College admission from the other side of the desk

Andrea van NiekerkBy Andrea van Niekerk|05/24/2021|8 Minutes

For more than a decade now, every time I attend an annual NACAC conference, the event at which all sides of the college admission table gather, I wear the color-coded badge of an independent education counselor (IEC). Ours is a different color from those worn by college admission officers and by high school college counselors. Am I the only one then who feels a bit like Hester Prynne: marked by our proverbial scarlet lanyard?

Perhaps this is all just in my head though, generated by the memory of how I felt those many years when I wore the badge of a college admission officer instead (AO). So-called private counselors often left me feeling annoyed, with a dash of moral superiority. They represented the Wild West of college admission – a largely unregulated terrain in which people with a wide range of competence could prey on the insecurities of parents and the pushy desire of the very wealthy to ladle even greater privilege on their children. As an admission officer, the actions of a few IECs did little to change my mind. I remember school counselors who would contact me ostensibly to discuss their schools’ applicants, and instead advocate for private clients. Or independent counselors thoughtlessly filling breakfast events that we had arranged, at considerable cost, for high school counselors who might not otherwise have the chance to travel to our institutions.

How I came to be on the other side of this equation – and learned to appreciate it – is another story. But along the way I came to the unexpected conclusion that I would actually have been an even better AO if I knew half of what I have since learned as an IEC! Let me count just a few of the ways:

  • School counselors and IECs work with high school students and families. Though I was academic advisor to first year students, including many I had admitted, as an AO I worked primarily with applications. This inevitably informs one’s perspective on the challenges of the process. Whatever your position, for example, on “ripping off the bandaid” instead of deferring students who you know will never make it into the class (as a former colleague advocated), or on adding to bloated waitlists that seemingly serve little purpose, it is easier said and done when you are not supporting an emotional teenager navigating an exasperating bureaucratic process or watching a strapping student sobbing his heart out because his dream just crashed.


  • As an AO, I also made easy assumptions about why privileged families resort to IECs (for many in admission the Varsity Blues scandal did little to temper their viewpoints on the matter, though of course the scandal took place within colleges themselves.) Only as an IEC did I develop any insight into the dynamics of families making this choice: the concern of successful immigrant families about their ability to guide their children through a completely unfamiliar process rendered opaque by vague references to “holistic” evaluation; students feeling lost within huge college counseling caseloads even at well-funded public high schools; the belief, right or wrong, held by many families that counselors at independent schools are expected to serve the interest of their school profile first; the corrosive effect of an intense admission process on family relationships and the mental well-being of young people.


  • As an AO, your remit is to your employer. Having a lower admit rate due to a growing mass of students clamoring at the gates is arguably testament to how well you fulfill your task. But even as your college’s admit rate goes down, the number of friends of trustees, children of big donors and grandchildren of sport boosters, do not. (I wonder how often admission offices now have to set aside older narratives about preserving family traditions, as legacies get squeezed out by a new reality?) As an AO, I don’t think I ever considered the impact of grappling with this version of an adult world on kids themselves, on their sense of how the world works. I think I would have been far less sanguine about my task.


  • AOs are rightly vigilant about adults curating student applications, and understandably focus their efforts on the role of IECs. But IECs encounter a reality in which most middle-class students already receive extensive input from English teachers and well-educated parents. These two versions of adult input might “feel” different to us, but in both cases, it is class in America reproducing its own privilege. Recently, the Stanford faculty senate, struck by the enormous wealth of its student body (more than half of Stanford students come from the top 10% of wealth in the US), passed a resolution demanding greater transparency in the University’s application by asking students to report any help they received. The resolution notes quite specifically the “disparities among those who can or cannot afford, for instance, private counseling.” In focusing on one small part of the vast inequality in American education, they are spending their well-intentioned ammunition on the easy targets, underestimating the immeasurable advantage conferred in applying to very selective universities merely by having educated parents or by attending a well-funded high school.

In a recent article on The Cynicism of Selective Admissions, Matt Feeney considered “the tripwire readiness of teenagers to react to new signals from this half-hidden machinery, the deeper influence that reaches into families and changes how even young children are raised.” His point resonates well with my own concerns as an AO and as an IEC. In working with young people as they navigate our current college admission process, I believe that we educational counselors have to help students manage the distorting impact of that process by searching for joy and satisfaction in their own personal and intellectual development. It is a search that will continue to shape their lives even when college applications are in the rear-view mirror. And if what they learn in the process helps them in the unpredictable hurly-burly of college admission, that is just a bonus.