Ralph Figueroa, Albuquerque Academy

Ralph Figueroa is Director of College Guidance at Albuquerque Academy in New Mexico, an independent day school serving approximately 1,100 students in grades six through twelve. As Figueroa describes it, Albuquerque Academy provides its students with the high-powered college preparatory education of a selective school but with the less anxious attitude that typifies New Mexico. “It’s not high-pressure,” he says. “It’s not frenetic about the college process, kids are much more open to opportunities and options and there aren’t the huge family pressures you sometimes see other places.”

Figueroa, who holds a B.A. from Stanford University and a J.D. from UCLA, has been counseling students at the Academy for ten years now.  But many of you may know his name because of the job he held before he arrived in New Mexico. As Associate Dean of Admission at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University, Figueroa was the central figure in the best-seller The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College by Jacques Steinberg, now Senior Editor of the New York Times’ college admission blog The Choice.  Beginning in the fall of 1999, Figueroa was shadowed by Steinberg for the better part of a year, resulting in a long look, told through Figueroa’s eyes, at the admission process at one highly selective college.  (For those who haven’t read it, The Gatekeepers will have a 10th-anniversary edition out this fall with a new afterword.)

Active professionally with the National Association of College Admission Counselors and the Common Application, among others, Figueroa is particularly proud of the “Tri-School Symposium” which Albuquerque Academy participates in with two of the other large prep schools in the city, sponsoring a college fair and workshops on subjects such as financial aid and athletic recruiting, as well as his work with College Horizons, a residential college prep program for Native American high schoolers.

Married, Figueroa and his wife live with their 5-year-old and 11-year-old nephews. And when he’s not working, he likes to travel — Africa, New Zealand, Ecuador.  While The Gatekeepers made Figueroa a well-known figure and he says it’s an accurate picture of him at work, people are sometimes surprised when they meet him to find that he is not as serious as readers might surmise, believing it’s fine to take the college application process with a grain of salt — note the picture at right — an attitude we’re sure his students and families appreciate. See more of his sense of humor and extensive expertise in his Q&A here:

How did you become a college counselor?

I was bad, and this is my punishment. Actually, it was serendipity. (Look it up!) A college friend was working in the admission office at Occidental College. She encouraged me to apply for a job opening there. 20 years later, here I am.

What is your motto?

That depends entirely on my mood. When I am feeling sappy, I like John Wesley: “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.” Most days, though, Will Rogers is more my style: “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

Talent. I don’t care whether it is academic, athletic, musical, or any other talent. Unless you are also willing to work really hard on applying that talent, you aren’t doing anybody much good. I have seen students achieve remarkable, inspiring, unbelievable things. And not a single one of them did it on talent alone.

As your friends and colleagues reach the age when they have teenagers applying to college, what do you find yourself telling them when they ask for “advice”?

I always enjoy helping friends and their kids with the process. I know how overwhelming the college admission process can be. I find myself telling them, “relax, this is entirely manageable.” I then try to break the whole mess down into separate parts, a timeline that they can tackle one part at a time. Hmm, now that I think about it, my motto should probably be, “relax, this is entirely manageable.”

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

Absolutely not. But it is WAY too early to start worrying about this. Even as early as freshman year, you can go see your counselor to talk about curriculum planning, especially if you might apply to selective colleges. The most selective colleges will want you to enroll in the most rigorous curriculum that you can do well in. So talk to your counselor about that. Here at Albuquerque Academy, sophomores are all required to take a one semester course, The College Process, where we get an early start on making students familiar with the college search and application process. Also, try to visit colleges on family trips or vacations. The more college campuses  a student sets foot on, the better sense they will have of what they like and don’t like when they begin their search in earnest.

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

It all depends on what services your school can provide. Your school counselor will need to fill out paperwork and send in recommendations on your behalf, so make sure you keep in regular contact with him or her. It is always best to work first with the staff in your school. But how much support they can give you in the college search process will vary depending on their caseload and responsibilities. If you need to seek services of an independent counselor, that is fine.  Find out if the independent counselor is a member of NACAC or one of its regional affiliates. That is a good sign. There are many, many, extremely well-qualified and talented independents out there. But ask if they have direct college admission or college counseling experience. Check to see if they are Certified Educational Planners, or are active in IECA. Check the information and advice available on www.iecaonline.com.

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

Don’t ever hide information that is relevant to your college search, or to your academic or personal background. This process is all about information, the more you give to your counselor, the better your counselor will be able to present your story to colleges. Don’t put off talking to the counselor. Some students are terrified of this process, but college admissions are NOT a judgment on your worth as a human being. Don’t let it have that much power over you. And most important, it is fine not to take the advice your counselor gives you, but do not dismiss it without careful consideration.

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

Relax. See, there I go again! You need to focus on the options. Do not get caught up in thinking there is only one answer to this puzzle. There is no such thing as a perfect college. Keep an open mind and realize that some of the best colleges for your son or daughter might be colleges of which you have never heard. Do this right, and your students will end up with several good options and with appropriate financial options, too.

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

This is so individualized. Some parents and students do fine as a team on this process. Some are a disaster. For some, this is the first really big conflict in their relationship. What it comes down to, is that parents are there to support the student, and need to realize that. You can give advice, but try not to dictate terms. Please avoid using money as a trump card. Talk openly and honestly about finances. Your kids know more about your family finances than you think they do, trust them to be reasonable.

If your child won’t even talk about this with you, set up a “college night.” One night a week when you get to ask questions and they have to talk to you. Then leave them alone the rest of the week. I sometimes tell my parents: If you were lucky enough to go to college, think back to how you made that decision. What is the ONE piece of advice you wish someone had given you. What is the ONE thing you wish you knew then about how this all would turn out. Now answer this question, would you have listened to that advice?

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

A counselor, much like a parent, needs to remember that his or her job is to support the student. We cannot make choices for them. They are the boss in this, and the one thing a counselor should never do is ignore the student’s wishes. Of course the tricky part is making sure there are options to fall back on if the student’s choices all blow up in their face. Um, we should never say “I told you so,” no matter how tempting.

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

The best thing I ever do for my students is make them aware of choices they never before considered. Each year I am most pleased when students and families tell me they are going to a particular college, and thank me for putting it on their list, even though they had never heard of it at the time. That never gets old for me.

What is your best advice for families about financial aid?

Communicate, communicate, communicate. I knew a college counselor whose job it was to explain finances for one family as each of their children went through the college process, because the family never talked about money. Don’t do that. Set realistic parameters. Take advantage of the Net Price Calculator every college is required to have on its website to help predict costs for your family and make plans for how much your family can realistically afford to spend.

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

Financing college is primarily the family’s responsibility. Many colleges are willing to help, and many students will earn scholarships beyond financial need, but don’t get into the mindset that the colleges are the ones who will pay for this. Understand that your family will be impacted financially, and go into this hoping to find numerous financial options.

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

I am very active in NACAC, our national association, as well as Rocky Mountain ACAC, our regional NACAC affiliate. I attend several conferences each year. We work regularly with other high schools in New Mexico on various issues. We are visited each year by over 100 college admission representatives, and I try to glean as much information from them as I can. I also spend a lot of time visiting college campuses across the country.

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

We are Naviance users, so that website is the most important one to our students and families. Beyond Naviance, I like:

I am not a big fan of chat sights, like College Confidential. I think there is a lot of bad information on them and they just feed on the hysteria.

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

The biggest failures lie on either end of a spectrum—those who don’t spend enough time thinking about the process and those who spend way too much time thinking about this. The college search process is a long-term project. You can do that, you have done it before. Don’t put everything off until the last minute, because that doesn’t let you be thoughtful enough. Don’t spend every waking moment thinking and talking about this, because that obsession is not good for you either and can be just as damaging to rational decision-making. Work at this steadily, but not obsessively, and you will end up with good options. Options! There, THAT’s my real motto. “It’s all about the options.”

What is your single best piece of advice for applicants?

Proofread. Spell Czech is knot yore friend and it will betray ewe.

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?

The timeline and the process are the same, in the sense that you won’t have different deadlines. But you may need help figuring out the steps, and for that reason, you might get started a little earlier. This process can be even scarier when you don’t have family who can share their experiences. Seek input from others—counselors, teachers, family friends, neighbors. You can do this. Many colleges will be excited about you in part because you are the first in your family to go to colleges. They all see that as a really good thing.

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?

Wow, it is hard to think of a time in college or my career when diversity WASN’T important. I am the son of Mexican immigrants and was raised to both value my Mexican culture and heritage and to find beauty and value in the culture and heritage of others. I can’t count the number of times the ideas, viewpoints, language, traditions, and humor of people from different cultures has helped me better understand a situation or problem. I was a better student, a better admission officer, and I am now a better college adviser because of lessons taken from my diverse environment every single day.

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

A straight tee shot. Beyond that, the best Deans are those who never forget that they are building a community, not playing a numbers game. The best Deans and their admission operations are not afraid to make decisions that don’t always make sense from a numerical perspective, but are absolutely right for the institution. That’s old school, baby. Holistic admissions at its best. The great ones never lose sight of that.

You were the subject of the well-known book The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College during your days as an admissions officer at Wesleyan University. Did that book capture the life of an admission officer in your opinion? Were there any surprises for you as you read it?

Actually, the author of that book, Jacques Steinberg, did such detailed research on me and my family that there were stories in there that I never knew, mostly about my parents. That was pretty surprising. But even ten years after publication, I am tremendously proud of being part of The Gatekeepers, because of how accurately it did capture my work and the admission process at Wesleyan. The best compliment I ever heard about the book was from Laura Villafranca, a counselor at YES Prep schools in Houston, Texas. When the book came out, Laura was an admission officer at Rice University. She told me she bought a copy of The Gatekeepers and gave it to her mother. “Read this,” she told her Mom, “this is what I do.” And while the process is more dominated by electronic documents, I think the book is still a good reflection of what selective admission officers do today.

What have you learned as a college counselor that you wish you had known while on the admission staff at Wesleyan?

How LLLLOOOONNNNNNGGGGGG the time from January to March seems on this side of the process. On the college side, the reading period is so frantic that it is unreal. You can’t appreciate how busy it is until you have done it. But man, it seems so slow to students and counselors. J

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

That is a really hard question. I think I would go for the “person of influence” topic. So much of what I am and will always be I owe to my late father. So I would write about his influence.



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