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Today's competitive academic climate makes it more difficult than ever for students to get into the post-secondary school of their choice. Among their most critical allies are guidance counsellors, who help students make some of the most important decisions of their lives.
"When I went to high school and was applying to university, it was a very straightforward process. It's much more complicated now," says Brian McClure, vice-principal of academics at Trafalgar Castle School, a middle and high school for girls in Whitby, Ontario. "With the myriad of choices they have in front of them, it benefits them to have some guidance."
We deal with the pressure to excel academically, how to stay organized, time management, social skills, executive functioning skills
At Trafalgar Castle School, like most other private schools, long-term planning begins early. McClure meets with Grade 9 students to discuss their interests and to develop personalized education plans; he then re-examines the strategies with students each year to decide if they still fit or need tweaking.
When students are in Grades 11 and 12, McClure takes several measures to prepare them for the road ahead: arranging university information sessions and trips to campuses in Ontario, and providing a well-organized handbook of application processes and deadlines. Students may also drop by the school library's guidance resource centre to review the calendars of universities and colleges in North America and overseas.
For students about to graduate, McClure's office turns into a second home. For instance, 17-year-old Neiraja Gnaneswaran knew she wanted to study medicine, but was having difficulty narrowing her choices.
"All of the programs seemed the same to me. It was hard to differentiate all the universities," she says. "Mr. McClure has a lot of experience, and he really helped me pinpoint the things I wanted in university."
Gnaneswaran was eventually accepted into the health sciences program at the University of Western Ontario, and credits McClure with supporting both her and her parents, who had frequent questions.
"My parents called in and talked to Mr. McClure about the decision-making process," she says. "He helped them a lot with their concerns."
Of course, much of what guidance counsellors do takes place long before students start preparing for graduation. At St. Michaels University School, a K-to-12 school in Victoria, British Columbia, counsellors arm middle school students with life management skills to help them cope with their intensive academic schedules.
"We deal with the pressure to excel academically, how to stay organized, time management, social skills, executive functioning skills," says Virginia Ronning, senior school counsellor. "We want to help them to overcome whatever is interfering with their success at school and to feel really good about who they are."
This instruction and support can take many forms, including one-on-one counselling, monthly information sessions with parents and tailored action plans developed in conjunction with the student's teacher. If the need for serious emotional counselling arises, the counsellor can refer the student's family to an outside professional.
Remedial help is also a key function of today's guidance counsellor. Ronning helps teachers identify students with learning disabilities and works with them to develop individual education plans.
"We develop specialized educational goals for them to follow and we work to help them meet those goals," Ronning says.
By high school, the impetus for guidance counsellors shifts to creating awareness about the post-secondary admissions process. Many parents need to be enlightened about how much has changed since they were making the same decisions. Simon Hall, the director of guidance at Ridley College in St. Catharines, Ontario invites parents to the school three times a year to hear university representatives describe admission guidelines for their school.
"The application process today is much more involved, time-consuming and costly than it used to be," Hall says. "For example, for students applying to Ivy League schools in the U.S., they look at a student's GPA and their SSAT scores, but they also want three recommendation letters, an essay from the student about who they are and information on the student's special talents."
At Ridley College, a coed middle and high school, each of the five counsellors has a specialty area. Hall also helps students interested in studying overseas in deciphering those admission requirements. Another Ridley College counsellor specializes in helping students wade through the thousands of scholarships available to them in Canada, and to try for the ones that best suit them.
"We try to make them aware of anything they need to do to be the best candidate for these scholarships," Hall says. "It calls for a few years of planning extracurricular activities and community service initiatives for students to get involved in." Planning gets a huge boost when students get to hear from alumni about their own post-graduation experiences. At St. Mildred's-Lightbourn School, an all-girls JK-to-university-entrance school in Oakville, Ontario, the school's dean of academic administration regularly invites alumnae to return and address high school students.
"They talk about where they've gone to school, and what they needed to do to prepare for university," Janet Worbois says. "It gives the students a valuable perspective that can help them in their long-term planning."
Megan Nenns, 21, graduated from St. Mildred's-Lightbourn School in 2002. She's now entering her fourth year in the concurrent education program at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario and completing a teacher placement at her alma mater. She says the school's student services department, and Worbois in particular, helped her home in on the most suitable post-secondary school for her.
"I lived in Ms. Worbois' office for awhile! She knew what my strengths and weaknesses were, and we talked about the pros and cons of different schools," Nenns recalls. "She encouraged me to apply to Queen's. I wasn't planning on applying there, but that's where I ended up, and I love it."