Patricia Cleary, Stuyvesant High School

Our first Counselor of the Month for 2012 is Patricia Cleary of Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. Stuyvesant, known as "Stuy," is a public high school with a twist. Run by the New York City Department of Education, it is one of seven specialized schools where admission is determined by a competitive exam. With an enrollment of 3,317 students, its mission is to develop students' talent in mathematics, science, and technology. Ms. Cleary's mission is to help guide approximately 800 Stuy students through the college application process every year.

Raised a Hoosier in Indiana, Ms. Cleary earned a B.A. in Anthropology at Indiana University and began her teaching career on an Arizona Indian reservation. She later earned an M.A. in Counseling from St. Johns University in New York, and a Professional Degree in Administration from Fordham. Ms. Cleary has two sons -- Phillip, a tax lawyer for KPMG (who attended Bronx High School of Science, a rival school to Stuyvestant) and Sean, who is completing his third year of medical school. An ardent traveler, when she's not explaining all things admissions to her students, she can be found on a bike trip, gardening, swimming or sitting in the closest bookstore reading.

Join her here to take advantage of her excellent advice on financial aid, do's and don'ts for students and parents, and resource recommendations.

How did you become a college counselor?

Just after completing my undergraduate degree, I worked as a media specialist -- a librarian with technology training --at three schools.  At each of the schools, the principals suggested I become a counselor because I had a natural rapport with students.   It was common to see me interacting with students who were voicing their concerns and issues. I received my counseling degree and after about ten years as a regular Guidance Counselor, I replaced a college counselor who was on leave. Whereas regular counseling is so often about crisis management, college counseling afforded me the opportunity to consistently help students plan their futures.  Shortly thereafter, I was recommended, by a colleague, to work as a college counselor at Stuyvesant.

Why do you do what you do?

Stuyvesant High School is a bit of a contradiction.  On the one hand, admission is by entrance examination only and we consistently are near the top in national rankings.  At the same time, it is a public school with limited resources and our students are often from immigrant families of limited means. Professionally, I am allowed to use three distinct skills that have followed me throughout my entire career:  research, networking, and counseling. In my role, I am able to help these talented and gifted students at a critical juncture between adolescence and adulthood.  These are kids that will go on to change the world.  This is spiritually and personally very gratifying.

What is your motto?

Treat others as you would like to be treated.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

Consistency -- but it’s still a virtue!

What are some good ways for students to help their counselors get to know them, particularly if they are at schools with a high student: counselor ratio?

We require students to complete a three-page autobiographical background sheet at the beginning of junior year. When I read the responses to our questions, I get a strong sense of who a student is.  This may seem impersonal but I often tell students this is exactly how an admissions committee member will be introduced to them.

Also, come to the interview or meeting with your counselor prepared.  Like life, I think I tend to help those who help themselves.  My most productive and helpful conversations are with students who have studied up not only on potential colleges but the process itself! That really makes an impression on counselors -- and insures you will be remembered.

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

No, as long as the focus is on students finding internships or identifying activities that help them get in touch with their skills, and interests. Start becoming the person you want to be.

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

Be clear on how an independent counselor can help you. Is it for the essay, or assisting in meeting the deadlines? Perhaps that counselor has personally visited each school and is knowledgeable about that particular campus. These can be good reasons for seeking additional support. However, if you think by paying an independent counselor you can gain admittance to your Reach school, this is a big mistake.

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

Don’t mistake suggestions for commands.
Don't try to “buy the counselor’s affections with token gifts.”
Don't ask the counselor to behave in an unethical manner.
Don't make untrue excuses for your data and grades.  If you have a C-average, that is what you have.
Don't apologize for who you are.
Don't compare yourself with others.

What should a student do if she thinks her counselor does not like her or doesn't fully appreciate her gifts?  

If a student is uncomfortable with broaching the subject in person, he or she can send an e-mail, or talk to a teacher to come up with other ideas to resolve this situation.  Another approach would be to talk to a fellow student about their feelings -- perhaps another student has the same impression.  A student could also enlist the support of a parent and make an appointment, as a team, to speak with the counselor.

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

I believe in educating my parents about the college process.    I have developed several power point presentations and include relevant info about selectivity, financial aid etc. We also invite College Reps from colleges to speak on panels, addressing topics like the Holistic approach, liberal arts schools vs. data-driven schools, financial aid myths, etc.

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


Don’t use the word “we” and dominate the Q&A.
Don't use bribery like small gifts.
Don't compare your child to a sibling.
Don't demand to read the SSR/counselor recommendation.
Don't write their essay!


Listen more, talk less.
Get excited about your child’s list.
Accept the fact that college acceptance often has very little to do with career success.
Appreciate the teachers who write your child's recommendations. Thank You cards, PLEASE.
READ more.
Don’t criticize what you don’t understand.
Visit schools and let your child ask the questions.

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

Break confidentiality.

What is the most important thing a high school counselor can do?

Do everything possible in order to be as knowledgeable and enthusiastic about scores of schools.

What is your best advice for families about financial aid?

Go on the web and calculate your EFC.   Know what you can truly afford and don’t feel guilty.  Think long and hard about what it will be like to graduate with student debt.  Let’s be clear:  the financial aspect of the college decision-making process shouldn't be an afterthought to vague notions of the college experience.  In addition to looking at the price tag of schools you have an interest in, try this:  draw up a budget and a have a picture of where you and your family want to be financially in four to five years and see which schools could make that a reality.

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

Most selective schools are need-based only; in other words, they don’t offer “merit aid.”  Also, make sure you know the difference between need-blind and need-aware admissions.

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

I attend national and regional conferences, read countless articles and books, and accept as many tours as my schedule permits.

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

I’m constantly suggesting current author classics like The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College, by Jacques Steinberg; Looking Beyond the Ivy League: Finding the College That's Right for You, by Loren Pope; The Hidden Ivies, by Howard Greene; and Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges, by Loren Pope.

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

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

They don’t research enough of the hidden gems!  Instead, they apply where their friends are applying.  This is especially worrisome because a student must demonstrate some genuine interest in the colleges to which they are considering applying.  It’s not enough that all their friends are going!

What is your single best piece of advice for applicants?

Accept that you will feel overwhelmed and confused in the beginning. Applying to college is like learning a new language.

What is your best advice for families on the subject of financial aid?

Become familiar with the terminology.  You want to know every detail about the process and your family’s expected contribution.  One parent once told me that he was afraid of looking cheap.  That’s nonsense.  If colleges aren’t afraid to charge $40,000 in annual tuition, then you shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions.

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

I’m critical of the Admissions reps who seem to be wrapped up in an institution's perceived status.  I admire the representatives who have an understanding about how the marketing of colleges has emphasized a business model, to the detriment of a scholastic and even vocational undertaking. I appreciate those deans who are willing to speak at the high school and share institutional goals, etc., instead of promoting themselves for private gain.

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