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14 Secrets of College Counselors

Applying to college can be an overwhelming experience. College counselors guide students and families through the entire process, whether it’s studying for standardized tests, writing application essays, asking teachers for letters of recommendation, or researching financial aid options. Unlike admissions counselors, who typically work for a college, college counselors work for high schools or as independent consultants. We spoke to a few to find out what they really think about helicopter parents, why perfect SAT scores aren’t always perfect, and how they help students deal with rejection letters.

1. THEIR FAVORITE STUDENTS DON’T HAVE STRAIGHT As.

While excellent grades are a boon to any college application, college counselors often enjoy working with students who don’t have straight As even more. “Contrary to what you might assume, it’s not the straight-A student who is most fun; it's truly the 2.5 to 2.9 [GPA] who struggles but itches to succeed,” Mae Greenwald, a college counselor at a private high school in Southern California, says. When this type of student is able to figure out what areas of study make them tick, a college counselor can help them choose a college that’s an ideal match for their passions, and that’s a more satisfying process than helping a student who is already well on their way. “Watching maturity set in and being able to set a mediocre student on a path to educational and career success is more satisfying than winning the lottery,” Greenwald explains.

2. THEY’RE WARY OF PERFECT SAT SCORES.

Perfect SAT scores are less helpful than you might think (unless you have the grades to match), according to Houston-based college essay consultant Katerina Manoff. “For an admissions officer, that’s a red flag that a student got a lot of coaching,” she explains in a Reddit AMA. “If you have the intellectual horsepower to do well on the SAT, what were you doing for the last 3.5 years of high school?” Manoff advises students, especially those with less-than-stellar grades, to focus on extracurricular achievements and passions such as visual art, drama, and sports rather than solely studying for the SAT.

3. THEY DEAL WITH VERY EMOTIONAL STUDENTS AND PARENTS.

Stressed student talks to counselor.

Because the end of high school marks an important rite of passage from childhood to early adulthood, students and parents often feel a rollercoaster of emotions during this time. Like a therapist or life coach, college counselors have to show empathy and navigate complex emotions. Dr. Steven Mercer, founder of Mercer Educational Consulting, tells Mental Floss that a big part of being a college counselor is knowing how to guide students and families through an emotional process: “As a counselor you have to listen more than you talk, you have to be able to quickly pivot when working with a student or family, and sometimes be forced to guess what they are truly needing because students and parents cannot always tell you outright.”

4. HELICOPTER PARENTS ARE DIFFICULT …

According to independent educational consultant Deborah Shames, who counsels students and families in northern New Jersey, helicopter parents are a very real thing. “I have had many, many helicopter parents who I suspect (or know) are doing the work for their kids, whether it’s the research, filling out the applications, creating the resume, or even writing the essays,” Shames says. “I have called out parents on this, explaining that this is only hurting their kid. Sometimes that’s effective; other times, not so much.”

5. … BUT APATHETIC PARENTS ARE A BIGGER PROBLEM.

While helicopter parents can be problematic, Greenwald explains that apathetic parents are actually more difficult to deal with than overinvolved ones. “Students are frequently embarrassed by their overeager parents, but they aren’t really a college counselor's problem,” she says. “Less involved parents are far more bewildering.” When parents are unwilling to participate in the college choice process or are unenthusiastic about their child’s future, students suffer and become less engaged in the process. “It strips the joy from exploring the future and students feel that in every ugly way,” Greenwald says. Parental involvement is also necessary when students fill out college financial aid forms, as they require information such as parents’ income and taxes. Failure to get this information from parents can become a big obstacle to students who might miss out on scholarship or financial aid funds.

6. ACCEPTANCES FROM BRAND-NAME SCHOOLS AREN’T THEIR HOLY GRAIL.

Hispanic family celebrating college graduation.

Although some college counselors focus on getting their students into brand-name colleges, good college counselors scour the more than 3000 four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. to identify the best fit for each student, academically and socially. “There’s just nothing wrong with going to a lesser-named college for an undergraduate degree and planning on a graduate degree later,” Greenwald says. Depending on what areas students want to study, college counselors may recommend applying to lesser-known schools that would be a better match for the student’s intellect, interests, and long-term goals. “College is a time to learn, collaborate and grow up, not run to keep up,” Greenwald explains. “It’s more than a fancy college that lands the job—leadership experience, executive skills, organization and time management skills, a sense of humor, and that develops in college.”

7. THEY MAY HAVE TO INTERACT WITH A STUDENT’S ENTOURAGE.

Besides working with a student and his or her parents, some college counselors also work with an entourage of assistants, coaches, stepparents, and tutors. Although Mercer says he enjoys all the families he works with, he admits that some families act in ways that make his job more challenging. Mercer once worked with a family that had two personal assistants, two academic tutors, an SAT coach, and a therapist. “In addition to [them], both parents, the student and myself [were] involved in every phone call, online meeting, e-mail thread, or in-person meeting. As a result, I never knew who was going to show up at which meeting,” he says. “I never absolutely knew who was writing the essays or filling out the applications. Making decisions about which colleges to apply to or where the student would attend in the fall took a long time!”

8. UNFORTUNATELY, MONEY MATTERS.

Money and mortarboard hat.

Whether they send their children to a public or private school, parents with more disposable income are more able to hire an independent college counselor who is unaffiliated with their child’s high school. Counselors at public schools may oversee hundreds of students, making it nearly impossible to give each student enough time and attention. “In reality, I oversee 700-plus students. Some will make it to college, some won’t. I don’t have time to even talk to them all … Of course I think parents should hire a private consultant if they can afford it,” says one counselor at a public school in Atlanta.

9. THEY ADMIT THAT ADMISSIONS CAN BE A CRAPSHOOT.

No matter how accomplished their students are, college counselors acknowledge that getting admitted or rejected can sometimes come down to luck. “When you are dealing with schools that accept fewer than 25% of their applicants, it’s a crapshoot; you have to hope you have whatever they are looking for on a given day. I always tell families there’s a whole lot of random at the tippy top,” Shames says. Because elite schools have a limited number of spots, there are more perfectly qualified students who apply than get in. As Shames explains, amazing grades, high test scores, and impressive extracurricular accomplishments aren’t enough to guarantee admission. “These accomplishments simply put you in the ballpark; they don’t guarantee a home run.”

10. INEFFECTUAL PARENTS AND UNHEALTHY FAMILY DYNAMICS BAFFLE THEM.

College counselors see plenty of families with dysfunctional dynamics up-close. Whether parents are too involved or not involved enough in their children’s college application process, some parents don’t command respect from their children. “Parents often confuse rights and privileges. When I suggest phones go away when a struggling student studies, some parents look at me in disbelief. Respecting parents and their decisions should be non-negotiable,” Greenwald explains. “The scariest scenarios then and now are children in charge, the ones who hold their parents ransom with emotional and physical threats and parents so accustomed to handing over expensive toys, they forget their children can live without them if a child's behavior isn't up to par.”

11. REJECTIONS ARE HARD ON THEM, TOO.

As college admissions expert Lacy Crawford tells The Atlantic, some students and parents can take out their disappointment and anger on their college counselor. “I once had a father scream at me,” she reveals. “He had sent his daughter to private schools, he had done everything he thought he needed to do, and she didn’t get into Georgetown early.”

Similarly, Mercer explains that the most frustrating part of his job is dealing with students and parents who think that he’s responsible for the outcome. “Often this happens when a student and parent are overly focused on getting admitted into an uber-selective college,” he says. “I empathize with them, getting denied is disappointing. But what I find frustrating is when students and parents turn around and blame me for the outcome.”

Parents' and students’ unrealistic expectations may be par for the course, but it doesn’t make it any easier for college counselors. “I hate having to be the ‘dream crusher,’” Shames says.

12. THEY NUDGE STUDENTS TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR THEIR OWN DESTINY.

Young woman looking toward her future.

Although many students approach the transition from childhood to young adulthood with maturity, others expect their parents and college counselors to do the heavy lifting for them. “Some students act as though the difficulty of this rite of passage should be taken away from them. They expect me to do things that they should be doing,” Mercer says. “So many students don't realize that this is a journey, sometimes harder and sometimes easier, exciting or even thrilling. But, I cannot take away the hard parts, I can only lead them through the difficult stages.”

Shames echoes that view, explaining that she can teach students and give them support, but they need to own their journey. “I see myself as the GPS and the kids as the drivers,” she explains.

13. THEY’RE WELL-VERSED IN YOUTH CULTURE.

Because they spend so much time with teenagers, college counselors are often hip to the latest memes, music, and movies. “I feel honored and privileged to hang out with 17 to 18 year olds and learn from them—music, trends, and how to respond to a quickly changing world,” Greenwald says. Unlike teachers, who usually only see their students in a classroom setting, college counselors often get a bigger picture view of who a student is by talking with their parents, learning their likes and dislikes, and hearing their hopes and dreams for the future. Many students also feel more comfortable around their college counselor than their teachers because their counselor isn’t grading them.

14. THEY LOVE OPENING UP A WORLD OF POSSIBILITIES TO TEENAGERS.

Where a student goes to college can impact what jobs they get, who their lifelong friends are, and who they marry. College counselors enjoy setting students on a path for future success, but they also relish in expanding young minds. “My favorite part of being a private college counselor is talking to a high school student about one or two distinctive colleges that I think are great places for the student to consider, often colleges that are unique or less well-known,” Mercer explains. “I love the moment when the student’s eyes light up, and they say, ‘I didn't realize there was a college like that!’”

All photos via iStock.

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Christine Colby
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13 Secrets From the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London
Christine Colby
Christine Colby

Christopher Skaife is a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, an ancient fortress that has been used as a jail, royal residence, and more. There are 37 Yeoman Warders, popularly known as Beefeaters, but Skaife has what might be the coolest title of them all: He is the Ravenmaster. His job is to maintain the health and safety of the flock of ravens (also called an “unkindness” or a “conspiracy”) that live within the Tower walls. According to a foreboding legend with many variations, if there aren’t at least six ravens living within the Tower, both the Tower and the monarchy will fall. (No pressure, Chris!)

Skaife has worked at the Tower for 11 years, and has many stories to tell. Recently, Mental Floss visited him to learn more about his life in service of the ravens.

1. MILITARY SERVICE IS REQUIRED.

All Yeoman Warders must have at least 22 years of military service to qualify for the position and have earned a good-conduct medal. Skaife served for 24 years—he was a machine-gun specialist and is an expert in survival and interrogation resistance. He is also a qualified falconer.

Skaife started out as a regular Yeoman Warder who had no particular experience with birds. The Ravenmaster at the time "saw something in him," Skaife says, and introduced him to the ravens, who apparently liked him—and the rest is history. He did, however, have to complete a five-year apprenticeship with the previous Ravenmaster.

2. HE LIVES ON-SITE.

The Tower of London photographed at night
Christine Colby

As tradition going back 700 years, all Yeoman Warders and their families live within the Tower walls. Right now about 150 people, including a doctor and a chaplain, claim the Tower of London as their home address.

3. BUT HE’S HAD TO MOVE.

Skaife used to live next to the Bloody Tower, but had to move to a different apartment within the grounds because his first one was “too haunted.” He doesn’t really believe in ghosts, he says, but does put stock in “echoes of the past.” He once spoke to a little girl who was sitting near the raven cages, and when he turned around, she had disappeared. He also claims that things in his apartment inexplicably move around, particularly Christmas-related items.

4. THE RAVENS ENJOY SOME UNUSUAL SNACKS.

The Ravenmaster at the Tower of London bending down to feed one of his ravens
Christine Colby

The birds are fed nuts, berries, fruit, mice, rats, chicken, and blood-soaked biscuits. (“And what they nick off the tourists,” Skaife says.) He has also seen a raven attack and kill a pigeon in three minutes.

5. THEY GET A LULLABY.

Each evening, Skaife whistles a special tone to call the ravens to bed—they’re tucked into spacious, airy cages to protect them from predators such as foxes.

6. THERE’S A DIVA.

One of the ravens doesn’t join the others in their nighttime lodgings. Merlina, the star raven, is a bit friendlier to humans but doesn’t get on with the rest of the birds. She has her own private box inside the Queen’s House, which she reaches by climbing a tiny ladder.

7. ONE OF THEM HAS EARNED THE NICKNAME “THE BLACK WIDOW.”

Ravens normally pair off for life, but one of the birds at the Tower, Munin, has managed to get her first two mates killed. With both, she lured them high atop the White Tower, higher than they were capable of flying down from, since their wings are kept trimmed. Husband #1 fell to his death. The second one had better luck coasting down on his wings, but went too far and fell into the Thames, where he drowned. Munin is now partnered with a much younger male.

8. THERE IS A SECRET PUB INSIDE THE TOWER.

Only the Yeoman Warders, their families, and invited guests can go inside a secret pub on the Tower grounds. Naturally, the Yeoman Warder’s Club offers Beefeater Bitter beer and Beefeater gin. It’s lavishly decorated in police and military memorabilia, such as patches from U.S. police departments. There is also an area by the bar where a section of the wall has been dug into and encased in glass, showing items found in an archaeological excavation of the moat, such as soldiers’ discarded clay pipes, a cannonball, and some mouse skeletons.

9. … AND A SECRET HAND.

The Byward Tower, which was built in the 13th century by King Henry III, is now used as the main entrance to the Tower for visitors. It has a secret glass brick set into the wall that most people don’t notice. When you peer inside, you’ll see it contains a human hand (presumably fake). It was put in there at some point as a bit of a joke to scare children, but ended up being walled in from the other side, so is now in there permanently.

10. HE HAS A SIDE PROJECT.

Skaife considers himself primarily a storyteller, and loves sharing tales of what he calls “Victorian melodrama.” In addition to his work at the Tower, he also runs Grave Matters, a Facebook page and a blog, as a collaboration with medical historian and writer Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. Together they post about the history of executions, torture, and punishment.

11. THE TOWER IS MUPPET-FAMOUS.

2013’s Muppets Most Wanted was the first major film to shoot inside the Tower walls. At the Yeoman Warder’s Club, you can still sit in the same booth the Muppets occupied while they were in the pub.

12. IF YOU VISIT, KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR MONEY.

Ravens are very clever and known for stealing things from tourists, especially coins. They will strut around with the coin in their beak and then bury it, while trying to hide the site from the other birds.

13. … AND ON YOUR EYES.

Skaife, who’s covered in scars from raven bites, says, “They don’t like humans at all unless they’re dying or dead. Although they do love eyes.” He once had a Twitter follower, who is an organ donor, offer his eyes to the ravens after his death. Skaife declined.

This story first ran in 2015.

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11 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of TV Meteorologists
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The first weather forecast to hit national network television was given in 1949 by legendary weatherman Clint Youle. To illustrate weather systems, Youle covered a paper map of the U.S. in plexiglass and drew on it with a marker. A lot has changed in the world of meteorology since then, but every day, millions of families invite their local weatherman or weatherwoman into their living room to hear the forecast. Here are a few things you might not know about being a TV meteorologist.

1. SOME PEOPLE JUST NEVER MASTER THE GREEN SCREEN.

A view of a meteorologist as seen on-screen and in the studio against a green screen
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On-camera meteorologists might look as if they’re standing in front of a moving weather map, but in reality, there’s nothing except a blank green wall behind them. Thanks to the wonders of special effects, a digital map can be superimposed onto the green screen for viewers at home. TV monitors situated just off-camera show the meteorologist what viewers at home are seeing, which is how he or she knows where to stand and point. It’s harder than it looks, and for some rookie meteorologists, the learning curve can be steep.

“Some people never learn it,” says Gary England, legendary weatherman and former chief meteorologist for Oklahoma’s KWTV (England was also the first person to use Doppler radar to warn viewers about incoming systems). “For some it comes easily, but I’ve seen people never get used to it.”

Stephanie Abrams, meteorologist and co-host of The Weather Channel’s AMHQ, credits her green screen skills to long hours spent playing Nintendo and tennis as a kid. “You’ve gotta have good hand-eye coordination,” she says.

2. THEY HAVE A STRICT DRESS CODE.

Green is out of the question for on-air meteorologists, unless they want to blend into the map, but the list of prohibited wardrobe items doesn’t stop there. “Distracting prints are a no-no,” Jennifer Myers, Dallas-based meteorologist for KDFW FOX 4 writes on Reddit. “Cleavage angers viewers over 40 something fierce, so we stay away from that. There's no length rule on skirts/dresses but if you wouldn't wear it to a family event, you probably shouldn't wear it on TV. Nothing reflective. Nothing that makes sound.”

Myers says she has enough dresses to go five weeks without having to wear a dress twice. But all the limitations can make it difficult to find work attire that’s fashionable, looks good on-screen, and affordable. This is especially true for women, which is why when they find a garment that works, word spreads quickly. For example, this dress, which sold for $23 on Amazon, was shared in a private Facebook group for female meteorologists and quickly sold out in every color but green.

3. BUT IT’S CASUAL BELOW THE KNEE.

Since their feet rarely appear on camera, some meteorologists take to wearing casual, comfortable footwear, especially on long days. For example, England told the New York Times that during storm season, he was often on his feet for 12 straight hours. So, “he wears Mizuno running shoes, which look ridiculous with his suit and tie but provide a bit of extra cushioning,” Sam Anderson writes.

And occasionally female meteorologists will strap their mic pack to their calves or thighs rather than the more unpleasant option of stuffing it into their waistband or strapping it onto their bra.

4. THERE ARE TRICKS TO STAYING WARM IN A SNOWSTORM.

A young TV weatherperson in a snowy scene
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“In the field when I’m covering snow storms, I go to any pharmacy and get those back patches people wear, those heat wraps, and stick them all over my body,” explains Abrams. “Then I put on a wet suit. When you’re out for as long as we are, that helps you stay dry. I have to be really hot when I go out for winter storms.”

5. THERE’S NO SCRIPT.

Your local TV weather forecaster is ad-libbing from start to finish. “Our scripts are the graphics we create,” says Jacob Wycoff, a meteorologist with Western Mass News. “Generally speaking we’re using the graphics to talk through our stories, but everything we say is ad-libbed. Sometimes you can fumble the words you want to say, and sometimes you may miss a beat, but I think what that allows you to do is have a little off-the-cuff moment, which I think the viewers enjoy.”

6. MOM’S THE AUDIENCE.

Part of a meteorologist’s job is to break down very complicated scientific terminology and phenomena into something the general public can not only stomach, but crave. “The trick is … to approach the weather as if you're telling a story: Who are the main actors? Where is the conflict? What happens next?” explains Bob Henson, a Weather Underground meteorologist. “Along the way, you have the opportunity to do a bit of teaching. Weathercasters are often the only scientists that a member of the public will encounter on a regular basis on TV.”

Wycoff’s method for keeping it simple is to pretend like he’s having a conversation with his mom. “I’d pretend like I was giving her the forecast,” he says. “If my mom could understand it, I felt confident the general audience could as well. Part of that is also not using completely science-y terms that go over your audience’s head.”

7. SOCIAL MEDIA HAS MADE THEIR JOBS MORE DIFFICULT.

Professional meteorologists spend a lot of time debunking bogus forecasts spreading like wildfire across Twitter. “We have a lot of social media meteorologists that don’t have necessarily the background or training to create great forecasts,” Wycoff says. “We have to educate our viewers that they should know the source they’re getting information from.”

“People think it’s as easy as reading a chart,” says Scott Sistek, a meteorologist and weather blogger for KOMO TV in Seattle. “A lot of armchair meteorologists at home can look at a chart and go ok, half an inch of rain. But we take the public front when it’s wrong.”

8. THEY MAKE LIFE-OR-DEATH DECISIONS.

A meteorologist forecasting a hurricane
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People plan their lives around the weather forecast, and when a storm rolls in, locals look to their meteorologist for guidance on what to do. If he or she gets the path of a tornado wrong, or downplays its severity, people’s lives are in danger. “If you miss a severe weather forecast and someone’s out on the ball field and gets stuck, someone could get injured,” says Wycoff. “It is a great responsibility that we have.”

Conversely, England says when things get dangerous, some people are reluctant to listen to a forecaster’s advice because they don’t like being told what to do. He relies on a little bit of psychological maneuvering to get people to take cover. “You suggest, you don’t tell,” he says. “You issue instructions but in a way where they feel like they’re making up their own minds.”

9. DON’T BANK ON THOSE SEVEN-DAY FORECASTS.

“I would say that within three days, meteorologists are about 90 percent accurate,” Wycoff says. “Then at five days we’re at about 60 percent to 75 percent and then after seven days it becomes a bit more wishy-washy.”

10. THEY’RE FRENEMIES.

The competition for viewers is fierce, and local meteorologists are all rivals in the same race. “When you’re in TV, all meteorologists at other competitors are the enemy,” England says. “You’re not good friends with them. They try to steal the shoes off your children and food off your plate. If they get higher ratings, they get more money.”

11. THEY’RE TIRED OF HEARING THE SAME JOKE OVER AND OVER.

“There’s always the running joke: ‘I wish I could be paid a million dollars to be wrong 80 percent of the time,’” Sistek says. “I wanted to have a contest for who can come up with the best weatherman insult, because we need something new! Let’s get creative here.”

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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