Confidence for the College Process

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From the Winter 2011-12 Caller

By Nancy Donehower

In helping students develop confidence, college counselors build on something our faculty members do every day, in every division: teach resilience. At Catlin Gabel, we often say “the student is the unit of consideration,” and this is taken seriously— students are taken seriously—by the faculty. We don’t expect them to be perfect, but we have confidence in them, and demonstrate that every day.
The college application process differs from the classroom, though, in that it isn’t something you do repeatedly. Because it is a unique experience, that can amplify anxiety at each stage of the process. It should help to know, however, that although the college process seems like something really different and scary for students, the skills it calls for are the same skills students have developed in a variety of contexts throughout their years here.
As the New York Times and other print and web publications seem to remind us almost weekly, the college admissions process is hyper-competitive these days. At many colleges and universities, the volume of applications has been extremely volatile over the last few years, leading to less predictability about the process and its outcomes—on the college side and on the applicant side. In general, colleges have not increased the size of their entering classes over the past few years, so as applicant numbers have increased, the percentage of students admitted has decreased. Consider, for example, Pitzer College in Southern California. A dozen years ago, it admitted approximately 65% of applicants, while in 2012, it offered admission to only 24%. It’s difficult for students involved in the process to anticipate all the twists and turns it may take, but the process can teach valuable lessons about resilience, about having faith and trust in yourself, and about developing confidence in your ability to work with whatever life throws your way.
Throughout their years at Catlin Gabel, students work to acquire the tools that will enable them to be successful adults. They ask questions and they learn how to do research, evaluate various types of evidence, and appreciate and respond to the opposing point of view. They become adept problem solvers who work well in teams and aren’t afraid to try new approaches and have fun with ideas. Our students are not “taught at,” but are treated as responsible collaborators in the learning process. This clearly conveys trust that they are up to the task, and also helps students to develop a strong sense of agency about their own learning.
Most importantly, though, students are given many opportunities to reflect on their learning, which is a key to developing self-awareness. If you know that it’s just part of the plan to stop periodically, ask yourself what went well, what didn’t go so well, and how to be more effective in the future, it builds skills to cope with a project that doesn’t achieve the desired result, and helps develop the confidence to try a different approach next time. In the Upper School, paper conferences that students have with teachers are just one among many ways this approach is implemented. The Agent of Change projects, and co-curricular activities such as Mock Trial and outdoor education program, offer opportunities for experiential learning and subsequent reflection that help students develop confidence in themselves and their abilities across a variety of situations.
Our college counseling process builds on this foundation. We start by asking students to reflect on themselves and what is important to them, and encourage them to find and follow their own paths through the college admissions maze. We encourage students to take advantage of this socially sanctioned time to pause, reflect on where they’ve been and where they are going—to really let their experience speak—and then use that inner voice as a guide for the college process ahead. We also work to inform parents about how a progressive education serves their student, how their students will have several good-fit choices for college, and how the student is at the center throughout the college counseling process.
We offer information, support, and guidance all along the way. We host a variety of programs in which admissions and financial aid directors work directly with our students and parents, providing the most up-to-date information possible and giving students a clear sense of the admissions process. We then work with each student individually, helping develop a list of prospective colleges that has the right balance of optimism and realism. Our students apply to many of the most selective colleges and universities in the country and abroad, but with admission rates under 10% at many of these schools, everyone must have other options. We work intensively with students as they write their applications, helping each one make a strong presentation. We trust them to think carefully about themselves, to evaluate the many, many types of information and opinions that we consider with them as they research schools, and to make thoughtful decisions about which colleges to apply to, and which one, ultimately, to attend. At the end, whether the letters from colleges contain offers of admission or not, we find that our students handle the outcomes well.
To hear our students talk about this process and the paths they follow is inspiring. At a “Life After Catlin Gabel” program in May 2011, several alumni discussed their experiences here, in college, and in the working world. It’s clear that the skills and resilience they developed in classes and co-curricular activities here provided a great foundation for future endeavors.
We’re never going to put the “stress genie” that accompanies the college admissions process back in the bottle. Demographics, the sensationalization of the process by the media, and ongoing recruitment wars among colleges guarantee that this rite of passage for teenagers will remain challenging. But as the lives of our alumni amply illustrate, Catlin Gabel students develop the skills and perspective to cope with those challenges— and go on to create happy and successful lives, no matter what paths they take.
Nancy Donehower has worked in the college admissions field for almost 30 years. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, she holds a PhD in psychology from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. She began her college admissions career at Sarah Lawrence College, then served as senior associate director of admissions at Duke University. Following that, she became dean of admissions at Reed College. Before joining Catlin Gabel in 2008, she was director of college counseling at the Head-Royce School in Oakland, California. Her articles and commentaries about college admissions have appeared in the Oregonian, the Christian Science Monitor, the New York Times, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, and on public radio.