Walter Pineda, Miami Country Day School

Walter Pineda is paying it forward. The Associate Director of College Counseling at Miami Country Day School in Miami, Florida, is a first-generation college graduate who attended college through the help of a counselor. When his family emigrated to the United States when he was four years old, “I was at a disadvantage from other students,” says Pineda. “How to apply, what does it take, how to pay for it, what you do to pay for it – it was foreign to all of us. It was the help of a counselor and resources I could find in the library that enabled me to apply.”

After graduating from University of Rochester, Pineda began his own career in college counseling at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Five years ago, he joined the staff at Miami Country Day, a diverse coeducational K through 12 school with approximately 975 students. The upper school has a strong college preparatory program that includes a commitment to community service — a culture that Pineda says he particularly appreciates.

As our Counselor of the Month, Pineda shares his advice for students and families here in our Q&A:

What is your motto?  

I don’t really have one but I love my college’s motto – Meliora – Always better.

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”?

Breathe, you will survive.  It is a very stressful process and it feels like it will never end.  It is important to remember that this is a rite of passage.  It is not meant to be easy.  It can be rewarding if a student takes the time to think about what colleges are asking in their applications.  Most want students to take the time to explore who they are and what they might want to become.  This can be a very scary process for a student when they are pushed to seek out the “best colleges” which may not be the best match for them.  Parents always get caught in the middle of the desire for the best for their child and their own wishes for their child.  Sometimes it is just a good idea to take a step back and to take a deep breath.

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

It always helps to have an extra set of eyes help with course selection.  College counselors can always serve as cheerleaders for most students or the boogie man for students that lack motivation.  College counselors can be most effective in the junior and senior year.  It is never a good idea to bring extra stress down to students in the 9th and 10th grades.

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

Keep your counselor in the loop!  Your college counselor is the one responsible for writing your letter of recommendation.  They have to know what has been decided.  The college counselor is your primary advocate with colleges.  They have to know where you have applied.

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

  • This is your application process, not your parent’s.  Make sure that you have more contact with your counselor than your parents.
  • Don’t wait until the last minute to inform your counselor that you have applied to a college.
  • Don’t avoid your counselor.  It will only make the process even harder than it has to be.
  • Don’t base all of your college choices off the top 20 colleges in US News.  Your counselor has some valuable insight that may help you pick an amazing college you have never heard of.

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

In rare cases, I would say change your counselor if you are really unhappy.  This perception usually comes from an interaction that may have occurred during a very stressful time.  Going to your counselor the last week of October to start your applications is a really bad idea.  In some schools, counselors do not have the opportunity to get to know their students as well as they would like.  Take them a resume that includes a few highlights of your high school career.  Write a few short stories about major accomplishments during your high school career.  Explain why they were meaningful and what impact they had on your growth as a student or as an individual.  This will help them get to know you a little better.

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

  • Don’t take over the application process for your child. It is important for the child to be the leading force in the application process.
  • Give yourself a few dates were you check to see progress. If a student falls behind, try to find out what is going on.  Is the student overwhelmed? Is the student blowing off the application process? Be prepared to get some surprising answers. Lack of effort may be a result of confusion, apathy, fear, or lack of understanding. Finding out the cause may be more important than getting the student back on track.

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

Fill out an application for a student.

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

Be a safeguard for the student.  Make sure they understand what they should be doing and when.

What is your best advice for families about financial aid?

You will never know what is possible if you do not apply.  Not applying is the best way to close doors for your child.  Know the college or university’s financial aid office phone number.  Contact them before you start the financial aid application.  This will give you an idea of how helpful they might be along the way.  Some financial aid offices will walk you through the process step by step.  Others will be able to give important tips along the way.  Use them as a resource throughout the process.  Start early and be organized!

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

Everyone may qualify for some help.  It may look like a long and scary process but there is help available.  And keep your paperwork in a safe place.

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

It is important to read and to keep in touch with friends.  The professional associations out there are also very helpful.

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

College Prowler.  It is a great place to start a conversation.  Some of the information in the book really has to be put in context.  But students identify with the stories.

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

I recommend Fastweb for financial aid.  It is important to teach a student how the site might be helpful.  It can be a little overwhelming without any help.  The College Board has some helpful information, too.  Naviance is the key tool we use at Miami Country Day.  It helps me keep track of my students throughout the entire application process.

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

Two things. Not taking the SAT or the ACT. And second — not listening to their college counselor.

What is your single best piece of advice for applicants?

Plan!  You will not be able to complete the application process overnight.  You have to have a plan.  Create a calendar and spread out the work over the spring and fall of your junior and senior years.  Otherwise you will feel like the world is out to get you.

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 is the same.  They will have to seek out extra help.  Their counselor will be a much more important resource.  Don’t forget to include your parents throughout the process.  They need to see the benefits of the hard work as much as you do.  It is important for a parent to understand what can be gained from each college.  You must explain the financial aid process from the beginning.  The FAFSA aid forecaster will be a very valuable tool for a first-generation student.  Take your parent on a college trip.  Let them see for themselves what is happening on college campuses today.

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 had the diversity moment in reverse.  I went to high school in San Francisco and had an extremely diverse group of peers.  I went to college where 10% of the students came from an underrepresented ethnic group.  It was the first time I experienced life as a member of the minority.  It was a valuable experience.  It helped me gain a better understanding of what it might be like outside San Francisco.

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

Empathy.  The deans that put themselves in the place of the student they are helping get the most respect from me.

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

I would avoid the “talk about a person you admire question.” It is a trick question.  You will not be able to talk about someone else and still champion yourself in the space allowed.  I would choose my own topic.  I am the first in my family to go to college in the US.  I am a member the first generation in my family to have college as an option.  I would talk about the importance of this milestone for myself and my family.

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