Education school counsellor

What every school counsellor wishes you knew when choosing next steps beyond school

Deciding and preparing for the world beyond school – whether it be further academic study, apprenticeships, or a year of work experience – can be fraught with high hopes, expectations, deadlines and information overload. School counsellors not only have a wealth of information at their fingertips. They are also skilled in analysing this data so you get personalised advice. They can see the trends, are aware of changes to university’s expectations, know the deadlines, and know the tricks of the game. What’s more, they really want your child to enjoy learning, long into the future. All this makes your school counsellor a truly valuable ally when preparing for next steps after school. We talked to School Counsellors in a range of International Schools across Switzerland to give you a taste of what they have to offer.

I advise students to not ask too many people their opinion on their application. The more people’s opinions you ask, the more conflicting advice you’ll get. While well-intentioned, knowledge is outdated because this field moves so quickly. Even comparing four years ago to now, acceptances look different. Trends are changing. School Counsellors are involved in so many applications, they are primely placed to notice these changes and adapt accordingly. The same goes for having people look over personal statements.  You have to be careful that the content of these can change a lot between the US and the UK, for example, so you need to find people who really know what they’re talking about. So, I encourage students to find a few trusted people to guide them through the process. 

Leanda Wood, Head of Counselling, Zurich International School.

The game is very strategic – and counsellors know the game

Applying for university is about being a strategist. It pays to know the rules of the game, and these are often changing. For example, whilst universities are getting better at understanding IB scores, a lot of streamlining still needs to happen. When they first started they would compare to A-Levels, saying that you needed 43 points, which was actually the equivalent of four A stars. But fewer than 2% get 43! Now things are changing but a counsellor knows which stage universities are at.

Waitlisting is also a game. This year three students were waitlisted because they got the points, but they needed seven, six, five, and they got six, six, six – a different combination. They all got waitlisted until the A level results day, and then all got offered the place. We knew it would happen, it just delays the process. But it can be stressful because you might pick up, relocate, start the course and 4 days later you find out you didn’t make it. We can guide you well throughout this process.

Kate Bradley, Head of Secondary, La Côte International School.

Counsellors are central to the application process

The best piece of advice we can give is to establish a good relationship with your school counsellor. They are writing your child’s recommendation letter. So, the better that they know the student, the better they’re able to write a great recommendation. Some students see you more as an administrative assistant, coming in saying, “Here’s my list. Thanks.” But when students come regularly to see you, you can forge strong relationships, build a wealth of knowledge about them, and can write a good recommendation. This also applies to parents. We recommend you come early-on in the process and participate. Come to all the meetings, and be an active part in the process. Even if you are working with an independent counsellor, still forge strong relationships with the school counsellor.

Leanda Wood, Head of Counselling, Zurich International School.

It’s so important to build good relationships with the people that can help. This means your counsellor, your IB coordinator, your key subject teachers. Never try to approach your counsellor in an aggressive way. Of course, write down what you’ve got to say, assert yourself, and say, “These are the things we’re looking at. This is where the shortfalls are, but this is what I want”, but stay open to what these key people have to say as they truly have a wealth of experience to offer you.

Kate Bradley, Head of Secondary, La Côte International School.

The risks of a private counsellor

Many families come to believe that they need a private counsellor to help navigate these waters. But, you can run the risk of getting conflicting advice. Especially because a private counsellor will be more swayed by wanting to please their customer.  It is really hard when the student feels pulled into choosing which counsellor will they listen to. Both may be correct, just different perspectives, so it needs careful consideration.

Just bear in mind that it’s important to work in partnership with your school and the school counsellor to keep the process smooth for the student. The people that know your child best are most likely the people that work with them most of the time. Additionally, the amount of actual assistance that a private counsellor can give in the whole process is actually quite limited. It’s the counsellors at the school that contact the universities and do the transcripts. Also, a person who maybe only works with 10 kids at a time won’t necessarily see the trends. 

John Switzer, Upper School Principal & Lee Underwood, Head of Counselling, 

Zurich International School.

Counsellors focus on students playing to their strengths

The majority of students don’t actually know what they want to do. So, the way I work with students is based around the ICS mission. How to achieve their individual potential, pursue their passion, and fulfil their responsibilities. It’s not so much about researching what’s available to them, but researching themselves, as early as possible: how they like to learn, what environment they like to live in, what excites them, what doesn’t excite them. Working in a school which really actively focuses on individual potential, pursuing passions and the responsibility there, makes it easier for us to work with families so that they see beyond a brand, or Oxford or Cambridge or going to university.

It’s all about the individual, and what suits one student doesn’t necessarily suit another. We embrace that, and we work as a school to encourage families to embrace this also. In our internship opportunities and career fair, we try to ensure that the professionals coming in are a real mix. They don’t just cater for the doctors and the accountants, and the lawyers. They are also cater for the arts kids and the sport kids, and all sorts of diverse passions.
Rachel Doell, University and Career Counsellor, Inter-Community School Zurich.

Our advisory programme doesn’t look like college counselling in the beginning, but it starts with knowing yourself as a learner. We talk about your values, your strengths and your interests. We have an internship program, which gives students a chance to try out a few things. I had one lovely young student, sure he was going to do neuroscience, got an amazing internship in the field and, after watching pieces of brain being cut up said, “That’s not for me.” Knowing your strengths is also key to choosing the IB, AP or whichever pathway works best for you. We have individual pathway planning meetings from Grade 10 with the counsellors. These pathways help students plan out where their strengths are, and a lot of that is who they are as learners. 

Leanda Wood, Head of Counselling, Zurich International School.

They know what you and your child need to know and when you need to know it

I start working with the grade nines, to encourage them to think about their future beyond school. I try to start them thinking what they might want to do, what their passions are in those areas. Then, in grade ten, I work with them to further that thinking. I try and help them choose the correct subjects to ensure that the doors are all open to any area that they might want to go into. Grade eleven is more working with them to consolidate their thinking about what they will do when they leave school. And then grade twelve is actually applying to university if that is what they want to do next.

All of those things take place in different environments, so it might be a whole grade level presentation, it might be one-to-one meetings with just the student, it might be one-to-one meetings with the student and the parents, workshops in the evening, university visits, or the career fair for the grade ten and eleven’s, where they meet different professionals from the area.
Rachel Dole, University and Career Counsellor, Inter-Community School Zurich.

In our parent information evenings we discuss topics such as, what is a high school diploma, what is the IB diploma, understanding what a transcript is. These are foreign terms for some families. Others may feel like they’ve seen it before, but we want to be sure that everyone is at the same starting point with information. The other big thing with these evenings, especially the one in October – the first one for parents – is for them to realise that the process that they went through to get into university is most likely completely different to what their children are going through.

The acceptance rates, for example at some universities when parents went there versus what their kids will have to go through, are so different. The competition is different nowadays and tough, even if you’re going to an incredible international school. So we want to start with a level playing field and the realities of what our kids are looking at. Then you can take from a very broad brush and start to narrow it down to maybe a few countries, a few programmes, a few universities.
John Switzer, Upper School Principal & Lee Underwood, Head of Counselling, 

Zurich International School.

They know excellent alternatives to academic pathways

It’s a provocative question but when thinking about individuals we have to sometimes ask, “Should you be sending your child to a university at all?”  And I think that is a timely question in today’s world, because sometimes universities are also not keeping up with what the needs of a labour market are in any one country. The world is broader now, and seeing university as the only option can be a really narrow view. It’s worth asking, “Do you want your child to be employed and have an interesting career pathway, or do you want them to go to a brand university?”. When you look at the statistics of employment after four years in Liberal Arts in some of the brand universities, you can see it’s not the best recommendation.
Mary-Lyn Campbell, Head of the Inter-Community School Zurich.

I give as much support as possible to students who aren’t planning on going to University, at least at this stage of their journey. I will find out first, what country they’re planning on staying in, at least for the next year, and put them in touch with relevant internship or apprenticeship programmes. As long as they have the level of German language required and they’ve got their high school diploma, they can sign on for an apprenticeship.

And in the U.K., there are fantastic internship and apprenticeship programmes. We have contacts with some companies, including one who does a wonderful year-long internship for anyone with an IB diploma who doesn’t want to go straight to university. It doesn’t matter if they are planning to go to university after or not. They do a year, work full time, and get paid. So you can see, we have contacts in many different countries.
Rachel Doell, University and Career Counsellor, Inter-Community School Zurich.

Author Bio

Sandra Steiger has over 10 years’ experience teaching English at various schools in Switzerland. She now works as Academic Support Manager at TutorsPlus. She was also the Service Learning programme Coordinator, International Award Supervisor, a Homeroom Mentor and Head of Year 8.

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