High school students hoping to some day get a foot in the door at a major corporation should start by getting both feet through the door of their school counselor’s office, says the head of the American School Counselor Association.
Counselors can provide a range of career-choice help, from advising which classes to take to arranging internships, mentorships, and work experience projects.
“My high school counselors gave me numerous connections to different programs and opportunities, from helping look at individual schools to job shadowing,” says Annie Henning, a 19-year-old student at Southeast Missouri State University, majoring in corporate communications with a business administration minor. “They gave me the solid foundation as they helped me enroll into different classes so I could narrow my search into the type of career that I want to be in.“
TYPICAL STUDENT-TO-COUNSELOR RATIO: 500 TO ONE
How much assistance school counselors can provide varies widely from school to school and state to state. Typically, counselors in the U.S. are very, very busy. Across the country, the student-to-counselor ratio runs at nearly 500:1, a caseload for counselors that First Lady Michelle Obama, speaking in July at the ASCA annual convention, called “outrageous.” In some states the ratio is much higher, with the average California school counselor serving more than a thousand students, Arizona counselors serving more than 800, and those in Utah and Minnesota handling more than 700 each, according to the most recent available numbers, from the 2010/11 school year.
Those ratios – the ASCA sets 250:1 as the ideal – mean counselors’ time is in high demand, and as important as career planning is, the social and emotional welfare of students takes precedence, says ASCA chair Shari Sevier, a counselor at Lafayette High School in Rockwood, Missouri.
“If there’s someone in crisis, we drop everything,” Sevier says. “A lot of times what we find is that programs and planning where we can do some career counseling often will take a back seat to the more pressing needs.”
STUDENTS SHOULD REACH OUT ON THEIR OWN
At Lafayette, members of the five-counselor team meet briefly at the start of the school year with each of the 2,000 students to discuss course selection and career possibilities. “I wish I had more time to spend with them than the few minutes,” Sevier says. “I’d love to be able to spend a half hour, 45 minutes.”
So what’s a would-be business student to do?
Take the initiative and reach out to a counselor for help, Sevier says.
“Students who seek the services of the school counselor are going to get much more immediate attention, and information that’s likely more personally relevant,” Sevier says. “With large caseloads, sometimes the information shared is more general so it fits everyone. But when students seek us out, we can fine tune our resources to their particular needs. Just having a conversation about possible career plans with a student helps me keep that student in mind as various opportunities, schools, programs, and scholarships come around.”
Some schools have existing career-experience programs that counselors can direct students toward. Some districts, such as Sevier’s, have “partners in education” programs that involve internships and job shadowing, both of which can allow students to evaluate possible careers, and develop valuable contacts.
MEET WITH YOUR COUNSELOR IN YOUR FRESHMAN YEAR OF HIGH SCHOOL
How students end up connecting with counselors often depends on whether a school has a “comprehensive school counseling program,” says Julie Hartline, 2009 ASCA Counselor of the Year and now a counseling supervisor for the Cobb County School District in Georgia. Such programs include a student-outreach component under which counselors seek initial contacts with students.
“The counselor’s going to reach out to the student, the student is going to need to reach back,” Hartline says.
In the absence of a program including outreach, “the responsibility falls a lot more on the student” to get assistance, Hartline says. “What is unfortunate is there’s going to be this population of students that need assistance but don’t realize that that’s a resource for them.”
Hartline suggests students start meeting their counselors in 9th grade to establish a relationship and find out what resources are available, then check in periodically with the counselor throughout high school. Some school counseling departments run websites and blogs, which can contain information about career resources, Hartline notes.
Business classes, and work experience and job-shadowing programs, can help students decide whether they want to pursue a career in the business world, counselors say.
CHALLENGE YOUR COUNSELOR WITH SMART QUESTIONS
“Exposure sometimes helps students to realize what they’re interested in but sometimes on the flip side helps them realize, ‘This is not what I want to do,'” Hartline says.
Adds Sevier, “It’s much better to find out what you don’t want to do before you get into a job or you get into a college program.”
Career fairs organized by schools also allow students to survey their options and make connections, Sevier says.
However, whether such opportunities exist at a particular school or not, students must take charge of their educational journey if they want to reap maximum career planning benefits from their counselors, Sevier says. “They need to challenge the counselors: ‘How can you help me get to where I want to be? What can we do together to research this?'” Sevier says. “School counselors are happy to do this work. It’s the fun part of our job.”
A counselor can inventory a student’s interests, look at grades and transcripts, and start connecting the student to school and community resources, such as faculty advisers, mentorship opportunities for career experience and guidance, and service club involvement for networking, Sevier says.