Although high school students ultimately control their own destiny—writing college applications after years of hard work, good grades, extracurriculars, planning, and dreaming big—there are two big groups of professionals making an impact on the futures of students around the world: school counselors and college admission representatives.
In high school, counselors are the key to students looking beyond schools with big names or big campuses, guiding students through the tricky pathways of academic planning, applying to colleges, and making big decisions. On the other side of the table, college admission representatives travel the world, meeting students to pitch their institutions, reviewing applications, and ultimately selecting which students to admit.
Many professionals end up working on both sides of the industry, gaining a deeper understanding of the competitive and complex higher education world. The overlapping worlds are focused on the same goal: successful students in higher education. A leading young professional with experience in both sectors, Brian Howard, shares his thoughts on both sides of the coin.
Tell us about your background.
- Growing up: High school in Dallas, Oregon, but many childhood years traveling the U.S. during my father’s Air Force career
- Alma mater: Northeastern University, 2008
- Major: International Affairs
- First job: Working at Northeastern University!
- College admission experience: Five years as Assistant Director of Domestic and International Admissions and then Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at Northeastern University
- High school counseling experience: Kicking off my first year at Atlanta International School as an upper school counselor, working with students in grades nine through 12
- Hobbies: Traveling (I worked in international admission at Northeastern) and running
- Fun fact: I can sing the national anthems for eight different countries!
How did you begin your career in college admission?
I started out as a tour guide at Northeastern during college. Next, my first co-op job [Northeastern students participate in six-month work rotations] was in the admissions office, advising international students through Northeastern’s application process and participating in information sessions. I ultimately applied for a permanent position and was hired the summer after graduation as an Assistant Director of Admissions.
Why was college admission a good professional fit for you?
I loved the interaction with students, talking about placement opportunities. I’m passionate about working with the student population—helping guide them to what their future could hold. I’ve always been a people person, with a natural social inclination, and the addition of the advising component was a unique element in the career. My main thought? “Wait, I can get paid to travel and talk about a place that was home for me and get students excited about that?”
What was the biggest challenge you faced in the admission field?
You give up some of your personal and social life locally because of the amount of travel that college admission officers do to meet with prospective students. It’s hard, but you create a community with people also on the road with that shared experience—being a “road warrior” is the epitome of the admission lifestyle.
What was your favorite part of the job?
Nothing is more inspiring than talking to students with extraordinary stories. Sometimes you almost can’t believe that someone has accomplished so much at the age of 16, 17, or 18. I also loved becoming involved in the communities of admission representatives and the counselors on the secondary school side. People are extremely friendly, and there are lots of small-world connections.
What made you decide to transition to the counseling side of the industry?
I started to realize that as I moved up in the ranks, I participated in more of the high-level decision-making aspects, but sometimes at the expense of having the student interaction. Admission can feel like speed-dating, but I gain a lot of value in the work that I do by establishing and building personal relationships. I wanted to build rapport over multiple years, rather than three months of wooing [and then] admitting or denying. It may sound corny, but I wanted to help build dreams and make dreams come true!
When you decided to make the transition, what did you do?
As it turns out, a lot of people make the switch, and I spoke to many colleagues about their experience moving to the other side of the desk—helping advocate for and advising students, rather than reviewing applications and making decisions. I also looked to the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) for resources, and applied for a wide range of positions. Recently, I began a new role as an upper school counselor at the Atlanta International School, working with students in grades nine through 12, and I’m looking forward to the years ahead.
Any memories of a great guidance counselor you had in high school?
I actually didn’t have a lot of interaction with my high school counselor, and didn’t receive much academic advising or support in the college search process. I think it’s why I’ve been so passionate about the field. I was lucky to be a motivated, independent student, but I really could have benefited from someone pushing me to broaden my search, talking to me about what I was looking for and helping me determine a perfect fit. There are more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States—this means there’s a right fit and match for every student, and I believe that school counselors are so important in helping students see the possibilities ahead of them.
From an admission perspective, what are your recommendations for students applying to college?
Never sell yourself short. The college application process is your chance to put your best foot forward, and helps the committee get to know you as an individual. The more you can share about yourself, the better—I promise it’s not coming across as bragging. Include essays, your résumé, a sheet listing your extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation—it all tells a story. Many schools don’t schedule personal interviews, so your application is your main opportunity!
What are your tips now as a school counselor?
There’s the right “you” university. You can find it among the thousands of great and different schools out there. Of course, you can have dream schools, but you can also find a dream school in an unexpected place. Once you identify your passions and interests, you can find the right school for you (with the help of a counselor!). Don’t think that you need to get into a school off of your bucket list to get a great education.
What has surprised you the most approaching the admission process from the counseling side?
Students are often far more stressed about the application process than they let on in front of admission representatives. Students are striving so hard to get into a certain college, preparing the most competitive application, and facing family and peer pressure. The trick is to remember the broad range of factors that go into decisions. Taking the time to consider a range of schools with different admission criteria can help students find the right setting for them and helps to ensure that a specific group of schools isn’t the focus.
What are you most excited to learn in your new role?
I’m really looking forward to sitting in on all of the information sessions that college representatives do. I want to learn about the unique aspects of as many schools as possible, and then share my insights with students to help expose them to schools they might not consider otherwise. There are so many great communities and programs—I love the feeling of, “I know a student that would be perfect at that school!”