Courtney Skerritt, The Hockaday School

Courtney Skerritt is committed to single sex education. She attended a women's college, an all-girls summer camp for ten years, and today is Associate Director of College Counseling at The Hockaday School in Dallas, Texas, the largest independent girls' school in the country. 

"There is something special about girls' schools that is hard to put into words, but when you walk across the campus you can see it and feel it. I see an inspiration in them. They've been given the okay to believe in whatever they want to believe in and from that comes an amazing confidence. It's not for every girl, not for every student," says Skerritt. "But what I hear from my students is how much they really appreciate the ability to focus on their academics. Our girls have an active social life and they're dedicated to their friendships but when they're here, they're here. "

Founded in 1913, The Hockaday School is a college preparatory day and boarding school serving about 1,100 girls from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. The school celebrates their centennial this year, quite an achievement, notes Skerritt, for an all girls' boarding school in a state that is still in its infancy compared to others. Known for its innovation and competitive academics, Hockaday has more national merit finalists than any other girls’ school in the nation and typically 100 percent of graduating seniors are accepted to four-year colleges and universities.

So how is college counseling different at a school that is both a day school and a boarding school? "The question is always, 'Are we serving all of our students effectively?'" says Skerritt. "Ten to fifteen percent of our students are boarding. But when you're in boarding school, the conversations at home are different. Here, all seniors live on the same floor. Whereas day student might go to a parent with a question, boarding students go to another student. If you were sitting in my office, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference between counseling a boarding and a day student. But just the simple act of going to a boarding school is one of independence and self-reliance and that seeps into the college search process. The way they approach applying to college is the same as when they apply and come halfway across the country for boarding school."

A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Skerritt earned an M.A. in Educational Studies from Tufts University. She arrived at Hockaday in 2011 after five years on the other side of the desk at her undergraduate alma mater and at Boston University and a stint at Lawrence Academy, a college preparatory boarding school in Massachusetts. At Hockaday, in addition to her duties counseling about 40 students and their families through the college application process, Skerritt and her family also serve as the faculty in residence, living in an on-campus apartment. "Boarding school work is really a lifestyle," she says. "And it is a pretty significant commitment that you and your family make. But what we get in return is so much greater than what we give." Her husband is on the same page as a fellow educator; he works in student services at Southern Methodist University. And her four-year-old son is growing up surrounded by 80 girls from all over the world and --another upside! -- it makes it pretty easy to find a babysitter.

As a college counselor, Skerritt says she particularly appreciates the innovation and community provided by the Association of College Counselors In Independent Schools (ACCIS). "As college counselors in independent schools, we typically have strong professional networks within our regional areas. We're quite close to other independent schools. But what I love about ACCIS is that at any event, I'm in a room with independent counselors from around the country and what they're experiencing in Minneapolis is very different from what they're experiencing in Los Angeles or New York. It's just such a fantastic resource. I also think the work NACAC is particularly important for students and families. They provide tremendous resources, resources that people don't always know about."

When she's not writing letters of recommendation, learning about schools in the United Kingdom for a student who wants to study abroad, hosting an evening for the school's boarders, chaperoning Hockaday's spring break college tour, or vetting students for University of Virginia's Jefferson Scholars Program, Skerritt spends time with her family as they explore the museums and parks of Dallas and the state of Texas. Oh, and her goal in life is to bake the perfect croissant. "I am a total open book," she says. "My secret is that I want nothing more. The most luxurious thought to me right now is to have a whole weekend to myself where all I do is bake croissants."

Read on to share more of Skerritt's wisdom on how many colleges to apply to, the best online resources for a college search, and how looking at colleges is like trying on jeans…

How did you become a college counselor?

Like many in the field, I started in college admissions. But I can clearly trace my interest in the profession back to high school. One of the most vivid memories from senior year is sitting around the lunch table with my friends talking about colleges. I think the process left a greater impact on me than I ever imagined at the time. When working for both Boston University and Mount Holyoke College, the more I met with students, the more I found the profession to be fascinating. There was great joy in hearing student’s stories and helping them navigate their college search and application process. When the opportunity to “switch sides” became available, I didn’t look back. And I haven’t. Although I miss reading applications, it really is rewarding to start working with a student during her junior year and watch her experience unfold over 18 months.

What is your motto? 

I have to say the line from Castaway when Tom Hanks was explaining what it was like to survive on his own. He said: “I gotta keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?” I am a big fan of knowing that mistakes happen and you learn from them. You have to keep moving, even when you feel like something is daunting and frustrating. Because you never know what you will learn from the experience. Plus, it is the only line from a movie that I can remember. That must mean something!

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

I had about five schools on my list, but fell in love with Mount Holyoke the minute I stepped on campus as a junior in high school. I applied early decision and was thankful to have been admitted. How has it changed? Cell phones! I remember talking to my mom on the pay phone in my high school cafeteria when she was trying to arrange a college visit. But really, the fact that students can receive their admission decisions via email on smart phones has really changed the process. In addition, I see the biggest change as the amount of “chatter” in the ears of students. Whether it is the news media or social media, it feels as though the college admissions experience is more front and center in a student’s life than ever before.

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

It depends. If a student is the first in their family to go to college, they might find it helpful to meet more regularly with a college counselor or guidance counselor to make sure they have all the information that they need. For those students whose parents went to college in the United States, they are exposed to the information early on and have what they need to build a strong freshman and sophomore year. And that is really what students should be doing – spending freshman and sophomore year exploring and learning, rather than focusing simply on what they think colleges want to see. Simply doing what they think colleges want is the fastest way to lose authenticity in an application.

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

Make an appointment and make a point to communicate with us. I know college counselors and guidance counselors are very busy people, but we are here for students. That is where we get our energy from - conversations about a student’s experiences or hopes for the future. And remember, no bit of detail is too minute for your file. Be sure to share with your counselor what you’ve enjoyed and also where you have struggled.

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

With the anticipation of senior year, I find that juniors are starting to have a clearer picture of what they hope life will be after their high school graduation. I encourage juniors to really start thinking about what they have enjoyed most about high school. What classes do they feel the most comfortable in and why? What kinds of people would they like to spend four years of college with? Spring of junior year is a great time for reflection and brainstorming. They don’t have the pressure of application deadlines and there is plenty of time to research colleges. But before either of these steps, they have to start thinking about themselves first. I always tell my students to picture themselves as giant pieces of Velcro. Information about colleges needs to stick or fall off. If they read a college’s profile and it sounds enticing, than it sticks. But first they should start to develop a clear sense of what they are looking for.

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?  

Don’t check your admission decision when you are at school or behind the wheel of a car. I have tremendous respect for my colleagues in college admission offices, but I really wish they could see the total disruption that occurs when decisions are released electronically in the middle of a school day. Students need to realize that this is a private affair; reviewing an admission decision should be done at home when you are with family. You never know what the decision is going to be and what emotions it may cause. Be safe and surround yourself with people that help keep it all in perspective.

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

Not taking the time to complete an application thoroughly. I really enjoy watching a senior develop her essay responses throughout the fall, and even into the winter. College essays require introspection and reflection. That can’t be done effectively in 24-48 hours before a deadline. I encourage students to review the college applications over the summer and early fall. Make a list of all of the essay prompts and group the prompts by topic. Stew a bit. Marinate on the responses. Then write. And then edit. It is amazing to watch a draft turn into something more poignant and individualized when the student has time to really think about it.

What is your single best piece of advice for applicants?

“The everyday is interesting to someone who doesn’t know you.” One of the joys of my job is helping students explain the why along with the what. Why do they do what they do? What choices have they made along the way that have shaped their interests and experiences? I often find that students take their experiences for granted and it is amazing to watch them come to realize that yes, what they have done in high school is important!

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

Use an online tool such as College Board’s Big Future. Once a student conducts 3-4 searches, they will start to see the same names coming up again and again. They can then turn to a trusted guidebook or the college’s website to dig deeper into the institution. They also need to call it when they see it – they shouldn’t run through the list and say “I know that one and that one and that one.” That is all name recognition. They need to be mindful of keeping an open mind, knowing that there are tremendous schools out there that they may have never heard of before. A counselor can be tremendously helpful with this as well. Most guidance counselors and college counselors have been to college campuses and our expertise can help a student narrow down the list.

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

In my experience, 7-10 is more than enough. The list should be built upon 2-3 schools where they feel confident of their chances of admission, based on data provided by their schools or data found in guidebooks. If using a guidebook a student should compare their profile (SAT or ACT scores, GPA) along with the acceptance rate. Any school that admits less than 30% of their applicants should be considered to be highly selective, regardless of the strength of a student’s profile. From there, they can add 3-5 schools where chances of admission may be harder to predict, but where the student has a strong interest.

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

I’ll start with the “don’t” or rather the “be mindful of.” Talking with friends and family can be helpful, but students should do so with a clear head and a filter. Looking at colleges is like shopping for jeans – not every pair will fit people the same way. The way a person feels about a college is very subjective. Students need to gauge their own impressions against words of advice from others. As for the “do’s”, the best way to research colleges is to think about a research paper. Whether you are researching colleges or writing a history paper, the two processes are quite similar. Using tools like the College Board’s Big Future’s database, the student can input different criteria to come up with an initial list of colleges. This can be overwhelming, so this is where the counselor can be really helpful. It is our expertise that can help narrow this initial list down. From there a student can turn to guidebooks to start getting a sense of the personality of the institution. The college’s website can be helpful when exploring academic programs, events and speakers on campus, and extra-curricular activities and athletics. And students should not underestimate the power of a campus visit. Really question the tour guide about what life is like on campus – does the library empty out on Thursday and remains so until Monday? For some students, that is great. Or does the library serve as the hub of campus with a very studious student body? The tour guides are trained to share specific information about their college, but they are also living and breathing specimens of what life is like. They are a very valuable resource.

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?
They don’t have a different timeline or need to approach the process differently, but they do need to know where the support structure is. Researching and applying to colleges is like learning a new language. Acceptance rate, yield, retention, residential campus, major, minor, FAFSA, loans – these are all new words that a student should familiarize themselves with.  For all students, deadlines and requirements are the same. It is how the process is approached that can be different for first-generation students. They need to seek out experienced adults to help them along. That can be a guidance counselor, a trusted teacher, or an adult from church or a community organization.

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

Don’t read open-content blogs like College Confidential.  There are so many myths in cyberspace. Because of the lack of transparency in college admissions, I find that parents often turn to the experiences of friends, neighbors, and even strangers to try and find the answers. But I also understand that they have questions. I encourage parents to seek out trusted sources for information. If they don’t feel that the guidance counselor is available or answering their question, they should feel comfortable calling an admission officer at a school where their child is applying. They should read print guides. Anything that comes with an editor’s eye should be taken more seriously than a conversation over the fence with a neighbor. And I say this only because every student’s experience is different. Sure, the student down the street may have been admitted (“but she has such lower scores and grades”), but you never know the whole story and that situation may not apply to your child. Go to trusted sources of information that have professional expertise and years of experience on their side.

What is your best advice for families about financial aid?

Talk about it as a family and talk about it early – fall and winter of junior year is a great time to sit down as a family to have a conversation about priorities. Senior year is just too late. If a student knows that merit scholarships and/or need-based financial aid will play a role in her college search, she can build her college list to ensure options come May of senior year.  

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

I wish I had the magic answer to this question as I hear it every year in my office. I think the best advice is for families to research scholarships right alongside researching colleges. For example, when a student is on the college’s website researching admission deadlines, they also need to be making note of scholarship requirements such as additional essays and deadlines. For private scholarships (meaning those that are sponsored by organizations rather than schools), Fastweb.com is the most handy website I have found. They select the scholarships for you, so it takes a lot of the research hours out of the task.

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

This is an easy answer as I have them right at my fingertips now! As we begin working with juniors, the Fiske Guide to Colleges and The College Finder are never far from my reach. I find the profiles of colleges in Fiske to be accurate and well organized. The College Finder is just really interesting to read, with all sorts of lists that really capture the personality of each college.

What websites do you find most valuable for students and families?  

College Board’s Big Future, particularly the section on a college’s profile that outlines financial aid information, including data such as the percentage of students receiving aid and average indebtedness at graduation. Collegeresults.org – an easy to use site similar to Big Future that provides data such as retention rates. It also allows you to compare schools. And FAFSA.ed.gov, particularly their online help. I’ve always had my questions answered quickly.

Which national issues in admissions most concern you and why?

The false sense of “I have to apply to more schools just to get in.” This may not be a national issue being discussed in Congress, but it is a trend that my college counseling colleagues across the country continue to monitor. I’ve watched fear and uncertainty drive a student’s list to 12, 15, 18+ schools and, in the end, the college admission officers can sense that fear. There is no better balm for this process than a well-researched college list of 5-10 schools and applications that are well put together with effective, thought provoking essays.

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 incredibly fortunate to have been raised by parents who made a point to educate us about the world. We were surrounded by books that represented different types of people and we watched movies and documentaries about lives different from our own. But I will never forget one particular moment. While I was in college I had the opportunity to attend a national political convention in Los Angeles. While there, it was my responsibility to get myself to and from the state delegation hotel and the convention center. I found myself taking public transportation. Not only was I the youngest person on the bus, but I was the only Caucasian. I remember paying attention to that – what the feeling was like to be surrounded by people who were different than me. From that came an awareness of difference and what it feels like to feel like you are “the only one.”

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

Without a doubt, a sense of humor and a sense of perspective. Because admissions work is one giant cycle (visiting high schools turns into application reading that turns into spring admission events and back to fall travel), it is important that we all stay energized and clear headed. I admire any admission dean who approaches each year with a clear sense of purpose and engagement with the applicant pool. Although the work they do can be repetitive, it is also really exciting. It is humbling to have the chance to spend time with an application; with a student’s story that they have painstakingly put together to try and represent the very best they can be. To be part of this is a privilege.

 

 

 

 

 

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Comments

What terrific advice from this terrific counselor! I appreciate the honesty and candor here, as well as the confident, common-sense perspective!

Isn't she wonderful!?! Especially love her best advice for parents -- and her guidance on how many colleges to apply to! We were so pleased to have her here on the blog! Christine

As a senior that has just completed her applications and is currently filling out scholarship applications, this is so helpful! Excellent choice on your counselor of the month!

Thank you for your comment! We think high school college counselors are the unsung heroes of the college application process. Christine VanDeVelde

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