The college counseling process at Fieldston Upper, which is student‐centered and inquiry‐based, fosters reflection and autonomy.
Working primarily one-on-one, counselors empower students to look carefully at the ways they learn best in order to choose a college that matches their educational aspirations. Encouraged to know themselves as social, creative, and ethical beings, students also search for the best place to grow and change, examining their more personal dreams for the future.
They participate in their own education, researching colleges and universities in different parts of the country and the world, and exploring the best ways to present themselves to the colleges, in itself a creative and educational experience. College counselors help families to both enjoy and endure the growth and separation that is part of this important stage of adolescent development. Our college counseling office provides economic assistance to help students visit colleges, finds support for standardized testing, and works with students when they apply for financial aid at the college level.
*Click here to see the college destinations for students in the ECFS class of 2017.
What is Fieldston’s approach to the college application process? What is the role of the college counselor?
Fieldston’s approach to the process is an educational one; I consider the office an academic department, as responsible for teaching as any of the other departments in the school. My personal philosophy is that it is important to match the student to the educational and social philosophy of the college. Most students start out with only the vaguest idea of what learning at the college level is like, and how different it is at different institutions. They usually have name recognition of about 15 places, and little idea of what these places can offer beyond prestige. We encourage and teach them to research, ask the right questions, explore all the options (even things they think they won’t like, so they can recognize what they don’t like), and know all the choices before they decide where to apply. I believe students should go to a college that is a mixture of what they are comfortable with and what will challenge them, both socially and academically. Our office seems to have acquired the reputation of “making kids go far away to college.” We really don’t do that, though we “make” our students research all sorts of places, with one of the results being that they may well fall in love with a place not in the northeast—there are many great places out there that New Yorkers are not familiar with.
The other thing we “teach” is self-knowledge. The students need to find out more about themselves, so they can figure out what they want in a college. This means that we spend a lot of time learning about them so we can help them. We know our students and most of their families extremely well by the end of the process.
I make jokes all the time about how this is an “all service office.” We serve as an English writing class, travel agency, friend in need, fashion consultant, hair salon, therapist’s office, bank, financial planner, secretarial service, answering machine, loan advisor, and referral service for all the things for which we don’t have expertise. This is how we get to know the students—it’s automatic! Many college offices don’t have the resources to help with as much of the process as we try to; I think that is what makes us different and what makes the job interesting!
When do you start working with families?A
We start with a meeting with parents in the fall of fifth form. Family meetings begin in January of that year. This schedule provides plenty of time for us since our dean system at Fieldston is so effective. Some college counseling offices at other schools start earlier because they are responsible for advising students on course selection, which our deans do very well.Q
You worked in the Princeton admissions office for four years. How does that experience affect your approach to guiding our students through the process?A
Working at Princeton was a wonderful experience. It gave me a clear perspective on how the most selective schools work. I still rely heavily on my experiences there, particularly when trying to debunk the misconceptions people have about how highly selective places function. It also convinced me of the essential fairness and sense of how the process works, and of the level of dedication of admissions officers. They care deeply about kids, and for the most part read files extremely carefully and with great meticulousness. They want to choose the students who will be the happiest and do the best at their institutions, which is what my students should want too. I think working there also allowed me to concentrate on helping kids to know themselves well and make good choices, and feel free about representing themselves as they really are in their applications. These days the media and promotions for private counseling and test tutoring would like you to believe that this is not a good approach. Students come to me thinking there is a trick to doing well in the process—that they can’t just present themselves as they are and expect good results. Granted, it may be difficult to appear “as you are” on paper and that takes some skill, but that is what we are here for, to help students figure out how to do that with energy and passion. My work at Princeton still makes me feel confident that this is the right approach.Q
How do you determine which schools are the right ones for each student?A
We get to know the colleges and the kids extremely well. I also pay special attention to what has happened to all my ex-students (almost 16 years worth!) after they left high school. We work a great deal with teachers, parents, and the students themselves to figure out which schools are the right ones. This is a highly collaborative process, and frequently students will insist on applying to one or two places that we think they will hate! But it is important that they be empowered to make the decision for themselves—most of the time they don’t end up choosing these places in April. Sometimes, however, they do, we are completely wrong, and they have a great experience. Sometimes they do, and we are right, and we help them to transfer when they are unhappy, which is not that big a problem. The process is not as final as any of them think it is, and the whole thing ends up being a learning experience, for us too. Our work with the students is part factual, and part intuitive—probably more intuitive. I like to think we have a gift for it to some extent.Q
What are the common misconceptions that parents have about the process, colleges, etc.?A
Probably the biggest misconception is that Prestige=Quality. All colleges are not the same for all students. I can’t repeat this enough. The place with the best reputation in the world may be an awful place for many students, may make them unhappy, and contribute to depression and disaster. A small, lesser known college may care for a student beautifully, set him up with a great education and career, and keep in touch with him throughout his life.
Media rankings have done more to create disastrous matches than any other factor in this process. We help parents and students understand what they can use rankings for, and what they cannot. It is important to remember how hard it is to get a professorship at a college, any college! The level of teaching at most places these days is very high. Some student bodies may be less challenging than others, but not everyone should be in a highly competitive environment. For some kids it is great to be in the top five or 10 percent of the class — they get all the best attention from their teachers and enjoy many great opportunities instead of getting lost in the pack.
Another misperception is that the college process is a game, and you have to know someone powerful to get in to the college of your choice. Honestly, I have about three or four kids a year who have “contacts” that assist their actual admission. I have many who think that they have been helped by “contacts,” but it is clear to me from speaking to the admissions officers that the students were admitted on their own merits. The process is essentially fair, and when it does not seem so, it is because there are simply too many qualified students to fit in a particular class. Some of them have to be cut.
Some parents think that our office pulls strings to get some students admitted. We do talk to the colleges about each student, but that is only to make sure the college has recognized the best qualities about that student. We are never asked to rank the applicants in order of our own preference; that would be extremely unethical, and I would refuse to do it. It helps that Fieldston is an interesting and strong academic school, and that our students are bright and motivated but the colleges don’t owe Fieldston anything, and they don’t owe each of us as counselors anything. Students are admitted on their own merits. Sometimes from talking to an admissions officer I will get the idea that there is something missing from a file and ask the student to submit an extra paper or slides of art work or something else. But we never directly "get the students in."
One more thing: Our students don’t compete with each other directly, but with other students from across the country. This is complicated and has to do with the fact that there are different subgroups in every admission pool at the college. It is very important for the sanity of our students to know that they are not “up against” their best friend in the process. Also, the colleges do not assign a given number of spaces to each high school, no matter how selective they are. I remember when I worked at Princeton there was a fine high school in Los Angeles that had sent us large numbers of inappropriate students because they had a stereotype of what they thought we were looking for. I visited one year and spoke to the entire senior class, and we finally got a diverse, interesting group of applicants. In past years we had admitted one or two; that year we took 17! The counselor was shocked, and of course the following year thought we “owed” her the same number. (We took six the following year, as I remember). If we send great applicants to the places that are very selective, the students will do well. Of course you have to remember that this is from the college’s perspective, not from ours.
What is the best advice you can give parents whose children are just beginning to think about college and the application process?A
Parents who are beginning to think about the college process should start in junior year devoting some time to talking with each other and with their child about how he/she learns best. What does she like about her current educational experience? What would she like to change? Parents should talk about social atmosphere with their child as well as academics. The social “ethos” of the college will influence the child’s education as much in college as it did in high school. Students who are happy socially are better, more passionate students. This process goes best if students start senior year having thought consciously and carefully about who they are and what they want. If parents can make students feel that going to college is an open, exciting adventure, they will have done a great job. This will be easier if stress is not placed, early on on how hard it is to be admitted. For this reason, discussion of college should not happen before students are capable of imagining the college environment and the act of leaving home. Conversations about college much before junior year in high school will often cause the student to focus on selectivity and “getting in” rather than the actual experience of a college education. This will create anxiety rather than dispel it in a student who cannot yet conceive of what it means to leave home to study at a high level. When it is time to discuss college, keep the talk focused on your child and his needs. The college office will help you deal with the competitive aspects of the process in a timely and appropriate fashion. If in the beginning of the process, parents can try to refrain from imposing their own values on the discussion, the learning experience will be more fruitful and empowering for the child. I am always amazed and reassured by how well students find for themselves a college experience that is appropriate. They often start with wild ideas, but almost always end up with excellent, carefully chosen matches. Let the process be a process. When Susan says, “I want to go to the University of Alaska,” don’t immediately say “you can’t go more than two hours from home.” Or, “no child of mine will attend X college!” In the first place, it is common knowledge that at certain stages of development, students will put beans in their ears if their parents tell them not to, so with this approach you will have little chance of realizing your own wishes. More importantly, Susan will learn more if you take a deep breath and encourage her to research the U. of A., so she finds out for herself why it is a good or bad choice. (Make sure she checks how many hours of darkness Alaska enjoys in the winter!) If it really is a foolish choice, she will realize it on her own. If it is not, she may well be able to convince you why it is a good idea, and your objections may disappear.
Parents who can release their child from parental expectations at this point are amazed at how well the process goes and how much they learn that is wonderful about their own child. The lessons you have taught your children all along will serve them well now; it is time to enjoy watching them think and choose for themselves. Don’t worry, parents can take an active role as a sounding board when asked, helping students visit colleges, and keeping track of deadlines. Your input will also be invaluable to the college office; we are very interested in your sensible observations and opinions about your child, and unlike your child, probably won’t resist, argue, or cry when you make pertinent suggestions.