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Persuasion or counseling: What is it we really do? And what do we get paid to do? #admissions #emchat

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In my profession, which is peopled with admissions professionals and secondary school partners, we advise students on the college search and selection process. It is an important profession and requires an honest partnership between college representatives and those advising students in high schools. It also is a profession on which many rely—students, parents, school boards, communities, college faculty and administrators, society, etc.

Let’s put it this way: there are a lot of stakeholders and a great deal of interest in how the job is done and how the partnerships work.

I’ve sensed some tension lately that’s worth discussing.

I’ve noticed that when one wishes to make a principled argument against the “sales culture” that many believe now permeates college admission, there often is a reference to our job as “counselors.” These reminders frequently are related to some incident, a perceived violation of NACAC’s Statement of Principles and Good Practices (SPGP), or a practice that someone feels is objectionable

The implication in these reminders is that in order to be student-focused we must be as dispassionate and objective in what we do and say, just as a counselor might be perceived to be.

I understand why some in the profession want to remind us that we are counselors as opposed to salespeople, but are we really counselors, in the sense that we are involved in objective counseling? Is that really what we do and get paid to do? Is that what our diverse set of stakeholders really want us to do?

What we do and what is expected of us looks and feels a lot more like persuasion and advocacy than it does counseling. I am no expert on the difference, but I know there is one other than semantic.

I think admissions professionals are expected (by our stakeholders) and paid (by our employers) to persuade students. Here are a couple of examples:

  • As a member of the board of trustees at an independent school, I’ve witnessed conversations among board member about how the college counselors should work with students to expand the list of schools to which they apply. The objective is to include schools of all kinds (large public flagship universities, small private colleges, elite schools and schools in the “back yard,” and, of course, “more of the Ivies”). Since students and families are not thinking along the same lines about the possibilities, this requires persuasion on the part of the college counselor.
  • On questions of access and choice, countless admissions officers and guidance counselors have advised students, who may not have all of the facts, to explore colleges that are perceived too expensive only to find out that they can be affordable. This requires persuasion.
  • When a student registers for a light senior year, the subsequent conversation about rigor (and what colleges will think) is a conversation that revolves around persuasion.

Now, I know that one could argue that the so-called persuasion described above is actually counseling. I see it otherwise.

I think we are expected to help, which for 17- and 18-year-olds requires answering questions directly, advising, influencing behavior, and bringing our passion to the work we do. We are expected to persuade. The questions we ask students to answer are crafted to persuade. Our statements, storytelling and the information we share are designed to persuade. To say otherwise is disingenuous.

We help and lead those we influence, rather than direct and advise how to proceed down a path. We are leaders and persuaders, rather than appointers or delegators.

As persuaders we say, “Join us and believe.” We do not say, “Take my advice and go.”

In my view, those who like to invoke the counseling responsibility are intentionally sending a message that those who are passionate and work actively to persuade students are icky salespeople who have no place in college admissions work. Sadly, the implication, intentional or not—particularly to those who are less experienced—is that in order to be ethical and professional, one must be dispassionate and respond with “what do you think” in order to be a counselor. I reject this notion and believe that our stakeholders expect us to be passionate persuaders. And, if we are completely honest about this, those admissions officers and college counselors who are perceived to be most successful are those who reinforce their passions with an abundance of persuasion. That’s what moves people to action.

I also believe it is entirely possible to be a passionate persuader and an ethical member of this profession.

What do you think about the differences I’ve identified between persuasion and counseling?

Have I persuaded you that you, too, are in the business of persuasion?

Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmission

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