar model. We prepare our students best by helping them assess their strengths and weakness, hearing their goals and interests, and then setting a selection of appropriate institutions in front of them. If they have some ideas already, great; we’ll add to them. If not, we get the ball rolling and help them as they get better at deciding. In the meantime, our job is to listen, respond, and offer our support and understanding.

The NRS model puts power and decision making in the hands of our students. It is not our job to tell students where they should apply, nor should we tell them not to bother applying if they’re determined to do so. We are advisors, not prescribers. We should tell students what the odds are, what they can expect if they apply, and how they can submit the strongest applications, then get out of the way. It bothers me to hear counselors brag about how they are responsible for a student’s admission to certain colleges or insist that a student “shouldn’t bother” to apply to colleges the student thinks she might like.

We should not substitute our judgment for theirs, but present all the facts and let our students decide what to do. It’s their process, after all. If an academically weak student wants to apply to Yale, that is his prerogative; we merely set the stage, letting the student make the decision. We can certainly say the chance of admission is unlikely; however, to speak in absolutes like “You’ll never get into Yale with those grades and scores” is not only unlikely to deter the determined but also to bestow upon upon ourselves a clairvoyance we don’t really have.

The college process is in fact a terrific opportunity to help our students take some major steps in the maturation process, including learning how to gather information, assess its relevance to themselves, make decisions, and then take responsibility for them. It borders on miraculous to watch students come to a greater understanding of themselves as they think about their goals and interests in detail, perhaps for the first time, then begin to take charge of them.

This situation is particularly powerful for students who come from first-generation and low-SES families who may never have been asked what they want from their lives before. Being given the responsibility for choosing their paths can be unnerving, but it can also be  powerfully liberating. For the first time, these students realize they can be the authors of their own lives–a condition their better-served peers can usually take for granted. They may need more support along the way, but this realization enables them to step toward the future confidently.

Our jobs as college counselors require us to be transparent. That is, we provide the guidance, information, and support students need and then we get out of the way. At the end of the process, when students are celebrating their college choices, I am content to step aside and let them believe they did it all themselves, because that’s the way it should be.

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