My college admissions story starts in 1992. I am a junior sitting in the high school auditorium with 400 fellow students. Six guidance counselors take turns telling us what we need to do to apply to college. We are given handouts so we don’t have to write anything down. I take notes anyway.
Let me explain. I'm a good kid. I get good grades in honors and AP classes. I always do my homework. I play three varsity sports. I lifeguard on the weekends. I am polite to my teachers. I listen to my parents. I drive carefully.
You know that kid. The one with the untapped potential.
I follow the college admissions checklist that is included with the handouts. I make an appointment with my guidance counselor who I have never met before. Mr. Butler talks to me for a few minutes. He hands me a list of colleges. He suggests I apply to a few Ivy League schools. I leave the guidance office proudly carrying a bright red folder…the Cornell University application! Mr. Butler thinks it’s worth a shot. (I have no idea whether Cornell is a good fit for me or how to figure that out. I am just excited that Mr. Butler thinks I am worthy of that folder.)
I sign up for the SAT. Twice. I insist that my parents hire SAT tutors for me because my PSAT scores were not what you would expect from a student with my GPA. I love my math tutor and do hit that all important 700 mark. My verbal tutor makes me cry, so I quit. I do not get a 700 on verbal.
My parents visited state schools with my older brother. I tell them my grades are better than Jeff’s and insist they take me to some private schools. I visit a few colleges with friends too. Sometimes we take the admissions tour but usually we just drive around the campus and hang out.
My parents worry about how they will pay for two kids in college. They explain that I will have to take out loans if I don’t go to a state school. I get the impression that student debt is always bad. I lower my aspirations. My dad and I meet with Mr. Butler before school one day. They talk about money, not me.
As a senior, I take college accounting to see if I want to major in accounting (I am good at math and my parents suggest this class as a smart, practical choice) but I skip out on AP Literature. I have no idea that competitive colleges will be looking for the most challenging curriculum my high school offers.
Since my major is undecided, I apply to eight large schools with many majors to choose from. I don’t visit or apply to smaller schools. I handwrite my applications because the typewriter at home does not work well. (It's okay because my handwriting is very neat.) My best friend helps me edit my essay. My mom reads it, adds a comma, and declares it good. Because I am a little shy, my primary criteria for selecting teachers to ask for recommendations is friendliness. I attend one alumni interview, in jeans, without practicing for it.
Remember the big envelope? The one that meant you got in? I get six of them. Two private schools give me scholarships. But, not enough to avoid those dreaded loans. One public college (the one my brother attends) offers me a free ride. I turn it down. If I’m going to a state school, it’s going to be the best one in the state. I throw out the red folder. No, that’s not right. I recycle it because…I am a good kid.
My college admissions experience is typical. Everyone around me was well intentioned. My parents wanted me to succeed and be happy, but didn’t know how to guide me to a college that suited my academic and social needs and would nurture that untapped potential. My guidance counselor was welcoming, but had a large caseload. I worked incredibly hard in high school so I could “go to a good college and get a good job” but most of my knowledge about colleges and the admissions process came from the other kids at the lunch table. In the fall of 1993, I found myself at a college that was selected based on a series of disconnected and essentially random decisions.
If I had an expert, a specialist...a SPY advising me, she would have asked me about myself. She would have helped me articulate my interests and dreams so she could put colleges on my list that were right for me. My spy would have taught me that student debt can be seen as an investment in my education. If I was going to attend a state school, she would have encouraged me to seek out honors programs. My spy would have encouraged me to visit small liberal arts colleges where professors invite you to their homes for dinner and discussion. I might have taken advantage of early decision admissions. The importance of rigor in my senior year curriculum would have landed me in AP Literature. With my spy, I would have planned summer extracurricular activities so that I could explore new interests or delve deeper into ones I was already pursuing. My spy would have assisted me to think critically about essay topics and help me polish the final draft. I would have done mock interviews with her. My applications would have been typed. I don’t even want to talk about the jeans.
Maybe I still would have chosen New York’s top public university, but the more colleges I visit as a college consultant, the more I doubt it.
My college admissions story is why I founded The College Spy – to fill the gaps in knowledge, expertise and time so that students apply to the right schools for them and get in.