College Counseling from the Inside Out

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From the Fall 2009 Caller

By Nancy Donehower

One of the bedrock truths of the college admissions process is counter-intuitive, and a bit surprising: The successful college search and application process should focus on the individual student and not on any one college, or group of colleges.
These days, we live in a culture that encourages us to do our shopping before we know what we want, and this is especially true of the college search process. So many students work from the outside in: bombarded with college information in every medium, they try to make sense of their options by picking up a college guide or set of rankings before they take the time to assess themselves and their goals. The result is that the college search process becomes focused on a loose idea of finding a “good college” as opposed to finding the colleges that are good for that particular individual.
In Catlin Gabel’s college counseling office, Kate Grant and I work instead from the inside out to help students understand that there is no one “best” college, only a set of colleges that will be the best matches for them. With this “inside-out” approach, we encourage students to understand themselves and what they’re seeking before they start to research and compare different colleges. We hope that students see this process as a learning experience during which they have the opportunity for self-reflection and growth of awareness about their individual skills, strengths, and the qualities they prefer in an educational environment. This approach fits well with Catlin Gabel’s educational philosophy, and makes the college application process a natural extension of the individualized education that students have become accustomed to here.
At its core, the college search and application process is about getting to know yourself, working effectively and discerningly with large amounts of information, and learning how to make choices that are right for you. So our juniors begin the process with a retreat that combines various group and individual exercises to encourage self-reflection. This past year, we used a version of the “Fifteen Random Things About Me” task (popularized on Facebook) and a comprehensive written questionnaire to start things off. The discussions and writings that emerged from the retreat were wonderful—helpful to us as we get to know each student, and helpful for the students as a source of good material for those inevitable college essays. We followed up the retreat with small-group college counseling sessions and individual meetings with students through the spring. This way, we could get to know the class as a whole, as well as all the interesting, energetic and distinctive individuals in it.
Based on our knowledge of each student, we’re able to suggest colleges for them to consider, work through the pros and cons of various choices, and help them assemble a final list of colleges to apply to that has the right balance of optimism and realism. Both the small group meetings and our individual student meetings will continue through the fall of the senior year, so that we are always in touch with each student’s progress and are ready to offer assistance each step of the way.
Once each student has a clear idea of what he or she is looking for, the search process becomes more manageable. Students develop individual “yardsticks” with which to compare colleges, and are better able to see how each school they consider does or doesn’t meet the criteria most important to them. This isn’t to say that the decision process is entirely logical (it wouldn’t be half as interesting if it were!), but that students who have taken the time to really think about their preferences have an easier time sorting through the options.
Throughout this process, we rely on each student to make use of the resources and individual attention we offer. We count on each student to take responsibility for himself or herself and for the progression and outcomes of the college search process. We offer help, advice, and skilled advocacy all along the way—as we tell each student, “We’ve got your back”—but a student must engage with us and put time and effort into the process if all is to go well.
As the application process moves into high gear, our “inside-out” approach to college counseling helps each student present a thorough, thoughtful, and engaging written self-portrait on the application materials. The self-reflection exercises and writing that students do as part of the college counseling program dovetail nicely with the self-reflection that occurs when students write the “Who Am I?” essay for the junior English class. By the time our students sit down to write their application essays, each one has a head start on thinking in depth about his or her personal qualities, philosophy, and talents. Each one has already had an opportunity to write a substantial personal essay. This preparation is a significant asset to our students, and as a result, they are generally quite comfortable with the type of thinking and writing required for a college application essay. As you might expect, given the range of interests and talents within any given group of Catlin Gabel seniors, the application essays themselves cover a variety of topics. We enjoy working with each student to craft the essays so that the final application well represents each student’s unique perspective, strengths, and voice.
The positive feedback we receive from college admission officers affirms that our students do a terrific job with their applications. Admissions officers frequently tell us how much they enjoy reading essays from Catlin Gabel students, and we also receive thanks and praise for the wonderful letters of recommendation that accompany each application. (As a general rule, each application is accompanied by one letter of recommendation from a college counselor, and two letters of recommendation from teachers.) These letters further personalize the application, and give admission officers a vivid sense of each applicant. The outcomes of our “inside-out” approach to college counseling are impressive. The variety of colleges our students apply to is a testament to their ability to think for themselves, and to find those colleges that really match the individual criteria each student has determined to be most important. It’s not easy to swim against the tide, and at a time when so much media attention is mistakenly given to rankings, ratings, and simplistic measures of assessing colleges, our students are to be commended for looking beyond these shorthand metrics as they investigate, compare, and ultimately choose the group of colleges to which they will apply.
At the end of each college application cycle, we ask three questions to determine the success of our college counseling program: Do our seniors have options? Are they making good choices? Are they happy and successful at the colleges they choose to attend? The answer to all of these questions is a definite “yes,” and we are proud of the thought, care, and independent judgment our students demonstrate as they navigate the road to college.
Nancy Donehower, co-director of college counseling, came to Catlin Gabel in 2008 after many years of experience in admission in both colleges and independent schools and as a consultant.