August 05, 2010


The Portable Guidance Counselor: Answers to the 284 Most Important Questions about Getting into College. By the Staff of The Princeton Review. Princeton Review/Random House. $14.99.

     Let’s face it: high-school guidance counselors are overwhelmed. Even before the current era of extremely tight budgets and educational cutbacks, there were never enough counselors to give high-school students plenty of personal attention during their struggle to make one of the biggest decisions of their young lives: what colleges to choose. This reality of life makes The Portable Guidance Counselor especially valuable: it cannot take the place of face-to-face meetings with a counselor who knows a student as an individual, even imperfectly; but it contains the collected knowledge from a survey of more than 2,000 counselors, and is therefore a highly useful supplement to whatever personalized meetings a student can arrange at his or her school.

     The notion of “284 most important questions” is a little silly – why not 283 or 285? – but the book certainly delves deeply into issues that will be of significant interest and concern to all college-bound students. “Should I apply to a school that I can’t afford?” “What do I do if I want to study abroad?” “How many times should I take and retake standardized tests?” “Do colleges really care about extracurricular activities?” These and many other of the questions here can all be answered with the same two-word reply: “It depends.” But to the credit of the Princeton Review staff that assembled this book, The Portable Guidance Counselor does not unduly hedge about these or other subjects. Each question is listed as posed by a specific (if generic-sounding) student, seen as a silhouette; each answer is given in narrative form, including multiple quotations from counselors, and with additional counselor quotes at the bottoms of pages. Thus, “Is a B in an AP class better than an A in a regular class?” gets the narrative response, “The overwhelming consensus is that students are better off taking Advanced Placement classes because colleges appreciate the effort of taking on a challenge when a student could easily have taken a less-strenuous course in the same subject.” But the narrative also says that “not everyone agrees with this line of thought,” and cites some differing opinions. And beneath the narrative, there are a couple of specific comments from named counselors, such as, “I like the B in the AP class. You have a good grade, and the AP class is far more rigorous. …No C in AP classes, however.”

     The answer to this AP question makes it clear that the counselors do not have uniform responses or recommendations, and that may be a source of frustration to students. But it is a dose of reality. Just as a counselor in person needs to (or should) take each individual student’s needs, desires and abilities into account, tailoring answers to that student’s particular situation, so the counselors in The Portable Guidance Counselor try to evaluate a variety of possible scenarios to help students reading the book figure out which circumstances best fit their own.

     Thus, “Are there certain extracurricular activities that admissions committees love?” provokes such quoted responses as, “I find that colleges truly appreciate substantive school and/or community service,” “I am inclined to believe that leadership is highly valued,” and – in the narrative section – “service-oriented activities are always popular [and] will certainly help you come admissions time if you show a real commitment to them." And “what should I not say on my college application essay?” brings these comments: “Essays should be marketing tools for the applicant,” “High-emotion issues such as abortion, death penalty, etc., should be avoided,” and “Any topic can be good or bad depending on the way it is handled in the essay.” It is left to students who read The Portable Guidance Counselor to evaluate these different and sometimes potentially contradictory pieces of advice – for example, if being yourself and being passionate about something are important, and what you are passionate about is a high-emotion issue, what do you do? But that is why this book is no substitute for in-person meetings with a (hopefully) knowledgeable and concerned school guidance counselor. Nor is it the place to go for definitive answers about what colleges to choose and how to get into them. There are no definitive answers to those questions, in print or in person. The best any student can do is assemble as many tools as possible to help himself or herself make the best decision within particular circumstances of time, knowledge, finances and other factors. The circumstances, and thus the decision, will differ – must differ – from person to person. But for many different people in many different situations, The Portable Guidance Counselor deserves a place in the tool kit.

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