Carolynn Laurenza, Uncommon Charter School

Carolynn Laurenza grew up in a farm town in the middle of western Massachusetts' Pioneer Valley, also known as the "Five Colleges" corridor because it's home to Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Hampshire and Smith Colleges, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. This might have presaged her choice of profession in life.

Today, Laurenza is the College Placement Coordinator for Uncommon Charter High School in Brooklyn, New York. A graduate of Swarthmore College, she earned a Masters in Education from University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Laurenza spent three years as a guidance counselor at a regional public high school in the "Five Colleges" area before joining Uncommon Charter in the summer of 2011.

"It's a different reality," says Laurenza, who was named a "Counselor that Changes Lives" earlier this year. "As a public high school guidance counselor, you're juggling many types of social/emotional issues, the administrative needs of the school, trying to help kids in all grades and doing college counseling. At Uncommon, I get to focus on college counseling."  

Founded in August, 2009, Uncommon Charter High School offers a rigorous college preparatory program serving 324 students in grades 9 through 12, most of whom will be the first in their families to attend college. (Ultimately, the school will serve 800 when enrollment reaches full capacity.) And like most charter schools, Uncommon has a longer school day and a longer school year. The student body is 69% African American, 29% Hispanic and 2% Asian. Primarily hailing from Brooklyn, students are admitted through a random public lottery to the tuition-free school, which graduated its first class in 2013.

In addition to her counseling caseload, Laurenza has all the other responsibilities college counselors do -- event planning, connecting with colleges, keeping abreast of changes in testing and financial aid. And, she also teaches, though it's toward the same end. In addition to their traditional comprehensive studies, Uncommon students are required to take "Collegiate Prep," a graded course with homework that meets every single day. In Collegiate Prep, students start out in 9th grade studying Sean Covey's "Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens," along with lessons in time management, professional readiness such as typing and opening Gmail accounts, and taking a practice PSAT. Over the four years of high school, the class incorporates skills like note-taking, a health curriculum, and communication skills. College is woven into the course with campus visits, test prep, career exploration, workshops on personal statements, resume-writing, financial aid research and the transition to college.

One of the things that surprises people is how many hours those in college access education spend at work, says Laurenza. "It's not a 'school day' job," she says. "It's 24/7 a lot of the time."

Laurenza remains active professionally, as well -- with the National Association of College Admission Counseling, the regional New York State Association of College Admission Counseling, and the College Access Consortium of New York. And Colleges That Change Lives and Higher Education Services Corporation also hold a special place for her as their representatives have generously helped educate Uncommon Charter's families on college options and financial aid.

In the precious free time she has, she's still a country girl who loves mountain biking and cross country skiing. And despite the epic winter New York is having, Laurenza commutes to school every day by bicycle. Otherwise, it's time for reading and family. Education is a family affair with her husband who started out as a teacher and now works in education policy.

Read on to share Laurenza's advice about how many colleges to apply to, researching schools, how seniors might deal with anxiety at this time of year and much more.

How did you become a college counselor?

I had decided to be a school counselor back in college, with the goal of bringing more mental health services into schools. But I fell in love with college counseling my first year as a guidance counselor in Massachusetts.  In college counseling, there was a sense of hope for the future, multiple strategies for success, and the ability to help families through an objectively difficult and important process.  I remember one of my first introductions to the field being the “NEACAC Summer Institute,” six years ago, where I saw that college counseling combines intellectual challenge, constant learning, ethical intricacies and emotional roller coasters.  

What is your motto?  

“Don’t assume; it makes an ass of you and me,” (which my friend’s dad, may both she and he rest in peace, used to crack me up with every time he said it!)

How many colleges did you apply to? And how is the process different?

I applied to ten, I think, back in the 90’s and I still like these schools!  There are so many differences in the process now, and if only I knew then what I know now!  The process is so different today: back then, we filled out our Common Applications on paper and didn’t get emails or texts from colleges!  

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

Most of my students are either the first in their families or the first generation of their families to attend college: for them, 9th and 10th grades are NOT too early! In fact, I think it is necessary for first generation students to gain exposure to and knowledge of colleges as early as possible.  I don’t have the luxury of working closely with kids in these grades, but I remember each underclassman who reaches out to me to meet earlier in his or her process.  We also make sure to have a “Family College Day” for these students and their families, bring them on college visits, and send the parents the college counseling e-newsletter -- and they all are required to take “Collegiate Prep” class.  

What advice do you have for students about getting to know their high school counselor?

Reach out to your counselor!  Help your counselor know you so that he or she can advocate for you.  Be honest with your counselor to build a good working relationship.  Always say “thank you” and respect his/her time because college counselors are much busier than they sometimes look.   

What should juniors be thinking about at this time of year?

Standardized testing, getting a great GPA to end junior year, applying to summer programs, planning college visits during April break, and having the big “financial talk” with family --  “what do we have saved for college? What is our financial plan for the investment that’s coming?” -- and researching colleges for fit!  

At this time of year, there's a lot of anxiety as deadlines approach and decisions begin to arrive. What is your best advice for seniors during this time?  

At this time of year, my students are anxious in many different ways and manifest this anxiety differently, too.  I remind seniors that the applications they have sent in are now beyond their control, but that there is an effective way to channel this anxiety, because there is still much more to do in this process to ensure success after high school.  (Which is to say that I caution against senioritis.) There are financial aid deadlines to meet, scholarships to apply for and classes to pass!  

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

First would be missing early Financial Aid deadlines for need-based aid,  and  second would be seeing students miss a deadline or mistakenly ignore an application requirement because they misread or fail to read thoroughly an email from a college!

What is your single best piece of advice for applicants?

Maintain your sense of self and your love for learning and you will be happy at and successful in whichever school you choose.  Work hard and you will reap the benefits.    

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

We bring our students on college visits during high school to show them other types of schools, and I help my students find and apply for visit programs that allow them to visit these “off-radar” schools, because often he/ she will fall in love with a school after a good experience visiting!   

What is your best advice about how many schools students should apply to?

This answer, too, is somewhat situational. I recommend 8-12, but as long as a student has a well-researched, balanced list of schools that includes likely schools, target schools and reach schools, I can support a student in applying to less or more.   

Can you address the best way for students to research colleges -- resources, criteria, or do's and don'ts?

Visit in person whenever possible! Be intentional about your visits: use a checklist and take notes on your thoughts and impressions.  Don’t fixate on “name brands” or college rankings- keep an open mind to what may be a good fit for you and your family.  I like, Naviance and as online resources.  Make a folder for every college you are researching to stay organized.

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?

Yes!  So many of my students are in this boat and I have so much admiration and respect for those who are the first in their family to attend college that I believe that every college would be lucky to have more students who are first!  These students must work harder than a student whose family understands the college application process.  These students need to start the process earlier and need to self-advocate more.  They need to ask for help through this process outside of their homes.  They need to form relationships with mentors they trust to guide them through this process, because it is an overwhelming process to attempt alone.    Being first carries honor, pride and also hardship: accept and rise to them all!  

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

Make an appointment to talk to your child’s college counselor!  He or she has seen this hundreds of times before and will likely be able to help you channel your concerns into an action plan with your child’s best interests in mind.  

What is your best advice for families about financial aid?

Start planning and saving for your child’s college investment when he/she is a baby, or as early as possible. Have open and honest discussions with your child about your financial situation, with regard to the college process, so that your child can apply to colleges that are good “financial fits”.  Know and meet ALL financial aid deadlines!  The process is complex: ask your counselor and financial aid offices lots of questions! Don’t take cost of attendance at face value but instead use the “net price calculator” on every college’s website to get an estimate of what that school would cost you.

Finding scholarships can be a time- and labor-intensive task, any advice or tips for students and families?

Maximize your efforts by focusing more on “smaller pool” scholarships, such as those awarded through organizations you have a direct connection to, or local scholarships, rather than only on national scholarships.  Use (free, reputable,) online search tools to help you narrow your search, such as   

What are the favorite books on your college-counseling shelf?

Colleges That Change Lives

The Gatekeepers

The Insiders' Guide to the Colleges

Colleges for Students with Learning Disabilities

Fisk Guide to the Colleges

What websites do you find most valuable for students and families? (if your school uses Naviance)

Which national issues in admissions most concern you and why?

I lose sleep thinking about the economic “bubble” of rising college costs and cost-benefit analyses of college return on investment.  I hope for a day when all students will be required to take a financial literacy course, where financial aid applications are streamlined, and where predatory lending is regulated.  

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 feel grateful to live and work in an exceptionally diverse area, because every day I learn more about the vast similarities and differences in people.  One experience that changed me forever occurred after college, when I was working with drug addicts for the first time, interviewing adults of all ages and backgrounds about their lifestyles for a study.  I remember the day I interviewed a woman with a particularly traumatic past, seeing the pattern of painful events that each of the hundreds of people I had met in the study had experienced, and how much more complex the reality of addiction was than what I had read or seen on the streets or on TV.  Those conversations remind me to see every person as more than a sum of their parts and to recognize opportunities to build coping skills.

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

Honesty, sense of humor, appreciation for multiple levels of diversity, well-read, thoughtful, critical thinkers.  I also have been inspired by the many admissions professionals who give of their own time to come to my school to speak to my students about navigating the college process, separate from promoting his/her own institution.   


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