New Beginnings (In Indiana): A Reflection Offered at US Town Meeting

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Last week I spent four days in what is considered America’s heartland, specifically in Indianapolis and nearby Hoosier territory to visit four distinct colleges: DePauw University, not to be confused with DePaul in Chicago; The Rose-Hulman Institute, a so-called MIT of the Midwest; Butler University, where the well-known final basketball scene of the 1986 movie, Hoosiers, was filmed (and for most of you who were born well after the movie’s release, I recommend you see it); and finally, Purdue University, a Big Ten school that is at the tops for producing astronauts.

Aside from passing at 65 miles per hour a large-wheeled tractor on highway 40 on my way to Rose-Hulman in Terre Haute, expansive farmland and flat drives from college to college got me thinking of the meaning of Hoosier, and specifically, when the term turned to an endearing or proud title for Indiana folk. If you look up Hoosier, the origin suggests a meaning related to “a potent connotation of coarseness in manners, appearance and intellect.” Or, in other words, a rustic, a bumpkin, or roughneck. This is also where I was reminded of the power of new beginnings.

You could say the derogatory Hoosier is an insult, or you can say that the hard work, essential work of those in the heartland decided to embrace the term and live up to the strength that the name suggests. I’m sure that is what happened.

So, here I am privileged to begin a new season, a new beginning in Indiana. And, common to many new beginnings, a rejuvenated spirit is present, but this time, it was palpable among the students on each campus. Sure, the day was a sunny, early fall one with students abound. The energy given off by the thousands of students was surely that of a new school year. Whether new or returning, there was a sense of hope and optimism on their faces – and then, I thought of the new school year here at VMS. Still young, it is up to me and you to carry its beginning into a story that ends with a positive connotation. It’s never too late. Perhaps, just in time, to do it all again, yet at some point, your face will be those optimistic, proud, and hopeful faces on the college campus.


Wading Through Puddles

In college admissions, I always said I’d be happy to admit any student from the Pacific Northwest. I found many to be an intriguing read for their eclectic, earthy, worldly, and wholesome lives.  Interestingly enough, I discovered the same words describe the five treasure schools that I visited during my recent visit to Washington and Oregon.  Each still had their own distinct vibe and personality.  Like many students find a connection or disconnect with a place, I too went with my gut on this whirlwind college counselor tour.  Here are my reactions . . .

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University of Puget Sound – Tacoma, WA

University of Puget Sound is ambitious in its mission without trying to be another school.  It’s 25% increase in applications is proof.  A student said, “Professors are good at observing their students and providing opportunities.  It is not uncommon to walk out of a professor’s office with a plan for life.”  A strikingly pleasant campus . . . yoga mats were often in tow as students strolled through a place that feels like home.

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Whitman College – Walla Walla, WA

For an intellectual place, Whitman College is as humble as the quaint community of Walla Walla.  Their extremely comprehensive outdoors program mimics what we know well as VMS community members.  With a mix of outdoor enthusiasts, it is also a land for really cool hipsters.

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Reed College – Portland, OR

Hogwarts? A bit, but really, Reed is truly a one-of-a kind institution.  It’s a darkly intellectual institution where competition is welcomed, yet the slogan “work hard, think hard for whom it is a good fit is life changing” is like a breath of fresh air and a bolt of sunlight to the Reedies.  The Honor Principle is the guiding code on campus and is often deemed as one of the best things about the school.  The other best thing is the extensive labor necessary to successfully complete a thesis that will be forever bound and housed in the library’s thesis tower.  I found the comic book reading room most interesting . . . .

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Willamette University – Salem, OR

Did you know the current governor of Oregon eats lunch in the dining hall nearly every day?  The food is good and the state capitol is across the street from campus.  This spirited school has a soul and the president thinks so too.  He’s been at the helm for little over a year after growing up on campus as his father was a renowned biology professor years back.  The aesthetically pleasing campus not only has a natural stream running through campus, it also has a man-made stream that acts as a lazy river when the sun shines.  My preferred spot was under the star trees.

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Lewis and Clark College – Portland, OR

Its Asian infused beauty puts it high up on the rankings for most beautiful campus.  The peaceful, tranquil nature of campus makes it easy on the senses and the welcoming nature of faculty, staff and students would entice anyone to enroll and be a part of this diverse living-learning village. The iridescent green moss on the trees and the exotic summer camp setting make it a perfect place to film a sequel to The Hobbit.


With any New Year comes promises, well wishes, and goals.  In thinking about my own resolutions for 2014, I naturally turned my thoughts to the college search and the work that will ensue collectively with students in January.

While much has changed over the years with the college search, and for that matter – college in general, there are some aspects that haven’t changed.  Perhaps the single most important ingredient needed in facing the challenge of searching, researching, applying, and making a decision regarding college, is patience–long considered a virtue, and one that has been noted for some to take a lifetime to master.

As a coveted virtue and skill, linked inevitably with emotion, it thus has been incorporated for years in literature and song. Take, for example, the famed Guns N’ Roses’ Patience, which was a popular Billboard hit around the time I was applying to college.  I’m quite sure singing along to this classic proved a stress reducer at one time or another in my teenage years.  We also can be reminded and encouraged through well-known quotes – such as one of my favorites – “patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet” by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

I won’t attempt to compare the college search with love gained or lost (or any other message communicated)–despite common threads–and often the subsequent need for patience. We all find particular meaning in various offerings as we see fit.  I leave a few thoughts for the new year to those seniors who are still awaiting news, and to juniors who in this new journey are jumping in with both feet:

-Be patient with your college search. Don’t assume it will all come easily and quickly.  Like many endeavors, the amount of time and quality invested is often represented in the end.

-Be patient with yourself.  The college search, as a rite of passage, is for growth, maturity and new discoveries.

-Be patient for the sake of being patient.  Exhibiting patience is indicative of mastering emotional intelligence, a skill and asset needed more and more in life.  Think of the college search as gaining more than admission.

-Be patient together.  Let’s make a pact to support one another by listening carefully, being thoughtful in words and actions, and taking deep breaths to maintain balance.  If needed, I’ll be happy to demonstrate my personal favorite stress reliever–singing Guns n’ Roses at the top of my lungs!


I heard a wonderful update the other day about a VMS alumnus who entered his college career studying engineering and enrolling in Air Force ROTC.  While performing quite well the past two years in everything engineering, this student has been recently lured back to his affinity for languages, a talent that was very evident during his upper school years at VMS.  Studying mechanical engineering coupled with his fast growing proficiency and eventual fluency in Russian is a potent combination. Mind you, he will also graduate as an Air Force officer after completing ROTC in college.  Despite this student being, perhaps, the next VMS alumnus to follow closely with big contributions undoubtedly in his future, I offer you this caveat as it relates to a WSJ article I read, and immediately thereafter, posted in Naviance as recommended reading for both students and parents.

It is no secret that many students  – statistics indicate 50% and upward – change their major or add an additional major of interest while in college.  Also, it is prevalent among younger generation adults to have multiple careers in their lifetime.  These already well-known facts only scratch the surface of Dr. Peter Cappelli’s recent argument: Why Focusing Too Narrowly in College Could Backfire.  I urge you to read the article:

In the meantime, here are some of his take away points to consider while you think critically about your college search and academic declarations:

  • the economy is too unpredictable to determine where jobs will be in abundance;
  • aside from geographic location, price and allure, graduation and job-placement rates are telling of an institution’s commitment to prepare their students well;
  • jobs that are hot now, may not be tomorrow (or when you’ve completed your degree);
  • it may be worse to have the wrong career focus in college than having no career focus because specialized skills often are non-transferable;
  • students who pursue a practical route should wait to declare majors and other specializations until later in their academic career to better align with employment openings;
  • students are most successful when pursuing what they excel in and enjoy.

This post is not an endorsement for any one type of education; I firmly believe that finding your interests and strengths is a journey just as the college search in and of itself is a journey.  And it may just take a journey to diversify an education meaningfully and purposefully to warrant the best results.  With that said, as a product of a traditional liberal arts education myself, I appreciate having been able to major in both a natural science and a performing art, and mingled within my four-year program, a study abroad stint to learn a new language and knowledge independent of my coursework on campus.  In 15 years, my education and degrees have presented many conduits for a variety of professional careers; however, I’m glad I made the choice to be a college counselor.

Zeroing In

A major deadline – November 1st – has come and gone with more happiness than angst, though clearly more smiles now than on the days leading up to the first official deadline of application season.  Many final touches on applications were made during that time –  altering punctuation, adjusting word count, editing to be certain an essay question was adequately answered, or coming up with the seemingly perfect word to satisfy a “think quickly” prompt – such as, what final jeopardy category would ensure your victory?

Nevertheless, as all of the pieces continue to fall into place while the days tick away and the college search’s end nears, it is important for seniors to also make final adjustments to their list of colleges.  That said, students should be open to making tweaks along the way and there are myriad reasons.  For example, the student has lost interest and will eliminate a school because they are not compelled enough to complete another writing supplement.  Or maybe, the student is admitted to a first choice school or the contrary, is not admitted, which triggers an addition to their regular deadline list. As you evaluate your list one last time, or get closer to that last look, keep the following in mind:

  • Your final list should be balanced in terms of admission selectivity.  1-2 reach schools; 3-4 probable schools; 2-3 likely schools.  Be honest in your own assessment of your academic and extracurricular profile. Use the colleges’ websites, Naviance, and a reliable source such as the Fiske Guide To Colleges to see how you compare with those students admitted last year.
  • Take inventory of what each application will entail and create a viable plan and timeline for completing the requirements.  If this to-do list is not manageable, pare down your choices as quality is always better than quantity when it comes to college admission.
  • From the first to the last school on your list, be sure you have good reason for applying to each.  You should have extensive knowledge of the schools and therefore, concrete reasons for why the school is a good fit.  “Just to see if I can get in” is not a good reason.
  • After taking full inventory of each school, you should feel happy to attend any of the schools on your list regardless of whether they are a reach, probable, or a likely school.
  • If financial-aid will be a factor in choosing a college, be sure you have visited the financial-aid website for each school on your list and take the time to utilize the colleges’ net price calculator to ascertain a financial-aid award estimate.

For the seniors, it is rewarding to cross this bridge and give yourself a pat on the back.  For students just now beginning the college search and developing their initial list, keep the preceding advice in mind but also see my tip sheet below – Ms. Ferrara’s Ten Suggestions for Creating a Winning College List. It will prove valuable, mostly ensuring later in the process that the above final check and confirmation is an easy one.

1. Throw away all preconceived notions and recognize and concede your own biases about college–specifically types, styles, locations or name. What has been your frame of reference for evaluating a college? Could you think differently as you begin your search?

2. Construct your list based on the values, qualities and criteria important to you that you deem would be a good fit based on the personal inventory reflection. Don’t begin with the cherry on top.  In other words, don’t necessarily begin with prestigious or well-known institutions that impress the general public, your parents, your friends, or the editors that create the rankings.

3. Be willing to consider colleges outside your “comfort zone,” particularly as it relates to geographic location.

4. Know that the college list will evolve as you change throughout the next few months. The initial list is simply a place to start and your final list will be representative of you.

5. No more than 9-10 colleges on your final list.

6. To get there, research, research, research and research more! College websites are most beneficial as are the written guides. Remember to put yourself on the college’s mailing list, particularly if you are intrigued.

7. Find schools that resemble your high interest colleges, but may be less competitive or don’t have the prestige factor. Don’t become too attached to any one college; there isn’t just one match for you.

8. Diversify your list so that it includes Reach, Probable, and Likely colleges. And, getting to your final list, you will narrow it to approximately 8 schools, still keeping a balance of schools. Choose a Likely over another Likely or a Reach over another Reach, never choose a Reach over a Probable or a Likely over a Probable.

9. Take inventory of your reactions to colleges as you research and visit the campuses. Take notes of the how, why, when, what you liked, disliked, and the aspects that made an impression on you. Keep your notes handy so you can review them later. Don’t expect to visit all the colleges on your initial list as that is not the purpose of it. Rather, research thoroughly.

10. Don’t confuse a college’s admission selectivity, usually a result of its name popularity and recognition or other appeal, with its academic rigor and most importantly, how good a match it might be for you.

A VMS Tradition . . . College Essay Night (now with cupcakes)

A colleague asked me what happens at College Essay Night.  Well, several things.  In addition to time spent at the beginning of the school year in English class devoted specifically to college essay writing, College Essay Night provides a milieu–a workshop of sorts–for undivided attention to the inner self.  Three hours are spent receiving feedback from VMS faculty, but mostly the time is spent writing.  Make no mistake, faculty are not rewriting essays, but merely sharing what is inferred and learned from reading the essay.  Jennie Harris, a college admissions counselor from Wake Forest, encourages students to receive feedback on their essays as a way to be sure the message is clear.  Here are the essential questions guiding each tutorial:

  • Does your essay answer the prompt?
  • What did the reader learn about you? Is this the intended meaning of the essay?
  • Is it authentically your essay, your voice?
  • Does your essay need to be edited for mechanics, grammar?

What I like most about this time is the freedom given to the seniors to find a “quiet spot” with their laptop (scrunched under a cubicle, spread out on the stage, curled up on a couch, propped in front of the fireplace).  Most importantly, when schedules are jam-packed it is valuable time awarded to them–along with a peaceful setting–to encourage positive thinking, self-reflection, and writing from an honest place.  Writing is often an individual endeavor, but despite this, and together with a common goal, all of the seniors in attendance created unspoken camaraderie and a sense of accomplishment.

After being offered varied opinion and much food for thought, the final question to be asked of the senior should be: whether or not they feel proudly obliged to share their story – most likely with strangers?  And at the end of the evening, when the final touches have been made and the homemade cupcakes have been consumed, the senior’s name on the personal statement can be only one.

An Inside Look at College Admissions

Senior artists create a thank you banner in preparation for a Case Study program with college admission professionals.

How convenient it would be if students could have a voice in college admission committees.  In the admission world, “going to committee” means a student’s application is in some middle percentage of the applicant pool – not admitted, not denied admission after thorough review, often by at least two readers.  The student’s admission fate is eventually decided by a round table discussion of several admission counselors who then take a vote – in “the room” as depicted in the relatively new film, Admission, with Paul Rudd and Tina Fey.  Which aspects of the application are discussed?  What questions about the applicant are posed?  What about the applicant is compelling?  Of the applicants, whose story is authentic and who is genuinely interested in attending this school?

VMS juniors, seniors, and their families will have an opportunity to be a member of an eight person mock admission committee led by one of 24 admission counselors representing various colleges around the country.  The overarching goal is to answer some of the questions posed above and understand the thought process in evaluating each student’s story.  Attaining this goal, students will realize that many colleges do read holistically and do think critically and thoughtfully about whether or not each student is an optimal fit for the school.

During my days in college admission, I felt privileged to learn about the students in such personal ways.  Thus, it makes it extremely difficult to cut a student loose, particularly when the student was first introduced at a college fair, later visited campus and interviewed, and then followed up thereafter with an email or additional correspondence.  Unfortunately, easy math suggests that many of those students simply can’t be included in the admit pile at selective and highly selective schools.  Though it was eight years ago, it felt like yesterday that I cried all the way home after a committee meeting.  I knew the student would land at college, and most likely land well.  Nevertheless, I wanted the student to be a part of the community with which I too fell in love.  And, college admission isn’t getting any simpler

Northwestern University’s president, Morton Schapiro, shared with a group of counselors two weeks ago, his struggle with being at a hot, top tier 1 school with a 14% admit rate: With such huge applicant numbers, the admission staff wants to admit and yield students who are top notch and, further, want to be there because they love the place. On the contrary, at a school like Northwestern, you can only imagine all the applicants who want to be there for what the school represents, not for what it is.  As a remedy to preserve the Northwestern spirit and to enroll the students who are best fits, admissions takes up to 40% of the incoming class through Early Decision – a binding agreement between school and applicant that states the student must attend, if admitted, as the first choice school.

There will be a lot to ponder on Sunday, and I trust that the light bulb will go off as the admission process – after the application submit button is hit – is revealed and students will realize what they do have control over as an applicant.  In other words, they do have a voice and it is heard in committee, even if the decision is not up to them.  I look forward to presenting this program, and for the VMS community to welcome the college admission professionals.