Blog 🍎 School 24th February 2019

How Can International School Counsellors Build Trust In Their Strategy?

Profile image of James Leach
James Leach

James is senior content marketing manager at BridgeU. He writes and directs content for BridgeU's university partners and our community of international schools


It’s one of the most precious commodities for guidance counselors who are helping students with their university applications and career planning.

Students trust you to help them choose the right pathway after secondary school. Parents trust you to empower their son or daughter and guide them to the university outcomes that are going to give them the best possible start in your life. Finally, principals and senior leadership teams trust you to design a guidance strategy that will, ultimately, deliver results for the school.

So no pressure, right?

Building trust is essential if you are to create a guidance strategy that drives the best possible outcomes for your students and tangible results for your school.

So in this blog post, we’re going to talk about trust. Specifically, we’ll discuss how to build trust in your role and strategy, and examine some of the barriers that might prevent this.

What are the essential components for building trust in your guidance strategy?

As we’ve already discussed, most guidance counselors will have to manage multiple stakeholders at once. Whether it’s parents, students, senior leaders or teachers, the confidence that is placed in your guidance strategy will rest on a number of criteria:

  • Are you sufficiently managing the expectations of those around you?
  • Are you offering the most objective and impartial advice to students and their parents?
  • Are you making everyone feel invested in your guidance strategy, and championing the work you do in your role?

Each of the major stakeholder groups in your school will have different needs, meaning that different techniques will be required in order to build trust and confidence. Let’s take a look at each stakeholder in a bit more detail.

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How to build trust with students

Students are arguably your most important stakeholder group. Managing their expectations, offering objective advice and getting them invested in your guidance strategy is essential from early years, right through to their final university applications.

Managing expectations with students

Managing expectations with your students is a two-way street. As well as ensuring they don’t have wildly unrealistic expectations of you, it’s vital that they know what’s expected of them.

Student engagement with the process will vary – some students will be active participants in their own university and careers journey, but others will be very disengaged. It’s likely that some students will believe that it’s a counselor’s job to find the perfect university for them, or expect you to be their admin genie – so it’s important to stress that nothing could be further from the truth!

Giving students impartial and realistic advice

Students will arguably put more trust in you than any other stakeholder group at your school. They are coming to you for support at a very important moment in their lives, when their whole future will feel like it’s in the balance.

But students may have unrealistic expectations of the types of universities and courses they should be applying to and a truly trustworthy guidance strategy can’t hinge on just telling them what they want to hear. It’s important that you are honest with students about their future prospects and, more crucially, that they are honest with themselves.

Some helpful tips include:

Encourage students to be strategic in their university & careers planning

Strategy is everything in the university and careers guidance process. Do your students know their own strengths and weaknesses? Do they know where they need to improve to write better university applications? Do they have enough extracurriculars to help them stand out to future universities and employers?

Be honest about chance of acceptance

There’s nothing wrong with aspiration when applying to university. But it’s important that students get realistic advice on their chance of acceptance, and ensure that they are looking at avenues that are the right academic and personal fit. 

Getting students invested in your guidance strategy

Students should feel involved in your guidance strategy at all times. They’re always going to be asking ‘what’s in it for me?’ and it can be hard to keep their eyes on the future, especially when university might still be a few years away. Here are a few tips to make them feel involved:

Make it about them

Make sure that any guidance related homework or activity is clearly rooted in their ambitions for the future. Giving them homework without clearly connecting it to something they care about ( e.g. university application, future salary, potential for getting a scholarship), will very likely be perceived as them doing something for you, rather than for themselves.

Start early

A whole school guidance process (year 9 or earlier) is essential for integrating university and career preparation into school life. Be sure to set expectations with each year group at the start of the academic year. This is a valuable opportunity for you to set expectations of how students should be furthering their university preparation incrementally year-on-year.

Get hands on

Structure the guidance programmes of different year groups around themed workshops and activities (e.g. skills/strengths exploration, subject/career choices). Remember that variety is the spice of teaching, so think about lesson plans that are innovative, interactive and deliver tangible outcomes.  Some examples include:

  • Having students present back to the class on what they learned during work experience
  • Hearing from external speakers (e.g. presentations from school alumni on their college and career outcomes)
  • Workshopping personal strengths/interests and presenting back to the class.

How to build trust with parents

Parents’ involvement in your guidance strategy will vary. Like your students, some may be more engaged than others. And, like your students, some will have wildly differing expectations of you and your role.

Parents’ trust in your guidance strategy will most likely be linked directly to the outcomes they feel you deliver for their son or daughter. So let’s look at trust building with parents, and the potential obstacles you might face.

Managing expectations with parents

Some expectations from parents will be reasonable, like keeping them informed and considering family circumstances when providing guidance advice. However, other expectations may be unreasonable, like getting their child into Harvard when they’re averaging 29 in the IB. You may even feel like some parents’ expectations run against a students’ best interests; for example helping to convince their child to take a subject that they aren’t passionate about.

In order to manage parents’ expectations, it’s worth over-communicating, and getting them involved as soon as possible. Invite them to as many information evenings or explanatory sessions as possible and make them feel as involved in your process as possible. Transparency is everything!

Giving parents honest & impartial advice

It’s possible that a parent’s expectations might be more unrealistic than your students. Indeed, you may encounter students whose university and career aspirations are driven by their parents’ expectations, and not their own!

For example, a parent could want their child to study Medicine at Imperial College, London. But the chances of this are low if they don’t have this ambition themselves, or if Science isn’t their strongest subject.

Case study: parents and agents

In some cases, parents may be your avenue to agents, or education consultants, who are also offering your students advice on how to get into university. Whilst many agents and consultants are also experts in the field of university and careers guidance, some may offer parents advice that conflicts with yours. There are a number of possible reasons for this:

  • Some agents receive high financial incentives from parents to get students into top ranked university destinations. This, in turn, means some could inflate parents’ expectations.
  • An agent may work on behalf of a particular university. Some agents who serve as university reps can offer valuable insights into an institutions application process. But caution is advised, as they could be biased to steer students in the direction of a particular university.

Some parents may not agree with your guidance advice if it runs contrary to advice they are getting from another source. This is why generating enthusiasm and building trust in your strategy is essential!

Getting parents invested in your guidance strategy

As we said earlier, make parents feel involved in the process as soon as possible. Don’t be afraid to over-communicate and actively promote the work you’re doing. Examples include:

  • Information evenings/ days to explain your whole process and the expected outcomes.
  • Information sessions on particular aspects of the guidance process; for example a workshop to introduce parents and students to universities in the United States.
  • Termly reporting to parents on progress and upcoming deadlines so they can reinforce your message during the holidays.
  • Speaking to the marketing department at the school to ensure you have profiles of the counseling team and your work on the school website and brochure – you’re a selling point to parents!

How to build trust with senior leaders

Your role in the school is an important one – schools and senior leaders will expect you to deliver measurable outcomes and results when it comes to university admissions. But it’s important you set realistic expectations of what can be achieved within the framework of your role.

Managing school expectations

Sometimes your workload may seem daunting – you may even feel the need to sacrifice your evenings, weekends and holidays. If you are running a small guidance team, or operating solo, a lot of responsibility will fall on you.  So make sure you manage the expectations of your school colleagues and peers.

So assess your expected workload and alert management early if you don’t have the time to do everything that your role requires of you. This will ensure you don’t fall victim to unrealistic expectations. When you raise issues that are pressing on your time, be sure to suggest solutions. (e.g. reducing your teaching hours, or hiring a support assistant).

Getting senior leaders involved in your guidance strategy

Senior leadership staff are most likely to expect you to report on application and outcomes data, and overall achievement. If you’ve not been given a specific reporting framework, then it’s not a bad idea to be proactive and create your own.

If you are the one reporting to leadership, consider including some or all of the following data points:

  • Achievements with each year group (i.e. skills tests completed; follow-up conversations on subject choice scheduled etc.)
  • External and internal sessions/ activities completed (i.e. university fair, careers fair, university visits, external speakers invited to talk etc.)
  • New connections/ relationships forged (i.e. a university rep visit who hasn’t visited before).
  • Application outcomes

Meanwhile teachers and other staff members will also need to feel like active participants in your guidance programme.  Each time you run a session for a year-group, discuss this with the member(s) of staff beforehand and ask them to support in specific ways. Likewise, if you feel like a student is falling behind, collaborate with the staff members responsible for them, rather than always going directly to the student and parent.

Top tips for building trust in your guidance strategy

Create a culture of collaboration

Make everyone feel like a partner in your guidance strategy whether they’re a student, a parent or a member of staff. You are more likely to engender trust if you make everyone feel included.

Give honest, impartial & data-driven advice

Ensure you’re always letting objectivity and data drive your guidance. This will create trust that your guidance strategy is always rooted in best practice and continuous learning.

Always manage expectations

This is an important battle to fight. Make sure that expectations of you are realistic and fair, and make sure your expectations of others are clearly communicated. As we said earlier, you’re not an admin genie, and you’re not there to tell students, parents and schools leaders what they want to hear. 

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