Higher education landscape

NACAC 2021: Burnout and job satisfaction in international college counseling & admissions

A NACAC 2021 panel discussion on burnout and job satisfaction in college counseling and admissions

Heather Lee
November 14, 2021
7 min read

At the 2021 NACAC Conference, Cialfo’s Senior Director of Education Partnerships, Tim Munnerlyn, led a panel in a discussion on burnout and job satisfaction in the international community of college counselors and admissions officers. 

He was joined by Valery A. Cooper, the Dean of Student Life and College Counselor at Avenues: The World School, Brazil, Ango Paul Mwakisu, Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at NYU Abu Dhabi, and Kristen Pantazes, Senior Associate Director of Admissions at the University of Pennsylvania.

Factors leading to burnout in international college counselors

There’s been a lot of research on burnout in school counselors and teachers and how burnout may influence turnover intentions in international educators, but Valery A. Cooper, the Dean of Student Life and College Counselor at Avenues: The World School, Brazil is the first to study what this means for the international community of counselors. Having personally experienced burnout in her nine years in international schools, she conducted a survey of international counselors to study this phenomenon in more depth. 

Based on her survey of 158 responses across Asia and Europe, Cooper found that burnout was negatively correlated with age and years of experience, which wasn’t unexpected. However, this does mean that early-career professionals are experiencing more burnout, which foregrounds the importance of what the community and industry can do to better support counselors who are just starting out. 

Other factors that influence burnout include an increase in work responsibilities and the nature of work involved. In general, the study found that the unhappier people are with their job tasks, the more likely they are to experience burnout. 

Because there is no one-size-fits-all definition of what the job scope of a college counselor is, it is not uncommon for counselors to find themselves taking on a lot more work than they are comfortable with or that are actually related to their jobs. This is particularly detrimental when it takes a counselor’s take away from his or her students.

Other factors that result in burnout include:

  • Not receiving recognition for the hard work done
  • Not having a positive relationship with one’s colleagues and/or supervisor
  • Not being satisfied with pay and benefits
  • Not having opportunities for promotion

The reasons behind burnout are not surprising, and are in line with national research that has been conducted in the United States.

Consultation as a protective factor against burnout

Consultation in this context refers to problem-solving between colleagues in general. An example of this would be being able to approach your colleagues to discuss a tricky issue.

In addition to helping reduce the likelihood of burnout, having local support networks and being able to reach out to others can be generally helpful to everyone, not just early-career professionals. It can also be an alternative to a supervision-based approach of working.

Burnout in selective undergraduate admissions offices

Kristen Pantazes, Senior Associate Director of Admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, did her dissertation on turnover and turnover intentions among admissions officers. Like Cooper, Pantazes' research was inspired by her own experiences working in the field.

Pantazes was particularly keen to explore the career trajectories of early-career admissions officers and dive deeper into the common perception of high rates of turnover among admissions professionals. Although organisations like NACAC have conducted research on current admissions officers and the state of the admissions field, most studies have neglected to include individuals who have left the admissions field.

Pantazes thus focused on both current and former admissions professionals who work or had worked in medium-sized, US-based higher education institutions (4,000 - 15,000 undergraduate students) with selective admissions processes (admitting less than 50% of applicants).

Is burnout a driving force in early career turnover?

Based on over 50 hours of interviews with 35 participants, Pantazes found that the factors that in general, what drew early career professionals to admissions work centered on the themes of connection and community, as well as advancement and development. Almost all participants expressed that they were drawn to the admissions field because of the opportunities it afforded them to improve access to education and, in doing so, make an impact on students. Both former and current admissions professionals indicated that they wanted supportive supervisory relationships, opportunities for professional growth both within and beyond the office, and the chance to pursue work that had personal significance.

When professionals felt they were losing a sense of connection to their work, including through bureaucratic or institutional policies, perceived overwork, lack of accountability, persistent microaggressions and/or inflexibility within the office, both current and former admissions officers were more likely to feel burned out by their work and thus consider leaving their job or field. In particular, diversity and inclusion-related challenges such as microaggressions had a significant impact on admissions professionals of colour.

Furthermore, if participants did not see a clear path towards advancement, whether through supervisory relationships, promotions, increased compensation, and/or access to professional development, they were more likely to consider leaving an admissions office or the field altogether.

Ultimately, while factors influencing turnover and turnover intentions are intersectional and vary depending on the individual, generally an aggregate of the following factors contributed to one's considerations on leaving:

  • Compensation levels
  • Work-life balance
  • A lack of clear and consistent professional development
  • Advancement opportunities

Recommendations for admissions offices

Accordingly, admissions leaders are encouraged to consider the following recommendations:

  • Create purposeful onboarding and training parthways for early-career admissions professionals
  • Provide supervisory training for managers and encouraging regular meetings between managers and their those they supervise
  • Foster organizational community
  • Develop structured feedback protocols
  • Provide ongoing professional development opportunities within and beyond the admissions office
  • Draw out clear and detailed organizational policies around advancement pipelines and compensation levels

While the findings of Pantazes' study will certainly not surprise anyone working in the field of admissions, they do highlight the importance of intentional support and development opportunities as well as thoughtful and regular reviews of work reviews, compensation levels and career pipelines for early-career admissions staff.

Combating burnout

For counselors

Tim Munnerlyn, Cialfo’s Senior Director of Education Partnerships, shared his personal tips and insights on preventing burnout. Prior to joining Cialfo, Munnerlyn had been a school counselor for 15 years in the US and internationally.

Proactive steps to becoming the “unbusy” counselor

A counselor will inevitably be busy, but there is a difference between being busy and having your hair on fire. 

Tackling your biggest time and energy drains

It’s crucial to differentiate between low- and high-leverage tasks and responsibilities, and devote more time to the high-leverage tasks that will enable you to impact more students. 

It is easy to get bogged down by the small things, so think about how we can put in place systems and processes to streamline these. If possible, eliminate the top three things that drain your time and energy. 

Setting boundaries

It’s completely reasonable and acceptable to set limits on your professional life. While you may be a dedicated counselor, it’s not always a good thing for students to be able to reach you 24/7. 

It is a good idea to take a look at your job description to ensure that it is clear and well-defined.

Proactive tracking of data

Tracking data not just on your students but on yourself and your work will enable you to become more strategic and effective in your role.

Promote yourself

Branding is a part of being a college counselor. Share the great work you're doing!

For admissions reps

From the admissions side of the desk, Ango Paul Mwakisu, Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at NYU Abu Dhabi, notes that many who work in higher education are motivated by the desire to make a difference in students' lives and in our communities. However, this also means that we run the risk of 'compassion fatigue' — having to make decisions that can make or break a student's dreams on a daily basis can be overwhelming and exhausting.


Asking yourself reflective questions that help you solidify your purpose and find meaning in your work is crucial, especially when you’re nearing or experiencing burnout. Ask yourself: Why did I choose this profession? What do I find meaningful in my current role?

Practice self-care

Taking just a few minutes a day to check in with your thoughts can make a world of a difference. Don’t feel guilty about exercising during your lunch hour or taking a meditation break! Finding a work routine that works for you will go a long way for both your physical and mental health.

Communicating and connecting

Don’t be afraid of asking for help when you need it. Talking to your supervisor is particularly important, as they can help you manage your workload and set priorities. Be sure to connect with your colleagues, both at and outside of work.

Making mentoring and professional development a priority also falls under this.

Evaluate and improve working conditions

This is a good time to take stock of your office's working conditions and see what steps can be taken to enhance them to improve employee well-being.

Embracing flexibility is also important, whether in terms of working arrangements or giving people permission to take a break.

Ultimately, admissions leaders should lead by example and work to get rid of the stigma around burnout.

This panel discussion was held at the 2021 NACAC National Conference in Seattle, WA.

Image credits: Bruce Mars and Priscilla Du Preez

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