Daniel Gin, Niles West High School

Dan Gin had been a generalist high school counselor for four years when he boarded the Illinois Association for College Admission Counseling (IACAC) Bus O' Fun Tour. Road tripping for a week through ten college campuses in Illinois, Indiana and Michigan, Gin realized he had found his calling. "I could be the one who helps students find the right college," he said. And for the past eight years, Gin has, as the College and Career Counselor at Niles West High School in Skokie, Illinois.

Set in a suburb eight miles north of Chicago, Niles West is a culturally diverse public high school serving more than 2,600 students. Among those students, there are 96 different spoken languages, with the most common being Urdu, Spanish and Assyrian. Thirty per cent of the students are English language learners. Another 30% are on free and reduced lunch. And since Skokie is in the first ring of suburbs on the borders of Chicago, one in four students are transfers. So as the only college counselor on staff -- though he's assisted by 11 generalist counselors -- Gin faces some special challenges.

"The first one is language," says Gin. "Sometimes when you meet with a parent the translation gets lost. The challenge with our transfer students is getting them caught up to move on to college because some of them may have holes or gaps in their education.  Then, for our free and reduced lunch students, it's about finding them enough money to get to college. "

Gin begins meeting with students before they arrive on campus for high school, visiting eighth graders in the "sender" middle schools. Once they arrive on campus, Gin sponsors activities in the college research center for freshmen and starts working with students in earnest in their sophomore year.

"The students are very respectful and listen to what I have to say. And they will really do the research on schools," he says. "Every day is interesting -- the stories the kids have, the challenges I face with them. Knowing I have a little piece of that to help them build their future is very rewarding."

It's no surprise that in 2011, Gin was honored as a "Counselor Who Changes Lives," an award recognizing dedication to the college counseling profession that reflects the mission of Colleges That Change Lives.

Gin attended Taylor University, where the 6-footer quarterbacked the football team, before moving on to earn a Master of Education in Counseling from DePaul University.  Early in his career, Gin joined IACAC and went on to serve a three-year term as an Illinois delegate to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling.  "It helped me to learn a lot about local and national issues," he says. "And it's powerful to feel you have a voice."

Married, with three young children, Gin spends as much time with his family as he can when he's not working.  And he believes he has found his calling, not only in counseling, but also at Niles West.          

Join him here to learn what juniors and seniors should be doing now, his advice about researching colleges, and how many colleges he applied to back in the day…

What is your motto? 

I actually try to live by two.  1.  Live each day for the Glory of God.  And 2.  Try to make those around me better.

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

I applied to 5 colleges.  I did public in-state/out of state and private in/out of state.  I was fortunate that my parents wanted me to explore all of my options.  The biggest change that I have seen is everything (applications, transcripts, and application fees) is sent electronically.  When I applied to college, all of my applications were handwritten and sent through the mail in a large envelope.    Also, social media has become a big player.  Students can get information instantaneously.  I had to dig through books to find my answers.

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

No, I actually visit the middle schools to have them begin thinking about college.  I want to be a familiar face when they enter high school.  In addition, at the beginning of the school year, I go to the freshman study halls to work with students on goal-setting, and thinking about college.  Also, I run open house programs to draw underclassmen to the College and Career Resource Center.  I want them to feel that I am approachable and will help when they are ready to do a more formal one-on-one session.  The student’s generalist counselors and I work in tandem, and they encourage the students to work with me early in their high school careers. 

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

Our generalist counselors are amazing.  They know a lot about each of their assigned 280 students.  This is evident from the letters of recommendation they write for each student.  I want to let the students know that their counselors are their biggest advocates and will help them have a wonderful high school experience by providing guidance and encouragement, and by acting as an additional resource for the student.  If you feel that your counselor may not know you well, be proactive and make an appointment to meet and talk with them.  They are great people.

What are the five most important things for seniors to accomplish in the fall?

  1.  Know your college application deadlines, and do not procrastinate.  Give yourself plenty of time to complete your college application.  This will alleviate a lot of stress.
  2. Meet with the college representatives when they visit the high school and make another campus visit.  This way, the representative can put your face and name together.
  3. Grades are important.  Senior year is a springboard to your college career.  It is hard to turn it on again next fall. Avoid senioritis.
  4. Communicate with your parents, teacher, counselor, and college counselor.  We are here to help you.  You do not have to do this alone.
  5. Enjoy the process.  All of your hard work has paid off.  In a few months, you will be receiving letters of acceptance.  You will be in the driver’s seat.  All of the colleges will be sitting on pins and needles waiting to hear back from you that you will be enrolling at their university. 

What should juniors be thinking about as school begins?

These are the last grades you can put on your transcript.  Make this year the best academically.  Colleges like to see an upward grade trend.  In addition, juniors have to take the ACT/SAT.  The best test preparation is attending class, finishing your homework, and participating in class.   Talk with a college representative during a high school visit or meet them at a college fair.  If at all possible, visit a college campus.  This will help you determine what type of institution might be right (big/small, private/public).

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

The biggest mistake students make in the college process is that they only apply to a certain type of school.  Students should explore all of their options.  They should consider in state/out of state, private/ public, big/small.  With more than 4,000 universities, it is important for students to look at all of the options.

What is your single best piece of advice for applicants?

Have fun.  This is one of the biggest decisions in your life to date.  Everything will work out in the end.  Whatever school you decide to attend, it will be the right school for you.  Anyone who wants to attend college can go.

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

I encourage students to look beyond what they know to what they do not know.  It is my responsibility to open doors for students and provide them with many options.  Whenever I create a list for students, I try to include one public school both in/out of state and one private school both in/out of state.  Hopefully they will take the time to research some of the schools that I add to their list and find a “hidden” gem.

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

I encourage students to have a realistic number.  Most students will apply to about 6 – 8 schools.  College applications are expensive and time-consuming.  Make sure you have a “for-sure” school on the list.  This is a school where you will be happy to attend if the other schools do not work out.

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

The best way to research colleges is to take advantage of all of the programs offered at the high school.  We offer evening programs for freshmen and sophomores and two Junior, and two Senior Programs.  In addition, we host an annual District College Night Program, and take students on a college visitation program, offer a three-day summer workshop, and an essay writing workshop.  These are all geared to help the students with the college search.  Also, have a student/parent appointment with the College and Career Counselor to discuss college options.  It is vital that everyone is on the same page.  Take advantage of the college representatives who visit the high schools.  They can answer all of your questions about a school.  Take a campus tour as well.  College campuses look different than the brochures published by the colleges and universities.

How can students best benefit from technology in the college application process?

Technology can be helpful when the student begins the college search.  It is difficult and expensive to visit every college on the list.  It provides a student with the general flavor of the school.

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?

Applying to college is difficult, and every student who is applying needs an individual approach.  Some students are okay with doing everything on their own.  I sometimes have to assign a concrete deadline when a task needs to be complete.  I think if a student comes from this background, some of the terms have to be explained a little more thoroughly for them to understand.  These are the ones who tend to ask more questions because they may not have the guidance from home to help them finish the applications.

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

It is important for parents to understand that the student is the “Captain of the ship” and needs to be in charge of the entire process.   It is up to the student to either sink or swim.    However, parents should be a lifeboat.  If the student is struggling, be there to help, listen, encourage, and support them.  However, the parent should not take over the process for them.

What is your best advice for families about financial aid?

Every family should complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).  Also, it is okay for students to take out a small loan in their name.  When a student makes a financial investment toward their college education, the student will usually attend class because they realize that they have to pay back the loan.  By attending and participating in class, the student will do better academically. 

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

Wintergreen Orchard House

Colleges that Change Lives

Individual college catalogs. (It is easier to flip through the pages to find my answer rather than searching a college website).

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

The website I utilize the most with my students is Family Connection by Naviance.  Students who use the program can do a college search, learn about various careers, apply for local scholarships, build a resume, do test preparation, and see college representatives.  This is a one-stop shop for our students and has become a tremendous life line at Niles West.

Which national issues in admission most concern you and why?

The rising cost of college tuition.  College is very expensive and the financial gap is starting to widen.  I believe some students may not be able to attend college because of cost.  Schools need to look at ways to make college affordable for all.

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?

While at Taylor University, I went on a mission trip to Germany.  While there, I went to the Berlin Wall. I had the fortune of knocking out a piece of the Berlin Wall with my own two hands.  It was an eye-opening experience for me to witness a piece of history and I realized how fortunate I am to have such freedom.  With this freedom, I have been blessed to work with so many different cultures here at Niles West High School. I encourage all students to continue to pursue their post-secondary education because of the endless opportunities that will present themselves.

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

I admire the deans of admission who attend state and national conferences.  It is important that they are willing to learn.  Also I appreciate deans who present at counselor articulation programs that are not held at their school.   They see the importance of a strong working relationship between the high school and college. 

And a few last thoughts:

I would be remiss if I did not thank my wife Julia and children who have been my biggest advocates in my counseling endeavors.  Also, I need to place a shout-out to the College and Career Assistant, Mrs. Nancy Ouska.  She will be retiring from Niles West High School at the end of the school year.  She is the backbone of the center.  The care she shows the students when helping them complete college applications to the FAFSA is amazing.  She will be truly missed.


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