How Can Communities Guide Students Through the College Admissions Process?

October 2015

The college admissions process is multifaceted. Community partnerships between community-based organizations, higher education institutions, and school districts can help students successfully navigate complex requirements. In order to make informed decisions about where to apply, first- generation students, in particular, may need guidance to understand unfamiliar webs of procedures and terminology. Counselors working with students should also be cautious of undermatching, when low-income, high-achieving students choose to attend less-demanding colleges. Counselors can help students identify appropriate colleges with available resources tailored to their specific needs. For instance, adult learners may be interested in attending a college that offers low- cost university child care services or flexible scheduling options that accommodate workplace responsibilities.

Even after students have identified institutions that fit their needs, the college application process can still be daunting due to various requirements, such as college essays and supplements. Institutions may also require students to submit standardized test scores, which could serve as a financial barrier. Counselors should be sensitive to students’ different circumstances. Specifically, adults who have been out of school may need guidance on how to obtain appropriate letters of recommendation. By working to ensure that all students have the necessary social capital to make informed decisions about college admissions, more students will be able to successfully navigate the process. Below are a few examples of supports that have been used to help students apply to college.

College Application Week: Does your community want to increase the number of first-generation and low-income students who pursue postsecondary education? College Application Week events target students who may not otherwise apply to college. They connect students with counselors who work to help them navigate the complex college admissions process and to ensure that each participating student completes and submits college applications.

Campus Visits: Does your community want to offer students the opportunity to make on-campus visits to colleges? Communities should work with institutions to make sure that their campuses are accessible to all prospective students. The more connections students make with a college—through in-person visits and interactions with representatives—the more likely it is that students will view admission as an attainable goal.

Recruitment Events: Does your community want to work with colleges to host outreach events? For students who are unable to visit colleges, institutional outreach could provide critical points of contact, increasing the likelihood of students applying to college. School districts and community organizations can also work with colleges to prepare outreach events tailored to underserved students.

Test Preparation Services: Does your community want to offer low-income students opportunities to prepare for college admission exams? These services provide low-cost or free test preparation. SAT and ACT registration fees can also be waived for low-income students. Schools can also partner with the College Board or ACT, Inc., to make their school a testing site, enabling students to familiarize themselves with the testing location to ease test-day stress.

The following section features an interview with the associate director of the New York City Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Readiness; it highlights how the department has worked to create a partnership with the Goddard Riverside Community Center to provide free counselor training to New York City public school personnel. We also suggest tools to help communities guide students through the college admissions process, including a counselor guide to offer feedback on student college application essays, as well as an adult learner guide to help returning students write such essays. We also include an online tool that provides virtual college tours, allowing students to visit college campuses from the convenience of their homes. This chapter ends with a list of additional resources, where you can find more information on helping students apply to college.

New York City Department of Education (NYC DOE) Office of Postsecondary Readiness and the Goddard Riverside Community Center, New York, New York: Free College Counseling Training

  • Andrea Soonachan, Senior Director of College and Career Planning, NYC DOE Office of Postsecondary Readiness

IHEP spoke to Andrea Soonachan about her work at the NYC DOE Office of Postsecondary Readiness and its partnership with the local non-profit Goddard Riverside Community Center to provide a free college counseling training series to NYC public school staff and college access organizations. Read this interview to learn about how providing counselor training helps improve student outcomes.


IHEP: What do you hope to achieve through counselor training?

Our goal is to equip school staff with the tools and training they need to offer high-quality college access counseling for our students. Around the city there are lots of great college counselors doing strong work, but there is a real gap in pre- service and in-service training around college counseling. Our staff members who are doing college counseling well at their schools had to really learn how to do it on the job. It’s highly likely that you could have a master’s degree in counseling and be working in our schools having never taken any coursework on college counseling for low-income, first-generation students in particular. We know that college counseling, in general, is not something that’s typically covered in graduate programs.

We also know that across our system, lots of people doing college counseling are not necessarily guidance counselors/ school counselors by trade. Counselor training is absolutely critical, because the quality of counseling impacts the quality of college planning and access available to students—particularly low-income, first-generation college students. Research shows that these populations need knowledgeable one-on-one help to improve their rates of postsecondary access and success. For example, when students have trained counselors, they are more likely to apply to college and less likely to “undermatch.”

IHEP: How many counselors or staff members across the city did you want to train through this series?

Our goal at the end of the three-year initiative was to have at least one trained person in every high school. We have 544 high schools in New York City, so that was an ambitious goal. Our secondary goal was to actually have multiple trainings for people at every school, recognizing that this work is distributed in different ways in different places. Our schools vary in size, from small schools graduating 100 kids a year to large schools graduating 800 a year. We funded the initiative at the level of one trained person for every 35 seniors, not necessarily expecting to reach that goal but wanting to have the bandwidth to do so.

It’s highly likely that you could have a master’s degree in counseling and be working in our schools having never taken any coursework on college counseling for low-income, first- generation students in particular.


IHEP: How did the partnership between the NYC DOE Office of Postsecondary Readiness and the Options Institute at the Goddard Riverside Community Center begin?

Options had a great reputation and was already offering the best training for college access counselors in the city. We knew that lots of NYC DOE staff were paying from their own school budgets to attend, and lots of non-profit partners in the city were also going. The institute offered the nuts-and-bolts training for how to walk through the application process with college-bound students, and how to work with students going on to either two- or four-year postsecondary institutions.

A few years ago, we began working with Options on a small scale, like one-day training sessions with a group of staff or a multi-day series with another small group of schools. Then, in 2011, we were awarded a grant from the Open Society Institute; it was part of a much larger grant made to New York City Public Schools to expand success for Black and Latino young men. We used a part of this grant to design a larger-scale initiative with Options to provide counselor training, because we knew that city-wide projects on training could be transformative for everyone and specifically for the student populations the grant focused on.

IHEP: How did this partnership decide what the training series would entail?

We collaborated with the directors at Options to design the sessions and work on the calendar. We sat down to decide what this would look like and what we could accomplish. We were building off of the eight-day program that Options had been offering to counseling staff for over a decade, so the content was already really strong. We condensed the series into six days, allowing us to spread it out over the school year so that staff would have to be out of their school buildings only one day per month. Alternatively, participants could choose to complete all six days of training consecutively through a summer series we offered each year, which was very popular.


IHEP: What does this training consist of, and what do participants learn?

The training begins by focusing on the landscape of higher education. We look at national, city- and school-specific data. We talk about what “college-going culture” means and what having a college planning program in a school means. We train counselors on how to create lists of potential colleges with students. We provide information on New York State (NYS) Opportunity Programs and other special programs across our city and state. The NYS Opportunity Programs are offered at various CUNY, SUNY, and private schools, and are designed to increase college access and success for low-income students by admitting students who would not normally be able to attend due to low grades or test scores. Admitted students have access to pre-freshmen summer programming, tutoring, advising, and financial aid. Counselors need information about these programs and their entry criteria to make sure that kids don’t miss out.

We also walk through the college application process. We talk about such topics as the Common Application, essay writing, and letters of recommendation, so counselors understand what is required of students. We then spend the last two days of the series concentrating on financial aid. We take a line-by-line look at the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE, and our state supplemental aid application. We teach counselors how to analyze institutional award packages. Throughout the series, we not only talk about content but also give staff time to reflect about their work days and their school cultures. For each topic, staff think about what has to change in their daily practice and how they can act as leaders and advocates in their schools in order to implement the practices we discuss.

Those who complete the training get a certificate. Participants have completed something that they can put on their résumés. We’re building a professional community for college access that is new to lots of people.

IHEP: How did you shape the curriculum throughout the series to focus on improving student outcomes?

When we were planning the content, we made sure that each day included role-playing and scenarios covering a diverse set of students. We used fake student transcripts and described student experiences that were consistent with real situations our students face. We wanted the curriculum to be as reflective as possible of our student population and of the unique challenges that a first-generation student faces. For instance, when we talk about working with immigrant students, Options partners with the Legal Aid Society to have an attorney come in to explain the different immigration statuses that are relevant to students. Then, we talk about best practices for working with those students.

At the end of each training day, there’s an action-planning activity, and that’s where we hammer home the point that counselors “need to be doing this work.” The message we want to convey is that students who need help the most will not get help from anyone else if they don’t receive help from counselors. We go back to the statistics from day one about who is going to college and succeeding. We really emphasize that for low- income, first-generation students, this work has to happen with counselors in the school. We stress the importance of intrusive advising, and how staff members need to take the initiative to reach out to students.

IHEP: How did you recruit participants from across the city?

We’re a really large system. My staff of three and I do not personally talk to 500 schools regularly, so there are several layers of school support management between us and our school contacts. We publish registration announcements in weekly e-mails that go to principals, and we talk about the training program whenever we discuss professional development with schools. We also work with school management staff, who are the liaisons between us and schools. We set up an accountability system with them and create spreadsheets that we update to let them know how many of their schools have staff registered during an open period. This information can prompt the managers to then reach out to their schools, because the managers have ongoing relationships with counselors.

Word of mouth was really strong once the sessions got going; people loved them. They started talking to colleagues about how great the sessions were. We also created incentives to get people involved. Those who complete the training get a certificate. Participants have completed something that they can put on their résumés. We’re building a professional community for college access that is new to lots of people. We encourage participants to register for other professional organizations and to really think of themselves as college access counselors.

IHEP: What challenges did you face?

It’s really important to build in time for someone to manage the constant cycle of registration, and it’s essential to track participation data at the Office of Postsecondary Readiness. Because we didn’t have the staff capacity to provide ongoing support, it was a challenge for us to know what happened when participants got back to their schools.

IHEP: How do you plan to sustain these efforts?

With our private funding ending, my office plans to continue offering the Options series on a smaller scale using our public funds. In addition, we offer three professional development events, including full-day conferences and training for college access counselors, three times per school year, in partnership with Graduate NYC! We also plan to continue hosting a one- week institute, twice every summer, as a part of my office’s regular offerings. At these institutes, school teams of teachers, administrators, and college counselors have the opportunity to take an in-depth look at building and strengthening the college- going culture at their schools.


IHEP: What kind of outcomes have you seen from this training series?

As we’re coming to the end of our initiative, over 80 percent of schools have sent someone to the free training series—that’s 470 schools. Based on some preliminary findings from our external evaluator, we know that between the 2012–13 and 2014– 15 school years, we had more than 1,200 participants, with 62 percent of schools sending multiple participants. We also have anecdotal evidence on how participants have used the training information and skills in their schools. We are hoping to obtain more data in the next year so that we can conduct a quantitative analysis of changes—those directly related to improving student outcomes—that have taken place in schools.

IHEP: What kind of participant feedback have you received so far?

We’ve been doing focus groups to obtain feedback. Participants especially love the financial aid content. It’s the topic they feel most shaky about going in, and they report feeling more confident after two full days working with our facilitators. People also really like the local focus: going over special programs offered at local campuses and taking a deep dive with the CUNY and SUNY application processes. Participants expressed that they would like to learn more about special populations, such as students with disabilities, students in foster care or temporary housing, and students going into vocational or technical postsecondary programs.

Our training series provides the rare opportunity for school counselors and college access counselors to all be in the same room with each other for a sustained period of time in order to build professional collegiality and to share practices that will ultimately help our students.

Overall, participants agree that the training is very interactive. For instance, during the series, the facilitators ask participants to share what they are doing in their schools or to work through their challenges together. People are just thrilled for the opportunity to hear what someone did at his or her school and say, “I’m going to try that at mine.” Staff always leave saying that they can replicate the training activities and do them with their colleagues—or even with their students—at school. Our training series provides the rare opportunity for school counselors and college access counselors to all be in the same room with each other for a sustained period of time in order to build professional collegiality and to share practices that will ultimately help our students.

Looking Forward

IHEP: Would you like to offer any last words of wisdom to communities hoping to invest in college counselor training?

There are lots of funders interested in college access, and many organizations opt to chase those dollars in a programmatic way. These organizations are thinking about how to get more supports into schools because it feels harder to explain the direct connection between professional development and student outcomes. I think it’s a worthwhile strategy for any district to engage a funder in understanding the real need for professional development, in the area of college counseling specifically. It may take you a couple of years to see the changes and pay-off from professional development, but it’s a move worth making. We know that good counselors lead to good student outcomes. Your ideal fundraising plan would have time and money for training, and then time and money for helping trainees implement the lessons learned.

Chapter 5 Download


Counselors Essays & Essays Arrow

These tools from Goddard Riverside Community Center offer advice to students on writing college application essays as well as advice to counselors on how to offer feedback on such essays.

Page length: 4 (includes both documents)

Back to College: Admission Essays and Personal Statements

These tips written by Peterson’s on how to write college application essays are specifically for adult students retuning to college.

Page length: 1

Virtual College Tours

This online tool that allows students to visit colleges virtually is a great alternative for those who cannot visit campuses in person due to time and money constraints.

Page length: varies

Additional Resources

Maximizing the College Choice Process to Increase Fit & Match for Underserved Students (2011: National College Access Network, Institute for Higher Education Policy & Pathways to College Network)

This brief focuses on the college choice process of high school students. More specifically, the brief discusses issues of fit and match, and identifies best practices for ensuring that more low- income, first-generation, and racial and ethnic minority students are able to succeed in postsecondary education. The brief discusses the impact of fit and match on the persistent gap in degree attainment between underserved and majority student populations. This brief may be useful for guidance counselors and college advisors in helping students choose a college that will best match their social, academic, geographical, and financial needs.

The Role of Mentoring in College Access and Success (2011: Institute for Higher Education Policy)

This brief collects and synthesizes the extant scholarly literature on the role of mentoring to promote college access and success. Aimed at postsecondary researchers, this brief explains the effects of mentoring on college-going behaviors, persistence, and success, and identifies areas for future exploration. The brief includes guidance for college access practitioners interested in developing a mentoring program to increase college attainment and persistence. An example program—Philadelphia Futures’ Sponsor-A-Scholar program— showcases the key criteria of an effective mentoring program.

Going the Distance in Adult College Completion: Lessons from the Non-Traditional No More Project (2012: Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education & HCM Strategists)

This report provides state-level policymakers with six state- level examples of effective initiatives that increase access and success rates for returning adult students. It notes that increasing adult degree attainment is an essential step in increasing overall state degree attainment. Each state-level example is contextualized by the policy landscape of that state. The report also identifies successful practices and challenges faced by each initiative. The report encourages state-level policymakers with similar political landscapes to consider these successes and challenges in order to replicate effective programs.

Two-Way Street: When College Mentors Help Students Achieve, Success Is Shared (2014: Lumina Foundation)

This issue of Lumina Foundation Focus explores the benefits of mentoring by showcasing three different programs: iMentor, The College Advising Corps, and College Mentoring for Access and Persistence. Each program utilizes adult mentors to guide first-generation and low-income students through the college- going process. This issue brief outlines key information on each program’s scope, curriculum, and outcomes. College access practitioners interested in creating mentorship programs and guidance counselors interested in improving their own access initiatives and resources are advised to read this issue.