May 6, 2022
In college counseling, May 1 is sacred and represents the culmination of a four-year journey for students who began their freshman year of high school and are now transitioning to freshman year of college. Seniors can finally free themselves from the anxiety of admission decisions and the pressure they have put on themselves based on the narrative that where you go to college proves their worthiness to society. It’s the time of year when social media posts are filled with congratulatory messages to students, often by parents bragging about their success, or schools boasting their acceptance rates and merit scholarship awards for the senior class. As principals and Heads of School prepare graduation speeches, often college acceptances, matriculation, and scholarship monies are the pinnacle of how success is measured. School profiles are updated and published to websites, highlighting average GPAs and test scores along with a lengthy list of colleges to which students have been accepted. It’s a celebratory time, but this success did not happen overnight, or even over the course of senior year.
In fact, to boast the statistics often found in independent schools, which reflect 100% college acceptance rates and millions of dollars of merit scholarships awarded, is a process that begins from the first week of freshman year. On one hand, I’m joining my colleagues in celebrating the continued success of working in a fully resourced school; on the other, I can’t help but feel guilty and disappointed that these privileges are not often afforded to students who do not attend private, college-preparatory schools with the luxury of full-time staff dedicated specifically to college counseling. In addition, there can sometimes be an unspoken competition between independent schools who are looking to prove that their students are more prepared and successful than those at their sister schools.
But isn’t this the antithesis of education?
These strategies, techniques, and secrets of success should not be hoarded and used as trophies to boast whose school is better, but rather shared with as many people as possible, which is why I hope to demystify the process by sharing my notes of running a four-year comprehensive college counseling program. This information should not require the investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of tuition to access, and so I hope many find this timeline for college counseling helpful for their respective schools and communities.
College may seem like a long time away when students first enter high school, but having a few touch points in the freshman year can provide clarity and direction as they assimilate into their school environments. As early as the first week of school, exposing freshmen to what an official transcript looks like and sharing how admission counselors will be evaluating their college materials is a great place to start. Typically freshman have not yet seen an official transcript and so choosing several examples that depict a wide range of GPA’s, courses taken, and credits associated to each class, and asking students to share aloud what they notice, provokes a deeper consideration for how each semester matters. Noticing grade trends from each semester of high school and reiterating that college admission reps will be looking for consistency, and ideally upward grade trends as opposed to trending downwards is best communicated proactively rather than retrospectively. Discussing how honors, International Baccalaureate, or Advanced Placement classes affect the weight of the cumulative GPA gets students thinking early about how they can set themselves up to take the courses that interest them as upperclassmen. It may seem simple, but shedding light on what a transcript looks like and how it will be read can be a great way to plant seeds of college as early as freshman year.
In addition, sharing a resume template with students and asking them to think about how they can start getting involved outside of the classroom is another important step to putting together meaningful college applications in the future. Whether it be extracurricular activities, sports, hobbies, community service, work experience, summer programs, honors, awards, or even books read outside of class, all of these experiences give insight into a student’s personality and interests and can help enhance their overall application for admission. It’s best to start the resume as early as possible, as one can imagine it might be difficult to look back and remember all of the ways they were involved as underclassmen. Depth of involvement and leadership roles could potentially lead to more scholarship opportunities later. Overall, the most important thing freshman can do is to get off to a great start academically and start getting involved in their school and greater communities. One or two touches about college counseling are helpful, but too much too soon can be overwhelming and have an adverse effect on students.
Sophomore year, the college counseling process starts to pick up a bit. Students will likely take the PSAT in the fall and will usually get their scores back around mid-December. As the second semester begins, counselors can start meeting with students individually to go over PSAT scores and talk about the first three semesters of grades listed on the transcript. This is an ideal time to point out to students that they are halfway through what they will be submitting to colleges grade-wise, and ask them to notice their grade trends so far. If for some reason grades are trending down, this can serve as a “wake up call” that they have three more semesters to reestablish an upward grade trend and prove themselves academically. In case they forgot about the resume, this is also a great time to remind them to keep recording their activities outside of class and perhaps to update it together.
If feasible, it may be helpful to incorporate a sophomore college tour and reach out to local colleges and universities who may be able to host large group visits so students can get an idea of a large, public college versus a small to mid-sized, private school. Often this is the first time students have done an official admission presentation and tour and it’s nice if the college counselors can be involved with that process and determine which type of college students preferred and why. Certain colleges may be able to provide lunch in the dining halls, show students what a dorm room looks like, and set up student panels so that high school students can ask questions most relevant to them.
With this information and insight, students can begin drafting an initial college list and keep track of the colleges they are interested in, using software like Naviance or Scoir. Point out to students that these platforms include tools like college search inventories where they can choose the criteria that might be most important to them, such as size, location, cost, and potential academic programs. Sharing any other resources that may be available for them to do further research, for instance, the “Fiske Guide to Colleges,” “Ruggs College Recommendation List,” or the College Board’s “College Book of Majors” can also help. If there are aspirations of playing sports at the collegiate level, make sure students have registered through the NCAA Eligibility Center so they are more visible to college coaches. Empowering students to drive their own college search process and encouraging them to send follow-up emails to their parents/guardians recapping what they discussed in their first individual college meeting can be a great way to create a sense of autonomy and responsibility for the process.
Junior year is the year students and college counselors should become “best friends” and ideally would meet at least once a month from November through May. After another round of PSATs, counselors can schedule follow-up meetings with students to discuss standardized testing plans for the spring and summer. Although the majority of colleges have transitioned to test-optional, it’s not a bad idea to still encourage students to try both the SAT and the ACT, as they are testing different skill sets. Once getting both sets of scores back, pause to determine the stronger test, and then encourage students to sign up for at least one more test, as studies show that taking the test a second time often correlates to increased scores. Also, colleges that “super score” will take the best subscores from each attempt and recalculate the highest possible score, potentially increasing chances for admission and scholarships. If the scores come back and students feel they do not adequately reflect what they are capable of, reminding them not to worry, and that in many cases standardized testing is going out of style as the majority of colleges are now test-optional. To check the most updated list of test-optional schools, students can visit www.fairtest.org. There is no need to stress about the test if it is not an enhancement to the profile because students can focus on other aspects of their application that help them shine, such as their resume, essay, and meaningful recommendation letters on their behalf.
Encourage students to attend college rep visits in the fall. Often it will be the specific admission counselor that does the first read of the student’s application who visits, so it’s a great idea for students to attend these meetings to introduce themselves, especially if the college is at the top of their list. Visiting college campuses can be done over weekends or during school breaks, but remind students to schedule them weeks in advance, especially during high volume times like spring break. Being intentional about visiting colleges when students are still on campus and paying attention to the overall “vibe” of students while on tour can help glean some helpful insight. For instance, if students are frowning and withdrawn, that might be a red flag, whereas students who seem engaged, happy, and excited to speak with visiting students might indicate a healthier environment on campus. Every touchpoint and effort made by the student shows demonstrated interest, which can sometimes give students an edge in the admissions review process.
By the spring semester, students have hopefully narrowed down their list to between six and eight schools, or a manageable caseload that will allow them to put forth their best effort while also balancing the workload of senior year classes and applying to colleges by the earliest deadlines. Rounding out the college list to ensure that not all of the schools are “reach” schools by any criteria; for example, low acceptance rates, cost, location, and historical data from previous students at their school. This can be a tough part of the process, as sometimes students and parents might have unrealistic expectations. A good strategy can be to point them to the scattergrams that are generated through software like Naviance and Scoir that show historical data from their high schools so they can see what GPA and test scores were admitted, or deferred, waitlisted, and denied in previous years.
Even though students may be well aware that applying to certain schools is a long shot, it’s important to let them follow through and apply to their “dream schools” because applying to college is a rite of passage, and sometimes, the symbolism of applying to these schools is more important than the admission decisions themselves. For instance, first-generation students whose parents or grandparents never dreamed it possible, might find value in applying to Ivy League schools, and in my opinion, they should. The most important thing is to remind students they are fully supported in the process and that it’s ok to dream big. Being more intentional with language and stepping away from terms like “safety” schools, and replacing them with “good-fit” and “likely” schools, is a small adjustment that can go a long way with students and families.
By the end of the junior year, it’s helpful to have a family college meeting and include the parents/guardians or anyone else who might be intimately involved in the college application and enrollment process. This is a time for college counselors to ensure everyone is on the same page when it comes to testing plans, finalizing the college list, and discussing senior year guidelines for applying to college. Giving students a few tasks to complete over the summer can be a helpful way to streamline the application process in the fall. For example, remind them to update their resumes and provide them with the updated Common Application essay prompts so they can get started on a first draft prior to senior year. Reading the prompts aloud and asking which ones resonate most can help ease the anxiety of what’s to come and gets students excited about what they can include in their personal statements.
These meetings are a good time to ask the student who might write their teacher recommendation letter, which is different from the school recommendation letter that will be written by the counselor. Typically it’s best to ask a teacher from junior year. In asking a teacher to write a recommendation, the student should be sure the teacher knows them well and is not someone who just gave them a good grade. One strategy can be to ask a teacher in an academic subject outside of their intended major interest to demonstrate their depth and interdisciplinary potential. Another angle could be asking a teacher from a class with a lower grade than others, especially if the student took advantage of every opportunity available and persevered through challenges throughout the course. For teachers, it’s nice to know who is writing letters of recommendation for whom before summer break, in case they might want to get started early, or just to give them plenty of time to process and plan for this task in the fall.
Senior year, it’s game time! Encourage students to update their college list on the software platform counselors will use to submit their supporting materials. In addition, get clear on the different application deadline options and the best strategy for applying, whether that be Early Decision (binding), Restrictive Early Action, Early Action, Regular Decision or Rolling. If possible, starting the application process together with a “College Application Bootcamp” before school starts can help relieve the pressure of the first few weeks of senior year. In this Bootcamp, college counselors can start the Common Application with students and assist with the more nuanced aspects of the application, such as signing the FERPA waiver, synching their Common Application to Naviance, and entering courses and grades for every class in high school. Simply showing students around the Common Application and helping them determine which colleges also require supplemental essays can assist with the planning process so students can best prioritize their time throughout the semester. After about three hours of Bootcamp, students will likely be almost halfway through their applications, giving them two solid months to finish them up and click Submit.
All of the work leading up to senior year helps ensure that students can meet the earliest application deadlines at all of their colleges: most often that is November 1, but for a few schools it can be as early as October 15. By applying early, students maximize their consideration for admission and merit scholarships. It’s also nice that students can then take a deep breath and get back to being a senior in high school instead of spending the majority of senior year worrying about college applications. Applying early means students find out early, sometimes within a few weeks of submitting applications; for others by mid-December to February 1, and for the more selective schools, by April 1. Finding out early gives students plenty of time to still meet Regular Decision deadlines if they want to apply to more schools, and also gives more time to schedule admitted student visits to the colleges they are considering.
Some colleges will request mid-year transcripts after the first semester of senior year, so reiterating to seniors that although their senior grades weren’t on their initial application for admission, they need to continue to work hard and maintain good grades senior year, as that could be the deciding factor. Students should make sure the FAFSA and CSS profiles are complete as soon as possible after January 1 if the family is seeking financial aid. The spring semester is a matter of waiting for all of the decisions to roll in, including financial aid information, which is typically released by mid-March. Students have until May 1, the National College Decision Deadline, to submit their enrollment deposit to the college they plan on attending. It’s also important for students to notify the other colleges that accepted them to say they have selected another college.
And that’s a wrap!
The diligence with which students and families prepare can determine the ease of the college choice process in the future. Independent schools are equipped with college counseling professionals whose job is to specifically guide students and families through this process, but this is often a luxury afforded to few when it should be widely available. Demystifying the college counseling process for educators, high school students, and families is a matter of equity, and my hope is that by sharing some of the ins-and-outs of this process, other educators can help craft a four-year comprehensive college counseling program in their respective schools. There are already plenty of barriers when it comes to accessing higher education, particularly the rising tuition costs and increased demands on the students to formulate meaningful college applications, so as educators, it’s not only our job but our moral obligation to disseminate this information more widely to our communities. Please feel free to share your tips and tricks for supporting students through this process and consider holding community events to engage your colleagues in your wider community.
Lade Akande is the Director of College Counseling at University High School (IN).