College Q&A

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As parents, anticipating how our children’s futures unfold is nearly irresistible. Looking ahead to college is a natural consideration for people who value education. Given the expectations about college admission, I invited college counselors Kate Grant and Nancy Donehower to answer questions that we hope will allay whatever concerns you may have so you and your children can concentrate on taking advantage of the enormous learning opportunities right here, right now.

— Lark Palma, head of school

When should students (and families) start thinking about college?

NANCY: You can always be thinking about your education. It’s appropriate in 9th grade to think about the courses you’re taking and make sure the plan you have for study in the Upper School works for you. Those kinds of discussions should go on all the time, independent of the college process.

KATE: We want students to start thinking about college sometime during their junior year. Many start earlier and that’s okay. Some start later and that’s okay, too. Nancy and I work with students in a concerted way in the junior year.

NANCY: As for the nuts and bolts, we give the PSATs in October of sophomore and junior years, so we gently ease students and parents into the college admission process. However, that is not our reason for giving the tests. We offer PSATs twice so our students, who don’t take many multiple-choice tests, gain exposure to this type of testing. The more familiarity they have with the test format, the less anxious they will feel taking the test. But the PSATs have no bearing on the college application process.

Can you outline what juniors do in preparation for choosing and applying to college?

KATE: In the fall of junior year we meet with juniors and their parents to review the process. Then we take the juniors on a retreat in January to begin the self-assessment work that is the bedrock of our college counseling program. During the retreat, the students write free-flow pieces about what they like, what adjectives describe them, what their strengths are, and who has influenced them. We ask juniors to think about their long-term goals and we ask how they see themselves within the Catlin Gabel community. Not only do the self-assessments give us a way to get to know the students better, it also gets each student thinking about what’s important to him or her. Then we explore what kind of learning environment they think is best for them.

Why is all this self-assessment so important?

KATE: The self-assessment is a great exercise that prepares students for interviewing with admission officers and filling out applications. Parents write profiles of their children that provide us with even more information about our students and family expectations.

NANCY: We live in a culture that encourages people to do their shopping before they know what they want. Our position with regard to college counseling is the opposite of that. You can’t find a college that will work for you if you don’t reflect on what kind of person you are, what your learning style is, and what kind of learning environment you need.

Okay, back to the process. What happens next?

KATE: Beginning in the spring, juniors meet weekly with college counselors in small groups, called pods, and in individual meetings. The pods and individual meetings resume in the fall of senior year and continue until winter break. Throughout the fall of senior year, students take SATs, refine their college choices, write essays, ask teachers for letters of recommendations, and submit applications. We help students stay organized, meet deadlines, and complete application materials on time. College applications are generally due at the end of December unless students are applying for early admission or early action (which is a topic for another interview). Most college decisions are announced in April.

What kinds of colleges do Catlin Gabel students attend?

KATE: All kinds and all over the country. Most Catlin Gabel students are attracted to small liberal arts colleges. But we also send kids to big Ivy League universities, state schools, and military academies. There can seem to be a disconnect when students who have been successful in Catlin Gabel’s small, individualized environment want to go to a huge university. But it works out because when they do go to large universities our graduates are so accustomed to personalized education they don’t hesitate to meet with their professors. They ask questions in class no matter how intimidating the large lecture hall might seem.

NANCY: UC Berkeley, for example, is a great school with a huge bureaucracy, but kids from environments that are small like ours can navigate those environments really well. They don’t expect to be slowed by bureaucracy, so they step right in and ask for what they need. They are terrific self-advocates. This is so striking to me. Catlin Gabel kids really understand that they are responsible for their own learning. This school is a great launching pad for any kind of college setting.

How do students decide which colleges to apply to?

KATE: We like students to go home at the end of their junior year with a long list of colleges to explore on the Internet, through visits, or by talking to friends. Things are really fluid with the lists at this point. Juniors should be looking at a range of schools because it is hard to predict how they are going to feel in April of their senior year when they choose colleges. Kids need options. Sometimes students think it’s odd when they have, say, several small schools and one really big school on their list. But that makes sense for a student who is interested in a particular field of study. Looking at small Kenyon College and big NYU is not a contradiction if you’re interested in studying English or theater.

Are visits to colleges helpful?

KATE: Yes, because visits help kids see what they might like or not like, whether they want big or small, urban or rural. But the specific college is not as important as visiting different kinds of environments. That could be done close to home by visiting UO, OSU, Lewis & Clark, Reed, University of Portland, and Portland State.

How do colleges select kids for admission?

NANCY: (Nancy is the former dean of admissions at Reed College.) It’s a very complicated process, and colleges spend much more time on it than students and parents think. There’s a mechanism for assessing the student’s background. It’s like looking through a kaleidoscope. The admission office looks at the opportunities a student has been afforded in high school and what advantage he or she has taken of those opportunities. The most important thing is what students have done within their high school academic program. The colleges look at the school profile and see how challenging the high school curriculum is. Happily, every student at Catlin Gabel has a rigorous program. These kids all have great opportunities.

In small environments like this, when there’s a prominent group of high-achieving kids, the tendency is for average students to think, well, I’m not so-and-so who is a superstar student, therefore I’m not going to get into a good college. That’s just not true. For us the fun of the process is working with students who have lots of different interests.These days, the selective and highly selective colleges are probably looking at candidate pools where 90 percent of the applicants could do the work. That’s when they start looking at less quantifiable factors. What are the personal qualities of the applicant? What is this student like in the classroom? That’s where the teacher recommendations come in.

The intangible, personal qualities of students are also important to colleges. The college essays tell the admission office a lot. Kids think the colleges don’t really read the applications and essays, but those are the pieces that will sink a student if they don’t answer the questions on the form or they try for humor that falls flat in the essay. When I worked in the Duke admission office we got an essay from a kid who wrote about turning into a werewolf at night, stalking the countryside and wreaking havoc. We knew he was trying to be funny, but we couldn’t help wondering who we would room this kid with.

Every piece of the application process is important. That’s worth remembering, but not worth making you crazy. For example, a year or so ago, the Wall Street Journal ran an article about a kid who played the tuba getting into Penn and everyone signed their kids up for tuba lessons. People think that little details like this can tip the decision, but they really don’t – at least not to the degree people assume they do.

KATE: When people our age applied to colleges, the colleges said they were looking for well-rounded students. Now they say they are looking for well-rounded classes. They’re putting together a well-balanced class. Part of that might be a tuba player. And it might be kids who are very smart in one area and kids who are very smart in another area. The admission office knows what they’re looking for. That can change year to year. If a college is trying to change its image, the admission office might be looking for something different than in previous years.

NANCY: Generally speaking, the admissions decisions in any given year are the result of three factors: the volume of applicants, the qualifications those applicants possess, and the institutional priorities of a particular college that year. How the college weighs those factors is what you don’t see when you are a student or parent. That can make decisions frustrating and hard to understand

KATE: It’s like pick-up sticks. On the rare occasions when we see a decision that really doesn’t make sense, we call the college and say we don’t get it. But generally it’s not something they can explain. Often students think their lives are over if they don’t get into a certain college, but then they are happy where they end up. That’s the point to remember.

NANCY: It’s really important to change the metric of success in the admissions process. It’s not about how many kids get into Stanford or Harvard. What we need to ask is: do Catlin Gabel students have college options? Are they making wise choices, and are they succeeding at the colleges where they enroll? We can answer those questions with a definite yes – and those are the most important markers of success.

Do the most selective colleges provide the best education?

KATE: The most selective colleges do not necessarily provide the best education. The best education is a match between student interests and learning style, and the environment the college has to offer. Many well-known colleges don’t give the attention to undergraduates that less famous smaller schools do. When the graduates of those smaller colleges go to graduate schools they might be more prepared than graduates of bigger schools.

How reliable or meaningful are college rankings such as those published in US News and World Report?

NANCY: The college rankings are not reliable or meaningful. A lot of colleges agree with that and have tried to take themselves out of the rankings. It’s hard to take yourself out because the information is publicly available.

KATE: The rankings are based on who is admitted and their test scores, the percentage of applicants who are admitted, endowment, alumni giving . . . Each year they change the rubric so the same schools are not in the top five year after year. But what’s really most important, and how we want Catlin Gabel to be judged, is not who gets in, but what is the value added of the education. That’s much harder to assess.

How well do colleges know Catlin Gabel?

KATE: Of all the schools in Portland, we probably have the largest number of college representatives visiting our campus. They know us, they know our kids, and they work to recruit our students. They know we don’t inflate grades. They know how well educated our students are because our graduates perform at a high level and are active in their college communities.

NANCY: We do a good job of meeting people at conferences and inviting them to come to Catlin Gabel. We spend time with people who haven’t visited before and we educate them about Catlin Gabel.

Do the Upper School’s uninflated grading standards hinder our students’ with respect to college acceptance?

KATE: Unequivocally no. Just look at the impressive list of where our students go to college. If you compare the high school GPAs of students at selective private colleges to the GPAs of Catlin Gabel graduates at those same colleges you may see that the alumni from Catlin Gabel have lower GPAs. That is because the colleges know from the high school profiles we send with applications that we don’t hand out 4.0s like candy the way some schools do. We are in good company. Prep schools like Andover, Lakeside, Groton, Exeter, and Milton have grading standards similar to ours.

What advice do you have for anxious students and parents?

NANCY: Breathe! Know that you have very competent college counselors. We have worked with a lot of students and parents over the last 25-plus years. We will do our best to make it a process that everyone feels good about in the end. Allow the students to take the lead. This is their show. Let them star in it.

KATE: And realize that the implicit message when you are overly involved as a parent or hire an outside consultant is that you don’t trust your child to do this on his or her own. We want our students to know that they are perfectly capable of making plans for their lives after Catlin Gabel and we will do everything we can to support them.

This interview was first published in the All-School News when Kate Grant was a college counselor. She has since become the Upper School counselor. Nancy Donehower continues in her role as college counselor.