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The Real Poop

Every kid in America dreams of going to Harvard. Okay, not really, but lots of them do. Problem is, of the more than 35,000 people who applied to Harvard in 2013, only 2,047—or about five percent—were admitted. Ouch.

This is where you, oh mighty college counselor, come in. Your job is to inform students at the high school where you're employed that there are lots of colleges in this country other than just Harvard. In fact, there are more than 4,000 of 'em. As a college counselor, you'll also:

  • Work with kids to set practical and realistic higher education and career goals
  • Help design strategies kids can follow to achieve their goals
  • Serve as a font of information on all the colleges out there and assist students with selecting the schools that best fit their needs
  • Provide advice on and assistance with admissions, financial aid, and scholarship applications
  • Generally support kids as they undertake the transition from high school to college

College counseling as we know it is a pretty new field; the professional organization that serves college counselors, the American College Counseling Association, wasn't founded until 1991. Why? Well, not so long ago, higher education was something that most Americans either didn't need or couldn'’t access. Today, however, the accepted wisdom is that kids who want professional careers and middle- to upper-class lifestyles need bachelor's degrees. College counseling for high school students has evolved accordingly.

Of course, if you want a career as a college counselor, you've got to do a lot more than just survive being an undergraduate. Besides acquiring a bachelor's degree in counseling, psychology, or a related field, you'll need a master's degree in counseling, higher education, or something similar. In other words, you've got years of counseling coursework to look forward to.

Many states also require that college counselors possess a license or certificate in their field—you're going to be working closely with kids in high school, after all. Every state has different requirements, but there's a good chance you'll have to complete an internship or mentoring program as part of the licensure/certification process. Basically, you'll chill with an experienced college counselor all day, learning the ropes.

College counselors possess certain personality traits that come in handy when dealing with students. If you're a know-it-all who's organized, detail-oriented, supportive, practical, and patient, this career would be a good fit for you. You'll also need to be a great communicator and listener, and have a stellar sense of humor.

Most college counselors work at public or private high schools, although some can be found as freshman advisors at two- and four-year colleges. There are also college counselors who hire out as private consultants. If you don't relish the idea of being stuck in a high school for the rest of your life (who does?), never fear: Experienced college counselors can move on to jobs in teaching, research, or college admissions.

Pay varies greatly in this career field, depending on who you work for (a public or a private high school) and where you work (at a rural, suburban, or urban high school). The median salary for college counselors is around $53k, which you could augment by selling your services on the side to ambitious parents and their spawn. Also keep in mind that, by working at a high school, you might get a crack at a reduced summer schedule, or you may not have to work during the summer at all!

Another benefit of a gig in college counseling: You're going to feel great about yourself, all of the time, but especially when those acceptance letters start rolling in to your students. Sure, you'll have provided help to some kids who figured the whole admissions thing out back when they were third graders, but you’ll also have supported students who, without your assistance, would never have even considered going to college.

You're helping make dreams come true! Are you awesome or what?

Of course, there are downsides to college counseling. Some high school students (and their parents) are just, well, there's no polite way to say it: They're twits, and the college application process will just make them twit-ier, because of course Junior is going to go to Stanford, how dare you claim that his 3.0 GPA won’t get him in?

Another downside: There's an unfortunate tendency in the United States to think of higher education as career preparation, and nothing else. Having lived through at least six years of college, you'll know this simply isn't true. College is so much more than kids earning a piece of paper so they can land a lucrative job. It's about expanding horizons, discovering new ideas, and learning new ways of thinking. It's about going in as a witless 18-year-old and coming out smarter, wiser, and stronger.

Unfortunately, many of the students you advise are going to be so wrapped up in the competitive aspect of the college admissions process that they're going to ignore you when you attempt to talk them into looking at higher education from a different perspective. That doesn't mean you’ll stop trying, though.

And what's the worst part of this career? Well, that would be the moment when your kids—who may be incredibly intelligent, disciplined, etc., etc.—don't get into their dream schools. You'll hurt for your students when they come to you wanting to know why they weren't good enough and what they could have done differently or better. Because you love your job and your kids, you'll give them a shoulder to cry on, and then you'll do what you can to help them move on. You, with your years of experience in college counseling, know that a student's not getting accepted to his favorite school isn't the end of the world. More importantly, it can sometimes be a blessing in disguise.