By Dave Wieczorek
High-school counselors live by a motto they hope their college-bound students will also take to heart:
“College is a match to be made – not a prize to be won.”
“Our ultimate goal as counselors is to match our students to the best possible college or university that will help them develop academically as individuals and enable them to reach their life goals,” says Dr. Robert “Bob” Bouressa, director of college guidance at St. Andrew’s School in Boca Raton.
The process of applying and getting accepted to college these days can induce anxiety among students and their parents. As one student says, “It’s so crazy competitive. Sometimes it’s a little disheartening. You think, ‘There are 30,000 applicants to this one school. What makes me so different?’”
Counselors can help students emphasize their distinctness, reduce the disheartening aspect of the process and “find the right fit” for their students. They start, usually sometime during junior year, by building a foundation of trust and rapport with students and parents.
“Without that foundation of trust and rapport, it’s hard for us to achieve anything,” Bouressa says.
City & Shore recently visited with counselors and students from independent schools and asked them to walk us through the process of applying to colleges and universities, to share their excitement and anxieties, and to discuss the crucial role played by counselors in compiling the students’ college wish lists.
What most seniors who graduate from these schools have in common is that nearly every one of them will attend college. That’s a given. Many will be accepted by one or more of the schools on their list and some by the most elite institutions in the country. What is uncertain is where they will spend the next four years.
Many of today’s students have been hedging their bets by applying to more schools than their predecessors. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), in 1990 just 9 percent of students applied to seven or more colleges. By 2011 that group had risen to 29 percent. The average acceptance rate for all four-year colleges in the United States is 63.9 percent, according to a 2013 NACAC report. Out of some 2,000 accredited four-year colleges featured on CollegeData.com, an online adviser service, about 50 of the most selective schools admit fewer than 30 percent of applicants. On the other hand, four out of five well-qualified applicants are accepted by at least one of these “elites,” according to Parchment.com, a website that helps students submit college transcripts electronically.
High-school seniors have three ways to approach the application process: early decision, early action or regular decision. Depending on the path they choose, seniors are accepted to a college in the fall or in April and commit to that school either in the fall (early decision) or by May 1 (early action and regular decision). (For more information visit the National Association for College Admission Counseling at nacacnet.org.)
Whatever route a student takes to a college campus, it is the counselor’s mission to ensure the right decision has been made about the next four years of a student’s life.
“We encourage our students to ‘tell us what your dreams and goals are – personally and career-wise,’ ” says Kathleen Blyth, director of guidance at Cardinal Gibbons in Fort Lauderdale. “If we can help them get there, that’s our dream come true.”
St. Andrew’s School, Boca Raton
DR. ROBERT BOURESSA
We consider a lot of things when trying to make a match: What does the student want to study? What part of the country can he potentially see himself in? Will that student be successful in a smaller or larger environment? In an urban or non-urban setting? That being said, kids come into this when we start working with them in the 11th grade with a lot of biases. ‘I’ve got to be in a big city because of this’ or ‘I have to be at big school because of that.’ So we drill down on the whys. This is a process of discovery, and we try to expose students to things they might never have thought of. When the whole process is done, the student will have applied to several schools, gotten admitted to some and denied by some, but come May 1, he will have choices.
WILL SMILES, BOCA RATON
I applied early to Harvard. Some of the other universities I’m applying to are Miami, Duke, Vanderbilt, Northwestern and Brown. Like Dr. Bouressa says, you’ve got to have your reaches, your targets and your likelies. Reaches are the colleges that would be the most difficult to get into, targets those that you are aiming for and fairly confident about, and likelies those you are positive will admit you. I’d be happy at any of them. I meet with Dr. Bouressa every week or two. He lives on campus and has an open-door policy, so we can talk with him whenever we have a question or concern. What I’m looking for is guidance and advice about the next four years. Right now I’m interested in engineering and computer science. Dr. Bouressa has never restricted me, never told me ‘This is the school for you.’ He always says that the college you choose is not a tool for bragging. The college you pick is the one where you hope you will fit and be able to compete, because these are the kids you’ll be living with for the next four years.
American Heritage School, Plantation
ELYSA ZEBERSKY, WESTON
Everyone told me how important it is to have a good relationship with your counselor. I really value Mrs. Bikoundou’s opinion. She doesn’t just look at statistics about schools; she looks at what might be the best fit for you. When I first met with Mrs. Bikoundou, I told her what kind of school I liked and that I was interested in engineering. I want to live in a city and go to school out of state. So we looked at schools for a mixture of engineering and fun. It was hard to find something that did both [she laughs]. She told me about Vanderbilt and said, ‘This school is perfect for you.’ So I visited Vanderbilt and fell in love with it. At that point I knew she had my best interests in mind. When I was stressed about deciding which colleges to put on my list, Mrs. Bikoundou said, ‘Elysa, be yourself. That’s all you need to be.’
One hundred percent of our seniors are accepted to college, so our ultimate goal is getting them into a college they’ll like, where they’ll be happy and really enjoy the experience. Sometimes it’s a good fit financially. Sometimes it’s an academic fit. For example, the student is searching for a smaller school where there is good interaction with professors. I try to help students imagine what life will be like at the schools they put on their lists. I’ve said to them, ‘From what I know about the school and what I know about you, I can’t really see you there.’ I try to be genuine with students and let them know that I’m concerned about them: ‘I won’t tell you what to do, I’ll make suggestions, I’ll guide you.’ I like reading their application essays because it gives me more insight into them. We also ask the parents to give us a ‘parent brag sheet’ where they tell us about their son’s or daughter’s strengths and weaknesses. I tell the parents and the students we’re all in this together, we’re a team.
St. Thomas Aquinas, Fort Lauderdale
AUDREY MAGHIRO, CORAL SPRINGS
I probably started with a list of 30 schools, but I got it down to eight [she laughs]. It was a long, hard process because all the schools had something attractive about them. I used financial aid as a huge factor in eliminating some schools, because my mom is by herself. I also wanted a prestigious school because I like the sense of being challenged. I was born in Nigeria, but we moved to St. Maarten in the Caribbean when I was 6 months old and to Florida when I was 11. My mom is a nurse in a hospice center. I’m her first child to go to college in America, and she didn’t go to college here, so the process of deciding on a college has been confusing for her. Mrs. Klink took away much of the anxiety I would have felt otherwise. When I went into her office at the end of my junior year, she made sure I was the person she focused on, that I had her attention. She helped me put my best foot forward for the colleges I was applying to. I’m really afraid of writing and didn’t know how to approach the essays I had to write for colleges. She said, ‘You have this lovely personality. Write what comes into your head and that personality will show.’
You have to ask students all the right questions, because there are careers out there that haven’t even been thought about. What are you thinking of doing after you graduate? What do you like – the humanities, math, science? What do you like to do in your spare time? I talk to them about scholarships and financial aid. I talk to them about geographics. How far do they want to go from home? Finding the ideal match – student and college – is more challenging today than ever with the Internet, Google searches and a software program called Naviance. But counselors are never going to be replaced by just online college searches, because you really have to get to the core of a student, to the point where the student will say, ‘I was accepted to this college. Do you think this is a good match for me?’ I try to have the students reach for their dreams, reach for the stars, but also be realistic.
Cardinal Gibbons, Fort Lauderdale
We tell students, ‘We’re the good guys. We’re here to totally be a support system and a resource for you.’ We build a relationship with students over a four-year period, so that when it comes time to advise them about colleges or write a letter of recommendation, we have a personal relationship that we can reference and use to shape our advice. Oftentimes they’ll come in with their own ideas about schools. We never discourage students from having their dream school on their list. We just encourage them to be on the safe side: ‘We need to have a range of colleges where you can be equally as happy, equally as successful. There’s not just one school out of 2,000 four-year colleges that would be a great fit. Let’s look at a lot of schools whose academic profiles match well with yours. Let’s include a few where you would be the standout, where you might be the scholarship recipient because your academic profile actually exceeds theirs.’ You want every student to experience that feeling of anticipation and success, that their future is everything they want it to be. We see dreams come true every year.
MARISA ZALDIVAR, FORT LAUDERDALE
I had my first conversation with Mrs. Blyth in eighth grade. We had taken our entrance exams for Cardinal Gibbons, and the top 1 percent got to meet with the director of guidance, Mrs. Blyth. We say ‘hi’ and then the first thing she says is, ‘What would you like to do with your life and where would you like to do it?’ Ever since that day she has worked with me to help figure out what I want to do – international business with a concentration in international studies. Applying to colleges is like a game. There’s a lot of strategy that goes into it, and it’s all about knowing the game before you go and play it. If you want to start looking into college in third grade, go for it. The more knowledgeable you are about what’s being offered, the better you’ll be able to make a decision, and you won’t freak out about the application process. I know I would love to go to all the colleges I’ve lined up. It’s not the college you go to, necessarily, but what you do when you’re there.
North Broward Preparatory School, Coconut Creek
I was only 16 when I graduated from high school in the mid-1970s, so I didn’t go away to school. I went to Brooklyn College. I didn’t have to fill out a lot of applications and took only one SAT test. Some kids today apply to 15 or 20 schools, though at North Broward our kids probably average eight to 10 schools. It is a very stressful process, and the colleges make it stressful. Some parents look at the application and admissions process as the same as the one they went through. We as counselors bridge the gap between the generations by educating students and their parents about how dramatically and quickly the world of college has changed. The kids who graduated from college in 2014 and did very well, today they may not be able to get into the college they just graduated from. The more educated you are about the process, the more educated consumers you become, and more wisely you can choose a school.
CAROLINA TORRENS, BOCA RATON
I started meeting with Mrs. Teplitz in the middle of my junior year. We strategized from the beginning about everything: how I would study for my SATs, what schools I would apply to – I’ve applied to eight – and finding my voice for my essays. My parents were extremely supportive of me in making those decisions and just wanted me to keep them informed about what was going on. They felt I was responsible enough to take care of whatever it was I needed to take care of. As long as I kept them in the loop, they trusted me to take the reins on the process. What I found, from seeing the experience of other kids, is it’s important that parents don’t take over or try and push their kids to apply to a certain school or take a certain major. In reality, that’s less beneficial when having to make such an important decision. This is the next four years of our lives, and it can be frustrating if parents try to drive that decision and have their kids do what the parents want instead of the student who is applying to schools.
University School of Nova Southeastern University
SAMMY GOLDFARB, GOLDEN BEACH
Randi and I started making my college list the beginning of junior year. I could tell it was a very individualized list, because I spoke with other students and we all had different schools we were interested in. I’ve applied to the University of Miami, Florida and Michigan, but if I don’t get in early decision to Johns Hopkins I’ll do more applications. I’ve been around Johns Hopkins for a very long time. My mom and uncle went there. I’ve visited maybe 10 times and know the school really well and feel comfortable there. I want to go into business, so I’ll probably major in economics and then go to business school. My biggest issue was a rumor that Johns Hopkins was a place where people didn’t have fun. I want to go to an academic school, but I also want to have fun at college. So it was only after I was able to stay overnight and spend some time with the kids that I realized Johns Hopkins is not only a good school but they also have fun there. That’s what sold me. The best advice Randi gave me was to visit schools and to ask students about their experiences. (Editor’s note: At the time City & Shore went to press, Sammy Goldfarb was expecting a notice of acceptance or denial from his dream school, Johns Hopkins University.)
For a student to stand out in the admissions review process, it is important that he is not perceived as the white dot on the white wall. College admission committees seek students who have demonstrated genuine passion in a particular area and have achieved recognition on a state or national level, such as athletics, arts, debate, community service, science research and so forth. They can easily tell if an applicant is ‘packaged.’ University School students have ample opportunities to explore their passions on the Nova Southeastern University campus. They can take college courses, do capstone programs within the university and do internships with college professors. That enhances their application. When the University of Pennsylvania or Duke is getting 30,000 applicants, sometimes what differentiates one student from another can be miniscule. Colleges read things holistically. You can’t just be a smart kid. That alone is not going to get you into the best schools anymore.