A few years ago, I was contacted by the mother of a former student who wanted me to tutor her younger son, a rising junior, for the ACT. I’d been pulled in to work with his older brother very late, after he’d already taken the test a ridiculous number of times (five, if I recall correctly), and by the time I got to him, he was convinced that he would fail yet again and never wanted to look at another ACT in his life.

This time, his mother was determined to avoid that kind of last-minute craziness. Her younger son, a rising junior, was a very hard worker and a straight-A student, but she knew had hadn’t learned any grammar in school and would need to be taught from the ground up. She was going to give him a loooong runway.

I was therefore more than a little taken aback when she told me that she had gone ahead and signed him up for the September ACT. When I had recovered enough speech to make my thoughts known, I managed to suggest to her that that was perhaps not the best idea at that point, given that he hadn’t even started tutoring yet.

Her response: her son’s guidance counselor had recommended signing up for the first ACT of the year, just to establish a baseline score.

Luckily, I talked my student’s mother into signing him up for a practice test at a local testing center instead, and persuaded her that he should hold off on the real thing until the following spring. 

But I had trouble wrapping my head around the fact that a guidance counselor in such a highly rated district could give such misguided advice. How many students had followed it and ended up with a set of official scores far below what they were capable of achieving? 

From a strictly practical standpoint, it is not a good idea to treat an actual test like a practice run. While most colleges participate in score choice (although it is still more common for the SAT than the ACT), there are a few schools that require you to submit scores from every test date.

Furthermore, students who improve by unusually large amounts from one test to the next run the chance of having their scores flagged for review. This doesn’t occur often, but it does happen. Even if the gains are made absolutely honestly, students can still face score delays (a problem if the test in question was taken close to an application deadline) and the stress of being suspected of cheating. 

There’s also the psychological factor, which should in no way be underestimated. Taking the test for real and doing poorly is a downer. And taking the test over and over again, and failing to improve, can create a psychological stumbling block that can be difficult to overcome, and that can make improvement more difficult than it could otherwise have been. That was the case for my student’s older brother, as it was for my very first ACT student, who took the test a whopping seven times before I started working with her.

That’s point number one.

Point number two involves guidance counselors and college lists.

A few months ago, a friend of mine happened to find herself at a social event chatting with a woman who had worked as a guidance counselor in another tip-top suburban district for several decades. My friend’s son, a solid-B student with an interest in Computer Science, was starting to look at colleges, and my friend asked the woman whether she might be able to recommend a few schools.

She recommended exactly one school: Roger Williams, a notorious party school with an 80% acceptance rate. By coincidence, my friend had just spoken to another parent who had recently toured Roger Williams and had received what could diplomatically be called not a favorable impression.

So my friend asked whether the woman had any other suggestions. She humphed and said that she would need her go-to computer program to come up with even one additional option.

Twenty years of experience. In a district that sends students almost exclusively to selective schools. And she couldn’t come up with more than one option — and a poor one at that — for a student who wasn’t headed for the Ivy League but who was still smart and serious. 

Yes, the woman might have been peeved at being asked professional questions in a social setting, but just out of curiosity, I googled her district and found the matriculation statistics for the high school where she worked.

What I encountered was one of the smallest group of colleges I’ve seen a high school send students to. Normally, there are a handful of colleges that enroll many students from a particular high school, then lots and lots of schools enrolling only one or two students. In this case, it was the opposite. There was a very short list of schools enrolling six or fewer students over a four year period, and a much longer list of ones enrolling between about 7 and 20 students.

The fact that the vast majority of these schools were restricted to a fairly narrow geographical range near the district itself suggests that the guidance counselors were steering students toward the small group of schools that they were personally most familiar with.

Learning that reminded me of just why people hire private college counselors. They might be a luxury, but if that story was in any way representative of the state of college counseling, they perform a real service. 

On one hand, I understand that guidance counselors, particularly in large public schools, are perennially overworked and responsible for as many as several hundred students. They probably don’t have the time to keep up with which schools are up-and-coming, or to learn about of schools outside their geographical area in any depth.

Much like SAT tutors who claim to tutor the entire test but in reality focus on the Math section because they feel more comfortable teaching it, these tutors tend to recommend the same set of schools over and over again simply because they’ve sent a lot of students to those schools in the past.

The result, however, is that students may miss out on learning about schools that are good matches for them — including ones that might offer significant financial aid — but that fall outside the scope of their counselors’ knowledge.

So my advice is to give your guidance counselor a chance when it comes to suggesting colleges, but also be aware that he or she may not necessarily be the best resource.

There are a whole lot of schools between the Ivy League and Podunk Community college, and you shouldn’t limit your options prematurely. Poke around on College Confidential, do a search for the best programs in your areas of interest, and sit down with the Fiske Guide or Looking Beyond the Ivy League. Just don’t assume that the schools you’ve been told about are the only ones you should be considering.