Making the most of your guidance counsellor

Most schools have one but how should you make use of your guidance counsellor?

You might only have an hour for a one-on-one session with your guidance counsellor. You might not have a clue what course or career you want. Or you might have a very strong idea of your direction but need a few pointers.

How can you make the most of your time with your guidance counsellor? We spoke to Neil McCann, a guidance counsellor at St Vincent's Secondary School in Glasnevin, Dublin 11, and Róisín O'Donohoe, vice-president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors. Both are graduates of Dublin City University's MSc in guidance counselling.

Why did you choose to be a guidance counsellor?
Neil McCann: I was that kid who didn't know what they wanted to do. At the time, I didn't have as much access to guidance as I could have benefited from. Guidance just wasn't as fundamental to school as it is now, so I only had a 15-minute meeting in sixth year.

I came into this career after previously working as a journalist. Once you start to work with teens, you realise it is about much more than career guidance, because there is so much going on in their lives. I wanted to be the person I felt I lacked in school; someone who could listen, give direction, help with choices and clarify some stuff for me.

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Róisín O'Donohoe: In school, I wasn't convinced that teaching was for me, but as I moved through school and was involved in dance and drama, I realised that working with people was important to me. I studied English at Maynooth University and, when I finished up in my early 20s, I realised I was indeed interested in teaching. I did some substitute teaching work and a postgraduate course in education before teaching English and classical studies at a school in Arklow. I learned guidance counselling under a great mentor, Barry O'Leary, who has since passed away. I really admired how he worked with students and the relationships he built with them.

What do you do for your students?
NMcC: Listening. A lot of teens are confused about higher and further education and afraid of seeming ignorant. I was shy and so the notion of going to an adult and saying I didn't know the difference between UCD and DCU seemed daunting. I'm here to talk to my students about their career options and personal problems. Guidance counselling is a confidential service, although we do have to report issues if we have serious child protection concerns.

ROD: The relationship with your guidance counsellor is different to your relationship with other teachers. You will have guidance classes and also a chance to meet your guidance counsellor one-to-one. When you come into their office, there is no judgment. We meet students where they’re at, knowing that they might have had a good or bad day or could be going through a tough few weeks or months. We listen to what the student is saying about their workload, how school is going and what their challenges and concerns are, both in terms of academics and the personal and social relationships that can impact on their school day and their wellbeing.

How long can a student expect to spend with you?
NMcC: There's no official guidance on this, but the guidance counsellor is for the whole school. That said, there is a weighting towards sixth years. We have career guidance classes where we give information on open days, careers and CVs, organise guest speakers – in our school, it's a session per week. The earlier students start, the better prepared they are.

How can students make the best use of their guidance counselling session?
NMcC: Some students come in with a clear idea of what they want to do, such as medicine or another course. Our job is to ensure they're on the right track. But the majority are unsure about their choice and direction – will they go down the business route or science route? These students might need more time with the guidance counsellor.

I give students a document to complete on Google Docs before they see me, outlining their areas of interest and their results. This might show interests in perhaps three or four separate areas, and we then focus on what they want. You should be able to point to your guidance counsellor what you like or are good at. In academics, you might be good at science, not so good at languages. You should also consider your transferable skills and strengths outside of the classroom: they may lie in sports, debating, volunteer work or another interest.

ROD: The night before the appointment, get a blank sheet of paper and do a "brain dump". Brainstorm everything you would like to discuss. This could be college courses, or what's happening in your life at the moment – or both. Do a mindmap or use bullet points or key words for what you want to discuss. If it's college courses you want to discuss, preparation is useful, so any research you've done before you come in is really beneficial. Use CareersPortal.ie or Qualifax.ie to do background research on the courses you're interested in, and you can ask your guidance counsellor about the finer details.

It’s also a good idea to have tracked your progress: how did you do at the Christmas and summer exams, and where are you at now. There’s no judgment but it is good to deal in reality as to where you are academically and what your goals are.

What happens at the session?
NMcC: We always frame the conversation around where they are at that point in time. In sixth year we look at goals, mid-terms, summer tests and grades. I can't talk to a student averaging 300 points about doing medicine; we have to frame in a sense of reality about where they are. But one of the biggest mistakes students make: when I ask what they want to achieve, they say, "I want to do as well as I can". It's important to put a specific target and goal in place because otherwise how can you achieve it?

ROD: Whether or not they’ve a clear idea on what they want, students are looking for advice and direction. So most come in with a sense of different courses options and sectors, and they’re looking for help with the decision-making process and how to balance different courses and the best fit for them. On a typical day, we have students who may need some space because they’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed by their workload or by family and friends or relationship difficulties.

Besides third-level, what else should students consider?
ROD: We are seeing more interest in alternative routes, such as further education, apprenticeship and joining the army or gardaí (where students can secure qualifications). The attraction of apprenticeships is that students can get hands-on, practical experience while they develop in-demand skills and earn money at the same time.

We’re also seeing more interest in Post Leaving Cert courses, whether as a means to an end in its own right, as a stepping stone to higher education or, more recently, before they commit to a four-year degree, doing a PLC almost as a transition between school and college to see if they are on the right track and if a particular college course might be for them. This is a good chance to lay some foundation in critical skills, because there’s a huge jump between how we learn for the Leaving Cert and college, and the one-year PLC can bridge this gap so that PLC students can be very well prepared and have a lot of ground covered if or when they do go to college.

NMcC: Agreed, and the benefits of further education and apprenticeship is that they are industry-led, so the courses lead to jobs. That’s not something we can always say about college.

Guidance counsellor session checklist

* Fill out any forms or questionnaires the guidance counsellor asks you to

* Try to do as much research as possible on courses that might interest you

* Think about how you’re doing generally in school and how you’ve performed in recent tests

* Consider your interests, read up on what you would learn in the various modules on any given course and think about whether they would interest you

* Think about the places and institutions that interest you, and how feasible it is that you can attend them

* Write down what you would like to talk about or any specific queries you might have