James Conroy, New Trier Township High School, Winnetka, Illinois

Each month we feature a high school college counselor so you can get to know them -- their pet peeves and personal heroes -- but also so you can learn something from all that they know about applying to college.

This month we welcome James Conroy, Chair of the Post-High School Counseling Department at New Trier Township High School in Winnetka, Illinois. A graduate of Michigan State University, where he received a B.S. in political science, Conroy also holds a Masters in Guidance and Counseling from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.  Born just outside Boston, Conroy later moved with his family to Grosse Pointe, Michigan, but a trace of the Bay State remains in his speech. Conroy and his staff counsel about 2,000 juniors and seniors each year at New Trier, where he has been a tireless -- and bracingly honest, we suspect -- advocate for college applicants for the last twenty-six years. 

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Sitting on a beach on Cape Cod without a care in the world, without any parents or students pressuring me. I would have a great book that I was reading. The sun would be out and the breeze would be blowing.

What is your greatest fear?

That I would let down the people that I love. That I wouldn't be there for them when they needed me.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

I avoid confrontation.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?


What or who is the greatest love of your life?

Laughter. The ability to laugh, especially at yourself.

When and where were you happiest?

Right now. I live in the moment.

Which talent would you most like to have?

I wish I had some musical talent. I wish I could sing and I wish I could play the piano.

If you could change one thing about applying to college, what would it be? 

That students and families don't define their value as human beings by the list of schools where a student applies and the list of schools where a student is accepted. I think that is the saddest thing we do in applying to college. The name of the school a student has been accepted to has become the parental and student report card.

What is your most marked characteristic?


What is the quality you most admire in another person?

There are so many. I would say genuineness, that they are true to who they are. Someone who doesn't try to be something they are not.

What do you most value in your friends?

That they are honest with me, don't play charades, don't tell me what I want to hear.

Who are your heroes in real life?

On a daily basis, it's the kids I work with because they are under such pressure from parents to be the student that the gold-plated schools want so the parents can then say "I'm a great parent because my kid got into you-name-it." Certainly not all parents do this, but a chunk of them do. I'm amazed students just keep coming back for more. These are the nicest kids in the world and they have so much pressure on them every day. I marvel at these high-pressure parents and the kids that dearly love them despite the fact that they are being used as status symbols based on the colleges they will attend.

What is it that you most dislike?

Prejudice. Whether ethnic, religious or you name it.

What is your motto? 

The Golden Rule. I try to treat people the way I want to be treated.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Being a good person. Living the golden rule every day.

What is your proudest moment?

When a student -- whether at the bottom or top of the class -- comes in and gives me a hug and says "Thanks for what you did for me."

Where would you apply to college if you were applying today?

I wouldn't change a thing. I went undergrad to Michigan State. Did I have a perfect time? No. Did I grow, did I develop, did MSU give me the platform to experience a large state university and still have my small nucleus of friend? Yes. I wouldn't change anything. I'd go back to MSU.

How did you become a college counselor?

Well I wasn't a very good teacher. But in the state of Michigan and Illinois, where I worked, I had to be certified as a teacher before I could become a counselor. What's the difference between a B-minus and a C-plus? I didn't really care, yet I was supposed to care because I was a teacher. But I loved talking to kids about their futures. I don't think of myself as a therapist. I just loved talking to students about their careers and colleges. And that's how I got into college counseling.

What is the most important thing a high school counselor can do?

Listen. And take a stand. Don't be wishy-washy. I know it's hard at times, but I tell kids what I think they're telling me about the kind of school they want to go to.  I think as a college counselor I have to tell it to them straight. There's too much sugar-coating going on in our profession.

What is the biggest mistake you see a student make in applying to college?

They listen to their peers instead of other people like myself. They listen to a 17-year old about what is and isn't a good school.

What is your largest frustration in college admission?

That students and parents are thoroughly convinced it's all about connections a student will make at the school, not about the education in the classroom. That they think it's all about going to the right school with the right people.

When you think of deans of admission you admire, without naming any names, what are the qualities you admire in them?

Honesty is number one. Telling it like it is. That they truly want to encourage a relationship that is a two-way street and not a one-way street. I respect the people that call us and want an honest professional exchange of ideas about our applicants.

What is the one thing a high school counselor should never do?

Never say never to anybody.

What is your best advice for applicants?

Be yourself. Don't try to fabricate anything. Everybody has pluses and minuses. Call it what it is. I think so many times students think there is some perceived idea of what they should be. They are trying to fit into some mold.

What is your best advice for parents of applicants?

Love your kids no matter where they go to college. The parental report card is not the name of the school your son or daughter goes to. Your parental report card is how independent and happy they can be and how the whole college experience makes them who they are.

How can parents establish and maintain the most beneficial relationship with their high school counselor?

Again, we're back to keeping the dialogue open. But don't expect the counselor to do what you want them to do. You can certainly offer your opinion, but I'm a professional counselor and I don't tell the students what the parents want them to hear. I'm impressed by the parents who know their kid well enough and know they are different from them.  They're not little parents, clones of their mom and dad. They've got to respect their kids as human beings with regard to all of their qualities and not try to make them into what they want them to be.

What is your best advice for students on working with their college counselor?

I think there are a lot of things. I always say, I want you to get to know me and I want to get to know you. It's a two-way street. Kids in the halls will come up to me and introduce themselves. I like that. I like them to be proactive. And again, we are back to honesty. They don't have all the answers to questions about where they want to go -- small school vs. big school, etc.  But I don't expect them to. I do expect them to think about things. It's hard for kids to realize it's about them and their future and what's best for them. This is a decision where they need input but it's still their decision.

Is there any message you have for your college counselor colleagues across the country?

Be open. Look for the pluses and minuses of every place you look at. Try to be objective. You may be conservative, but will need to work with liberal applicants. Focus on the kids, not on yourself. You can always learn. You have to force yourself to get out and onto the college campuses because you can't rely on a web page or anything else to get to know those schools. Force yourself to get out there and visit the schools.

Which Common Application prompt would you choose, if you were writing the Common App essay?

I would probably choose the open-ended prompt and cover a number of issues. Tell us something about yourself.  I don't think kids take enough advantage of that. One of my students the other day responded to that prompt. He said there are some things I think you should know about what I believe in. If you're to know me as something other than my transcript and test scores, you should know what I believe in and why.

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