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Students Ask, College Counselors Answer

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This week's question from Jamie S., Rutland, VT asks:

In all of your year working with students, what were some of the most unexpected successes you witnessed – I could use a little pick me up!

A few pick me ups from my inbox

Marilyn Emerson | Founder
“…I could not have picked a better university; Penn State is truly amazing and has been providing me with so many opportunities.” “…your belief that our daughter could make it into Syracuse gave her the confidence to try and ultimately realize her dream.” “…I also wanted to share with you the exciting news that I was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa – I think it is safe to say we found the right place for me!” Success really is about finding the right fit. 

Always better than a pay raise

Esther Walling | College Counselor
I had a young lady who was qualified in every respect for application to UCLA, except her legal status. That worried her to no end. The day I intimated she "got in" was one of the most outstanding moments of my career.  You've never seen eyes get so big and begin watering out of excitement and happiness, nor received the tightest hugs and jumping up and down. Later, I got a phone call from this same young woman about completing her classes at UCLA a quarter early. In the midst of her celebration and wearing her sash from UCLA, she presented me with a birthday cake. I LOVE MY JOB!

An A+ inspiring story

Kiersten Murphy | Director
Recently, I came across a transfer student who was addicted to drugs and alcohol and was arrested several times in high school.  At one point he even lived on the streets. At the time of our working relationship, he had been sober 18 months, was living a healthy lifestyle and earning straight A’s at his community college.  He had submitted to Mount Rainier, ran marathons and worked as a personal trainer.  He also served as a mentor to others in the recovery process.  He applied to three colleges last fall, and was admitted to all of them.  He was quite frank about his background to the admissions counselors and was admitted to his first choice.

Being realistic, and being surprised!

Bridget Herrera | College Counselor
If a student thinks he or she doesn’t have a chance at a particular college, they probably really don’t (let’s be thankful for those who are realistic!).  What is more exciting is working with students who don’t think they have a chance to go to college--period.  I can remember one student in Ecuador—passionate about Biology—who perhaps had about a $3,000 family contribution.  She had a lot going for her but her test scores were average and high need.  When the fax came from Davidson with her financial aid award, she ran out of my office yelling, “I’m going to college!  I’m going to college!” She thought she didn’t have a chance.  That was a really good day.  

Community college can be your ticket to success

Pam Proctor | Author
Acing your grades at a community college could save you money up front and set you up for admission and big bucks at a top four-year college when you transfer -- especially if you earn the coveted Phi Theta Kappa award. That’s the two-year college equivalent of Phi Beta Kappa, the most prestigious academic honor available at four-year colleges. Follow the footsteps of a community college student from Florida whose Phi Theta Kappa distinction paved the way for a big surprise: $88,000 in merit money over two years at a leading private college in California.

Community college can fulfill a dream and make it affordable

Donnamarie Hehn | Director of College Guidance
Marty could only dream about NYU, given her less than stellar high school grades.  She was neither academically nor emotionally ready for college. After a 2 ½ year hiatus from academics filled with work, travel and volunteering, Marty gravitated back to school.  She chose to enroll in the local community college, now possessing greater self-awareness, motivation and sense of purpose. This past May Marty earned her associate degree with honors, plus a prestigious state university award.  The community college experience turned her life around, and also made college affordable. Winning a scholarship reserved for community college transfers, Marty will realize her dream and enroll at NYU this fall.

Community college can fulfill a dream and make it affordable

Jane Klemmer | Founder
Marty could only dream about NYU, given her less than stellar high school grades.  She was neither academically nor emotionally ready for college. After a 2 ½ year hiatus from academics filled with work, travel and volunteering, Marty gravitated back to school.  She chose to enroll in the local community college, now possessing greater self-awareness, motivation and sense of purpose. This past May Marty earned her associate degree with honors, plus a prestigious state university award. The community college experience turned her life around, and also made college affordable.  Winning a scholarship reserved for community college transfers, Marty will realize her dream and enroll at NYU this fall.

Community college stand-out

Anne Johnson | Director of Admission
One quiet and shy student lived 5 miles away, and I was sure he’d never even make the trek for a visit. But he did. And he came to orientation. And he loved it! He went from wanting two years and then a natural resources job to a four-year Montana college to an eventual PhD in hydrology. The last time the instructor heard from him (a year or so ago) he called from his corporate jet, landed at our small northwest Iowa airport and stopped for an hour visit. He came a long way from that high school boy who was a middle-of-the-road student and couldn’t even look me in the eye!

Don't let others' expectations determine your future

Kristen Tabun | Director of College Guidance
Several years ago, a student entered our school whose challenges with learning were so significant that his parents were told from various professionals there was a chance he would not graduate from high school.  Fortunately, he was not deterred by these comments and chose to work hard and accept the help he was offered.  Throughout high school, he pursued his passion for the environment and took advantage of every opportunity to learn both in and out of the classroom. He not only graduated high school, but earned several college acceptances with merit-based scholarships.  This student never stopped seeing the possibilities for himself; his efforts were justly rewarded as a result.

Enhanced study skills=better grades and more college choices

Joan Casey | President
“Anna” came to us during sophomore year with dreams of attending medical school. Yet she had a B- average and test anxiety. Over the summer we helped analyze her study habits and come up with a concrete plan for the next school year. One of Anna’s strengths was her leadership in extracurricular involvement. We encouraged her to apply her enthusiasm to her medical interests—and she landed a paid summer position in a top tier medical research lab. When junior year rolled around, she put her new study plan in place and earned much stronger grades and improved SAT scores. This upward trend combined with her compelling activities helped her gain admission to her top college choice.

Follow your dream, keep it alive, and you will succeed

Diana Hanson | Independent College Consultant
One student dreamed of attending UC Berkeley. His 3.6 average and middling SATs, by the numbers, wouldn't get him in. However, this student's positive attitude and amazing work ethic helped him create his success. He took a strong academic load and participated in sports; he also took care of his younger siblings and was, in many ways, the adult in his single parent family. He wrote a strong essay about his family life and was rewarded with acceptance to Cal! Students take many roads to college success.

From chaos and confusion to the right fit and a great scholarhip

Jill Greenbaum | Founder
A high school junior came to me clutching a paper with the names of 21 schools written on it. The list included the university his father attended, where he went to special summer camps, and big names schools that sounded impressive.  After coaching with me he found the right match, applied early decision, was accepted and received a scholarship for $30,000 per year.  From complete confusion to the right school with a great scholarship-awesome!

From insecure, classroom disappointment to playwright actress

Nicole Oringer | Partner
Sarah went from hiding in the corner of the sofa in our waiting room, hair covering her face, to writing and performing plays, cutting her hair, and announcing 'tada' to us when she arrived, just for fun. We worked with Sarah for four years – curriculum tutoring focused on reading and writing, test prep, and college counseling. Her grades went from C/D to A/B. We were not the only influences in Sarah's life, but we know that as her cheer leading team we were part of her transformation and eventual admission to a selective school, where she is thriving.

Give maximum effort and work hard to the very end

Craig Meister | President
The maxim, “Where there is a will, there is a way” certainly applies to college admissions. I’ve supported students of all achievement levels, and the one characteristic that unites all those students who meet with admissions success is that they subscribe to the above truism. The will to work and achieve always wins out in the end. Whether the student who only started and finished his Dartmouth application on New Year’s Eve and still got in or the student who transferred from an average state university to Georgetown, to those with focus and perseverance happy endings happen all the time.

Hard work and prep proves worthwhile on SAT

Jolyn Brand | Founder & Director
One student, Michael, got a great score on the Math portion of the SAT but his Reading and Writing scores weren't so stellar. I created a personalized tutoring plan for him over the next six weeks to focus on his weaknesses. The College Board report stated that students with his scores should expect an increase of 16 points. But we were thrilled to find out that his scores increased a whopping 190 points!

It’s never too late to finish strong!

Stephanie Meade | Owner
Some students who struggled in 9th and 10th grades, or got serious about school a little late in the game have had some surprisingly happy college stories. One student with a gpa below 3.0 was admitted to 3 private colleges in Florida this spring with yearly scholarships of 10, 21, and 24 thousand dollars respectively. Another with a learning disability was accepted to 12 colleges, and almost had a breakdown because it was so difficult to choose just one! Both of these students brought their grades up, built thoughtfully researched college lists, and wrote honest essays about their academic challenges.

It’s the unexpected successes that bring vitality to college admissions

Amy Swords | Director of College Advising
When a student identifies a college or university that appeals to them as much as I expected it would, I know I’ve hit a home-run. Yet there are times when a student ends up somewhere that I never expected him/her to be happy. And when that student sends me an email from college to say “thanks,” or just to keep in touch, it gives me the momentum to work just as hard for future students. If they follow the process and do their research, there is no doubt they will find the best place for themselves…whether it’s a school from my list, their list, or our list.

Never give up on your college dreams

Kathryn Favaro | Independent College Admissions Counselor
While the process can sometimes take longer than expected and you may encounter some bumps along the way, persistence leads to getting accepted by some wonderful colleges. One of my students thought no college would accept him due to his low test scores and failing grades senior year. He made-up his poor grades with online courses. He contacted his colleges and asked what else he could do to improve his chances of admission. He sent in an additional essay and a new letter of recommendation explaining his recent struggles. After all of this work, he was accepted by one of his top schools and is a happy, successful student entering his sophomore year.

Not all students follow a traditional path

John Frahlich | Counseling Department Chair
An unexpected student success that I vividly remember involves an intelligent and articulate young lady who struggled through school. She seemed to be her own worst enemy and her self-defeating behaviors caused her to be in danger of failing most classes. She aspired to attend college but was not a good fit for high school. She was on the verge of dropping out when we proposed a paradoxical approach- graduate in three years. Many staff balked at the idea but she rose to the challenge, proved naysayers wrong, started college in a two year program and is now completing a graduate degree!

Not an unexpected admit, but an unexpected surprise

John Carpenter | Founder
The truth is that there really are very few surprises in college admissions when what the student offers matches what the institution's priorities or needs are.  However, one year, I was working with eight or nine kids who had all applied to the same highly selective university in a restricted early admissions program.  The surprise wasn't who was admitted or who wasn't; the surprise came during my conversation with the admissions officer who clearly had done his homework and knew each of the kid's applications in amazing detail.  It reaffirmed for me that admissions officers do indeed make significant effort to know applicants in order to make the best decisions--no matter how difficult.

One Senior's success: he did not give up

Maureen Lawler | College Counselor
I had one of those unexpected success stories this year.  One of my seniors, a hardworking and determined young man, applied to several selective schools.  We talked about his choices.  I explained I could not guarantee acceptance to many of his choices.  He was denied as an ED applicant at one school but this did not discourage him.  He knew the odds were against him.  I am happy to say that one school considered the whole student and did not rely solely on grades or test scores.  Come August he will be attending the college of his choice.

Our students’ successes warms my heart

Jeannie Borin | Founder & President
One is a very special girl with a heart of gold. Her numbers (GPA/test scores) were slightly above average, but her creativity, resume, compelling essays and the way she applied her learned knowledge soared. She, in fact, inspired me. She is at her first choice school, accepted at many, and thriving. A boy comes to mind that dealt with and overcame a cancer diagnosis, but stayed the course. His grades suffered and he was academically behind his peers. However, his application document was pristine. He discussed overcoming adversity in the most profound way. He is excelling at his first choice college and will be a junior this fall.

Parent's thanks

Marie Bullock | Independent Counselor
I have been pleasantly surprised in my career with some of the "thank you"s I have received from parents who initially totally disagreed with advice I had given them and their children.  Many of the parents I have dealt with are as young as my own children and, perhaps, my "generational" perspective was not always welcomed.  I strongly believe that as children move toward college choices and decisions they must also move toward finding their own path.  Parents can be loving and all concerned, but this can also be overwhelming for kids who truly must start to make their own way. 

Persistence paves the way for the Dream School! 

Sandy Furth | College Advisor
I was working with a student this past year who really did not find her academic footing until just this past year. Her GPA and test scores were a bit 'under the weather' until the end of her junior year and start of senior year. With a shot out of the gate senior year, she had high hopes for a school that I thought was quite a reach, and perhaps beyond reach. With a well-crafted list of schools, we included this 'dream school'. This student spoke to admissions, took seriously what she needed to do on the ACT, and besides the fact that she took several tests beyond the suggested number, she was admitted to this dream school.

Persistent, post-graduate, and Division I dreams come true

Pamela Ellis | Founder
Persistence is the common denominator among students who have taken a gap year in order to gain acceptance to their dream colleges. These students had an interest in playing sports at the collegiate level. While each played sports competitively during high school, each needed the additional time and demonstrated academic rigor to advance to the Division 1 levels. Each student attended a selective boarding school post-graduate and is now playing basketball at Dartmouth, and the other is playing lacrosse at Davidson.

Reach high, but always have a great back up plan!

Shelly Levine | Certified Educational Planner
Recently, I met a talented young man who had been rejected twice (once during high school and again during his gap year) by the same highly selective university. Somewhat desperate for appropriate next steps, his parents contacted me. Long story short, this terrific student enrolled at University of St. Andrews in Scotland the following fall. St. Andrew’s was a perfect match for his international interest, academic strengths, and career focus. He is thrilled with his experience (and secretly happy he was rejected by his then, first choice university. We all think St. Andrews turned out to be his dream school.

Rejected, rejected. SWIRL. Admitted. Admitted.

Rebecca Joseph | Executive Director & Founder
Senior year Bryan got rejected from both USC and UCLA because his test scores were so low they couldn’t make up for great grades and extraordinary activities. After one successful, active year at a private east-coast college, he still wanted to attend UCLA or USC. So he became a swirl. He returned to LA, attended a community college where he joined the Scholars Program, completed all of his transfer requirements, aced his classes, and got a job. Now with no testing requirements, he prepared great new applications and got admitted to both USC and UCLA. College dreams can come true-just at different times.

Somebody has to get in; why not you?

Lora Lewis | Founder & Educational Consultant
Lisa had a 4.3 GPA, a near-perfect SAT math score, and impressive extracurricular activities, but she was convinced she’d end up studying astrophysics at a large state university. Her dream school, she confided, was Harvard. “But I’ll never get in,” she lamented. “They take 7% of applicants.” “That means somebody gets in,” I said. “Why not you?” She applied to Harvard and several other colleges that were far less selective. That spring, against the odds, she became one of the Harvard 7%. It just goes to show: You’ll never know unless you apply. Breathe deeply and go for it!

Sometimes good things do happen, but we all don’t win the lottery

Hamilton Gregg | Educational Consultant
This year I had a student denied at his dream school in California. He wrote to ask me if he had a chance if he appealed the decision. I was a bit skeptical. He told me his chances were slim, but the school did have a policy of accepting appeals and that the student needed to be clear in why they were asking. He wrote a very clear statement make very specific points. In late May he was admitted. While it is rare in this time of competitive admissions to “come out of the hole of denial” this student took the risk, accepted that his chances were slim, and took on the responsibility of writing a strong appeal.

Student accepted for all the right reasons!

Joanna Schultz | Director of College Counseling
Several years ago, my student applied to an ultra-selective liberal arts college.  She didn’t have a 4.0 average, and her SAT scores were average at best, but she was not a mediocre student.   Her English and history teachers called her a “brilliant thinker” and all agreed that she was an extraordinary person and leader.  During her senior year, she and her younger brother raised over $80,000.00 for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation!  She was accepted to her college and became its student council president!  (They told me, though, not to count of them admitting a student with those numbers again!)

Successes all around…

Christopher Kaiser | Associate Dean of Undergraduate Students
Throughout my 16+ years working in Higher Education, I have certainly seen countless successes.  At each commencement I marvel at the students who walk across the dais and receive their diplomas.  It is a great accomplishment and very gratifying for me, especially knowing all the hard work they put into getting their education and degree.  Some students with whom I personally worked through some of their lowest points in their academic career, recognizing this, find me wherever I may be and take time to thank me.  It is encouraging and always one of the best pick-me-ups.  So, if you ever need a pick me up, go to a college graduation and watch what happens.

Surprises can happen when they see the whole person

Bill Pruden | Head of Upper School, College Counselor
Well conducted searches aimed at achieving the right match for a student greatly reduce the chance of surprises—good or bad.  However, they do occur and the happy ones are generally a tribute to hard work by admissions office personnel who look beyond the surface, beyond the numbers to discover the real person, to understand and appreciate their full character and passion--for example, seeing beyond the title of Editor and recognizing a student journalist’s underlying passion for truth telling--and in doing so recognizing just what it is that the individual will bring to their college community—and beyond.

The best fit is different for everyone

Rachel Smith-Vaughan | College Guidance Counselor
Yearly, there are students who are reluctant to speak with me because they assume that they will not be able to attend college because their parents cannot afford tuition, travel, room, and board.  Fortunately, through the generosity of colleges, the students are able to matriculate and complete a higher education degree. I have also worked with students whose grades did not reflect their potential. However, they were leaders in the school, actively involved within their communities and achieved high SAT scores. These students were able to matriculate into their dream school. Don’t despair; remember there is a university for everyone.  Make sure you apply to the universities which are the best “fit” for you.

The reason I do this: accomplishments that bring me joy

Janet Rosier | Independent College Admissions Consultant
A few years ago I worked with a wonderful young lady who, for various reasons, had not been successful in high school. After some persuasion, she went to a college that was not her first choice, but one where she had a chance to grow as a student. After two years at this college she had blossomed-- she had developed study skills, excellent grades and had the chance to become a leader. Having gained new skills, accomplishments and confidence, she transferred to a very competitive college where she is both very successful and happy.  

Why we do what we do

Roby Blust | Dean of Admissions & Enrollment Planning
I was heading out of my office a couple of years ago in May and I was approached by a young man.  He looked familiar, but I wasn’t quite sure.  He came right up to me and extended his hand.  He said, “Dean Blust, you might not remember me, but 3 years ago you took a chance on me coming from a community college to Marquette.  Next week I will graduate from MU, and you changed my life, and I just wanted to say thanks.”  We shook hands, and I try to recall that story whenever I question why I do this work.


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