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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.”


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.


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.”


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!”


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.


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.”


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.

12 Perfectly Spooky Halloween Decorations Under $25


Halloween is right around the corner—which means it’s officially time to bring out the jack-o'-lanterns, watch scary movies, buy your costume(s), and hang up your festive decorations. Although there are thousands of decorations to choose from, you don’t have to blow your budget while decking out your house or apartment in honor of the spooky season this year. With a little guidance, you'll find plenty of ways to create the perfect ambiance at home without going for broke. (And best of all, you can put the money you saved toward extra Halloween candy to stash away.)

From giant spiders to hanging ghosts and lawn decorations, here are a few of our favorite props under $25.

1. Halloween Pillow Covers (4-Pack); $17


These adorable Halloween-themed pillowcases make the perfect accessory for any couch, sofa, or mattress. Made with thick linen fabric, these are durable, sturdy, and designed to last for seasons to come. (Tip: To prevent the zipper from breaking, fold the pillow in half before inserting.)

Buy it: Amazon

2. Black Lace Spiderweb Fireplace Mantle; $12


This versatile spiderweb prop is made with 100-percent polyester, and its knit lace spiderweb pattern adds a spooky touch to any home. Display it on your doorway, across your fireplace mantel, or atop your table. (It also makes a great backdrop for Halloween photo ops.)

Buy it: Amazon

3. Statement Halloween Signs; $16


These festive, statement-making banners come pre-assembled, making them incredibly easy to install. They’re also weather-resistant and washable for both outdoor and indoor use. Use tape, push-pins, or weights to prevent the signs from blowing away.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Jack Skellington and Sally Plush Dolls; $23 (Each)


Celebrate your favorite holiday with a pair of adorable Jack Skellington and Sally plush dolls from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Jack stands at 28 inches tall, while Sally is a bit shorter at 21 inches. Set them up on your sofa or against the window sill for all to see.

Buy them: Disney Shop (Jack and Sally)

5. Halloween Zombie Groundbreaker; $22


This spooktacular zombie lawn decoration is sure to scare all of your friends, family, and neighbors alike. Made with a combination of latex, plastic, and fabric, this durable Halloween prop is sure to last for years to come.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Hanging Ghost Decoration; $14

Moon Boat/Amazon

Drape this handmade, 14-foot-long hanging ghost decoration over your porch, doorway, or window. You can also hang it outdoors over a tree or a (very tall) bush. And, since it comes pre-assembled, you won’t have to waste time constructing it yourself.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Two-Piece Hanging Ghost Set; $17


This pair of ghosts adds a whimsical touch to any home. While they’re not “scary,” per se, they certainly are adorable. Display them in your front yard, on your porch, on a lamppost, or a tree. To hang, simply tie the ribbons and bend the wires, arms, and tails.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Pumpkin String Lights; $19

Eurus Home/Amazon

Not only are these solar-powered, 33-foot-long LED string lights good for the environment, they’re also incredibly easy to install (no long, tangly power cable chords necessary). Since they’re waterproof, you can use them both indoors and outdoors. Choose from eight different light settings, including twinkling, flashing, fading, and more.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Inflatable Ghost; $22


This adorable inflatable ghost (which dons a cute-as-can-be wizard hat!) features built-in LED lights and sandbags to help it stay sturdy. It also comes complete with a plug, extended cords, ground stakes, and fastened ropes. Simply plug it in and watch it magically inflate within just a few minutes.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Graveyard Tombstones; $17


Turn your front lawn into a graveyard with this six-piece set. Each tombstone is made with foam and designed to add a touch of spookiness to your space. To install, insert one holder into the bottom of the tombstone, and one into the soil. You can use these indoors, as well.

Buy it: Amazon

11. 10-Piece Skeleton Set; $24

Fun Little Toys/Amazon

This skeleton set includes a skull, hands and arms, and legs and feet—plus five stakes to hold everything in place. Each “bone” and “joint” is flexible, allowing you to prop the skeleton into different frighteningly fun poses. Simply place the stakes into the bone socket and turn clockwise.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Outdoor Spider Web; $18


This giant, ultra-stretchy spider web spans a whopping 23 feet. It also includes a 30-inch black spider, 20 pieces of fake spiders, one hook, and one nail. Its thick polyester rope—combined with the sturdy stakes—allows the spider web to stay in place all season long. Place the hook on a wall or tree, and expand the web using the stakes.

Buy it: Amazon

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11 Secrets of Astronauts

Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

In the 60 or so years that the job has existed, astronauts have captured the public's imagination. And while many people might think they have some idea of what being an astronaut is like, thanks to the glut of portrayals in movies, real astronauts will tell you that working for NASA is much different from what you see on the screen. In between exciting tasks like spacewalks, they have to worry about less glamorous aspects of the job—like finding lost items that floated away and using the toilet in microgravity.

Mental Floss spoke with two former NASA astronauts about the realities of preparing for and experiencing life in space. Read on to learn about the most annoying parts of the job, the ways they have fun, and their honest opinions about astronaut food.

1. Astronauts come from a range of different fields.

There’s no one direct path to becoming an astronaut. If someone knows they want to be an astronaut from a young age, they need to build credentials in a specific field before they can get the attention of NASA. "They're looking for people who are qualified, meaning that they're high-achieving military people or people from civilian life, generally with an advanced degree," Mike Massimino, a former NASA astronaut and professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia University, tells Mental Floss.

To be considered for NASA’s astronaut program, candidates must have U.S. citizenship, hold a master's degree in a STEM field, and have at least two years of related post-grad professional experience or at least 1000 hours of pilot-in-command time on jet aircraft. Two years toward a doctoral program in STEM, a completed doctor of medicine or doctor of osteopathic medicine degree, or completion of a nationally recognized test pilot school program are also accepted in place of a master's degree. Because space flight crews require diverse skill sets, the criteria doesn’t get more specific than that.

"I was a Ph.D. research engineer professor when I was picked," Massimino says. "I've flown in space with engineers, with test pilots, helicopter pilots for the military. I've also flown in space with a geologist, I've flown in space with an oceanographer, and I've flown in space with a veterinarian. So it's really varied. There's not just one route."

2. Astronaut training involves everything from class work to military survival exercises.

NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman on a spacewalk in May 2010.NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Candidates accepted into the astronaut program must complete years of training before they're ready for spaceflight. A lot of that training takes place in the classroom and involves learning about different space vehicles and systems. Astronauts also undergo physical training in the real world. According to Garrett Reisman, former NASA astronaut and the director of space operations at SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthorne, California, one of the most intense courses has nothing to do with preparing for life in space.

"We do the same SERE [survive, evade, resist, escape] training that military aviators go through," he tells Mental Floss. "The idea is that if you fell out of an aircraft over enemy terrain, you got to know how to survive without help. You have to learn to live off the land, what plants you can eat, how to make a shelter and all those things."

The T-38 jets astronauts fly as part of their training have ejectable seats, so landing somewhere unfamiliar is a possibility. But astronauts only fly over the continental U.S., so they likely won't ever need to use the full extent of their SERE training. "What are the odds that you parachute down and there’s not a Starbucks right there?" Reisman jokes. "All you need to do is give me a Starbucks gift card and I’ll be fine."

3. Exercise is a vital part of the job.

Exercising is more than a way to pass time in space: It’s essential to an astronaut’s health. The human body isn’t used to moving around without the force of gravity, and for this reason, all astronauts must make resistance exercises part of their daily routine.

"You do have to spend two hours every day exercising," Reisman says. "If you're up there for a long period of time, you can lose a lot of your bone and your muscle mass if you do nothing, so the way we get around that is by doing intense resistance exercise."

Astronauts can lose up to 20 percent of their muscle mass on an 11-day space flight due to the lack of gravity [PDF]. But zero gravity also makes free weights useless, so instead, astronauts maintain their strength by using a device outfitted with two small canisters that create a vacuum they can pull against with a long bar. A bike and treadmill (with a harness) are also available on the International Space Station. Strength is required to perform certain emergency procedures when the ship re-enters Earth's gravitational field, so staying fit in space is vital.

4. Astronauts do most of their work on Earth.

Astronaut Mike Massimino practices repairing a portion of the Hubble Space Telescope while training at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.NASA Hubble Space Telescope, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In order to become one of the few people to travel to space, astronauts must be willing to do a lot of work at home. "A NASA astronaut’s job is mainly spending your time on Earth," Massimino says. "You're going to spend the vast majority of your time on the ground, either training or working on technical issues or helping other people fly." Throughout his nearly two decades with NASA, Massimino spent less than a month total in space. Reisman was with NASA for 12 years and spent a cumulative 107 days of his career in space.

5. Astronauts don't make as much money as you think.

One of the biggest misconceptions astronauts hear about their work relates to their salary. While they are paid decently, astronauts don’t collect the massive paychecks some people might assume comes with such a high-profile job. "We don't make a heck of a lot of money," Massimino says. "We make a standard government salary."

Astronauts are paid according to the federal government's General Schedule pay scale. Most federal jobs are assigned a General Schedule (GS) grade that determines their starting salary, and the pay increases as they gain experience. Astronauts either qualify for grades GS 13 or 14 (the highest grade is GS 15) and make between $104,898 and $161,141 per year. For comparison, Fish and Wildlife administrators are paid similarly at the right experience level.

6. Astronauts lose things (but not for long).

Even in a place as tight as a space station, astronauts still manage to misplace their belongings. Thanks to the lack of gravity, anything they let go of immediately drifts away, which can cause problems when they’re not paying attention. Massimino recalls one incident that happened to his crewmate Mike Good: "He had his grandfather’s watch with him, and he comes up to me and goes, 'Mass, I can’t find the watch.' We’re looking all over the place and I stop after a minute and go, 'Mike, it’s inside here somewhere.'"

They eventually found it trapped inside the airlock. The air filter is another common place where lost items end up: Without gravity interfering, the air flow will carry any floating objects there. "One thing we would say is, 'If you can’t find something, just wait,'" Massimino says. "You'd wake up in the morning and look at the filter and see like aspirin and a piece of Velcro or something, because everything eventually would get there."

7. Astronaut opinions on the food in space are mixed.

Despite its reputation, space food has some fans in the astronaut community. "Astronaut food is great," Massimino says. "We had ravioli, lasagna, shrimp cocktail, fajitas. It was fantastic."

Reisman holds a much different opinion of the meals he ate in space. "It’s terrible. You don’t go to the space station for the food," he says. While he didn’t love the American and Russian provisions that made up most of his diet in space, he did have nice things to say about food from other agencies. "The Japanese and the Europeans, when their astronauts would fly, they had special food that was provided by their space agencies. The Japanese sent up yakitori and miso soup and that was delicious. And the Europeans had pâté. That was much better."

8. Astronauts find time to have fun.

NASA astronaut Mike Massimino smiles during some extravehicular activity (EVA).NASA Hubble Space Telescope, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Between work, meals, and exercise, astronauts don’t have a ton of free time in space. Duties like maintenance, installing equipment, and conducting experiments take up the majority of their day. Sneaking in recreation usually means staying up past their scheduled bedtime, which Reisman confirms most astronauts do. One of his favorite activities to do aboard the International Space Station was taking pictures of Earth. "You could take photographs of places on Earth that are special to you. I got a picture of my hometown, which is pretty cool. As far as I know, no human ever photographed that particular town from space before."

9. Astronauts think movies set unrealistic standards.

The science isn’t the only thing that’s unrealistic about Hollywood’s portrayal of space travel. "I think the biggest misconception is that we're all tall and good-looking," Reisman says. When working as a technical advisor for 2019's Ad Astra, he jokingly brought up this gripe with the movie’s star Brad Pitt. "I said, 'I’m kind of pissed off at you. Think about who they cast to be astronauts in all these movies and TV shows. Matt Damon, Matthew McConaughey, George Clooney, Brad Pitt. People meet me and they’re disappointed.'"

Reisman doesn't hold this against the actors, however. Pitt reminded him that the stars portraying astronauts on screen have plenty to be envious of themselves. "Brad said: 'Well, Garrett, I can't actually fly a spaceship. The only talent I have is being able to stand in a certain spot and read something that someone else wrote. I got nothing else.'"

10. Going to the bathroom in space is an ordeal.

If you’ve ever wondered how astronauts poop in space, the answer is: with great difficulty. "Taking a dump was not easy," Reisman confirms. Without the help of gravity, using a toilet in space becomes a complicated operation. Astronauts must strap their feet down to keep from floating away and create a perfect seal between the toilet seat and their butt cheeks. The toilet itself uses a vacuum hose to suction up the waste. The process is so complex that using a space toilet is part of an astronaut’s training. It's not unusual for a bathroom break that normally takes a few minutes on Earth to last half an hour in space.

11. In such a competitive field, astronauts need to be persistent.

NASA's astronaut training program is extremely competitive. The agency selected just 12 people out of a pool of 18,353 candidates in 2017, which comes out to an acceptance rate of 0.065 percent. Massimino had to apply four times before he made it into the program.

"I was rejected outright twice while I was in grad school. The third time I got an interview and failed the eye exam, so was medically disqualified." NASA considers candidates with less than 20/20 vision today as long as it's correctable, but that wasn't the case when Massimino was applying. "I went through some vision training with an optometrist, and I was able to teach my eyes to see a little better. I was able to apply a fourth time, and I was picked on my fourth try."

According to Massimino, that level of commitment to his goal ended up being relevant to the job itself. "The job is a lot of late-night simulations, you have to pass exams, you have to work with your teammates. And unless you have a real interest in it, it's going to be tough."