Misty Whelan, Conestoga High School

Misty Whelan has lived the college admission process from both sides of the desk, so to speak. True, she worked early in her career at Bryn Mawr College. But that's not what we're talking about. Now a counselor at Conestoga High School in Berwyn, Pennsyvania, Whelan has also navigated the college application process as a parent. Her 16-year-old daughter, Sarah, is taking her first steps in the process and her 19-year-old son is now attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The view from the parental side of the process has been invaluable for Whelan.

"It has really, really helped me immensely as a professional in terms of sympathizing and empathizing with families as they go through this process," says Whelan. "And the other thing it validated for me was letting my son do the work and not to do it for him. He did the bulk of the work. I learned a lot about how to center him and not have him panic or get too stressed out. Luckily, he knew what he wanted and did not have too many schools on his list.  I also learned a lot about financial aid and the scholarship process. That was the biggest eye opener for me -- how colleges fund students."

A graduate of Randolph College (formerly Randolph Macon Women's College), Whelan holds a master's degree in secondary school counseling from Villanova University. She joined the staff of Conestoga High School in 1997 as a guidance counselor and in 2003 was named Guidance Department Chairperson. A public school located in a Philadelphia Main Line suburb, Conestoga has an enrollment of more than 2,000 students.  "It's often described as a 'public private'," says Whelan. "It's highly competitive.The academic program here is outstanding. But there are also plenty of students with needs just like any other high school." Conestoga is consistently ranked as one of the best high schools in the country and ninety percent of its students go on to four-year colleges.

The favorite part of the job for Whelan is connecting with her students. "To see them realize their dreams and hopes and to catch them when they fall," she says. But one of the most wonderful benefits of that job has been the opportunity as a working mother to have both of her children attend Conestoga.

Active in the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) and the Pennsylvania Association for College Admission Counseling (PACAC), Whelan has served on committees for both marketing and admission practices.  And when she's not working, it's family time, books, and working out. Like most counselors, she works a lot and she says her family would say she doesn't seem to know when to stop.

Read on as Whelan generously shares her wisdom about researching colleges, scholarships and what juniors should be doing now:

How did you become a college counselor?

I am a School Counselor and College Counselor is one of many roles I take on, but I happen to be fortunate enough to be in a competitive “Private/Public” school environment where my role as College Counselor is as much in demand as my role as academic advisor and personal, and crisis counselor.  In addition, my role as college counselor is supported and expected by the administration at Conestoga.  I wear many hats but that truly suits my personality and skill set.  My career took this path as a result of inspiration from past mentors in my college days when I worked at Bryn Mawr College, first with the Dean of Students Office and then in my first professional experience the Admissions and then Student Life Offices.

What is your motto? 

I have two – “Just do it”.  I pretty much live by this and it gets me going on just about everything I do.  The second is what my grandmother taught me – “do unto others as you would have done unto you” – she is a huge inspiration in my life.

How many colleges did you apply to?

Two or three – I barely remember.  I am a first generation college graduate in my family (with the exception of my grandfather) so I had no idea what I was doing.  I went to Randolph Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, VA.  I was very lucky to end up where I did and found myself in an entirely different culture which took some getting used to but helped me to grow immensely as a person.

How is the application process different? 

Completely, different, I’m pretty sure.  Much more competitive and so many more resources out there with advice on how to get into college.  My counselor gave me a book and said “pick one”.  I never felt all of the stress that my students feel today, however, and to me it was all very exciting.  SAT scores were never something that I felt would hold me back or matter much nor did I have any idea of what to do to prepare – I walked in cold both times I took the test.  Today, the SATs are the biggest stressors for my students and it is a multimillion dollar business.  There was also no such thing as The Common Application.  I think I might have applied to more colleges had there been.  In my mind, I was simply focused on “going” and had I had all the help that there is today, things might have been different. But it worked out well for me regardless.

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

No, it is not too early as long as the motivation is coming from the student and not someone who tells them they must start working with a college counselor. When to begin is an individual decision with guidance from parents and counselors.

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

Don’t be afraid to talk to them.  They are busy, yes, but so is everyone and while it can be very uncomfortable to introduce yourself to an adult, this is one of the best things a student can do.  Hopefully their counselor will schedule appointments – don’t miss those appointments thinking they aren’t important.  And students shouldn’t wait either. If no appointment has been scheduled, then take the first step and go to meet with your counselor.  Course selection time is a perfect opportunity for younger students to ask questions.

What should juniors be thinking about at this time of year? 

Visiting as many colleges as they can.  It is the only way to find the environment that suits them best.  Getting the best grades they can by being the best student they can.  Building relationships with teachers rather than being passive in the classroom.  Make a plan for standardized testing and a plan for preparation – even if it is simply the free stuff online.  SAT Question of the Day is free and College Board and ACT have great free material online.  Look at it as another class and spend time every week practicing.  Finally, excel in their activities – think about taking on a leadership role or an independent project or getting a part time job – stretch and take risks.

At this time of year, there's a lot of anxiety as deadlines approach and decisions begin to arrive. What is your best advice for seniors during this time?

Keep yourself organized, grounded and active.  Finish the applications, send them, and move on.   Life goes on while you wait – enjoy these special final days of high school.  Make sure you, your parents, and your counselor agree on your final list of colleges.

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

Not being true to themselves and chasing prestige by applying to too many “reach” schools thinking that it ups their chances.  I tell my students that if you apply to more than one super selective, or Ivy league school – make sure you can stomach one or more rejection letters – you may very well get denied at all of them.  I encourage students to focus on schools that are a good fit all around – academically, financially, and socially -- and to put prestige aside.

What is your single best piece of advice for applicants? 

Be true to yourself and focus on schools that are a good fit and that you are likely to be admitted to rather than schools you are unlikely to be admitted to. If you are in the range of super selective colleges academically, be sure to establish genuine interest and passion for that specific community – visit, engage in discussions with admissions, sit in on a class, and be  yourself and things will likely go well.

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

I try to visit as many colleges and universities as I can in a year and participate in college fly-in programs or just tour when I am traveling on my own, so that I can get first-hand information about a lot of schools.  It helps me to recommend colleges outside of a students’ familiarity.  Also I tell them to look beyond the rankings and to read about Colleges that Change Lives to get a different perspective about what is important.    I talk to students and parents all the time about considering schools in other areas of the country if it is within their means. 

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

Six to eight these days.  Enough so that they can compare financial packages and costs and weigh pluses and minuses about the community and location.

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

I encourage students to use some of the printed material that I still find excellent – Fiske Guide and Ruggs Recommendations, and then utilize our Naviance site. Do a search by entering criteria, and look at the data of what their chances of admission are. Ultimately they should set goals, then go to the college websites, search academic departments, admissions websites, register for an online chat session, and schedule a visit.  In addition, we are lucky to have over 200 college representatives visit us in the fall for a high school visit from September through November and this is the best opportunity at Conestoga to get to speak to an admission officer and hear what they have to say about their school.  The search is a process and the most valuable thing they can do is to spend time actively doing all of the above.

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? 

Perhaps – if they don’t have background knowledge, then it is our responsibility to reach them earlier in the process to ensure their knowledge of what classes to take, how to prepare for standardized tests, and to understand what they must accomplish in high school to be a good candidate as a senior. We have some special populations at Conestoga with which we focus on doing just that - starting in ninth grade.

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

Schedule a conference with their son or daughter’s counselor.  If they work during the day, send an email and ask the counselor their availability in the evening or for a phone conference.  High school counselors have so much information they can provide to put parents at ease and/or to give them a “to do” list to help their son or daughter.

What is your best advice for families about financial aid? 

Apply no matter what, don’t worry about checking the box on the application that they plan to apply for financial aid – some think this hurts their chances of admission – it doesn’t.  Discuss college affordability with their child openly and with the child’s counselor – make a plan to research each college’s aid and scholarship polices.  Use the Net Price Calculator on each college website to determine an estimate of what aid/scholarships they would be eligible for.

Finding scholarships can be a time- and labor-intensive task, any advice or tips for students and families? 

Applying for federal and state financial aid and applying to any college for aid automatically will be a huge step in finding federal, state, and college based funding.  Then, in addition, talk to the school counselor about how to learn about local  scholarships and by doing so, the counselor knows you are looking and may forward information when they get it or may nominate the student for scholarships that come through the high school’s Scholarship and Awards Committee.  At Conestoga, everything we get in the mail for local and private scholarships gets entered onto our Naviance site on a list and is accessible to parents and students.  You really have to spend time researching and hunting and pecking for these smaller scholarships.  I once went to a conference where a young man who had much success in winning many scholarships said, “I took a picture with my phone of every poster that hung in our school’s hallways that mentioned scholarship and followed up on every lead I got through email and websites”…. This takes persistence and should be worked on the entire senior year. 

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

I still think The Gatekeepers, by Jacques Steinberg gives parents a very good view of what happens behind closed doors.  I like the Fiske Guide, and still refer to Loren Pope’s Colleges that Change Lives, and Looking Beyond the Ivy League.  Also some of Fred Ruggs’ lists in Ruggs Recommendations are very helpful.  There are also good lists in  US News and World Report as well but I try to encourage families not to rely on rankings for fear that they will become more important than the fit. I am also currently reading David and Goliath by Malcome Gladwell where he brilliantly describes the benefits of being a big fish in a little pond.However, we have pretty much gone book free in our outer office – the students don’t use them – they rely mostly on social media now for information.  Your book, College Admission: From Application to Acceptance Step by Step, is excellent and could be considered a new favorite! 

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

Our own high school website with Naviance linked up is where we encourage parents and students to go to begin.  Then we would recommend The College Board, ACT, and Fairtest.org.  After that, they are all pretty much the same – Peterson’s, Princeton Review, Kaplan…

Which national issues in admissions most concern you and why? 

1. The race for earlier and earlier deadlines – priority and early action deadlines have made the application season begin in August – before high schools have even opened for the fall.  This is way too early for seniors to be pressured into making good decisions and has caused the proliferation of applications and the competition for early spots get out of hand.  2.  May 1st reply date is constantly being challenged by colleges putting pressure on students to deposit early – it is complicated but so necessary that NACAC stand its ground with these challenges to ensure students and families have time to make the best decision for them. 3.  College Affordability – I feel the pendulum swinging back towards elitism.  College tuition is out of control and only the very rich can afford to pay such astronomical prices so all others are taking on huge debt to make it happen.  I am concerned that the folks in the middle are getting squeezed out given that aid is being re-directed to low income families – which I agree with but this leaves a wide gap for middle class families who will not be able to afford private colleges – small private colleges will suffer the most.  Small liberal arts colleges may very well struggle to stay afloat.

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 was fortunate a few years ago to visit a high school in Massachusetts that has made major strides in narrowing their achievement gap and increased their students of color representation in the National Honor Society and selective college admission.  We learned a ton on that trip about the work that needs to be done to support these students in our predominantly white schools. Since that visit, I have worked within my own district with a talented and motivated group of teachers to bring some of the same strategies to Conestoga so that we can make similar progress with our students of color.  I am learning that there is no easy answer or quick fix to the issues regarding the achievement gap and while we have made strides, there is still work to be done to ensure all of our students are getting a fighting chance to navigate the college admission process with great outcomes and success.

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

Personable, involved in professional associations, accessible, relate well to staff and students, and work consistently with “students’ best interest” in mind, inspirational, smart.



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