Questions to Ask Your High School Counselor When Applying to College

Senior year of high school can feel like a dizzying array of applications, deadlines, exams and tours.

While some prospective college students can seek advice about the application process from siblings, relatives or friends who have gone through it, many will turn to their school counselors for answers. With access to information about scholarships, financial aid, application deadlines and requirements, school counselors can alert students to opportunities and help them stay organized while they complete their college applications.

But with hundreds of students to work with, school counselors have limitations. The American School Counselor Association recommends a 250-to-1 counselor-to-student ratio, but says the national average for the 2020-21 school year was 415-to-1. That’s why many counselors say it’s imperative students reach out proactively for help.

[Read: How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation for College.]

One way to do this: Create a list of questions for your school counselor.

“It’s OK to say, ‘I’m lost and I need your help.’ That’s what we want you to say,” says Jill Brock, head of school counseling at Liberty North High School in Missouri. “Otherwise we’re kind of assuming you have it, when in the back of your mind you have no idea what you’re doing.”

Here are nine questions students should ask their school counselors when applying to college.

When and Where Do I Start?

For students who have no context for a college application, knowing where to start can be an intimidating experience, says Pam Cate, a counselor at Pulaski County High School in Somerset, Kentucky.

One of the first questions students can ask, she says, is “Where do I start?”

“They don’t even know that you get on a website and hit ‘apply,'” she says.

It’s equally important to know when to start, says Samuel Payan, a school counselor at Morton Senior High School in Hammond, Indiana. The answer to that, he says, is “early.” This helps to ensure that students will have all of the necessary elements to meet application and scholarship deadlines.

“That, to me, has been the most important thing because our students do need more help, and more help usually comes in the beginning,” he says. “If you apply early, there’s usually more money available to those students than applying late.”

What’s the Actual Cost for My Desired School?

Financial hardship is one of the leading causes of students dropping out of college. Prospective students want to know what financial burden they will be placing on themselves, counselors say.

Much of that will depend on what type of school a student plans to attend — whether it’s a two-year or four-year school — but it’s one of the first questions students should ask, Payan says. This also invites a conversation about student loans and the long-term implications those could have, he says.

[Explore 10 steps to help minimize student loan debt.]

What Financial Aid or Scholarships Do I Qualify For?

Students should talk to their counselors about their family’s financial situation, Cate says, adding that it can “make or break going to college.” Students should not assume counselors know this information, especially if it has recently changed.

Students who qualify as low-income or a first-generation college-goer might be eligible for thousands of dollars in scholarships. Asking counselors where to look for those is vital, Brock says. Students should also seek out other money-saving methods like application fee waivers and grants.

“Oftentimes (students) are just going to do a Google search,” she says. “But there are some great databases and organizations that house a large majority of them, so we want them to know about those.”

What Are All of My Options?

Four-year colleges and universities aren’t the only options available to students. There are also two-year programs like community colleges and trade schools.

Counselors say it’s crucial students understand what’s out there so they make an informed decision on what’s best for their future and career goals.

“I have a lot of students, that I agree with, that are starting to say, ‘I’m not sure I want to go to a four-year college,’ which is fine,” says Cate, who works primarily with first- generation prospective college students. “What I try to say is you need to at least consider a two-year college. Sometimes students think college means four years, and it doesn’t. College can mean a lot of different things.” That includes online programs and certificate pathways as well.

How Can I Make My Application Stand Out?

Payan says he commonly sees his students selling themselves short on their college applications and personal essays.

A transcript that boasts Advanced Placement or honors courses and extracurriculars will go a long way on its own merit, he says, but students should think deeper about accomplishments or aspects of their life that might differentiate them from other applicants.

Students should mention responsibilities they have like working a job or taking care of siblings, he says, because schools look on those favorably. They may also consider highlighting personal hardships in their essays.

Students should view having persisted through those experiences as strengths, he says.

Student-Specific Questions

While a general list of questions will provide a lot of answers, counselors recommend students create a list of questions about their individual needs, too, including about the colleges and scholarships they plan to apply for.

Here are four other questions students can consider asking their counselors:

What kinds of cultural programs and resources are offered at the colleges I’m applying to?

Students might benefit from attending colleges that offer extracurriculars and social clubs that allow them to find community with others like them, Payan says. Students should ask counselors to help discover what clubs and organizations colleges offer.

Will my AP or dual credit courses transfer to my desired college?

While some colleges offer credit or waive prerequisites for high scores on AP exams, others — particularly selective schools — limit the amount of credit they will offer or don’t offer it all.

“That one they just forget all the time and then they’re in frantic mode at the end of the year,” Brock says. “And then we’re in frantic mode because we’re trying to get them (graduated).”

Should I submit my test scores if the school is test-optional?

Some colleges have moved to a “test-optional” approach, meaning that applicants can choose whether or not to submit ACT or SAT scores with their college application. Students should consider their scores and talk to counselors about the best strategy.

How many colleges should I apply to?

Experts disagree on a specific number of schools, with recommendations ranging anywhere from four to 15. The College Board suggests applying to between four and eight colleges, but that number will vary by student. School counselors can help students refine their lists.

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

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