This article originally appeared in the winter 2016 Harker Magazine.
By Casey Near ’06
Know yourself, know the colleges, know the process. That three-pronged approach has been the foundation of Harker’s college counseling process since the department formed nearly 15 years ago when the upper school was opened. At the department’s inception, Harker hired counselors with solid college admissions experience and, as the student body expanded during the first four years, filled out a team of counselors with a range of university counseling backgrounds.
The college counseling office is now run by Nicole Burrell, who started with the office when the upper school opened. During the past 15 years, the department has successfully guided students into higher education around the world, from the University of California system to universities in the United Kingdom and Asia.
Counselors help with the minutia that occupies students as they fill out forms and scrutinize university Curricula, but ultimately the counseling job is about teaching a process that will help students make good decisions – and that process, at its best, is rooted in a student’s self-reflection.
Burrell and her team begin working with students in their junior year, a full calendar year before college application deadlines. Their efforts aim to ensure that, in the yearlong process, students will reflect deeply on what they want in a university education. “This is not something you just check off the list,” cautioned Burrell.
When students walk through their doors, the counselors urge them to not let high school and the college application process just happen to them. At this time, in particular, students must take ownership of their education, Burrell noted. Ideally, the student drives the learning process, while the parents serve as the guardrail, explained Martin Walsh, one of the four counselors on the team.
Know the Colleges As senior year approaches, counselors guide students to finalize their lists of colleges and universities where they feel they may thrive. Andrew Quinn, another counselor, said this is his favorite part of the process – introducing students to “possibilities beyond the schools they’ve heard of that could be a good fit.” Burrell said the students’ visions become reality as they expand their lists and, due to the reflection that takes place in the process, the students begin to develop their unique voices, which they share in their applications.
Know the Process
Starting in their junior year, students attend a weekly college counseling class, an original and comprehensive cornerstone of Harker’s college counseling program. Seniors then have regular meetings with their counselor, and the counselors have drop-in hours for all seniors. In addition, throughout the fall, college representatives come to campus to speak to students to help them make decisions. This year, nearly 75 colleges visited Harker, giving students a chance to better understand the broad range of college options available to them.
“This [counseling process] is the stuff that’s on the dream list of 99 percent of the high school college counselors I talk with,” said Walsh. With a caseload of fewer than 50 students per counselor, Harker’s ratio is well below most private schools; coupled with the availability of counselors, a college counseling class built into seniors’ schedules, and the carefully developed process, the program is built for student success. The Harker college counseling program is “the gold standard,” said Lauren Collins, a former Harker college counselor who has worked in college admissions and at many independent schools. “The counselors take time to analyze both local and national historical data, meet with families with great care and patience, and maintain important relationships with college admission colleagues – all while keeping the individual student at the front of this layered, dynamic and complicated process,” Collins added.
The counselors hope students will walk into their offices knowing this is a more organic process than they may have thought when they were freshmen – that it’s more about introspection than playing a perceived admission game. Padding accomplishments and joining clubs won’t guarantee an attractive application. Because each student’s goals are unique, the process will look different for each one, and counselors hope students will learn to follow their deepest interests, digging into what they really want and how they learn best.
“We’re college counselors, but we really are guides,” said Kevin Lum Lung, a 12-year veteran of the counseling office. “The expectation of a guide is that they’re going to help you, but not do the work for you.” A counselor’s role is to show students all the roads ahead, but students need to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them. Parents also must stay engaged in the process through college parent nights or by attending a counseling meeting with their child to check in.
The process can become stressful when students don’t assume prime ownership of the process, Burrell said. A huge part of senior year is managing the calendar and showing up to college counseling sessions, she added. For the most successful students, the process includes a heavy dose of self-reflection. “Problems arise when you have a college list that makes no sense – too many [schools], or too many ‘reach’ schools,” said Martin, referring to schools that deny a vast majority of their applicants.
Many students and families can rely too heavily on various rankings, so the counseling team encourages students to supplement their research with big questions to encourage reflection about how and in what kinds of communities they learn best, he noted.
With more than 2,000 colleges and universities in this country, what precisely does success look like to Harker’s college counseling department? For Lum Lung, it all comes back to helping students manage the process. “If a student goes through the process with less anxiety than they would have without my help,” that’s success, he said. Plus, in an ideal world, students will learn something about themselves during the journey, added Walsh.
Burrell agreed, noting she hopes students can look back on the final outcome knowing they did everything in their power to choose well, and they don’t look back with any regrets. Sarah Payne ’09 had a particularly fulfilling experience in the college application process. She said that once she realized that the competitive admission process didn’t reflect on her value as a person, she “was able to focus on the qualities of a university that matched my expectations for a positive college experience.”
And when it came time for her younger brother Dwight ’12 to approach the college process, she counseled him “to open his horizons outside of [the] traditional lists during his college application process.” Sarah ended up at the University of Southern California, while her brother chose University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, choices they likely wouldn’t have made without the nudging and reflection encouraged by the counseling department.
Each spring, Lum Lung reminds seniors that they are not defined by their admissions decisions. As Sarah Payne wisely reflected, “Your acceptance letters are not your net worth.” And, when counselors finally send students off to college, Lum Lung said, their best moments occur when they hear how enthusiastic and happy their students are in their new college homes – the truest sign of a job well done.
Following graduation from Scripps College, Casey Near ’06 was an admissions counselor at Mills College and a director at Collegewise, which provides one-on-one counseling for high school students.