Ann Kjorstad, Academy of Holy Angels

Our counselor for the month of October is Ann Kjorstad of Academy of Holy Angels, a coeducational Catholic school in the Minneapolis suburb of Richfield. A graduate of Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, Kjorstad worked in admissions at the college level for sixteen  years, beginning as an admission counselor at her alma mater and rising to Associate Director of Admission. But Kjorstad is a true daughter of Minnesota. She grew up in the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” and wanted to return. In 2000, she joined Hamline University in St. Paul, becoming Director of Admission there five years later.

But believing her strengths lie in working with students and families, she jumped at the opportunity in 2008 to join Academy of Holy Angels as their College and Career Counselor. Founded in 1877, today the school serves over 700 students, drawn from the larger metropolitan area. With a mission to “educate and nurture a diverse student population,” Academy of Holy Angels was an early adopter of technology – 100% of students are equipped with laptops which are extensively integrated into the curriculum. In addition, a Theater School is embedded into the curriculum, including studies in acting, vocal production, dance, movement, set design, and more. 

A past president of the Minnesota Association for College Admission Counseling, Kjorstad remains active professionally, currently as co-chair of the Government Relations Committee, involved in policy advocacy and local, state and national elections. She has also served on the NACAC Board as coordinator for  the President's Council.

When she’s not at school, Kjorstad keeps busy – very busy. She has eight godchildren, five nieces and a nephew. She plays volleyball year-round and loves to try new things -- from joining a bowling league to baking and taking advantage of the rich cultural community in the Twin Cities. As Kjostad puts it, “I try to be a bit of a tourist in my own town.” And she’s a voracious reader. In the process of reading a biography on each United States President in chronological order, she’s currently on Abraham Lincoln.  Although she describes herself as “pretty much of an open book,” it might surprise people to know that she has been a bridesmaid 14 times – not quite up to the standard of the film “27 Dresses” but clearly a friend that can be trusted.

As for the future, Kjortad loves her work at Academy of Holy Angels and can’t really see doing anything differently. Join her here to take advantage of her advice about financial aid, when to start the college application process, and more.

How did you become a college counselor

I worked in college admission for 16 years in a variety of roles and one day I realized I was burned out.  I was a Director of Admission and found that I was spending less and less time with students and more time in meetings, which was not professionally fulfilling for me at all. I decided it might be time to look at the other side of the desk!  I was very fortunate that a position was opening up in College Counseling at the Academy of Holy Angels (AHA) at the same time.  I had been visiting Holy Angels for my entire career in admissions so I knew it was a special place.  I consider the day they hired me to be one of the best days of my professional career.

What is your motto? 

My informal motto is “Laughter and chocolate can solve all problems”.

Is freshman or sophomore year too early for students to start working with their college counselor?

Absolutely not! At the Academy of Holy Angels, my colleague and I have individual meetings with every 9th grader in the fall.  During this meeting, we check in to see how the transition to high school is progressing; we introduce ourselves and our 4 year college planning curriculum and then introduce students to Naviance Family Connection and the many ways they can use this tool for college planning over the next four years. 

We ask the questions:  “What is your dream career? What is your dream college?” We can use their responses to help them start to understand the value of rigorous courses, grades needed for college and how particular core subjects might be required for a career.  We also create a 4-year academic plan for every 9th grader which is stored in their Family Connection account for reference each year when they are selecting courses for the next academic year.  I realize most schools do not offer this type of meeting but I think it helps us to get to know our students earlier, helps both parents and students to understand the importance of planning ahead and calms fears parents might have around college preparedness.

What advice do you have for students who are contemplating going to an independent counselor

I don’t think a student attending my school or another high school with a dedicated college counseling staff needs to work with independent counselors. Families are already investing a significant amount of money to pay tuition for our school and part of the benefit of attending AHA is to have a counselor like me whose total focus is on college planning.   I have had families at Holy Angels confide they are using an independent counselor because they want someone else to be the person “running the planning” for their student.  I’m self-actualized enough to not be offended by this---it is really up to the individual family to decide what will be most helpful for them. 

I realize there are students who are at high schools with no counselors available and they might benefit from working with independent counselors.  However, if a family chooses to utilize an independent counselor, I think they should carefully consider the background of the professional they use.  I think the best independent counselors are those who have a background in college counseling or college admission.  I have many friends who are highly respected independent counselors who have the background and training to help students and their parents in a really meaningful way.

What are some of the “don’ts” for students as they work with their counselor? 

I try to be positive all the time so I would prefer to outline some “Do’s”: 

DO work with your counselor throughout the process.

DO give them plenty of time to complete your letters of recommendation and send transcripts to colleges. 

DO let them know your admission decisions---if you are denied, we want to comfort you and help you find other options.  If you are admitted, we want to celebrate with you. 

DO ask questions!

How about parents? What advice do you have for parents who are concerned about their student’s college application process in some way?

I know this generation of parents has a reputation as “helicopter or lawnmower” parents because of their need to swoop in and help their kids. I’m not a parent but as a loving Aunt and godmother, I understand the hopes and dreams we all hold for kids in our lives and the need to want to help wherever possible. My advice to parents is to remember your child’s counselor is a partner with you in the process.  Together, we can give your student the tools to manage their future goals in a positive and empowering way.

What are some of the do's and don’ts for parents?

DO provide assistance when asked but NEVER complete the application for admission.

DO visit colleges with your student but let them do the talking.

DO communicate with their counselor if you have questions or concerns.

DO prepare your student to be in charge of the college process.  It is your student’s application, interview, and college visit. Colleges want to admit young adults who are ready to live on their own successfully and when your student is the one calling with questions or setting up their own visit or interviews, it illustrates how prepared they are to the Admission Office and others on campus.

DO apply for financial aid at least once to be sure you are considered for all assistance available.

DO let your student have one “dream” college on their list but encourage appropriate alternatives.

DO remember this is your child’s future—not yours.  You might be the most loyal alum of your college and love being a lawyer but your student needs to choose a college and career that is right for them. Let them.

What is the one thing a high school counselor should never do? 

I have heard horrible stories from friends about high school counselors who told them they were not “college material”.  I’m pretty sure that is the one thing a high school counselor should never say!  As a counselor, I think my primary job is to motivate and support all of my students in finding the best match for their abilities and interests.   A student should always hear that they have potential, they can improve their grades, and they will be successful if they work up to their ability. 

Certainly, not every student is going to get into an Ivy League college but those schools might not be the best match in the first place. While I want to be realistic and help students manage their expectations, I don’t want them to ever stop striving to reach their goals.  Maybe they won’t get into their dream college as a first year student but they can go somewhere, prove their abilities and transfer down the road. And many times, they will realize the college they start in IS actually their dream college.

What is your best advice for families about financial aid

Don’t limit your student’s choices immediately based on cost of attendance.  While your student should have affordable options on their list of prospective colleges, it is ok to have a few options that might be a reach financially.  Go through the admission, scholarship and financial aid process and then compare costs—you might be surprised at the aid awarded and your ability to pay at the more expensive school…or not. But at least you let your student investigate all their options before making a decision. Also, have a frank conversation as a family about what you as parents will be able to do financially and what your expectations are for your student.  This will help the college search process immensely.

What do you think is the most important thing for families to understand about financial aid?

The only way to ensure you receive zero aid is to NOT complete the FAFSA.  Do it at least once to be sure you are being considered for everything you might be eligible to receive.

How do you manage to stay up to date with the rapidly changing world of college admission?  

It helps that I worked for 16 years in college admission and still have many professional colleagues and friends in that world to whom I talk regularly.  Because college counseling is the primary focus of my job, I am able to meet with most of the college representatives who visit our school to keep up on new programs and opportunities for our students.  I also believe my membership in NACAC and involvement in the Minnesota Association for College Admission Counseling (MACAC ) helps keep me informed of changes in our profession.

What web sites do you find most valuable for students and families?  

I am a big fan of Naviance Family Connection because we use this so extensively with our students.  Everything we usually need is found within their pages. 

What is the biggest mistake you see a student make in applying to college?

Sometimes students don’t listen to their own wants and needs—they are too concerned about what their parents or peers want and they don’t truly look at the schools that might be the best fit for them.  Every student should have a list of what they want from a college—major, location, size, co-curriculars, etc., and then use that list to pick and choose the colleges that best meet their needs. 

What is your single best piece of advice for applicants?

Dream big but be willing to adjust your dreams to meet your circumstances.

How do you encourage your students to broaden their college search and look beyond the four or five schools that they know best?

I ask students what they want from college and then try to suggest schools that meet those needs.  I don’t presume to know what is best for my students over their own stated wants and desires. I never want them to think they disappointed me by choosing a school over one I suggested. It is their college search and I respect and admire them when they make the choice best for themselves.  I do think it is important that I know about lots of colleges and programs to help them think outside what they already know, but again, it’s up to the student to decide if my advice works for them or not.

Do students who come from homes without a college-going culture or from homes where they would be the first to attend college have a different timeline or need to approach the application process differently? 

I don’t think they need to have a different timeline or approach but I do try to be more sensitive to both them and their parents’ need to ask more questions or get more guidance from me.  We spend all four years of high school helping them prepare to be college ready but when it becomes time to apply for admission or aid, they might have more questions than a family where both parents have college degrees. 

With so much in the news about diversity and affirmative action, was there a time in college or your career when you had an “aha” diversity moment – a time when being in a diverse environment yourself taught you something valuable

I was blessed with parents who always told me I was going to college.  They made sacrifices to send me and my siblings to private schools and they nurtured our dreams for college.  When I got to college, I found out I was eligible for “additional support” because I was a first generation college student as neither of my parents had college degrees.  I knew I didn’t need to take advantage of those services because of the opportunities my parents could afford to provide for me in preparation for college. But, I thought it was great that such programs existed for students who might need extra support to maneuver college life.  It was also my “aha” moment  that diversity isn’t just cultural but also socioeconomic.  In my past and in my current position, I always remember that you can’t assume a family’s preparation or college knowledge based on a stereotype of what diversity is or isn’t.  This helps me to work hard for every family and I hope it makes all students and parents comfortable approaching me for assistance in achieving their hopes and dreams.

When you think of deans of admission you admire, without naming any names, what are the qualities you admire in them? 

I admire many of my colleagues on both sides of the desk.  Deans of Admission do not have an easy job in the current economy.  I most admire those who are still able to put the needs of students ahead of their need to fill a class.  I admire those who work to reduce the stress on students with open and clear admission policies.  I admire those who strive to educate College Presidents and Boards about our professional code of conduct in the “Statement of Principles of Good Practice” (SPGP) and those who are serious about using the SPGP to govern the work of every admission office.  I admire those who strive to have policies aligned with not only the “mandatory practices” but the “should’s” of the SPGP, as well.  Finally, while it isn’t always possible, I admire Deans who still take on travel to high schools or fairs despite their other responsibilities.  I think this makes them more aware of issues concerning prospective students as well as the challenges faced by their admission counselors who travel extensively for the University.

Which Common Application prompt would you choose if you were writing the Common App essay

Prompt #4—“Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence”.  I would probably write about Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice and the lessons I learned from reading that book in British Literature as a senior in high school.


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