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Q&A: The Shifting College Landscape

During all four years of their Mercersburg experience, students enjoy full access to a valuable team of experts in the Office of College Counseling, which has a low student-to-counselor ratio (known in college counseling parlance as a “caseload”) and provides students with invaluable guidance during the process. Director of College Counseling Michael Conklin and Senior Associate Director of College Counseling Vicki Thompson represented the office in the following conversation with Mercersburg Academy magazine; their remarks have been lightly edited for space and clarity.

Mercersburg Academy magazine: When a student is applying to college today, what are the main characteristics or qualities that prospective schools want to see?

MICHAEL CONKLIN: The most important piece of information colleges look at is student performance in the classroom over the course of their entire secondary-school experience, which they evaluate using the student’s transcript. Additionally, colleges look for qualities and characteristics that are predictive of success in college—like intellectual curiosity and engagement. At a place like Mercersburg, where we have the resources to be able to provide the support that we do, we’re able to create that context and tell that part of their story—and of course help students do so themselves—in a way that’s far more intentional and detailed. And students in other environments, unfortunately, don’t necessarily have access to that kind of support.

It used to be that testing—especially at the most selective schools—assumed a greater degree of importance. That still varies by institution, but has changed somewhat significantly. We believe that many schools will sustain their test-optional policies, but we know that some have already reverted to their former policies, and we’re hearing that others are likely to do so at some point. For example, a coach at a prestigious liberal-arts school just notified one of our coaches that this particular school is going back [to its original policy regarding standardized testing]—if not for next year, for the following year.

VICKI THOMPSON: The advantage of working with a college counselor from the spring of the 10th-grade year to discuss goals and course selection through the senior year is really important—especially the student’s specific goals, because the rigor of their courses is not exactly a data point, but it’s equally important in the eyes of someone reading a high-school transcript as an admission officer seeks to understand how students have challenged themselves. The opportunity to establish a relationship between college counselor and student this early will be helpful later when the student enters the college search.

MC: One way in which the landscape has changed is that schools are putting more emphasis on equity and inclusion through the process. Schools are, understandably, very interested in supporting and improving access for first-generation/low-income students; “first-generation” means that a student will be the first in their family to attend college.

VT: And those students often have, frankly, more interesting personal stories than the average applicant, and colleges are seeking that diversity of experience in their communities. I don’t know of a college or university in the country who’s not prioritizing diverse enrollment and making that a goal every year.

MAM: As competitive as the college admission process has become, there are bound to be disappointments for individual students in terms of where they are accepted or not. How do you handle reactions to those decisions?

VT: We make sure that a student’s college list has some depth and breadth, and that students are going to have options at the end of a search and application process. That’s key. Often, students fall in love with the places that they didn’t expect to. I think our kids are really good at listening to and accepting suggestions. They’re eager to learn.

MC: For some parents, we highlight the difference between the admission process and the four-year experience their child will have while in college. We help them understand that their child, in many cases, is far better prepared to thrive in college than they would be if they hadn’t attended a place like Mercersburg—which very deliberately prepares them for success in college. We reference a book [by Frank Bruni], Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, all the time. I agree wholeheartedly with Bruni’s argument that where you go is far less important than what you do when you get there. And our students are well prepared to do a lot of great things when they get wherever they’re going.

Vicki talked about the importance of the list. It’s important to include schools that you can get into, but it’s also important to understand what it means to be a good college, what it means to be a good college for you, and to not think so rigidly about how to define these things using external ranking systems like the U.S. News & World Report rankings, which are focused on a very particular subset of schools and use a methodology that isn’t necessarily aligned with our students’ or their families’ priorities.

VT: I heard a dean of admission compare the U.S. News rankings to a Michelin restaurant guide. Let’s say you think you want to go to the “best” restaurant on the list—but it may be a French restaurant, and you don’t like French food. So, the highest-ranked place may not be the best choice for you. And often, when people hear this example, they understand that just because a school is highly ranked doesn’t necessarily mean the school is a good fit.

I think our students are happy with the relationships they cultivate here. And because of those relationships, they’re developing really good soft skills. So when they’re asked what they like about their Mercersburg experience and what they want to be sure is present in their college experience, when they start to put those pieces together, sometimes those highlyranked schools aren’t quite as attractive.

MC: There’s compelling research about the undergraduate experiences students have that are most predictive of success beyond college, and the U.S. News methodology does not account for any of those particular experiences. For example, which schools are providing deliberate mentorship and opportunities to take part in projects over the course of multiple semesters? There are other rankings and lists—which school produces the most Fortune 500 CEOs? Which schools produce the most Fulbright or Rhodes scholars? The range of schools on those lists is exceptionally wide.

MAM: What are some of your pain points in the whole process? What are some things you wish could shift or change in the world of college counseling?

VT: While our kids do take suggestions well, they still prioritize the places they know—the more well-known schools. But there are so many wonderful schools out there and places where our kids could shine. I wish they’d spend more time investigating those schools more deeply. It would be good for them.

I had a student email me earlier this week after finishing some college tours. The student said, ‘Wow—I thought I wanted a bigger school, but now, after visiting a few colleges, I think I need to refocus and look at some small to medium-sized schools.’ Getting out there and really experiencing a campus is one of the most important elements of finding what fits.

MC: The focus on college outcomes in schools like ours can prevent students from fully living their lives as adolescents. Many think they have to engage in an experience intended to build a resumé, and the choices they make are deeply informed by what they believe will be in their best interest throughout the college process. So, their experiences might not be as authentic or as inspired as they could be, because they’re trying to anticipate what will be expected of them through the process of applying to college. It’s unfortunate.

VT: And the pandemic has had an impact on some students’ abilities to focus and to push themselves. The uncertainty has been really hard for them.

MAM: What does Mercersburg and your office do to equip students for what is becoming an ever-more competitive environment, every year? Are there specific emphases and strategies that differentiate our approach from some of our peer schools or competitors?

VT: We have a 25-to-1 caseload here [one counselor has a group of 25 students they work with and get to know extremely well]. This is so important, because we have the time to meet each student where they are, to build a plan, and to help them research and work with them as their application is developed. For example, I was reading essays in mid-June; a student sent me a paragraph and asked for my thoughts on it. That kind of attention to detail is a huge advantage for our kids.

MC: You don’t have to go back even a decade to a time when our caseloads were almost double what they are now.

VT: I worked with 35 students at my former school. Before that, in an independent day school, I had 65 to 70 students. A low student-to-counselor ratio makes a huge difference for students and families—and in a typical large public high school, the difference is even more pronounced.

We also have a range of experience and expertise in this office which is really unique. We have counselors who understand the international climate more than others, and we have [fellow counselor and head swim coach] Glenn Neufeld, who has such a great lens on athletics. There’s no question that I lean on these people every day.

MC: The experience we have in this office is remarkable for an office of our size. There are very few counselors who have come through in the time that I’ve been here that don’t have meaningful experience prior to their work here. We have the support of our school and our Board of Regents, and because of that support, we can host more than 40 unique events for students and parents every year, and we can bring college admissions professionals to campus—not just to educate our families and our students, but also to learn about Mercersburg. And later, when they’re on the other side of the desk and they’re reading a school profile or they’re considering an applicant from Mercersburg for a scholarship or for admission, they have a better sense of the place.

VT: The relationships that everybody in the office builds with people in college admission offices are really important. It’s nice to know people and to be able to get not just a response, but an honest response. So we use that network as much as we can. At the same time, our small caseload really allows us to support a student with genuine financial need who has a story that colleges need to pay attention to, or a change in their family’s financial picture. For the sake of those students, it’s a good thing that we have established relationships that provide us the opportunity to advocate for our students.

MAM: How can parents best support their children, the school, and your office in the process? Can you advise parents who are reading this on some of the do’s or the don’ts or some things to really think about?

VT: Parents should certainly be part of the process and be supportive, but they shouldn’t take the reins. That translates to unhappy children. Don’t talk about the college list and applications ad nauseum and possibly damage your relationship with your child. I’ve worked with families in the past where it became such a daily topic of conversation that there were arguments and kids were in tears in my office. At a different school a few years ago, a student I worked with was beside herself that her dad brought the Fiske Guide to Colleges to the dinner table every night. Instead, maybe pick one night a week and talk about college plans, with the student amenable to updating their family on their research and/or progress on applications.

MC: Our colleague Bruce Hunter [an experienced counselor who filled in this year when a member of the office went on medical leave] stated this pretty well: Be mindful ofyour pronouns. When you, the parent, start saying ‘we’re applying to’ or ‘we’re looking at’ a certain school, it can be very telling. This may be a generalization, but some parents probably believe they have a lot more control over the college admission process than they actually do. And they elevate every decision that their child makes to a certain level of importance, so that the perceived repercussions of that decision take on even more significance. That puts a lot of additional pressure on the student.

VT: I do wish kids and families understood that in many situations when it comes to acceptances or denials, it can be more about the college than it is them. It’s like that old saying—it’s not you, it’s me. Schools can have different priorities. They may have team rosters to fill or classrooms to fill in certain programs. They may need a French horn player or a soloist in a music program. There can be more uncertainty to this than people understand.

MAM: What are the most important things students can do to put themselves in the best position for admission to a “good college”? What advice would you give to students?

VT: This is going to sound really simple, but you don’t have to be great at everything. It’s OK to play to your strengths and to pursue your interests and not feel like you have to be in the highest-level course in every discipline or overextend yourself in your activities. You can be a specialist in one or two things, and take on a leadership opportunity in that organization or in that sport. You do not have to be all things to all people.

MC: It’s been said that so often, colleges are not necessarily looking for well-rounded students. They’re looking for a well-rounded class.

VT: A former director of admission at one of those top U.S. News schools once said he was more interested in wellangled— not well-rounded—students, that those things that point to strengths are interesting to a college, because it helps the college determine where the student would fit in their community.

MC: Don’t forget that what you do in the classroom matters most of all to colleges. Find something that inspires you, and then find ways to keep pursuing it.

VT: I’ve been trying really hard to change my language from college admissions process to college admissions experience, because that’s really what the college search and selection experience is about—it’s training for life. It’s gaining experience in a different way. It’s considering who you’ll be beyond here. One of the things we’re coaching our kids through is learning how to articulate who they are to an unknown entity. They’re going to do that in every job interview and in everything they do in adulthood. It develops a whole lot of skills that are not wholly different from the things that they’re doing here, but this helps apply those skills in a new and different way.

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