How to Get Accepted to College Without a School Counselor

College admissions can be a confusing process with myriad deadlines, ways to apply and the challenge of paying for an education. For students without access to a school counselor, the confusion inherent in college admissions may be magnified.

School counselors often help students schedule classes, deal with disciplinary issues and plan for college. Managing that workload can be complicated considering the vast number of students that counselors are expected to work with in a given year.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a student-to-counselor ratio of 250 to one, a number that most states fail to meet. The national average during the 2018-2019 school year, per ASCA data, was 430 counselors per student, with much higher ratios in some states.

“There’s no way that (counselors) would have the kind of time that each one of those individuals deserves and requires, whatever their plan might be, whether that’s pursuing an associate degree, a traditional bachelor’s degree or going off to a trade school or into the military,” says Zenia Henderson, director of member and partner engagement at the nonprofit National College Attainment Network.

[Read: A Complete Guide to the College Application Process.]

And it isn’t just a matter of limited time — some students lack access entirely. Home-schooled students, for example, or those going to nontraditional schools, may not have a counselor at all. Even some public school students lack access to a counselor, as evidenced in an analysis of federal data by the American Civil Liberties Union published in 2019 that identified 1.7 million students who have police in their schools but no counselors.

The ASCA, which declined to be interviewed for this article, suggested in a 2019 fact sheet on student-to-counselor ratios that a lack of access can be especially harmful to some groups of students. “In particular, students of color and students from low-income families benefit from having more access to school counselors. For example, Black students are more likely than their White peers to identify their school counselor as the person who had the most influence on their thinking about postsecondary education,” the ASCA stated.

The ASCA fact sheet added that “38 states are shortchanging either their students of color or students from low-income families, or both.”

While the numbers may be concerning, students should be aware of the resources that exist beyond the school counselor’s office. Experts suggest looking to online resources, which have expanded in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, and to community groups.

How to Find College Counseling Resources

For Michael J. Carter, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Strive for College, it was his experience as a high school student that prompted him to launch the volunteer counseling network. Carter transferred from a private to a public high school as a junior and recalls only one counselor for 800 students. He launched the nonprofit in college, which now partners with The Common Application to provide mentors.

“Unless you’re really, really upper-income you’re going to need some guidance and some scholarships,” Carter says. “And private counselors are super expensive, so we offer the chance for any student who needs a mentor to get one by going to”

[Read: How to Find and Secure Scholarships for College.]

The mentorship program is conducted entirely online through the Strive for College website. The focus is on high school juniors and seniors, and topics covered through the mentorship curriculum include college admissions, financial aid and career exploration.

Carter says students may ask for help on the overall admissions process or something specific, such as how to write a college essay.

Henderson works with a broad range of network partners at NCAN to provide counseling resources online and in local communities.

“For students and families who are looking for specific guidance support, we really encourage you to look at your local community programs,” Henderson says, adding that even if organizations may not be physically open there likely are opportunities to connect online.

She notes that one of the positives to come out of the coronavirus pandemic is the rise of more online resources. But even that positive comes with an asterisk; students must have access to the internet and devices needed to tap into those resources.

“We can talk about the reach of virtual advising and the benefits of reaching students en masse, but we can’t talk about that without talking about the limitations that exist as well,” Henderson says, adding that school districts are working to expand connectivity.

Know What Matters in College Admissions

Students without school counselors can get a start on the college application process by doing their research.

“Looking at specific college websites is critical because that’s where you will find what is being updated in terms of their deadlines, in terms of their admissions criteria,” Henderson says, noting college admissions is timeline-driven. “One really has to stay on top of checking schools websites often to see what they’re doing, and how they’re going about this process, especially in this current pandemic.”

She adds that some colleges have deployed chatbots to help quickly answer student questions.

[Read: A Student Guide to Virtual College Admissions Tools.]

Students should do their due diligence, she says, and be willing to ask questions of the admissions office — but check for answers on the college website first. Henderson encourages applicants to ask about student supports, distance learning and virtual coursework.

And if a student is stumped by something, he or she should reach out to the college.

“Don’t be shy. If something doesn’t make sense to you at a given school, call them,” Carter says.

It also helps to know what matters most in college admissions. According to a 2019 National Association for College Admission Counseling survey, the most important factors for colleges evaluating first-time freshmen are grades in all courses, grades in college prep courses and the strength of a student’s high school curriculum. Other important factors include ACT or SAT scores, college essays and demonstrated interest.

However, the coronavirus has forced colleges to rethink some of those factors, considering that some high schools shifted to pass-fail grades last spring and multiple standardized testing sessions were canceled. Experts say that those developments will likely reshuffle some admissions factors and put more emphasis on college essays and letters of recommendation.

Noting that many colleges have gone test-optional due to the pandemic, Henderson encourages students to check these policies at individual schools. One resource to do so, she says, is, which tracks college testing policies and lists them online.

Carter also encourages students to think critically about where they are applying to college and take a hard look at how a school serves their demographics. For example, first-generation or low-income applicants may want to look at data such as graduation and retention rates for students in those categories to determine how well a college meets their needs.

Finally, Carter recommends that a student find a community of peers, whether online or in person, when applying to college.

“Nobody should have to go through this process alone,” Carter says.

Searching for a college? Get our complete rankings of Best Colleges.

More from U.S. News

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