Monday marked the first major college application deadline of the school year. Head of School Jay Rainey posed several questions to our “Fantastic Four” MICDS college counselors this week: Matt Essman, Scott Herrmann-Keeling, Earl Macam, and Karen Wildman. Their responses were as follows.
What should students think about as they anticipate applying to colleges?
MR. ESSMAN: This should be a fun and exciting process. Students have more control than they think about where they will be continuing their education after MICDS. For many students, this will be one of the first big decisions, if not the first big decision, that they will make in their life. MICDS has prepared them very well for this, and it should be an exciting time.
MR. H-K: Think carefully about what you want out of your college experience. People often say, “It’s the best four years of your life.” And while I certainly hope that’s not true (because then you have several decades of a less exciting life left to live, and that’s no fun), it can and should be an amazing time. The more you have a sense of how you want those four years to go–what you want to accomplish, who you want to be when you’re done–the better chance you have of maximizing that special time.
MS. WILDMAN: Privacy is something students should begin to think about as they start to take standardized tests, if not before. The college search can be a brutal interpersonal business for juniors and seniors. Students who are better able to “keep themselves to themselves” typically have an easier time when the admissions decisions begin to arrive.
What do students often focus on more than they need to when applying to colleges?
MS. WILDMAN: Testing, particularly now that COVID has led to most colleges being test optional. Many months of test prep, particularly at a younger age, rarely result in the gains that students (and parents) hope for.
MR. ESSMAN: The opinions of others. It is important to solicit advice/opinions from people you really trust and who know you best. But I have seen in recent years that students are seeking advice or information from many more sources than they used to, and it has made the process more confusing for them.
DR. MACAM: I believe some students focus too much on thinking about “what the colleges want to hear” rather than being authentic in their voice. Colleges and universities know that their applicants are 17 and 18 year-old high school students, and they don’t anticipate a “polished product.”
What should parents think about as they anticipate applying to colleges?
MR. H-K: Parents should think about allowing their kids to own this process. The more the student takes control, the more buy-in and excitement there will be about the opportunities that lie ahead. And seeing your kids be that excited and eager for the next step in their lives will put your hearts and minds at ease, giving you the confidence to let them go when the time comes.
DR. MACAM: Be a resource for your child. Listen to what they are telling you, because the application process is the student’s story. As parents, we have had our time, and we have owned our own stories. These are our kids’ stories now, and they have the tools to be successful.
MR. ESSMAN: Parents should know that this process often makes students anxious. It comes at a very busy time in their lives, and they place great significance on this big decision that lies ahead. It is important, as parents, to be supportive and encouraging. The college search is an exciting time of exploration and self-discovery for students, and parents play a critical role in helping their children along that road.
What do parents often focus on more than they need to when applying to colleges?
DR. MACAM: Parents sometimes put more emphasis on the “household name” of an institution as opposed to the true fit of an institution for the student. Some parents tend to own the process for their child. It’s best to allow the student to progress through the journey and experience the highs and lows along the way. That’s where we, as parents, have to listen, be supportive, and be encouraging.
MS. WILDMAN: In general the focus of parents is appropriate, and I believe that is at least in part due to the four-year college counseling program at MICDS and the thoughtfulness of the preparation for both students and parents. (Not to brag–I didn’t devise the program!) I believe that most parents trust the college counselors, and I don’t have many super-worried parents at this time of year.
MR. H-K: Outcomes. Yes, we all want kids to be gainfully employed and have long, prosperous careers. It’s usually too early to tell, however, exactly what those careers will look like–especially when there are four or more years of education still to come. Students don’t have a wide enough frame of reference to know most of the possibilities that await them. They are bound to find new interests in college (and beyond), so let that process happen naturally.
What is the most joyful part of your work as a college counselor?
MR. ESSMAN: Nothing puts a smile on my face like the first time I see a student when they come home for that first break from college (usually fall break or Thanksgiving) and visit the office to talk about how much they are loving their experience and what a great fit their school is for them. This happens so often, whether the school was a student’s top choice or lower on their list.
MR. H-K: For me, it’s that moment when a student drops by my office to tell me they got into college. Getting an email is nice, too, especially when the excitement is palpable even in writing. Whether it’s the first school they’ve been admitted to or it’s the school they’ve been aiming towards for years, being able to celebrate that achievement with students is what this job is all about.
DR. MACAM: Getting to know the student and personally working with each student and family throughout the process is a joy. Our approach is intimate and individualized. Our four-year curriculum allows each college counselor the ability to be deeply engaged with each student and their family. It allows us to know their dreams, desires, and priorities.
What is the most challenging part of your work as a college counselor?
MS. WILDMAN: It’s hard when a student isn’t happy with what they have achieved before applying–when they are dissatisfied with themselves regarding grades, test scores, activities, etc. This often colors their entire search and can have a dramatic impact on self-esteem.
DR. MACAM: Managing expectations. There is nothing guaranteed in the world of college admissions, so having a balanced approach to the search and application process is key.
MR. ESSMAN: When students see the decisions they receive from colleges as a reflection of themselves as people. It is a tough college admission landscape out there, and students can do all the right things and it still doesn’t work out the way they had hoped.
Name a college or university whose curriculum, mission, or vision impresses you as a good fit for many MICDS graduates, but to which relatively few MICDS students apply. Why did this particular institution come to mind for you?
MR. H-K: I would advocate for a whole class of schools: small, liberal arts colleges, which often don’t get enough traction among applicants. So many students tell me every year that what they value most about MICDS is the relationships they build with caring teachers who foster their interests and open their eyes to opportunities they didn’t know existed. That’s the bread and butter of small, liberal arts colleges. Basically, MICDS is a small, liberal arts college in many respects. If you love it here, the same atmosphere exists beyond this campus.
MS. WILDMAN: St. Olaf in Northfield, MN, and Hobart William Smith in Geneva, NY, seem to me to be ideal in terms of fostering intellectually curious students in a close-knit community with a real emphasis on college life itself.
MR. ESSMAN: I’ve had the good fortune the past two years to serve on an advisory board for Furman University in Greenville, SC. I have spent a lot of time on that campus as a result, and what an amazing place it is!
What type of advice would you offer to any student, of any age, that might be helpful down the road as they apply to college?
MR. H-K: Follow your interests. People often ask me, “What do colleges want to see?” What they want to see is who you are–so explore that. Who are you? What are you interested in? What excites you? Find ways to foster your unique identity and interests. Find ways to keep excitement in your life.
MS. WILDMAN: Activities don’t have to be in a formal setting. Journal, play music, code, work out, travel, spend time getting to know your grandparents, explore nature. You can add just about anything to your Common Application activity list, and the better you know yourself, the easier it will be to find a college to help you continue on your path.
DR. MACAM: Grow to know yourself. Be involved in what makes you happy. Be mindful of what your likes and dislikes are. Strive to always do your best. Give your best self daily. Be a good friend and a good citizen in your community. And know that the college application process will evolve over time and that there are thousands of great colleges and universities in this world to call home after MICDS.
The “Fantastic Four” had much more wisdom to impart than I, for sake of brevity, have shared with you here, but I would encourage you to read the fuller text of their responses when you have the opportunity. Director of College Counseling Matt Essman’s Top 5 Tips for a Successful College Counseling Experience is also well worth your time. How fortunate we are to have such experienced and dedicated professionals serving our MICDS students and families every day as they look forward to the next phase of their lives.
Always reason, always compassion, always courage. I wish you a happy weekend with your loved ones.
Head of School