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Opinion: College Counseling at M-A vs. Private Schools

5 mins read

M-A is fortunate enough to have a team devoted to college and career advising. According to Mai Lien Nguyen and Joshua Barraza, M-A’s college and career advisors, the College and Career Center (CCC) helps students form college lists, understand application strategies, and formulate college essays by providing students with feedback on drafts. Additionally, the CCC holds essay writing workshops, application bootcamps, and meetings with students and their families to provide comprehensive guidance for students. However, while M-A’s CCC has many strengths, it could benefit from adopting some of the policies at private schools, such as mandatory meetings, and additional college counselors. 

In addition to guiding students through every step of the college application process, M-A college counselors assist students with finding vocational and apprenticeship opportunities. Since 11% of M-A graduates do not attend a two-year or four-year college, these students are supported in pursuing whichever post-secondary path they choose. Many students choose to skip college and go directly to the trades, working as plumbers, cosmetologists, or electricians.

Nguyen said, “Because public schools are so diverse, counselors need an expansive knowledge base and skill set. Not every student at M-A is going to college, and the variety of post-secondary plans, interests, and backgrounds of students require that resources be broadly and wisely allocated.” 

Compared to private schools, M-A also has a larger percentage of economically disadvantaged students. In order to ensure equal opportunity, the CCC provides students with updates about financial aid deadlines, offers assistance in filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application forms, and hosts frequent financial aid workshops for families. Counselors visit AVID classrooms more regularly than other classrooms, since AVID is a program that prepares students for college and provides them with additional assistance on the college application process.

Students working at the CCC During lunch

Extracurricular activities, such as jobs and volunteer opportunities, are beneficial for both students and their future resumes and are well-advertised at M-A. “In this year alone, 1,200 to 1,300 students have filed for a work permit,” said Work Experience Coordinator Andrew Stuart. Stuart approves work permits, assists students with finding jobs, and ensures that students are being treated fairly and paid accordingly by their employer.

Stuart also leads the Service Learning Center and oversees dozens of service clubs at M-A, such as the Care Bears Club and the Leo Club. Stuart said, “Service opportunities are abundant and found on the Service-Learning Calendar, giving students an easy way to connect with their community and pursue their passions.” 

On the other hand, although private schools often have community service requirements, students at nearby private schools say they are primarily on their own when it comes to looking for a job. “In general, advisors encourage students to join school organizations, school jobs such as coaching, and school leadership over everything else. They like to keep us on campus,” said Castilleja senior Danielle Molotsi. 

Students at private schools also have more connections to internships. Since internships are almost always unpaid, they are mostly accessible to high-income students. Stuart noted that few M-A students complete internships and instead prioritize other forms of extracurriculars that are more accessible. He encourages students to seek employment rather than internships, saying, “I believe that teenagers should get paid for the work that they do.”

Nguyen hopes that post-secondary counseling opportunities will be expanded. “With more space, we could have offices to hold our private meetings and workshops with more people. Right now, we borrow other offices and conference rooms. We also wish we had more funding for college visits since we need to be familiar with a very wide range of colleges. We would love a third college and career advisor,” Nguyen said.

At private schools such as Castilleja, Menlo School, and Sacred Heart Schools (SHS), Nguyen’s hopes are already being met. Most notably, the ratio of students to college counselors is significantly more balanced  at local private schools. In 2023, Menlo-Atherton had a ratio of 239 seniors per counselor, while Menlo School and SHS both had ratios of 29 seniors per counselor. Castilleja’s ratio was 20 seniors per counselor. 

Nguyen understands the benefits of having a smaller ratio of college counselors to students. “The biggest advantage would be that we could help more students, and it might even be possible to have at least one mandatory meeting with every student to talk about their post-secondary plans,” said Nguyen.

Nguyen’s goals of mandatory meetings are also implemented at private schools. At M-A, there is no requirement for juniors or seniors to meet with a CCC counselor, although the counselors do their best to advertise their services. Seniors are sent weekly emails that include information about upcoming deadlines, navigating the application portals, and uploading test scores. The CCC makes itself as accessible as possible, welcoming students to stop by during brunch, lunch, FlexTime, seventh period, and after school. However, it is ultimately the students’ responsibility to be proactive about planning for their future. “Students gain self-efficacy, initiative, and maturity when they learn how to find and utilize resources that are available to them,” said Nguyen. Although Nguyen said that this allows students to grow, she believes that students would benefit from having at least one mandatory individual meeting throughout their high school years. 

On the other hand, since private schools have enough resources and counselors, counselors are able to meet with each student and stay actively involved with their application statuses. At Sacred Heart High School, students meet individually with their college counselors biweekly and have monthly small group sessions to go over the basics of the application process. Students from Menlo are required to meet with their college counselors about once a month, or as often as needed. 

Menlo senior Isabella Quezada said, “The college counselors are good at getting on you and getting you started. I didn’t schedule meetings with my college counselor over the summer, and she emailed me and said, ‘Hey, you haven’t met with me. Come meet with me.’”

Castilleja is both the smallest school and totes the highest annual tuition of the schools (a whopping $59,600 per year). Unsurprisingly, their college counseling program is also the most involved.

Castilleja juniors meet one-on-one with their assigned college counselor, have a family meeting with their parents and their college counselor, and attend seminars about the college application process. By October of their senior year, students have attended four mandatory college-related seminars and have biweekly individual meetings with their assigned counselor. If a student seems to be falling behind with their college applications, these meetings are increased to once a week.

Molotsi said, “I felt unprepared at the beginning of the year. My college counselor helped me get back on my feet and made a plan for me. They make sure students set up meetings with them and hold us accountable on our progress. I would not be as productive if I didn’t have them holding me accountable.” 

While private schools offer more comprehensive (and mandatory) college counseling services, M-A students are required to be proactive about seeking help, developing self-advocacy skills, resourcefulness, and independence along the way. To close the gap between college counseling services at M-A and private schools, M-A’s CCC program could benefit from some upgrades. Hopefully, the near-future brings private meeting spaces, an additional counselor, and the implementation of mandatory meetings ideally at the end of junior year and the beginning of senior year. These changes will ensure that M-A seniors have access to future planning resources, setting them up for a successful transition out of high school into whichever path they may choose. 

Isabel is a senior at M-A. This is her first year in journalism. She is interested in writing about mental health, culture and student life. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with friends, getting coffee at Philz, and watching Shameless.

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