Best Advice from our College Counselors


October is the cruelest month for high school college counselors, besieged on all sides with seniors intent on applications and juniors beginning their college search and testing. So we gave the counselors a pass for the month. Instead of our Counselor of the Month feature, we bring you a round-up of best advice from the counselors who have graced our website with their guidance and wisdom. Read on to learn their recommendations for applying and financial aid, mistakes to avoid, guidance for students with learning differences and undocumented students, and do's and don'ts for students -- and parents, as well.  One of our personal favorites?  From Albuquerque Academy's Ralph Figueroa: "Proofread. Spell Czech is knot yore friend and it will betray ewe." See more from Figueroa and others here: 

Alice Kleeman, Menlo-Atherton High School, Atherton, California

What is your best advice for applicants?

Have fun with the process; you have the opportunity to think about who you are and who you want to become. Why shouldn't that be enjoyable?


Jayne Caflin Fonash, Academy of Science, Loudoun County, Virginia

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

Anticipating at the beginning of the process what they perceive to be the perfect ending.   While initial goals and ideas are important, they should trust in discovering all that they will learn about themselves in the search process.


James Conroy, New Trier Township High School, Winnetka, Illinois

If you could change one thing about applying to college, what would it be? 

That students and families don't define their value as human beings by the list of schools where a student applies and the list of schools where a student is accepted. I think that is the saddest thing we do in applying to college. The name of the school a student has been accepted to has become the parental and student report card.

Marcia Hunt, Pinecrest School, Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton, Florida

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


 •Be open to new suggestions even if “you have never heard” of that school.

 •Be realistic.

 •Be honest about any financial limitations with your child.

 •Take your child to visit colleges before the senior year.

 •Help the student to get organized.-

 •Bite your tongue.

 •Meet at least once during junior year and once during senior year with the college counselor.


 •Talk to everyone who will listen about where your child is applying and what their standardized tests scores are. This is a private matter and your chatter will be embarrassing to your child.

 •Over-react to any bad news your child receives from a college.

 •Encourage your child to apply to a list of unrealistic schools.

 •Complete their applications. This is their process!

 •Ghostwrite e-mails to colleges or the school counselor pretending to be your child. I have seen these before—kids do not sign emails “Very truly yours”.


Patricia Cleary, Stuyvesant High School, New York, New York

What is your best advice for families about 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.

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.


Chat Leonard, Metro Academic and Classical High School, St. Louis, Missouri

What is your single best piece of advice for applicants?

Don’t stress yourself out trying to find that perfect college because a perfect college doesn’t exist for anyone. Believe that no matter which college your path in life may take you to, you will make the most of your experience because of who you are.  A college is the brick and mortar, but the experience is what you make of it…your professors, the people you meet, and the friends you make will help define that experience.


Charlene Aguilar, Lakeside School, Seattle, Washington

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

Do feel confident in your student’s ability to manage this process.

Do understand that this process has an impact on you.

Do draw upon your life experience, acceptance, understanding, love, and patience while maintaining your healthy sense of humor during anxious/stressful moments.

Do be forthright at the front end about mitigating factors that your student must consider when applying to college. (Finances come to mind.)

When I was working with parents as an admission counselor at Stanford and a senior administrator at the University of Washington, I’d ask them to embrace the notion of being an “umbrella” parent.  Provide enough protection for students by walking beside them on the road, umbrella at the ready. But unless there is a rainstorm, the umbrella remains folded, as you trust your students to navigate, gain confidence and make their own way and embrace their decision making and independence.


Tre Hadrick, Eisenhower Science and Technology Leadership Academy (a middle school), Norristown, Pennsylvania

What is the most important thing a counselor can do?

The most important thing a counselor can do is teach a student these two words: “I CAN.”


Elsa Heydenreich Clark, Immaculate Heart High School, Los Angeles, California

What is your best advice for families about financial aid?

Never refuse to consider a college option based solely on financial aid issues. The process changes yearly, college funding can change yearly, family circumstances can change yearly. Allow your children to apply to all well researched schools (with the knowledge that some may be more affordable than others). You may be surprised. Also, initially, parents and students may want to share the same email address so that parents can more readily keep up with financial aid deadlines.


Ralph Figueroa, Albuquerque Academy, Albuquerque, New Mexico

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.


Walter Pineda, Miami Country Day School, Miami, Florida

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.


Marybeth Kravets and Imy Wax, coauthors of The K&W Guide to College Programs & Services for Students with Learning Disabilities or AD/HD

Should a student with a learning difference always self-disclose when applying?

Kravets:               There is no one answer but students should be proud of their accomplishments and disclosing shows they have accepted life's challenges and developed the compensatory strategies needed for success. Colleges in general are always interested in how students deal with challenges or setbacks.

Wax:     Disclosing a learning disability is important, especially when a student will need services. Having said that, there may be different reasons that determine the best time to self-disclose. For example, sometimes it’s important to “talk about” why there is a big difference between a GPA and an ACT or SAT score and sometimes there are courses indicated on the transcript that colleges will know are more remedial and there should be an explanation. Also, many times, if a student knows that there is a good support program at the college, the student will need to show documentation in order to get support once they have been admitted. These are just some examples.


Aliza Gilbert, Highland Park High School, Highland Park, Illinois

You are very involved with the issue of undocumented students. What are the special challenges these students face in applying to college?

There are multiple challenges, but the biggest is overcoming the myth that undocumented students cannot attend college. Many undocumented students and parents, as well high school counselors and college admission professionals, believe that federal law restricts their access to college. It does not. Although some states have recently begun to pass legislation that restricts access to public universities, there are a number of states with legislation that supports access through state Dream Acts and tuition equity bills, the latter of which allow eligible undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates at public universities.  Many students are understandably afraid to disclose their status, but without doing so they are likely to miss out on information crucial to their college search.

A second challenge is paying for college. Without access to federal and, in most cases, state aid, most undocumented parents cannot afford to send their students to a four-year college, and most students will begin at a community college. High-achieving students will often receive merit scholarships from a college or university but rarely will the scholarship cover the cost of tuition, let alone room and board. Although students can receive private scholarships from outside sources, most require a student be a citizen or permanent resident and the few that don’t are usually highly competitive.


Ann Kjorstad, Academy of Holy Angels, Richfield, Minnesota

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

The only way to ensure you receive zero aid is to NOT complete the FAFSA.  Do it at least once to be sure you are being considered for everything you might be eligible to receive. 

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