Will Cardamone, Manlius Pebble Hill School

William Cardamone grew up in New York State, the youngest of ten children. His father was a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals and his parents pinned their hopes for a lawyer from the family on their youngest son, the only one of the ten who seemed interested in the law. Cardamone obliged -- in his own time -- graduating from Hamilton College and spending three years in the West as a wilderness guide before attending Vermont Law School.

But then he took another detour, teaching social studies for four years to 11th and 12th graders at Woodstock High School in Vermont's capital. He returned to the law for a few years, practicing employment and education law at a firm in Utica, New York. Until he visited a former advisor at his alma mater of Hamilton and spent the next eight years in their admission office, rising to Associate Dean of Admission.

While his wife, also a "recovering attorney," says Cardamone, rose in the ranks of her family's business which she would eventually lead, he found his true calling, As he worked with independent high schools in the region, recruiting for Hamilton, he said, "That's the job I want." In 2006, he joined Manlius Pebble Hill School in DeWitt, New York, as Dean of Students, eventually becoming Director of College Counseling in 2010.

Manlius Pebble Hill is an independent school founded in 1970 when Manlius and Pebble Hill schools merged. Manlius was originally founded 143 years ago and was for many years a training ground for students heading to the service academies, particularly West Point. But in the sixties, as the Viet Nam War escalated, enrollment plummeted and the school merged with the all-girls Pebble Hill School. Today Manlius Pebble Hill is well established in the region, drawing 460 students in pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade from about a 70-mile radius. As well, about 10 to 15% of the school's student population are international students, primarily coming from China and Korea and living with local families.

As the sole college counselor for the school, Cardamone works with about 65 students at any time and says that, as a result, he particularly appreciates the resources and colleagues of the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools (ACCIS), with which he is active.   Applying to college "is a critical juncture in the family's life," says Cardamone.  "I really think an outstanding counselor is a good family therapist. Many families don't talk about these big issues until they're forced to in the college application process. I carefully observe the family dynamic so I can best serve the student. That's the most challenging and interesting part of the work for me." And he's in it for the long haul, though he does admit to missing the classroom and would love to have the opportunity to go back and teach at some point. But Director of College Counseling is "the perfect job for me," he says.

Outside of the office, for Cardamone, there's a lot of road biking, any kind of recreation his knees allow and gardening. But he is also "Mr. Mom" -- with his wife traveling often for work, he does all the cooking, cleaning, and laundry for his family of four. "And Daddy is a school bus," he says. Both his son and daughter attend Manlius Pebble Hill and commute along with their dad. 

Read on as Cardamone generously shares his wisdom on financial aid, researching colleges, the biggest mistake students make in applying to college and how many colleges he applied to…


How did you become a college counselor?

As a former attorney, I understood some aspects of the “counselor” role and as a former high school history teacher, I always loved working with teens.  As a grade 11 US history teacher, I wrote countless college recommendation letters and provided loads of informal college counseling.  Then after working for eight years in the Hamilton College Admission office, I developed the requisite knowledge from that side of desk. So, when a college counseling position at an independent school presented itself, I knew it was time to get back to my passion for working with high school students full-time.


What is your motto?

Believe in yourself! There are a whole bunch of colleges that would love to enroll a student just like you.  The most successful students I work with take responsibility for the college admission process.  So, students: "this is your process- own it" and parents: "allow your child to own the process."


How many colleges did you apply to? And how is the process different?

One. I was accepted Early Decision I (ED I).  Since I applied to college, technology has transformed the process tremendously.  With globalization and technical innovation, the volume of applications worldwide grew exponentially, so naturally it is a more competitive process.  However, at its core the admission process has not changed all that much.  It is still about students authentically presenting themselves to colleges and colleges thoughtfully determining which of those applicants are a good fit for their institution that year.


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

No.  However, this work should focus on helping students better understand themselves as a student and as a teenager.  Work in freshman and sophomore year should help students become a more successful high school student both in and out of the classroom.  During these critical, formative years our school focuses on helping students develop their potential with an eye toward what they hope to get out of college without undue focus on where they will go to college.


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

Don’t be shy but be respectful of their time.  I am always excited to meet with students.  However, I appreciate when a student acknowledges that my schedule is busy before asking for a meeting. Also, be honest. It is hard for a counselor to counsel if a student is not being forthright with them.  I also think it is useful to view the relationship you have with your counselor as an opportunity to develop skills around interacting with a working professional.  For instance: I think it is great when a student stops by the college counseling office and asks our office coordinator if I prefer informal “drop by” meetings or setting up a formal meeting time via email.  These interpersonal skills will be essential when they arrive at college.


What are the five most important things for seniors to accomplish in the fall?

1. Do good work in senior year courses.

2. Take the time to assemble authentic and well-stated applications.

3. If you plan further standardized testing, commit to it.  Prepare appropriately, balancing preparation with other competing priorities and then give it your very best shot on test day.

4. Enrich your community in whatever forum you are passionate about.

5. Have honest conversations with your family about college financing.


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

Juniors' primary focus should be to do well in junior year courses.  Engage meaningfully in any programs or activities conducted by your college counseling office.  Once you receive results of the PSAT in December, start mapping out a standardized testing plan for the spring of junior year. At a minimum, all students should sit for one SAT and one ACT by the end of the school year.  Junior year is a great time to let your star shine in your favorite activities - light it up! Colleges will notice.  As you begin planning visits to college campuses, have open and honest conversations with parents about financing your college education and what is truly affordable.


At this time of year, there's a lot of anxiety as deadlines near and early decisions loom. What advice do you have for students?

Finish strong, work hard as you near the finish line of this long process.  Most of you have applied yourselves to many academic and extra-curricular endeavors throughout your high school years.  You earned the right at this critical juncture to tell your story; don’t hold back on sharing your accomplishments in the form of applications to college.  Since you have come this far, don’t let up when it comes time to craft authentic and artful applications.  This is your opportunity to tell your story to colleges - they want to hear your voice come through the application - convey your story well.  Believe in yourself, believe in the process and believe in the system.  With all the hoopla around issues with the Common Application - you need to trust that college admission offices will make sure to get your applications properly loaded into their systems and admission officers will treat your applications with respect.


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

Trying to ascertain what a college is looking for in an application and attempting to assemble an application that meets this misguided criteria.   No such “secret formula” exists and students can’t possibly get an accurate picture of what exactly a college is looking for in an applicant.  Trying to ferret this out will just prevent the student from authentically telling their story which in the end is the very best a student can do in an application.

Next would be overreaching (applying to too many “reach” schools) without considering the impact a stack of rejection letters will have on their psyche.


What is your single best piece of advice for applicants?

Authentically tell your story.  If your true story resonates with a college, it will position you well for admission.  Be yourself!


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

I constantly remind students it is not “where you go” but “what you do when you get there”.  I tell them that there are many colleges they may not know about that could be very good match if they keep an open mind.  I encourage them to check out Colleges that Change Lives (CTCL).  I also use our alumni network of recent graduates who are happily attending colleges that may be lesser known.


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

Excluding ED applications, most students should apply to 6-10 schools (along an appropriate selectivity spectrum) depending on a variety of factors. Those factors include: the amount of time they have available to artfully complete applications; whether they are seeking scholarships (usually means a higher number of applications to increase odds of landing scholarships); and how many application fees they can afford (assuming the student does not qualify for fee waivers).


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

Visiting a college campus is the best way to research a college.  However, the search should start online using Naviance if you school has the program. The College Board search engine is also useful.  Visit individual college websites which are full of useful information.  If you like what you see online, and can make a visit to campus by all means do so. Make sure to use the college website to help plan and schedule your visit appropriately.  However, it is also proper to apply before visiting and then visit the campuses of the colleges that admit you, if interested.


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?

It may be a different timeline. I encourage these students to have open and honest conversations about attending college and financing as early as possible.  Since campus visits for some of these students are not always feasible, I encourage them to visit a few local colleges of different types (even if they are not particularly interested in those institutions) to get a sense of what is out there.


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

First, I remind them of my motto to allow students to "own the process".  As long as we are not up against a critical deadline, I really want to see a student try to resolve issues by meeting with her/his counselor, reaching out to college admission officers appropriately or just rolling up their sleeves to advance the process thoughtfully. Students who take these steps (with minimal parental involvement) are more likely to be successful applicants and successful college students.  If that advice does not assuage them, I encourage them to come for a meeting but insist that the student be present.  I also encourage families to make time to talk about other topics outside of the college application process.  Seniors in high school are doing lots of cool stuff and it is a shame if parents forget to recognize those achievements


What is your best advice for families about financial aid?

Plan early and initiate honest conversations about financing college as early as possible. Always remember, there is often a big difference between the listed "price" of attending an institution and the actual "cost" of attendance.  If a student has their eyes set on a particular institution, use that school's “net price calculator” to get a clearer picture of the cost to attend that school.  If cost is a concern always include on your "apply to" list: in-state schools (where you are likely to be admitted) and schools that are likely to award merit scholarships in addition to need-based aid. Don't miss financial aid deadlines- they are critical and financial aid budgets run dry- you don't want to be late.  Financial aid offices are populated with folks who are happy to talk with families.  These financial aid officers are also sensitive to the delicate nature of family finances and family dynamics - they are there to help you take advantage of their professional expertise.


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

The majority of scholarship money comes from colleges themselves.  Select colleges that interest you, where you are likely to be competitive for a merit award and craft careful applications to those schools. In general, non-college based scholarships are harder to secure. For "big money" scholarships, applicants are typically competing against a much larger, national pool of applicants and it is usually a more time-consuming application process. Contrast these with "small money" local/regional/state scholarships where applicants are typically competing in a smaller pool and these usually are a less time-consuming applications.  Allocate your time wisely.

Favorite websites for scholarship searches:




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

Books? What are books? Just kidding but I would say my most valuable reading these days is the ACCIS e-list and to a lesser extent the NACAC e-list.




The Gatekeepers,Jaques Steinberg

College Un(bound), Jeff Selingo

The Overachievers, Alexandra Robbins

Anything by: Malcom Gladwell, Daniel Pink, Ken Robinson

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

  1. Naviance
  2. FASFA.ed.gov
  3. CollegeAdmissionBook
  4. Colleges That Change Lives (CTCL)
  5. NACAC
  6. Zinch
  7. College Prowler
  8. College Board
  9. ACT
  10. Scholarship sites listed above

Which national issues in admissions most concern you and why?

I am concerned that high school students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds are not getting adequate college counseling and are consequently not applying to and enrolling in college, especially four year colleges.  The voice and perspectives of these students is needed on college campuses and in college classrooms.

I work with Chinese citizens who attend my school and assert that the lack of oversight of commission based agents who "provide college counseling services" is an ongoing national/international issue. As the number of Chinese students attending US college/universities continues to grow, it is important that these future US college students receive thoughtful, legitimate and wise college counseling so they enroll in the right US institutions and for the right reasons.


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?

A good educator never stops learning from their students.  So, I was pleased when one of my seniors approached me about an issue she encountered while completing her grade 11 college counseling survey in Naviance.  She pointed out that the survey asked about each student’s “mother” and “father”.   This student has same gender parents (two mothers) and could not figure out how to answer honestly.  She respectfully pointed out that there were several other members of her graduating class who had same sex parents who faced the same quandary.  Happily, we sat together and changed the survey to ask about “parent 1” and “parent 2”.  This “aha” moment taught me the need to be constantly vigilant to recognizing all kinds of diversity and the impact of failing to recognize that diversity can have on the students/families we serve.


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

Humility, Honesty, Transparency, Student-centered perspective, Approachable,

Interested in big picture issues in higher Ed - beyond concerns of their institutions,

Sense of Humor, Technologically savvy





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