Hall Pass: College Counseling During COVID

This post is part of a series of articles, blog posts, and short briefs produced by EXPLO Elevate focused on supporting schools’ virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.


Tara A. Dowling, Director of College Counseling, Rocky Hill Country Day School, East Greenwich RI
Sarah McGinty, author, The College Application Essay (College Board), 2015.

From time to time, we invite friends and colleagues in our network to contribute to our blog. Many thanks to Tara and Sarah for this heartfelt essay about the challenges facing our college counselors at this time.


May. That’s an easy one for college counselors. Be sure the seniors are sorted—colleges chosen, transcripts in order, financial aid in place. Midmonth, administer those AP tests to cap the year’s work and lock in college credits or placement information. And then, best of all:  junior meetings. The precise boundaries of secondary teaching and college counseling mean that although you have to bid your victories farewell, you really do get a clean slate in September.  This year, this class. You will do your best; they will, you hope, do the same. And in June, all the triumphs and disappointments pack up their gear and move on. New grade book, new planning calendar, new chances, new hope. Here we go again.

And so May 2020. The world turned upside down. And a clear mandate to carry on and produce business as usual. Teachers are teaching through online platforms, students are working their way through the syllabus, the AP testing will be modified and presented online, the seniors will graduate on Zoom (?!), and junior meetings will be online. We are fielding hourly updates from every moving part of education, breathless from announcements, revisions, and updates. Yet still, something easy to overlook is terribly wrong. A certain portion of the work of education is actually not driven by calendar or curriculum. Particularly for counselors, our days aren’t organized around class blocks or congregations of 20-30 students. Yes, there are benchmarks and informational signposts to be shared. But a very significant part of our job is not by design. And that’s actually by design.

We are charged with guiding young people through the thought process, as well as the actions, of one of the most significant transitions of their lives, from the end of a 12+-year sequence of experiences to the right “next thing.”

We are charged with guiding young people through the thought process, as well as the actions, of one of the most significant transitions of their lives, from the end of a 12+-year sequence of experiences to the right “next thing”—work, military service, further education, time off. And that choice will set a trajectory significant for where they work, what they earn, who they meet, even perhaps what their life satisfaction adds up to. It’s complicated. And important. For each young person, it’s going to be different, shaped by their abilities, interests, finances, and evolving expectations. The whole family is in on this, too. So it varies in every case, as young people look up from the programmed life of a 17-year-old to the beginning of a vastly less dictated set of life-shaping actions and choices. It is a marathon not a sprint, an incremental accretion of understanding and planning. And a ridiculous amount of this takes place in the hall, in passing, after school, on the sidelines, in the parking lot.

There is a special agony of disconnection now for teachers and especially for college counselors.

I know. There is pain and disruption in every field and venue.  But there is a special agony of disconnection now for teachers and especially for college counselors. No teacher considers the job to be defined by the classroom door–a to-do list of assignments or a check-list of face time. The random meetings, the accidental insights, the unplanned intersections, observations, questions, suggestions, and conversations with colleagues, students, and their other teachers are as essential as any calendar of planned events. But for college counselors, the hallways are the rock face of self-exploration, self-discovery, and launch. The subtle nuance of information exchange happens there. We are feeling detached and useless in the loss of this reliable context. We are mourning our jobs.

Please know that while we are still on the front lines of education, we miss the hallways.

We will solve this problem and, with all the faculty and school personnel, we will deliver on what our students need. But since we cannot quantify what college counseling provides, cannot measure in a test, in admits, or in scholarship money what good guidance yields, cannot know if we’ve done a good job until years after our students depart (and long after they might think it important to let us know), please know that while we are still on the front lines of education, we miss the hallways. And so we are hurting. When such a large percentage of your work is invisible and unscheduled—and now impossible—the challenge grows.

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