How School Counselors Can Help Young Women Get to College

In 2010, Utah Women and Education Project researchers conducted in-depth research to discover why more young women around the state are not attending and graduating from college. The full set of results was published in a series of 12 research snapshots, which you can find on the Utah Women and Education website. In this blog, we look at the influence school counselors and administrators have on young women attending college.


Taking an Active Role As a School Counselor or Administrator

  • Be more aware of the powerful influence you can have on the college decisions of young women.
  • Take the time to ask young women questions about their college plans. Look for opportunities for positive “transformational moments”— moments that can change the way young women think about themselves and their futures.
  • Discuss the broad benefits of higher education with young women and talk to them about graduating from college.
  • Help young women understand their strengths more than their weaknesses. Students need to see how they are unique and how this can help them be successful in college.
  • Reach out more assertively to students who are not proactive in coming to you with questions.
  • Show you care about individual students, even with limited time.
  • As early as possible (e.g., middle-school), access the support system for each student to see who will be involved in assisting these young women learn and do what is needed to get to college.

Research Highlights

  • Counselors specifically assigned (e.g., ETS, school or career) were especially influential to young women in this study; they were particularly encouraging and seemed to have more time to work with students specifically on college related topics and goals.
  • Slightly over 50% of participants said when they had questions about college they discussed them with guidance counselors.
  • Participants do not remember much influence from counselors in middle school. They did mention the career/occupational assessment as “interesting.”

Other Findings

We asked the young women in our study what guidance counselors did that was most effective. Although many mentioned SEOPs (Student Education Occupation Plans) as somewhat helpful, it was one-on-one conversations outside of these meetings that seemed to matter most. These times were when they felt the counselor really cared and wanted them to succeed (not just a meeting to “check it off their list”). Counselors in Utah have particularly high counselor-to-student ratios, but somehow in their limited time some counselors are finding a way to make the long-term difference needed for many Utah females.

Not surprisingly, we found that a positive, influential relationship with a counselor is strongly predictive of young women participating in college preparation activities (e.g., discussing financial aid, taking AP and concurrent enrollment courses, visiting a campus, requesting information from a college, applying to a college, being accepted to a college, and applying for and receiving scholarships or grants). Young women who are involved in college preparation activities are much more likely to attend and graduate from college.

Participant Quotes

“My high school counselor was a great source. She was always encouraging me to apply for different scholarships and to get my FAFSA application filled out. She was always reminding me of deadlines and due dates.”

“Our school counselor did not do much of anything; I know the counselor did give me papers for financial aid, but I did not know where to start because I did not get any opportunities to explore options. I don’t know if it was because I wasn’t the BEST student, but I did have a B average and wish he would have helped me more.”

“The person who talked to me the most would be the counselor assigned to do college advising. She’s always pushed me to go to college and get as far as I can. She’s always telling me, ‘You’re my doctorate person. You’re not going to just get your associate or bachelors. You’re smart enough to go all the way.’ To say she’s my advocate is kind of an understatement.”

“The career counseling I remember was in junior high and they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I said a dancer (I had never danced a day in my life). They wrote it down and put me in classes to help me get there (PE). The next year I switched to zoology so they put me in science classes…much more up my alley. But really what was I supposed to know about careers at 13 and 14….Yikes…a dancer?”


The text of this blog was excerpted from a February 2011 research snapshot authored by Dr. Susan R. Madsen titled, “The Influence of School Counselors and Administrators on a Young Woman’s College Decision.” (Please see the entire brief for more information on research context.)

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