School Counselors Should Tell It Like It Is

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson has been nominated to the Supreme Court (photo credit: H2rty).

Some days ago, we wrote about how President Biden’s staff touted on social media that Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s high school counselor discouraged her from applying to Harvard. Judge Brown Jackson, who has since earned both a Harvard undergraduate degree and a Harvard Law degree, is now a nominee to be a United States Supreme Court justice. When we read about Judge Brown Jackson’s school counselor, it immediately brought to mind how former First Lady Michelle Obama also was quite vocal about how her high school counselor discouraged her from applying to Princeton. And we get it. It makes for a great overcoming adversity, defying the odds kind of story. You know. The very kind of story that hangs on a cliché poster in a high school counseling office. Yet while Judge Brown Jackson’s school counselor was clearly wrong since she’d not only get into Harvard but ultimately change the arc of American jurisprudence, we believe it’s a bit ridiculous for school counselors — so many of whom do so much good — to be portrayed in this way. Now, if implicit bias on account of Judge Brown Jackson’s race was a factor, that should be identified and scrutinized. But if the school counselor simply didn’t encourage Harvard because the school counselor thought it was an impossible reach…so?

And it seems we’re not alone. As Jim Jump writes in a piece for Inside Higher Ed entitled “Could That Be Me?,” “I’m hoping there is another side to the story, that the truth is more nuanced than a counselor (“guidance” counselor is an antiquated term, supplanted by ‘school’ counselor) attempting to dissuade a student from following their dreams. I have never told a student that they shouldn’t apply to a particular college. That’s not my job. But I have also at times had a little voice in my head during conversations with students and parents, a voice that sounded exactly like Chris Tucker in Rush Hour asking Jackie Chan, ‘Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?’ Is what I am trying to say what is being heard? That is particularly true when having conversations about chances of admission. As already stated, I would never tell a student they shouldn’t apply to a particular college or university, but I do believe it’s my job to help them understand the realities of the college admissions process.”

We happen to agree with Mr. Jump. You see, we tell students quite regularly that they can’t get into a certain school. You see, for every Judge Brown Jackson there is in the world, there are a hundred young people who believe they have the stuff to get into Harvard. But they don’t. And they need to be told as much because if they’re not told as much, they’re not only setting themselves up for disappointment from Harvard but they’re wasting their super valuable Early card on a school at which they have no chance. There is, of course, an opportunity cost to applying to Harvard when they could have applied to a reach school, like a UPenn, Dartmouth, or Columbia, that they just might have earned Early admission to — but will prove impossible in the Regular Decision round. So, yes, we shoot it straight even at the risk that 30 years from now, we’re cited by a Supreme Court nominee as the naysayer. We can live with that.

And to those folks who have never worked with Ivy Coach and believe that we maintain our strong statistics by regularly pushing students to apply to safe schools, don’t be ridiculous. Our students regularly get into reach schools, schools they would not otherwise earn admission to without our help. But we don’t make impossible dreams come true — and we’re not afraid to say so. Besides, do you really think parents are willing to pay our fees to help their children get into safe schools? We didn’t think so. Should we give those people a bye, Felicia? Bye, Felicia!


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  • Yo says:

    But will you tell a student who is a star in your school not to apply Harvard?

  • Yo says:

    I think these two women were talking about their specific case and not suggesting that all the hard working and great counsellors we know and trust are agains their race. Perhaps they thought they were good enough to apply and expected to be encouraged that way may.

    I belong their race and my kids were encouraged by their counsellors to apply hard to get into universities including Harvard while we had no intention of applying anyone of them and we succeeded in getting into more than one of these colleges. The counsellors showed a great deal of pleasure and ownership of that success and they changed our lives.

  • Katie says:

    When Judge Brown Jackson and Atty. Obama were in high school, it’s a safe bet that this type of message was not being delivered evenly to students of varying academic, racial, and socio-economic backgrounds. Even assuming that, today, this type of academic discouragement is distributed with no shred of bias (a pipe dream), not all students will hear a message like “you’ll never get in to Harvard” the same way. Some students will take that as a challenge and respond, “just watch me.” Others will slink away, having their worst insecurities confirmed by someone in a position of authority. BlPOC students are undoubtedly underrepresented in the former group and overrepresented in the latter. Thank goodness these amazing women had the foresight to ignore bad advice. That type of audacity is exactly what is required to bring more equity to higher education.

  • Yo says:

    Thank you very much for explaining so much better than my ESL level English.
    Teachers and councillors are the only resources we have and depend on and they went beyond our wildest expectations to support us and I am compelled to write about it despite my limitations because we are not among those who respond “get the a fair advantage” commercial I see so often. We depend on our teachers and councillors despite our differences.

    Thank you

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