Ask any KO student, parent, or faculty member – ask anyone with connections to high schoolers, really – and they will tell you in no uncertain terms of their conviction that the whole college admissions process is a rather miserable beast. There’s a couple of common complaints one hears: that the process has grown so cutthroat in the past 40 or so years, that admission decisions can feel random, and that the price of college has grown exponentially and has long been outpacing the growth in the utility of an undergraduate degree.
It can be difficult for college-bound students and their families to navigate this process with a level head and maintain their sanity, and it is the rather thankless job of creating an atmosphere for a more deliberate approach to the college process amidst all the noise which KO’s College Counseling office is tasked with performing. Throughout each student’s time at KO, College Counseling works to provide a counternarrative to the compelling pulls of prestige and disillusionment, creating space for students to allow their interests, strengths, goals, and inherent worth to drive their process.
Students are first directly exposed to College Counseling through the assignment of a college counselor as a sophomore. The three college counselors (with the help of Coordinator Sabrina Puzinski) work one-on-one with each of their 35 or so students throughout their high school education, getting to know each student personally so as to best provide the individualized support they need.
As sophomores, most students will not utilize College Counseling all that much. To the counselors, that is the point of providing earlier access: allowing students and families to feel supported early rather than thrown into the process abruptly later on. “The earlier touch point and access to us was something that was necessary, I think, for a long time in our field,” Director of College Counseling Jami Silver said. “We see this as an opportunity to calm students down earlier, to allow them to really understand and focus on what matters.”
The process kicks into high gear starting in students’ first semester of a junior year, when they and their families attend an assembly hosted by College Counseling, introducing them to the college process and College Counseling as a whole. From there, students participate in a once-a-week small-group VQV class with their college advisor throughout the first semester. Different parts of the college process are covered in each session, from how to conduct research and standardized testing to financial aid considerations, giving each student insight into the landscape of the college process and tools to help in their individual journeys.
Perhaps the most common criticism of higher education and the process to pursue it is the many inequities and structural disadvantages inherent in the process. College Counseling takes great strides to acknowledge these realities and engage students in thinking about them through VQV and throughout the college process. All three counselors have previous experience working at underprivileged high schools at counselors, and Ms. Silver also worked as a director of diversity efforts in the admission department at Wesleyan University.
One other important equity consideration that the College Counseling takes care to consider in their approach is the broad differences in financial situations represented in both the KO community and among college-bound students writ large. Given KO’s status as a private day school, its families are wealthier than average: just over half of all families qualify for need-based aid to assist with the school’s $43,600 sticker price.
In approaching the college process, many KO families will not have to consider the financial burden of their choices, but College Counseling still takes care to include the entire student body in education about financial aid in addition to individualized counseling. “We talk about financial aid in every VQV,” Ms. Silver said, “because even though 50% of our students may not need financial aid, that doesn’t mean every student shouldn’t know about it.”
In addition to VQV, a student’s college counselor meets with their student at least a few times in a year and is available for individualized counseling at the student’s leisure. Plus, the office coordinates transcripts and teacher letters of recommendation, and writes every KO student’s counselor letter. College counselors also keep in contact with their students’ advisors and teachers to ensure their overall success and well-being and help support them from a college perspective when they encounter academic adversity or are simply having a tough time.
College Counseling knows that the general student perception of their office is a transactional one – that many students default to seeing them as simply another hurdle to clear or a service that collects their letters of recommendation and transcripts, but they work hard to get students to engage further with them for their own benefit, allowing students to get a better sense of their own wants and needs in the college process and help understand the specifics of unique programs they may be pursuing. Their job is “both kind of shepherding [students],” Ms. Silver said, “if you will, into the college process, and whatever they would like to be doing after high school, but also how to best prepare while they’re in high school, to think about those questions of what they want to do after.”
Junior Faith Potter has been very satisfied with College Counseling, as her advisor has been particularly helpful with pursuing her desired major of a BFA in Musical Theatre, which comes with its own unique challenges. “I feel like she’s been really kind of like accounting towards that and makes this whole college thing seem a lot less scary as a junior, which I really appreciate,” Faith said.
Emphasizing students and their success, whatever that looks like, is College Counseling’s core goal, and it is the pursuit of that goal that has led to some of the deliberate changes enacted in the past few years by the office. For instance, the recent name change away from College Advising is intended to elevate students and emphasize that the office is looking to help them achieve their dreams rather than “advise” them down a preset or socially expected path. Additionally, the choice to not publish students’ names and intended colleges in the school paper at the end of the year gives students the power to control their college narrative and de-emphasize the importance of the names of each institution.
The college application process is perceived as a daunting, unfair, imperceptible system, and there is undeniably truth to those perceptions. What College Counseling wisely seeks to remind students of, however, is that it is a process made by flawed humans for flawed humans
At the end of the day, college advisors have a thankless job working within an application process perceived not falsely as unfair, inequitable, imperfect. College counselors at KO do their best to acknowledge those failings and emphasize that success is not defined by the prestige of a school but by the quality of an education, whatever that may mean for each student.