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4 Tips for Navigating High School Without a Guidance Counselor

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If getting a hold of your guidance counselor feels nearly impossible, or if the line to get into their office feels longer and more frustrating than the line at the DMV, you’re not alone. In fact, a USNews article reports that 21% of high school students don’t have counselors, or have limited access to them. It makes sense, considering that the average caseload for a high school guidance counselor is 482 students.


So what is there to do? Switching high schools is probably not the most viable option, and you can’t simply make a guidance counselor appear out of thin air. How can you learn to advocate for yourself, pick mentors to look up to and come to for advice, locate resources to help you apply for college? And who will you go to for emotional support as you try to figure out what you’d like to do after graduation? Keep reading for tips and tricks that will help you make the most of your education in the absence of a guidance counselor.


Be proactive


Whereas some students don’t have access to a guidance counselors at all, others have guidance counselors that are nearly impossible to get a hold of. The wait line to speak to them on the phone is 50 students long, and it feels like you need to have scheduled your appointment with them back in the year 2000 in order to see them.


If this is the case for you, you need to learn to be proactive and take charge of the situation. As we mentioned before, the average counselor caseload is 482 students. If you think it’s hard to plan for your future, imagine trying to plan for hundreds of futures. It’s just a fact that your overscheduled guidance counselor likely won’t have a ton of time available for you—which is why you need to make the most of the small portion of their time that you get!


Plan ahead. If you know you need a letter of recommendation, and you know that it needs to come from your guidance counselor, trying asking them two months in advance instead of one. It may also help in these cases to give your guidance counselor a copy of your resume or a sheet of paper that lists your activities, accomplishments, and your strengths as an applicant. For guidance counselors that handle hundreds of students, this extra step can make all the difference because it helps them get to know you a little bit better, and it also makes writing your letter of recommendation a great deal easier.


Follow up with your counselor via email, phone, or a visit to their office—whatever you’ve found to be the most effective way of communicating with them. Remember, don’t be rude or overstep your boundaries, just gently remind your counselor of your needs (after all, guidance counselors are hired specifically to help you).


Be sure to account for your counselor’s busy schedule. Consider meeting with them in the spring of your junior year rather than waiting until fall of senior year to talk about which colleges you’ll be applying to and what kinds of help you might need from them. You can also ask your counselor outside resources (like SAT/ACT tutors, a mentorship service, and more).


Involve your parents


In the absence of a guidance counselor, your parents can often be the next best thing—and they will often be your strongest advocates apart from yourself!


Depending on your family, your parents may not always have the knowledge about the college process that a high school guidance counselor would have, but they are still knowledgeable adults who can help you find the information that you need. Parents can also (sometimes) be there to support you emotionally and morally—after all, it’s no secret that the college process is trying and thinking about the future can be scary!


Start by having a low-stakes conversation with your folks about your plans, dreams, and aspirations for the future. You can all collaborate on what might be the best path for you and start to talk about concrete steps towards achieving these goals. For some students this might mean going to college, for others it could mean taking a gap year or going to a trade/vocational school. For more information on alternatives to college, check out these blog posts:


Should You Take a Gap Year After High School?

Rethinking College Entirely? Think Again: More Options to Make It Work for You


Parents can also help you communicate with your school and your guidance counselor. While you, the student, should definitely be doing most of the communicating, it’s ok for your parents to check in with a teacher or an administrator every once in awhile—in fact, this can be a good thing!

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Ask your school


If you don’t have a guidance counselor or have limited access to one, consult your school for additional resources. If you know or even have a general idea of which colleges you’d like to apply to, you can begin by looking at the individual schools’ websites for resources, information and more.


Your high school should still be able to send your transcript and help with the other steps needed in order for you to apply to college, but you should always double check this with your school’s administration and be able to advocate for yourself in this case as well. You might also consider a consulting service like CollegeVine for additional advice on strengthening your college profile, applying to college, interview preparation, and more!


Find a mentor


Your mentor could be anyone—maybe they are a parent, a teacher you admire, a responsible older sibling, a successful student at your high school, a CollegeVine mentor, or a mentor through an outside of school program like the Boys & Girls Club. The possibilities are endless!


Mentors can offer advice, proofread college essays, help you talk about your goals for the future, help you determine and address your shortcomings, and even help you with your homework. Whoever your mentor is, just be sure that you trust them and you feel that their advice is truly going to be helpful to you.


Also, be sure to define the terms of your relationship with them—maybe they are too busy to edit your college essays, but they would be happy to offer you more big-picture advice. Mentoring a young person is a lot of work, and the two of you should be able to talk about what kind of help your mentor can realistically offer.


You might want to consider utilizing the help of several people: a trusted reader to proofread essays, your favorite teacher to offer advice or talk to you about your strengths/weaknesses as a student, a parent to help you talk about the emotional impact of transitioning from highschool to college.


Final thoughts


It can be scary to feel like you don’t have a guidance counselor to advocate for you, but there is no need to panic: you are not alone! With the help of parents, trusted adults, and your school, you can gain valuable skills and advice throughout the course of your high school career. With limited access to a guidance counselor, you also get the opportunity to learn how to advocate for yourself—a skill that will no doubt be useful in your adulthood!


Want access to expert college guidance — for free? When you create your free CollegeVine account, you will find out your real admissions chances, build a best-fit school list, learn how to improve your profile, and get your questions answered by experts and peers—all for free. Sign up for your CollegeVine account today to get a boost on your college journey.


For more information about counselors, check out these blog posts:


How Often Should I Meet with My Guidance Counselor?

The Dos and Don’ts of Guidance Counselor Recommendations

How to Build a Relationship with Your Guidance Counselor

3 Ways Your Guidance Counselor Can Help You for College Admissions

Devin Barricklow
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Devin Barricklow is a Political Science and Creative Writing double major at Columbia University. She’s really excited to be able to share her expertise about the college process with students who need advice. When she isn’t writing for CollegeVine, she enjoys reading the poems of Mary Oliver, going to concerts in the city, or cooking (preferably something with lots of bok choy and ginger).