Why Understanding International School Counsellors Can Drive Smarter Recruitment

Understanding how a counsellor’s job changes from school to school can help your international student recruitment have more impact. Here’s why.

While it’s useful to have a good working knowledge of the international schools market en masse, it’s equally (if not more) important to have an understanding of the role of the school counsellor as you design and implement your international schools strategy. 

The school counsellor is a crucial point of contact and advice for international school students at every stage of their career consideration and university evaluation journey. 

But it goes deeper than this. In many cases, counsellors are often advocates of the questions and concerns, ambitions and aspirations of their students when it comes to higher education. 

And, as we’ve mentioned in previous articles, counsellors are often integral to the success of a guidance curriculum within an international school. A student’s application outcome is often tied to the quality and quantity of the guidance provision they receive.

That’s why it’s essential to build long-lasting, mutually beneficial relationships with counsellors and other careers guidance professionals at your target international schools.  In fact, we’d argue that a truly successful international schools strategy needs to place the counsellor at its heart. 

So let’s take a closer look at the role of an international school counsellor. We’ll explain their roles and responsibilities, the challenges they face and why it’s important to understand these challenges as you build your international schools strategy. 

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Why it’s important to understand the different types of international school counsellor

Not only is the international school counsellor your most crucial point of contact in an international school, they’re often the first point of contact when you reach out to a new school. 

But it’s been our experience that, in some cases, university recruitment reps make the mistake of taking a transactional approach that fundamentally misunderstands the day-to-day demands of a counsellor’s job. 

As we mentioned in the last instalment of this series, it’s vital to understand the unique context of each international school you reach out to. 

Simply put, understanding the demands of the counsellor is crucial to gaining an overview of the wider context of the school you plan to work with. 

And, as we’re about to see, a counsellor’s role, responsibilities and even their job title can look very different from school to school. 

It’s vital to understand that the role of ‘guidance counsellor’ is one of the most varied you’ll find at an international school. This not only means that there are a lot of different aspects to the role, but also that what a school means by the job title is not universal. 

Here are just a few titles that could fall under the umbrella of ‘guidance counsellor’: 

  • College counselor (often the job title found in US curriculum schools)
  • Careers adviser
  • University guidance officer
  • International university counselor
  • Senior school counselor
  • Head of Sixth Form (look out for this in UK curriculum schools)

And it’s not just the title that varies. The parameters, responsibilities and type of work expected from the role will depend on various factors. 

Let’s look at a few examples. 

The size and scope of a counsellor’s role

It’s important not to underestimate the extent to which the size and scope of a guidance counsellor’s role changes from school to school, and why it’s necessary to tailor your international school strategy accordingly. 

While it’s not binary, we’ve found it helpful to classify the size and scope of a counsellor’s role into two broad categories. 

The lone/part-time counsellor

This describes a counsellor who may work in a smaller international school, where the school leadership team may be less aware of the importance and scope of guidance counselling. 

These counsellors may be working in a dedicated role, or may be managing this role in an unofficial or non-dedicated capacity alongside their other duties (for example, managing a full teaching timetable)

They’ll likely have to grapple with the problem of time management and, in some cases, educating their school’s senior leadership about the value and scope of their role. 

They may also be required to build and manage a guidance curriculum from scratch. If they’re brand new to the role, or the role has been built around them, then they will likely lead a lot of support with the finer points of university application management. 

It’s important to bear this in mind when you first reach out to them! 

The 'team player'

Again, this is an informal term we use in our resources for BridgeU counsellors, to describe those who may work as part of a larger, dedicated counselling team. 

Because they work as part of a team, these counsellors are more likely to have a bigger budget and more resources behind them (though even this will vary wildly from school to school - consider the difference between a counselling team of three, versus a team of nine!) 

Depending on the size and resource of the counselling team, ‘team player’ counsellors will either be generalists or specialists. This leads us neatly onto our next section…

The specialisation of a counsellors’ role

 

The size, budget of both a counselling team, and the wider international school itself, will determine whether you’re working with generalists or specialists. 

If you’re dealing with an international school where there’s only a single counsellor, or a small team of two or three, then it’s more likely you’ll be dealing with a generalist. 

Generalist counsellors will typically manage the whole higher education preparation and application process. In some smaller schools, they may even take on responsibility for social and emotional counselling too. 

By contrast a specialist counsellor may take ownership of one aspect of the school’s overall guidance curriculum. Below are some of the specialisations it’s useful for you to know about as you reach out to international schools. 

Country-specific knowledge

Some counsellors might only manage the guidance provision and university applications for one country. For example, you might find yours elf dealing with a counsellor who focuses solely on applications to the USA, or the Netherlands.

University-specific knowledge

In very special cases, you may find counselling teams with a dedicated person to support applications to very competitive or renowned universities.  For instance, Oxford and Cambridge specialists are relatively common in high achieving British-orientation schools.

Subject-specific knowledge

Counsellors who are able to coach on a specific subject may be assigned to handle all of those applicants from a school, particularly if that subject is popular/competitive within - for example, Medicine or Law.

Strategy tip: Remember that context is king in the world of international school counselling. Whether you’re dealing with a lone counsellor or a team player, a generalist or a specialist, your international school strategy will need to adapt to the specific contexts and needs of each school. 

For example, a generalist counsellor who has sole responsibility for guidance provision in their school will likely need help mastering the complexities of multiple university systems. They’ll likely be looking for as much support as they can get and will be eager to expand their university contacts. 

By contrast a US specialist counsellor who works within a larger team will have separate but equal challenges. They might manage a lot of students who are interested in the USA, but they need to manage the paperwork associated with a high volume of US applications. 

What’s more, as an international school that receives a lot of visits and interest from US universities already, this counsellor faces the challenge of ensuring her students are applying to colleges that are truly a good fit.

How international school counsellors manage stakeholders

This is a challenge that’s doubtless familiar to you and your admissions/enrolment team too. But we’d argue that, for international school counsellors, managing stakeholders is a particularly specialist skill. 

Consider what an important, uncertain and emotive process careers exploration and higher education application is for most students. 

This means that the student, their parents and other members of a school’s faculty will have a vested interest in what a counsellor does, as well as the outcomes they deliver. Managing these stakeholders requires constant communication from a counsellor, as well as setting clear expectations and boundaries at all times.

Students

Students are the most likely to need clear expectations set for them. Counsellors in many international schools also face the challenge of ensuring that students take an active role in their own university and careers guidance process. 

As you can imagine, their ability to do this will depend on factors such as scope and specialisation that we discussed earlier in this chapter. 

An increasing number of our counselling community find it beneficial to introduce a whole school guidance process. Each year group within a school is given specific goals and tasks to help further their university preparation incrementally year-on-year.

This means that students are exploring career pathways and their personal strengths and skills from as young as 13 years old. Once they understand who they are and how they like to learn, students are encouraged to consider the specifics of what they want to study post-secondary school and begin to explore different international study destinations

Strategy tip: Having universities take an active, participatory role in their guidance curriculum in turn helps counsellors to ensure their students are both more engaged and alive to the different higher education options out there. 

That’s why it’s so important for your international schools strategy to be as proactive as possible. Many counsellors value the input of university reps who seek to embed themselves in the guidance curriculum of their school! 

Parents

Parents can often be the trickiest stakeholder for a counsellor to manage. In our experience, the most common challenge that counsellors face with parents is one of expectation management

In order to ensure that their guidance process is as transparent as possible, international school counsellors will often seek to create opportunities for parents to go on the career exploration and higher education research journey in parallel with their child. 

This can take the form of: 

  • Information evenings/ days to explain the counselling process and the expected outcomes, be they virtual or in-person events.
  • Termly reporting to parents on progress and upcoming deadlines
  • Using the school marketing department to promote the work that counsellors do, through brochures and website collateral. 

Parents will often have just as many questions and concerns about the university application as their child - so it’s vital you factor this into your international schools strategy. 

While this is by no means an iron-clad rule, it will often be the case that parents are just as, if not more, worried about factors such as campus safety and student finance. 

Strategy tip: When planning any collaboration with an international school, try to think of ways you can actively involve parents from the start (we’d always recommend you work closely with the counsellor on this - some counsellors may choose to put limits on parental involvement!). 

If you haven’t already, we’d recommend doing an audit of your international student recruitment and marketing resources to ensure that you’re addressing parents’ key questions and concerns. 

Top tips for working with international school counsellors

Remember that sometimes you’re dealing with (very busy) teachers

In the rush to find the best-fit international schools that align with your recruitment strategy, it can be easy to forget that school counsellors will often come from a teaching background. 

Wherever in the world they happen to be based, it’s always a safe bet that counsellors and guidance professionals will have a lot on their plate. And while helping students to discover and apply to global universities might be one of their priorities, it’s unlikely to be their only priority. 

It’s worth tackling these together since the curriculum and culture of an international school are so intrinsically linked. 

How international a school’s curriculum is will ultimately have a knock-on effect on how international its culture is. A school’s curriculum and culture can significantly affect factors like:

  • How many students the school typically sends to universities overseas.
  • The level of awareness that both counsellors and students will have about international study destinations and their related application processes.
  • How confident students feel about an international higher education and the benefits it offers.

A school exclusively running an international curriculum (like the IB) is more likely to play host to a truly international student body (frequently called 'third culture kids'). So it’s logical to assume that, to a certain degree, they will be more confident about the prospect of studying in another country.

By contrast a school where the international curriculum sits alongside national curriculum provision may send less of its students overseas. 

These students (and their counsellors) may be less experienced in navigating the various complexities of international higher education, and may lack awareness of what it'll be like to study in another country.

To cite an example of what we mean, let’s use two example case studies. We’ll call them School A and School B. 

Community and collaboration trumps competition

As we’ve already covered, the global marketplace in which your university operates is a competitive one. But when we talk about the counsellors and guidance professionals we work with at BridgeU, we often refer to them as a community. 

There’s a reason for this. It’s a much more collaborative sector. 

International school guidance professionals rely on each other for support, especially if they’re working in a school where they’re both time and resource-poor. This is reflected in the existence of organisations you’re probably already familiar with, such as the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) and the International Association for College Admissions Counseling (IACAC).

This means that, when it comes to approaching an international school in a particular region of the world, it’s important to think of counsellors as part of a wider collaborative network. 

That’s why the key to building rich, long-lasting relationships with international schools is to show counsellors that you can help them meet those challenges. Counsellors are more likely to value university reps that are willing to collaborate with them.

Make a good first impression

When you set out to build a relationship with an  international school counsellor,  it’s important to tailor personalise your initial outreach to the needs of the school. We’d always recommend the following: 

  • A warm, personalised introduction. 
  • Centring your outreach or visit request around the school’s needs and not your needs
  • Introducing your university and creating a clear narrative around its brand (note: if even you’re working a well-known university, it’s still important to set context and tell a story) 
  • A clear explanation of why your institution is reaching out to this school - and why your university might be a good fit for the school’s students. 
  • Explaining the exact format and perceived benefits of the visit (e.g. can students expect a presentation, or an interactive webinar?) 
  • Making yourself as flexible as possible when attempting to arrange the visit, or any relevant follow up.

Don't forget to register for our free webinar series, where we'll take you through the essential steps for building a dedicated international schools strategy - including how to place the counsellor at the heart of your recruitment efforts. 

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