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Source: (22) Tailenders: the role of the international university advisor in British schools | LinkedIn

Article co-authored with David Hawkins, Founder of The University Guys

Perhaps nothing exemplifies the English spirit of noble amateurism so well as the game of cricket. Who can forget during the Ashes at Headingley in 2019, Jack Leach’s heroic tenth wicket stand with Ben Stokes to hold out for the draw and save a match that England seemed destined to lose? We celebrate his heroics, not despite the fact that, as a spin bowler batting at 11, he was out of his comfort zone at the crease – but because of it. And so similarly, in the great British tradition of amateurism, teachers at UK schools are often called upon not only to educate their pupils, but fulfil all sorts of other duties as well: to coach sport, lead expeditions, supervise clubs, and direct plays. Long may that tradition continue.

There is one school role, however, to which the great spirit of British amateurism is poorly suited: that of the international university advisor. In the UK, the qualifications for such a role are too often mere biographical accidents, such as a degree at a university overseas or an American passport. Those drafted in to bat at this particular crease often find themselves contending with balls fired in from all different angles: nuanced application prerequisites, the complexity of holistic US applications, high parental expectations, and the management of different countries’ deadlines and application systems in parallel. We run the process as if it’s like UCAS, missing the reality that UCAS is one of the world’s most straightforward application systems. All of these make for a very sticky wicket indeed.

Recently, UES Education and The University Guys surveyed 50 school-based international university advisors in the UK to ask about their experience of advising students on international applications. The results were troubling. Over 70% felt that they did not have enough time to advise their students effectively, and 66% felt that their Senior Leadership Team did not understand the resources and time needed to do so. No less than 96% of teachers worked over and above their allocated hours to facilitate student applications and almost half worked an average of over ten hours per week on top of their allocation. Almost 1 in 7 worked 20 hours per week over and above their timetable allocation: a recipe for burnout if ever there was one.

The national picture points to a serious underestimation by senior leadership at many British schools of the workload placed on international university advisors. There is too often a mismatch between SLT ambition and a reluctance to finance these roles properly and actually facilitate applications effectively. This is particularly true of applications to highly selective American colleges. To apply just to Stanford, for example, a student must write a total of 900 words specific to that institution, plus another 650 for the more general Common Application essay. To apply to MIT, which has its own separate application portal, a student must write another 1,000 words. And because of the eye-wateringly low admit rates at many US colleges, the recommended number of applications is nine or ten, with students finding a balance between “aspirational”, “attainable”, and “accessible” colleges. Before submission, applications should receive several rounds of feedback from a professional advisor who understands what those colleges look for in terms of academic and environmental fit. Teachers drafted into the international university advisor role are doing their best, but they are often at their wits’ end by the end of the Autumn Term, feeling overstretched and under-appreciated.

Such a situation is unsustainable for two reasons: the jeopardy in which students’ applications are placed when handled by under-resourced teachers, and the very real risk of teacher burn-out. Anecdotally, we have had conversations with panicked teaching colleagues advising beyond the reach of their expertise, who have forgotten a critical application requirement, or failed to submit the correct paperwork on time, depriving their students of a university place. Other colleagues are desperately trying to stay on top of their brief, but at the expense of their family life and mental health. It is nothing short of a crisis.

It doesn’t have to be like this. At international schools across the world, the university advisor – or “college counsellor” – as they are more commonly known, is a specialist professional role, often with a full timetable dedicated to advising students. At larger schools, the college counselling team may comprise four or five professionals, all dedicated to facilitating university applications. Some British independent schools are leading the way by dedicating significant resources to this provision, such as Harrow School, Latymer Upper, and Marlborough College; forward-thinking academies like Brampton Manor also have dedicated provision for international university advising. Students in the state sector can also apply for the Sutton Trust US Programme, which offers test preparation and mentoring to around 130 HALI (High Achieving Low Income) students each year.

There are professional qualifications for these roles too: UCLA Extension (an online branch of the American university) offers a seven-course Certificate in College Counseling, while Lehigh University offers an online MEd in International School Counseling. International university advisors in these schools develop expertise over a period of years, often with the mentorship of a more experienced colleague. They understand the nuances of different systems of higher education and application prerequisites, and when confronted by a question of whose answer they are unsure, they have a global network of colleagues from whose expertise they can draw, such as that provided by the International Association for College Admissions Counseling. Crucially, they have the time, skills, and resources needed to advise students properly.

As regular media articles in publications such as Tatler, Daily Mail, and Sunday Times testify, increasing numbers of UK students are choosing to apply to universities beyond the UK. Though the statistics of successful applicants make for interesting reading, what is hidden are the numbers of unsuccessful applicants who go through the process with a level of support from their school which, though satisfactory for UCAS, does not begin to scratch the surface of the needs of US and other international destinations. While UK schools are trying to run a university advising process on a shoestring, their international counterparts such as Aiglon College in Switzerland or Groton School in the USA have teams of full-time university advisors, professionally trained and with the budget and support to grow their provision. If UK schools are going to keep up, they need to professionalise their offering – full-time trained ‘college counselors’ paid accordingly on an international scale and given the scope to effectively support students.