I am not one of Maryland's public high school guidance counselors, and yet at this time of year, I feel their pain. So I shall speak up for them, because they have no voice — or at least I can't hear their desperate, muffled cries from beneath the smothering heap of paperwork they are processing for hundreds of anxious high school students facing the looming college application deadline of Dec. 1.
High school guidance counselors have to write an obligatory essay as part of what is called the "Secondary School Report" submitted to universities along with the student's official academic transcript. Under the section "To the Secondary School Counselor," the Common Application asks for this level of detail:
"Please provide comments that will help us differentiate this student from others. Feel free to attach an additional sheet or another reference you have prepared for this student. Alternatively, you may attach a reference written by another school official who can better describe the student. We especially welcome a broad-based assessment and encourage you to consider describing or addressing:
•The applicant's academic, extracurricular, and personal characteristics.
•Relevant context for the applicant's performance and involvement, such as particularities of family situation or responsibilities, after-school work obligations, sibling childcare, or other circumstances, either positive or negative.
•Observed problematic behaviors, perhaps separable from academic performance, that an admission committee should explore further."
Quickly, now: Who is your high school student's guidance counselor?
My research as a parent of three public high school students indicates that approximately 10 sets of parents across the state know the name of their student's assigned guidance counselor. And this is only because they were called down to the guidance office last week after their students were caught sunbathing on the school roof.
This lack of a real connection is not the fault of the guidance counselors; theirs is simply not the mentor-mentee relationship that occurs with academic advising on the university level. High school guidance counselors tend to know your student personally only if you have experienced some family trauma, if your child's illness or injury has resulted in extreme absenteeism, or if he or she is about to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Unfortunately, in the public school system, guidance counselors are neither allotted the opportunity nor the time to get to know their alphabetically assigned students. And although most conscientious guidance counselors try to meet their students for a half hour or so before taking a crack at this essay — and many public school systems require parents to fill out a detailed form to assist the counselor in writing it — this perfunctory preparation doesn't make the requirement any less absurd. Especially when you consider that the typical college application already requires two teacher recommendations. These recommendations are necessary, substantive and reflective of a relationship that simply cannot exist between the typical high school student and his or her guidance counselor under the current structure.
As a result, many guidance counselors are forced to write stock reports, changing a name here and filling in a blank there with a club or activity — creating a sort of one-size-fits-all, "Mad Libs" essay for all students. It is, frankly, the most realistic way to shepherd applications through the system and make sure no deadlines are missed. But this doesn't seem to be what the application is asking for, qualitatively. So, what the colleges are getting are largely superficial answers to their own superfluous questions.
Guidance counselors certainly can and should verify transcripts, extracurricular activities and school-related achievements or disciplinary actions. This can be handled in a checklist or, at most, a short-answer section.
But the required guidance counselor essay is — for lack of a better SAT-level descriptor — dumb.
Janet Gilbert works in Baltimore and lives in Woodstock. Visit her at http://www.janetgilbert.net.