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Stop Making Sense

Stop Making Sense

Blythe Butler
Co-Director of College Counseling
Catlin Gabel School

“...and you may ask yourself, ‘How did I get here?’”  - Talking Heads 

We are all storytellers.  Some of us use literature to make sense of the world.  We put together stories or theories based on evidence and experimentation.  We tell ourselves stories to explain why people act the way they do, or how events in the past can inform our current world.  We use stories to make sense of the nonsensical.  

As my students compile their college applications, I encourage them to find their stories, pull the threads of their experiences together to identify their values, find colleges that match those values, and share themselves.  I help a student think about why their choice to learn to play the ukulele might have a connection with their interest in engineering, and which colleges might recognize what a ukulele-playing engineer will bring to their campuses.  I watch them identify the stories a college tells to help students understand its culture and learning environment.  I assist them in imagining how their qualities might fit into the class a college is building, mapping out its story for the future.  I try to help them make order out of a process that can seem disorderly.

 It does not surprise me, then, when the colleges release their decisions and my students and their supporters begin once again to seek the stories.  There are decisions that, in their minds, were foregone conclusions; the people who were expected to get in got in and the story has transpired as expected.  There are other decisions that prompt speculation; someone must have been desirable because that college is hoping to recruit more oboe players, or they need more women in science, or they are trying to increase the ethnic diversity of their campus, or they need more students who can pay tuition, or who will increase their socioeconomic diversity.  Rumors that someone’s parents pulled a string and someone else’s didn’t have a string to pull, or that an artist needed to reach a lower academic standard than a potential business major, become the story.  The disappointments are assuaged by the story that “They don’t like students from my [city, state, school, zip code].”

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'Tis the season! What to do when your early application is deferred to a regular pool.

'Tis the season! What to do when your early application is deferred to a regular pool.

Jody Sanford Sweeney
Associate Director of College Counseling
William Penn Charter School

You may be one of the many seniors who learned from your early decision or early action college that you were deferred. As a college counselor who works with many seniors every December, I know the deep disappointment that can be felt from this news – I feel it myself for my students. At a time when days are festive and bright, you may feel things are dreary and bleak.  What I do know is that everything works out and happens for a reason; it’s just not clear right now.

Take these steps in your college application process and combine some holiday activities that bring you joy as you embark on an exciting New Year. 

Twelve days of holidays!

DAY 1: Recharge: Connect with nature - hike, ski, ice skate.

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It's an Amazon Prime World!

It's an Amazon Prime World! 

Matthew J. DeGreeff
Dean of College Counseling and Student Enrichment
Middlesex School

With Boston, our nearby neighbor, competing with 238 other cities to be HQ2 for Amazon, I was inspired to dust off a short essay that I started two years ago for the ACCIS blog. 

On the Friday night before a major early deadline, I received an email from one of my seniors wanting to know why her early action college had not received her SAT scores, recommendations, school forms, transcript, and school profile. She had just submitted her application, and she expected everything to be in her “admissions portal” that very instant.  Her current application status was unacceptable! I gently reminded her that it takes time to match electronic records, as well as the eye-opening fact that admissions offices do not work on Saturdays and Sundays. I gently suggested that she had to be patient and wait for everything to come together the following week, well after the November 1st deadline. After this exchange, the first of many over the weekend, it struck me that our students have a different set of expectations around timing, feedback, and deliverable goods in their relationships with websites. I call it the “Amazon Prime Effect.” 

We exist in a world where we can order a Pokemon Sun Nintendo 3DS for our child and have it arrive the next day in our mailbox. Websites like Amazon and Zappos offer us instant gratification for our shopping urges, and frankly they have made our lives easier. Uber drivers arrive within minutes of opening the app on your phone, and we can monitor the drivers as they get closer and closer to us. There is no question that this generation of students is used to immediate connections with their possessions, as well as their peers via texting, Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram (they don’t actually speak to anyone if they can avoid it!). Our students have an expectation that the rest of the world behaves in this consumer nirvana where access to almost anything or anyone you want is at your fingertips. 

This also promotes what I call the “unbearable lightness of waiting.” For most teenagers, their perception of the college process is that each student has only one chance to apply to that dream school, and that which occurs in his or her process occurs only once and never again. Well, I might be stretching Milan Kundera’s take on humanity, but it is a natural time for teenagers to focus on themselves and to find waiting for any step of the process to be painful and archaic.  

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What Do We Teach?: The Lessons of College Counseling

What Do We Teach?: The Lessons of College Counseling

Nicholas Soodik
Associate Director of College Counseling
Pingree School

John Allman, the Head of Trinity School in Manhattan, recently made the New York Times for an unusual reason: his end-of-summer letter to families at his school. In it, Allman seeks to establish a new sense of community at Trinity, an environment that attends to both individual well-being and the common good. The letter makes a point to call out the divisive forces that cause disconnection at Trinity and independent schools more broadly. He worries that students view their schoolwork simply as a means to “set themselves on a path of lifelong superior achievement,” and he censures “consumerist families that treat teachers and the school in entirely instrumental ways.”

His language is powerful and his message important. Allman has me thinking about what I do as a college counselor to advance the larger educational goals of our institution – goals geared toward the building of character and citizenship rather than the next big accolade or award. The letter has led me to ask what I want my students to learn as a result of my college counseling. Surely, the whole point is not just to know the difference between early decision and restrictive early action. As college counselors, what do we teach our students? What makes college counseling integral to their high school education? How does it contribute to the common good?

While these questions are open-ended, good college counseling seeks to develop the following qualities in students:  

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On Writing That Darn Essay!

 

On Writing That Darn Essay!

Emily McDowell
Associate Director of College Counseling
The Williston Northampton School

Why is it so hard to sit down at a computer and write the dreaded college essay?  In a world of social-media-driven culture and 140 word-count-maximum postings, many students are terrified to write a two page essay because it is so daunting in nature.  Here are some tips and tricks that have helped students uncover the ease of telling a 650 word story about themselves.

First, some advice on essay topics with the potential to fall flat or raise “red flags:”

            God/Religion – possibly too sensitive and potentially too divisive
            The Big Game – possibly too cliché
            Uncle/Aunt/Coach/best friend – possibly too biographical about someone else
            Very personal details – possibly TMI
            That ONE thing you do – possibly too repetitive relative to the rest of your application 





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The Lowdown on Demonstrated Interest

The Lowdown on Demonstrated Interest

Jody Sweeney
Associate Director of College Counseling
William Penn Charter School

Spring in independent schools brings many alumni back to their alma maters. One of my former students was visiting me recently, telling me about his college experience. Seeing him reminded me of a conversation I had with an admissions officer over a decision on one of his college applications. The student had a solid academic profile for the institution and the institution’s acceptance rate was well into the double digits. In my mind, and supported by data, it was a “likely” or even “safety” school for him. So when he logged into his account to receive a waitlist you can imagine the surprise and disappointment – for both of us!

When I asked the admissions officer if he could help me understand the waitlist decision, he said that while the student had a competitive academic profile, strong leadership, and involvement outside of the classroom, he had not connected at all with the institution – no campus tour, no emails, no interview. In other words, my student was a “stealth applicant”; an applicant whose first contact with the institution was the application itself. The student learned the hard way that this lack of connection can disadvantage you in an admissions process.

To ensure that you don’t make the same mistakes my former student made, be sure your summer plans include visiting colleges and showing interest in other thoughtful ways. Not only is visiting beneficial to building your awareness around your college search priorities, it also helps leverage you in the admissions process. Don’t just drive through a campus! Check into the admissions office and stay for a tour.

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Keep Calm, Consider a Gap Year

Keep Calm, Consider a Gap Year

Robert S. Clagett
St. Stephen’s Episcopal School
Austin, TX

For us college counselors, this time of year is, as Charles Dickens would say, the best of times and the worst of times. At the same moment that we are celebrating the joys of some of our seniors, we are sharing the despair of others. But it is the sad reality that most of our students’ lives in the past four to eight years have been geared towards the culmination that the past month or so represents for them.

Even more sad is that reaching the conclusion of this process can bring with it a sense of letdown, an “OK, so now what?” feeling, as if getting into college was not a means to the end of becoming a more fully-developed person, but rather an end in itself. And I suspect it is that mindset that leads to much of the infantile behavior that we see in the early months and sometimes even years of college. As a dean at Tufts has been known to say, “Everyone in the US takes a gap year. It’s called freshman year.”

For too many of our students at our highly structured and competitive schools, it is easy to lose sight of the connection that should exist between their educations and their lives. And I believe that is why it is at this time of year when some of our seniors first entertain the possibility of taking a gap year between high school and college.

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Now What?

Now What?

Erika Giaimo Chapin
Associate Director of College Counseling
The Hopkins School

As your college counselors, our most sincere hope is that right now, you’re happy.  You’ve spent a long time researching, visiting, writing, pondering, and waiting, and so now we hope that you’re able to look back on your experience as an applicant with great satisfaction.  No doubt you’ve earned it.  

Let’s start with the bad news: if you’ve approached this process in a balanced way, you have probably been denied at one or more places. Take heart, though.  You’re in good company, as most seniors will have some rejections.  By all accounts, this year was harder than ever for applicants to selective institutions. But let’s focus on the positive.    

Plan to (re)visit at least a few of the schools where you have been admitted.  The last time you saw some of these campuses may have been a year ago, and you could use a fresh perspective.  Even if the campuses themselves haven’t changed, YOU have.  Do your best to keep an open mind about the possibilities that await you at places that perhaps weren’t initially high on your list: you just might be pleasantly surprised.  Be sure to ask questions of people who aren’t paid or highly trained to answer them for you. Try to connect with alumni from your school who attend colleges you’re considering.  Everyone was once in your shoes, and usually current students are willing to share their perspective.

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There Is No Wrong Way To Spend An Afternoon

There Is No Wrong Way To Spend An Afternoon

Courtney M. Skerritt
Director of College Counseling
The Hockaday School

Like many independent schools around the country, The Hockaday School recently hosted a College Admissions Deans Panel. This event serves as an opportunity for experienced admission officers to share their expertise with students and parents. While on our campus, when prompted with the question about extracurricular involvement, Kirk Brennan, Director of Admission at the University of Southern California, shared a wonderful anecdote about the joy of watching the clouds roll by. In fact, he told the audience, I wish all of the students would just take some time to do just that. I share this story to tell students that they can watch the clouds and still be admitted to college.  Why? Because there is no wrong way to spend an afternoon.

When meeting with students, college counselors are often asked about the resume. “Does my resume seem too light?” a student will ask or I’ll hear “Have I done enough?” My response is always “What do you love to do?” And we dive into a conversation of curiosities, play, and exploration. It is my hope that a student leaves that conversation with confidence in what they’ve already started to explore and, perhaps, new ideas on ways to get further involved.

You see, there is no perfect recipe for an activity resume that leads to an acceptance letter. Students often ask questions about their involvement because they doubt that their interests will matter to the college. Perhaps they are not an elected leader in their class. Perhaps they’ve looked up and realized most of their free time was spent behind the scenes of the theater with no involvement in athletics or community service. Should they do more? Be more? The answer is always – just be you. But, I will counsel each of you reading this to be involved in something because your school community, or religious community, or local community needs you. It needs your energy, your ideas, your commitment.

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What Have You Done For Me Lately? Advocacy in the College Process

 

What Have You Done For Me Lately? Advocacy in the College Process

Sam Bigelow
Director of College Counseling
Middlesex School

Just as dated as the Janet Jackson 1986 pop smash “What Have You Done For Me Lately,” the concept of the “college placement officer” is of a bygone era. Gone are the days of a college placement officer sitting with a dean of admission and determining who from their senior class can and will be admitted…and who won’t. The term “college counselor” is a title that far more accurately describes the role of the person who, at best, deftly guides students through the murky waters of the college admissions process and serves as an advocate, therapist, and planner as they present their students to colleges. Often, the question of what that advocacy looks like comes up this time of year, when students and their parents anxiously await college news.

Multi-layered Advocacy

The primary form of a college counselor’s advocacy is the counselor recommendation. We spend hours researching and planning for how we can most effectively portray each student. Each letter paints a picture of a student in their best possible light, highlighting overarching themes, passions, strengths, and anecdotes that help add color and detail to an application. These letters are a formal, required part of each college application, and they are a huge point of pride for college counselors.

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Deferred Early? Don't Fret!

Deferred Early? Don't Fret!

Barbara Tragakis Conner
Director of College Counseling
Foxcroft School

The seasons of college admission are fairly predictable. College Counselors work closely with students through the college exploration and application process in the fall as applications are completed and essays are drafted, edited, and finally submitted with great hopes of inviting admission offers. When these applications are submitted under Early Decision (binding) or Early Action (early notification) plans, admission decisions are typically expected in December or January.

Admission committees often elect to defer an early application when a student’s application would benefit from additional standardized college testing and/or inclusion of the 7th semester grades reflecting work in the senior year, or if they want to consider the application in the context of other applications.

Even though college counselors know that defer notifications are part of the process, receiving this news can be demoralizing for students. Here are some strategies and approaches I share with students and parents to help manage this part of the process:

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How Did Your Early Round Go? (Everyone Wants To Know)

How Did Your Early Round Go? (Everyone Wants To Know)

Lauren Lieberman
Director of College Counseling
Shady Side Academy

College counselors across the country are asked this question nearly every December, as the Early Action/Early Decision results are released. As a college counselor for more than a decade in independent schools, I’m taken aback each winter by this question. What is it that people are really asking? My answer has always been, “Great.” To which people respond, “No really, how was your early round?”

Although this is my first year in a new school, I anticipate that it will be no different as we approach the middle of December, and that my colleagues and I will be hit with this question with some frequency. The corollary to this question, of course, is, “I heard you had a great early round,” or the dreaded, “I heard that you/that other school had a really rough early round.”

The Early Decision/Early Action round is not a sporting event, and the successes of applying to college cannot be quantified in a win/loss record or a percentage admitted. Early Decision/Early Action is most often the time in the process when students stretch the furthest. This stretch, often referred to as applying to a “reach” school because an applicant’s credentials, in some way, may fall below those typically admitted. It may also be a reach simply because some schools are highly selective, and even with the grades and scores that align with their profile, it’s hard to gain admission. With the admissions advantage that Early Decision programs offer, and the increasing percentage of colleges who are filling a significant portion of their class in this early round, it makes sense to go for that dream school, even if it is a “reach.” Part of our role as college counselors is to help our students see the bigger picture and to work with students to balance the strategy with the emotion, the head and the heart of the process.

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California Dreamin': An Update on the UC

California Dreamin': An Update on the UC

Rhody Davis
Director of College Counseling
Viewpoint School

With nine undergraduate campuses throughout the state, the University of California is a higher-ed gem. Founded in 1869, the UC offers 150 academic disciplines and serves nearly 239,000 students. This past year, of the 166,000 or so students who applied, 64% were admitted, making the system accessible to a majority of applicants. 

The application process for the UC has unique requirements. Students will use one application for all nine campuses, self-report high school course work and grades, and file during the November 1-30 application period. New this year are the Personal Insight Questions, which replace the 1,000 word, two-essay Personal Statement that was required in the past. Students now need to submit up to 350 words on four of eight prompts. The UC believes that these more targeted questions will allow admission officers to get to know students better.

While the Berkeley, Los Angeles, and San Diego campuses tend to be the most selective, each campus offers excellent academic and social opportunities. Below are some highlights from each campus:

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Admissions By Design

Admissions By Design

Joseph Freeman
Director of College Counseling
Beacon Academy

My parents love HGTV, so whenever I go home to visit them, I will consume hours of “Fixer Upper,” “Love It or List It,” and “Design Star.” While I am neither handy nor inclined towards interior design or landscape architecture, I get engrossed by the same inevitable narrative: a homeowner has a vision, competing ideas for achieving that vision are presented, pricey obstacles force the homeowner to revise that vision, designers and contractors work some magic, and a gorgeous result prompts my awe and envy—all in 38 to 40 minutes. Meanwhile, it took me over a month and a couple of shower-door catastrophes to retile my bathroom. By equating my own process to the highly edited version on television, I set myself up for a false comparison. I focused my own renovation too much on the end product, a pretty new bathroom, and not enough on the collaborative design process that would lead me to a realization of my vision.

College admissions and design thinking share much in common. The design process relies on a complex understanding of the user’s (student’s) explicit and implicit needs, prototyping and retesting, devising multiple solutions to the design challenge, empathy, open-mindedness, resilience, flexibility, and collaboration. Just as a team of experts work together to craft a variety of solutions to a design challenge, college admissions also requires collaboration between students, families, college counselors, teachers, advisors, and peers. 

Leadership+Design, an educational collaborative that infuses design principles in schools, developed six “norms” for collaboration. These norms provide a useful framework for collaboration in the college admissions process:

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Getting to “Yes, and…”

Getting to "Yes, and..."

Eric Monheim
Director of College Counseling
St. Mark's School

I typically think of “Yes, and…” as a guideline for ordering food as in “Yes, I’ll have the steak and lobster.” Better yet, “Yes, I’ll have the brownie and the ice cream.”

In truth, “Yes, and…” has long served as a foundational principle of improvisational comedy.  Proponents of Design Thinking have more recently adopted the philosophy.  They argue that “Yes, and…” allows for more out-of-the-box thinking. 

I would like to suggest that adopting the “Yes, and…” mantra in the college counseling realm would do us all—students, counselors, and schools—a whale of good. 

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Embrace the "Why"! : Learning to Love the Why _______ College? Supplemental Essay

Embrace the "Why"! : Learning to Love the Why _______ College? Supplemental Essay

Sarah Graham
Director of College Counseling
Princeton Day School

“Maybe you’re having trouble writing the “Why?” essay because you don’t actually want to go to this college?” I remarked to the frustrated senior in front of me. Silence. More silence. Then a half-smile and nod.

So we took that college off the list. While this answer seemed obvious to me based on the conversation that preceded it, it hadn’t occurred to the student that this might be the reason behind her struggle to craft the perfect “Why?” essay for the college in question.

In fact, I’ve had many versions of this conversation over my years as a college counselor. And I understand why. It’s often the case that there’s not a lot of time to step back and really think about the bigger picture of THE LIST and the reason behind every college on it in the swirl of college essay writing, looming deadlines, and everything else students do in addition to applying to college. But there should be.

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Approaching the College Essay: A Killer First Sentence and Other Important Tips

Approaching the College Essay: A Killer First Sentence and Other Important Tips

Meghan Ryan Finegan
Associate Director of College Counseling
The Pingry School
 

Your college essay is an opportunity for admissions officers to get to know you beyond the numbers that your transcript and standardized test scores reveal. The essay, like the recommendations from your teachers and college counselor, is something that cannot be quantified, and therefore possesses potentially unlimited power. It can tip the scales either way. You want to make sure that it tips them in your favor. To that end, here are some guidelines to keep in mind:

You need a killer first sentence. Your first sentence needs to draw the reader in, and make him or her want to keep reading. Grab the reader with your first sentence!

No topic is too small or too superficial. Be sure you can derive meaning from the event or experience about which you’re writing. (Maybe you lost your front teeth when you were a kid. Maybe you love pudding. Maybe you think your parents are spies.) What does this say about you? Show me who you are through the topic you choose. Be introspective and self-revelatory. Be specific! Avoid generalities and clichés. Zero in on a day, an event, or a moment that evokes an awakening or a new awareness on your part.

Know that there are a few topics that admissions officers have seen hundreds of times so carefully consider and consult with your counselor before taking on one of these (athletics, your influential grandparent who beat all odds to succeed are a couple of examples). If you do choose a popular essay topic, be sure to approach it from your own unique perspective and voice.

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Tips on Nailing the College Interview

Tips on Nailing the College Interview

Jody Sanford Sweeney
Associate Director of College Counseling
William Penn Charter School
 

Do any of your summer college visits include an admissions interview? Don’t let your nerves get in the way! These tips will prepare you for the conversation anytime - summer, fall or winter.

Know what’s available to you: Learn what interview options the college offers: on campus; regional alumni interview; at the prospect and/or applicant stage; or, no interviews. The opportunity varies by institution and the admissions web page will share the institution’s policy.

What to expect:
Admissions officers and alumni interviewers enjoy getting to know students. They will try to put you at ease and learn about you, while giving you information about the college. Conversations can take on a “life of their own.” You may connect over a mutual interest and the conversation could take off.

To have a purposeful conversation that makes an impact, consider these 10 questions: 

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Optimizing a Conference

Optimizing a Conference

How to take advantage of a college admissions and counseling conference

Matthew J. DeGreeff
Director of College Counseling
Middlesex School


An important part of our professional work as college counselors is to attend and participate in regional and national conferences, and I relish these opportunities to hear about new admissions trends, discover better ways to do our work, and connect with old and new friends on both sides of the desk. Over the years, I have kept a list of tips on how to get the most out of a conference, and I hope these 10 ideas help you get the most out of the next conference you attend! Maybe our paths will cross at a conference in the near future.

1. Before the conference, review the list of colleges that will attend and compare it to the list of colleges that your students will apply to. If there are colleges that you don’t know well, make a point to meet the admissions officers at the conference to learn about their colleges and educate them about your school.

2. Before the conference, make a coffee date or workout date with at least one admissions officer. The power of the invitation is easy to underestimate, and it is a good habit to extend yourself, make a plan, and then stick to it.

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Ten Tips for a Successful College Search (Part 2, Tips 6-10)

 

Ten Tips for a Successful College Search (Part 2, Tips 6-10)

Advice for high school students

Scott Herrmann-Keeling
College Counselor
Mary Institute & St. Louis Country Day

 

Your successful college search is built piece by piece over your entire time in high school. The classes you take, the grades you earn, and what you do with your hours outside the classroom will all be considered by admission officers looking to build communities that fit their own campus cultures. Use the following tips, starting right from grade 9, to help your college search go smoothly:

6) When evaluating colleges, focus on opportunities rather than brand names.

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