Caught in the crossfire – why university advisors at international schools face multiple pressures

Those of a certain age (OK, old people like me!) may remember the great British band Magazine’s single ‘Shot By Both Sides’. Howard Devoto and his band mates had it easy compared to university counsellors at international schools, who face pressure from multiple sources as they strive to balance the competing interests of the various stakeholders in the university placement process. University counsellors cannot, as the song says, ‘come to a secret understanding’ as they need to ensure that all interested parties understand their roles in providing clear, unbiased and expert advice in order to do what is best for their students in what is, arguably, the most important decision of their lives to date – where and what to study after finishing high school.

Clearly, the primary consideration when advising and supporting students when they start to think about university is to help them to choose, and successfully apply to, institutions and courses that provide the best fit and are most suited to students’ academic levels, future plans and individual personalities. This not only requires the counsellor to know the student well and to be backed up by supportive and informed academic advice from the teachers, but also to be fully aware of the intricacies and requirements of the very specific university application requirements. For counsellors at international schools, this will almost certainly involve understanding admissions requirements across a range of countries and systems coupled with a constantly changing student body as international schools tend to have a fluid student population – thus getting to know their students well is more of a challenge. Keeping up to date with a single country’s university requirements can be a full time job – what should the aspiring Oxford University candidate include in the supplementary written work, how much weight does a UCAT score carry for individual UK medical schools, how to balance the advice given by different universities in what they want to see in a UCAS Personal Statement when the same 47 lines is read by five different institutions? – whilst also understanding the differences and nuances required by US, Australian, Canadian, European and Asian universities. The amount of information required can be overwhelming.

The international school university advisor then faces the often competing pressures from other directions. What is best for an individual student may not match the aspirations of the parents (having invested a great deal of money in their child’s education), who may have unrealistic expectations about the university destination or chosen subject. Creating a fruitful dialogue with parents in order to balance these issues requires expertise, tact and negotiating skills. Then there are pressures from the schools themselves, who are often competing with other international schools for students, and understand that they will be judged by some potential parents on their university destinations lists. Oxbridge, Russell Group, Ivy League, Go8, high ranking QS or THE placements can make a significant difference in attracting high achieving students. To be fair, this pressure on the counsellors is almost always unspoken and sometimes self-imposed. I have only come across a handful of cases where the school explicitly has tried to influence university counsellors’ recommendations – the large majority of international schools will always prioritise what is best for the student rather than what might attract parents.

Finally, university advisors face pressure from the universities themselves, or their education agents, as they compete to attract international students. The ever-growing marketing budgets of universities, which are increasingly focused on international schools can often be helpful but can also be a distraction or, in some cases, steer students towards courses or institutions that are not the best fit for them. The rise of the agent aggregator portals which use algorithms to suggest universities and courses can help to provide a starting point for research into possible routes, but it is important to understand that there are commercial interests at play and the recommendations do not take an individual student’s personality, academic potential or future plans into account. For a time-pressured school university advisor, these aggregator portals can be an easy way to kick-start the process and whilst he/she will understand the methodology of the providers, it is sometimes the case that students or parents will attach too much trust to the ‘recommendations’ that these sites provide.

For the international school university advisor, prioritising the best interests of the students whilst balancing the pressures from multiple sources and being able to maintain and expand their knowledge of university requirements can be daunting. At IES, we support international school university advisors by offering free support through online training, and personal statement/application essay reviews, as well as personalised help for students in applications for the most competitive universities and courses, from preparation and choices through to advice on personal statements and interview preparation. If we can reduce the burden in even a small way, then we would be delighted to help.

James Burnett is Director of University Services at IES University Prep. James has been helping international students gain university places for many years, and is the author of numerous books covering a wide variety of university applications.

Author: James Burnett