What’s so crucial about the college counsellor?
By John Wilkerson

Indiana University (IU) is one of the major comprehensive research universities in the United States. It’s classified as a research institute and has Carnegie classification. We have 48,000 students on the flagship campus in Bloomington, our system has over 100,000 students, with about 8,000 international students from 140 countries.


Our international dimension

IU has a long-standing tradition of involvement with international students and we’re currently celebrating the 75th anniversary of our office of international services which actively engages in supporting and attracting international students.


Geo-diversity has been a focus for the university for the past four years. In admissions, you often hear the term: ‘shaping a class’. At IU, our international team prefers to use the term: ‘composing a class’. For us, it’s more about finding the ‘notes’ that aren’t yet being ‘heard’ and giving them an opportunity.  For this reason, as part of our geo-diversity initiative, we started to extend our outreach to more tier 2, 3 and 4 cities; not just in China, but also in such countries as India and Brazil where there are vastly diverse populations. Our outreach includes visits to national as well as international schools in these cities.


Student retention

We are very proud of our retention rate which is well over 90% for Year 1 to Year 2. That’s an enviable place to be for a university of our size with a public access mandate. It informs a lot of what we do here. An important part of that, is the relationship we have with the college counsellors. The worst possible thing for us - or a counsellor - would be for a student to move to Indiana and discover this is not a right fit.


Finding the right international students

International students who have studied in English are very important to us. I sat up and took note of the English-medium education market at the point when the top French university started offering courses in English.


The English-medium international schools have become a crucial market for us. Diversity within this market has increased dramatically in recent years. There are no longer just anglophile schools such as the British, American and Canadian international schools. Now, there’s a wide variety of international schools attracting expat and local communities, delivering a range of very good international learning. The language skills of some of the students attending international schools is considerable, but also of interest to us is the cultural contextualisation of much of the learning that’s happening in many of these schools today. This international culture and ethos, which is seen in many international schools can be profound. We know that international mindedness changes the way people communicate and think; in their depth of thought and their varied perspective. It ultimately does influence the type of person you become and, with that, the dialogue that happens at university.


Our admissions process takes an holistic approach that allows us to contextualise academic performance. This means we ask such questions as: has the student evidenced the ability to be successful? Is there an aptitude of thought? Is there a spirit of stalwartness? If so, we know we can support that student. These are the types of students we want. Most students from international schools are well equipped with these qualities.


Through our selection and enrolment strategy, we make sure we have a diverse classroom setting at IU. Coming here, students start to understand that collectively, we all have so much more in common compared to that which separates us. Coming to IU, which encourages its students to share their different perspectives, affords them an opportunity to explore their differences in very healthy ways. We hope that this exploration will become a lifelong pattern for our student; not just in terms of their critical thinking, but in how they approach life and others.


Our admissions approach

As a US university, we are compelled to support students through a ‘good fit’ selection approach. The conversations about this begin from day one; working with college counsellors to understand whether the university is a suitable match for a particular student.  This is a very different, more nuanced selection approach to that of UCAS (British) or Canadian university admissions which are much more formulaic and threshold-based in their selection criteria.


This can be extremely difficult for the international school college counsellors whose students are looking at university options globally, especially so when they are considering options in both the UK or Canada and the US. International school college counsellors have to be well prepared to support and advise their students through these multiple approaches to university application.


The value of the international school college counsellor

The relationship we have with a college counsellor is vital and I think college counsellors sometimes underestimate how important that role is. They are our crucial first point of contact with a school and its students. The international schools that have good college counsellors are those that are most important to us. They are the schools that we have long-standing relationships with. These schools have college counsellors who actively support the students, and their parents, to find the right university and degree. For some of the students, this may be within the very top ranked universities, but for many it’s not; good college counsellors know that it’s the right fit of university and degree that is so important for a student. The students who come to IU from these ‘feeder’ schools do well because, thanks to the guidance of the college counsellor, they are prepared and know what to expect from our university.


Building a relationship with a good college counsellor takes time, but it can be beneficial for the university and the school for many years. The first thing we do, when approached by a college counsellor for the very first time, is to look at their school’s profile. This is our resource to learn about the school. The school profile is not a marketing tool, but an admissions tool; it’s important for the counsellors and their administrators to understand this. Starting with the school profile gives us a talking point; it helps us to learn about the curriculum, the rigour, the grade distribution (especially important if students are studying less familiar curricula, for example, Swiss or French Baccalaureate) and the extra-curricular opportunities.


An introductory visit makes all the difference. Our preferred approach, when we make a first visit to a school, is not to meet the students at all. Rather, we spend the time getting to know the college counsellor and learning about the school, its students, and the school’s ethos. The best kind of introductory visits I’ve had involve sitting at a table at the canteen, with a butter pretzel, having an informal, open dialogue with the college counsellor. This helps us to know whether the school and our university will be a good fit. We’re not trying to scoop up lots of students as we have thousands of applications from around the world. This approach to outreach is much more about finding the right schools and counsellors. I want to know the ethos and direction of the school, I want to know where the parents fit in, who’s influencing the students, what opportunities the school is providing for the students to think critically and to explore their own learning experiences. There should be a two-way honesty in this dialogue. I want to know as much as I can about the school, and I want just as many questions from the counsellor; any counsellor who thinks they have higher education figured out are people to avoid!


There are times when we visit a school and think; ‘this is probably not the right fit for us’. These are schools where the college counsellor is holding on to the ranking sheets; where we might not be able to trust the good fit conversation. We do run in to these kinds of counsellors occasionally and that can influence the extent with which we engage with that school because they are leading a selection approach that we don’t encourage. It’s much more important for the college counsellor to consider the needs and fit of each student than to be influenced by the rankings of the university.


The power of the counsellor voice

A good relationship that a university has with a college counsellor makes such a difference, yet sometimes college counsellors don’t realise how powerful their voice is. We work with each student application on a one-to-one basis and so the college counsellor is a vital link for us. We pay a lot of attention to the opinions of college counsellors we trust, especially when we’re talking about a student who we might not be absolutely sure about. I want the kind of relationship with a counsellor where I can call them up and say: ‘I read your reference letter for this student, and maybe their academics aren’t quite where we’d like them to be, but there’s something about this student…tell me more’. The counsellor’s voice makes a huge difference, especially once we’ve developed a level of trust and honesty.


College counsellors can enhance or temper a student’s view of a university, and also a university’s view of a student. Counsellors can say to me: ‘Everything might look fantastic about this particular student, but here’s what I’m worried about with regards to them…’. It could be concerns that might never show up anywhere else. It could open up a conversation that we really need to have with the student and their parents.


A good relationship with a college counsellor also allows us to optimise our time. At the end of the day, we can only visit so many schools, and the schools can only host a certain number of universities. So, if we have developed a good, meaningful relationship with a college counsellor, we’ll sustain it over several years, even if we cannot visit the school every year. At any point, if one of their students is considering coming to IU, it’s easy for us to explore that possibility because our relationship with the school and counsellor is already established.


We know that college counsellors, in so many places, are battling parental expectations that are influenced by, oftentimes, flawed ranking schemes, or an aspiration for their child to achieve a place at one particular university simply because of name recognition. We’re aware of that struggle. That’s part of the reason why, along with other US universities, we collectively share the same message that most college counsellors are saying to parents; that it’s essential to ‘get past the rankings’.


I think, particularly in developing countries, parental expectations are a product of the first-generation attending university. However, in the 8 to 10 years that China has exploded in global mobility, I’m already seeing maturation in university selection. Even within rankings-conscious decision-making, there’s becoming more thoughtful evaluation of degree and university choice.


Fortunately, there is a shifting mindset at some national levels, about quality and relevance of higher education learning provision. Part of China’s 2030 plan, for example, looks at the expansion of tertiary education in terms of quality and substance. In Hong Kong, too, there are now two-year degree programmes being created, particularly with regards to the liberal arts and sciences, which is encouraging. Vietnam and Malaysia have done particularly well informing students to look beyond the QS university rankings.


But at school level, where the decision-making happens, it’s the voice of the college counsellor who can impact the most. Guided by the college counsellor, students and their parents can ask the questions that directly influence their selection; What’s involved in the degree learning at this university? What do the internships look like? How does this university know that its students are personally fulfilled? Why am I making this choice?


Advice for counsellors

  • The best advice I would give to any college counsellor regarding their relationship with any university is to start with a foundation of honesty. Believe that when we are visiting your school, we want to support and sustain a relationship with you and the school.

  • Getting your school profile right is important as it’s our resource for knowing all about your school. We’re happy to guide counsellors about what should be included in their school profile.

  • Meetings with college counsellors are important; they help to establish relationships, to develop understanding, trust and to encourage candid, honest, questioning dialogue between a university and a school. So much depends on the relationship that is developed between a college counsellor and a university officer to maximise ongoing communication.

  • Don’t be afraid to say to a university: ‘I don’t need another glossy brochure or PowerPoint presentation. This is what I need instead, can you give me that?’.

  • The presentations and workshops that we host in schools are incredibly important and meaningful for us as well as for the students, so do discuss the options available to you and your students; it’s a service and an outreach.

  • College counsellors need to know that we have faculty involved in research around the globe who we can offer up to engage with a school. No professor is going to stand in front of high school students and say, ‘come to IU’; they won’t do a sales pitch. However, a workshop with one of our professors will allow the students to have a typical IU classroom experience, and this will further inform their search process. If we have a good relationship with the college counsellor, such workshops are very possible to organise.


John Wilkerson has worked in international admissions for US universities since 2006. He is Assistant Vice President for International Services and Director of International Admissions for Indiana University Bloomington and its regional campuses. John also currently holds leadership roles with the Council of International Schools (CIS) and the International Association of College Admissions Counselors (International ACAC).

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