Union Guidance Blog

One guidance counselor’s tips for helping students write engaging, effective college essays

  • Monday, July 9th, 2012

Helen Scotte Gordon is the Director of College Counseling at Moses Brown, an independent, college preparatory school in Providence, Rhode Island, founded in 1784 and enrolling 765 boys and girls, nursery through grade 12. Guidance welcomes her perspective to our blog.

As a follow-up to my last post on helping rising seniors kick off their college essays in summer, here are some tips I’ve refined over the years to help students get writing – and retain their authentic, touching teenage voices. I hope other guidance counselors and students will find them useful, as well.

Understand the assignment

The goal for each senior is to share a piece of his or her life story.  I regularly stress that the essay should resemble a “memoir” – a short, informal autobiography, rather than a formal treatise. Admissions deans want to develop a sense of each candidate beyond the transcript and test scores.

Start small when brainstorming

Too often, seniors presume they must write about a momentous occasion or an event of huge importance.  Instead, I encourage students to focus on smaller experiences or events: a sibling relationship, part-time job, favorite hobby, family ritual or cool adventure.

Talk it out

When school is in session, I sometimes toss out an essay “prompt” question for discussion, and invite students to record their informal responses via voice memos (or equivalent functions) on their phones.  I’m consistently amazed by the way students “talk” their way through entire essays.  Then, I send seniors off to type up drafts and refine their idea. Rising seniors could try this approach on their own during summer.

Ignore word counts at first

It’s difficult enough to start writing without introducing an immediate constriction. I encourage seniors to focus on one-and-a-half to two pages, double-spaced, for a first draft. Instead of counting words, they should roll out their story. (Trade secret: candidates can upload more than 500 words into the Common Application!) I urge students to utilize the essay writing model employed in their classes (introduction, body, conclusion) and see where their topic leads. The best subject allows them to write easily and comfortably — and even have a little fun. They can always edit and shorten at a later point.

Protect the voice

Admissions officers enjoy late adolescents and like reading their work. They don’t expect students to speak or write like trained lawyers, doctoral candidates or job interviewees.  Admissions deans look forward to intelligent, down-to-earth, 17-year-old observations of the world. One dean regularly tells me he loves “teenage angst!”

Use caution when seeking editors and reviewers

Involving multiple parties in a college essay can lead to frustration and mini-disaster. Each individual will have their own opinion. Some adults know the craft of writing, but do not truly understand what admissions officers seek. Parents often expect more formality than necessary. My best advice to students? Work closely with their guidance counselor or college advisor —and possibly seek out one other person (a teacher, advisor or informed friend) who understands the essay’s purpose.

Read aloud and proof repeatedly

Seniors should proofread their essays carefully — never trust spell check with this job! I recommend students read their text out loud, the old-fashioned way, to catch errors (for example, missing commas!) and assess for flow and awkward phrasing. Reading a piece out loud immediately highlights weak and clunky writing. Final drafts should also include vivid images that allow readers to see, hear and imagine the situation or action.










Categories: General

Helping your students start college essays in the “dog days” of summer

  • Monday, July 2nd, 2012

Helen Scotte Gordon is the Director of College Counseling at Moses Brown, an independent, college preparatory school in Providence, Rhode Island, founded in 1784 and enrolling 765 boys and girls, nursery through grade 12. Guidance welcomes her perspective to our blog.

I am a devout believer in summertime.

My devotion to the season undoubtedly formed during my earliest years.  My mother worked for three decades as a guidance counselor at a large, public high school in Connecticut.  When the last day of school arrived for both of us, the hurried, chaotic routine of the academic year ceased instantly.  We slept late and splashed about in the pool.  With visions of homemade shortcake and pie, we picked berries at hilltop farms in my hometown of Glastonbury.  Every week included two or three lazy trips to the library for a stack of novels.  Life was relaxed and we felt refreshed.

Each June, I wish the same kind of hiatus for my Moses Brown students. They work immensely hard during the school year, meeting the demands of advanced courses, participating in our co-curricular program (routinely arriving home late after practices and rehearsals) and giving their best to our community on a daily basis. They juggle other demands, as well: SAT prep, part-time jobs, family responsibilities, music lessons, orthodontic appointments and sometimes long commutes.  They richly deserve the rest and relaxation summer affords — and the chance to control their own schedules and destinies.

In my role as college advisor, I hesitate to pile extra tasks and homework on our rising seniors during summer.  They have enough to accomplish, in terms of researching and visiting colleges.  (We stress that nothing is more important during vacation than traveling to campuses and “showing the love” to admissions offices.  Campus visits help students clarify their needs and goals in the application process and also communicate a sincere statement of interest to individual colleges.  (Plus, many institutions track whether students interview, take a tour or attend a group session.) But I also recognize that writing the college essay is a time-consuming project—and tough to juggle during fall semester of senior year.

Given all these competing factors, I have established the following compromise position. After our rising seniors have had enough time to sleep, reconnect with family, hang out with friends, thoroughly peruse Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, watch a bunch of movies, laze on the beach and find some employment (to finance the trips to the movies and beach!), I encourage them to use some down time to prepare an essay draft. In this spirit, I provide the following suggestions. They are likely to be most useful during the “dog days” of late July and August, when sitting quietly with a laptop beside an air conditioner seems like an ideal activity.

The central challenge: defining an essay topic

The Common Application poses specific questions, but students benefit when those general, somewhat sweeping prompts are broken down into more accessible pieces.  So we ask juniors to complete a detailed questionnaire prior to their first meeting in College Counseling during the spring. Yes, the survey is intimidatingly long (50 questions!), but students who are thorough in their responses are richly rewarded. They often generate first lines (or entire paragraphs) that launch their draft.  Here are a few survey questions students find particularly inspiring and often lead to essay possibilities:

*What place do you love the most and why?

Students share great affection for spots both close to home and far away. One rising senior wrote:  “Outer Beach, off Chatham, Cape Cod is the place I love most.  It is a huge part of my life — my father has been going to Chatham since he was two.”

*Do you have a hobby outside of school? Do you collect anything?

I’m always amazed that our busy students manage many outside interests. “I was an obsessed angler as a child, but more recently, I’ve learned to tie my own flies and fly fish,” described one young man.

*What talent or skill do you possess that your faculty or peers may not know about?

Responses to this question are among my favorites.  “I can hula hoop really well and do a bunch of tricks,” offered one young woman.  One naturalist wrote: “I can assist in a goat birthing.”

*What is your most important possession? (We do not accept “cellphone” or “laptop” in response to this question!)

Recent replies include: “My World cup ticket from 2006,” “My binoculars for birding,” and “The life-sized cut-out of me at my Bar Mitzvah reminds me of a wonderful celebration.”

*Have there been any events, circumstances or transitions that have had a strong influence on your life?

Students share a range of experiences, such as, “Definitely. When I was 7 years old, my family moved from Istanbul, Turkey, to the U.S.

*What is the happiest or best day of your life so far?

The answers to this question are often delightful and poignant. “When I held my sister after she was born,” described one senior. “I was only three, but I still remember somehow.”

*What is a favorite family tradition?

One young woman shared: “My family and I are very big into Valentine’s Day.  …We’re one of those families that say ‘I love you’ at the end of every phone conversation.”

 Another student exclaimed: “Star Wars month!  Every February we watch all the Star Wars movies.  February is a dreary, mid-winter month and we need something to make it more bearable.”

Getting started

When a senior feels ready to write (whether in August or early November), I generally pose two last questions.  First, I want to know if the student is excited and motivated to tackle his or her specific topic — that is by far the most crucial factor  in a successful essay.  (If a student feels uncertain or obligated by a topic, I send him or her back to the drawing board.)

Finally, I remind students about audience and tone through a quick visualization exercise.  I ask them to pretend they will read their essay aloud at an upper school assembly in front of all students, faculty and staff, on a Monday morning at 8 a.m. Imagining an audience and atmosphere helps students write in the most engaging, authentic, well-paced and lively way possible — using appropriate adolescent language and expression.  I can’t remember when I stumbled upon this approach, but it really works for kids.  They understand what to do and leave my office eager to write.

All that said, I still maintain that summer relaxation should be zealously protected.  Teenagers need the break.  Guidance counselors need the time for restoration and reflection.  Above all, we need our seniors to return to school in September refreshed and ready to produce their best academic work—and tackle the college application process with enthusiasm and optimism.

Categories: General

Why your diverse students should consider a small liberal arts college

  • Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

Here’s an intriguing question I often get from high school guidance counselors, especially those who work largely with students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds:  why should my students consider Union? What can a small liberal arts college not located in a major metro area offer diverse students?

It’s a good question, and no doubt one that students ask, as well. Especially if they’ve grown up in an urban area surrounded by other kids from a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds.

My answer is that Union – and many other small liberal arts colleges – have placed a much greater emphasis on diversity in recent years and are growing more diverse all the time.  Since 2005, the percent of students in Union’s incoming class who represent domestic multicultural diversity has increased from 12 to 19 percent. Our international students have grown from 2 to 5 percent of the student body. More importantly, our overall approach towards diversity has changed vastly.

I became the Senior Director of Campus Diversity and Affirmative Action after President Stephen Ainlay joined Union in 2006; prior to that, I was Director of the Community Outreach Center, overseeing our volunteer programs. I also served as our college’s affirmative action officer. Back then, our approach to diversity was primarily crisis management mode:  we addressed harassment and bullying, but we lacked any kind of comprehensive, campus-wide approach to increasing diversity. Ultimately, we established a committee that focused on Campus Climate, and its final report and recommendations were used as part of our 2006 Strategic Plan for the College.

Our new president wanted to spark an ongoing conversation about diversity, and he wanted concrete actions. We could feel the shift immediately.  My position, which reports directly to the President, was created, along with a Multicultural Affairs Office, which I oversee.  The President also immediately established a Presidential Forum on Diversity. The arrival of Matt Malatesta, our new head of admissions, brought big changes as well, since he began to focus on the recruitment and retention of incoming students.  Diversifying our student body became a top priority for the admissions office.

Our view of diversity at Union is more global now. We no longer view it solely through the lens of race; we consider ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, culture, disability, nationality and age, as well. We want our students to understand and respect differences, but also to find connections in our shared humanity.  We want to think of diversity education as an approach, a way to interact.

Our Presidential Forum on Diversity, which explores diverse and inclusive topics every year, has been very successful.  We’ve examined women and gender issues, LGBT issues, religious fluency and spiritual life, and the role of diversity in Union’s unique history. (It turns out Union had an anti-slavery society, and some of our students marched in Civil Rights demonstrations.) We’ve welcomed nationally-celebrated speakers, such as Maya Angelou and Soledad O’Brien, and local leaders, such as Albany politician Barbara Johnson and John Robinson, a disabled mountain climber. The Presidential Forum talks are some of our most popular campus events, with students eagerly awaiting the speaker announcements each term.

During our first year, in an effort to encourage students to appreciate and embrace the wide variety of cultures and beliefs they contribute to our campus, we worked with students, faculty, staff, administrators and alumni/ae to design and make a beautiful quilt representing our diverse community. I think that was the beginning of understanding our communal history and recognizing previously marginalized groups. Many students and student groups contributed patches to the quilt, from the sports teams to the academic departments to the extracurricular clubs, and even our alumni. Now we display the Union Unity Quilt every year for the Presidential Forum, for Founders Day and for Convocation, and its creators – now graduating seniors – are proud of their handiwork.  It’s a beautiful visual representation of who we are, of “our Union.”

Union’s changes have definitely surprised and heartened some.  During our LGBT forum, we welcomed a gay former student as a speaker who told us that the forum could never have taken place when he attended Union in the early 1990s. And our support for diversity continues to develop in so many ways. Diversity discussions are now part of first-year orientation, where trained Residence Directors lead fun, informational workshops. We also have a student Leadership and Diversity Council, made up of cultural groups, as well as fraternities and sororities. This group supports each other’s programming, including a series entitled “How to talk to…”   in which students held open dialogue lunches on topics such as “How to talk to an Asian student” or “How to talk to a Person Who’s Gay.”

Change is always a slow process, but so many positive things are happening. I see our community taking multicultural studies more seriously, recognizing that classes like Russian Literature and African Cultural Studies enhance the breadth of everyone’s education.

And while our interactions aren’t perfect, we handle any problems more quickly and thoroughly, before they escalate—often with students taking the lead. For example, a Jewish fraternity and non-Jewish fraternity were recently playing baseball, and someone made an insensitive comment. Before a complaint reached my office, the individual’s fraternity leader called me, apologizing and asking for a workshop. He wanted to correct the situation immediately, because the fraternity did not support the comments and wanted to make sure all members understood that the behavior was unacceptable.  They also invited other fraternities and sororities to attend.

Another argument I point out to counselors when weighing whether to promote what looks like a largely white, non-urban campus to their students is perhaps less obvious – Union is a “safe place” for students to explore and work through their own diversity challenges and any preconceived notions they may have about certain cultures and groups.  It’s far better for them to have that experience at a small liberal arts college, where staff like me are here to guide and support them, than out in the “real” world.  At Union – and other liberal arts colleges – students can work through cultural issues in an encouraging environment.

As a counselor, you can urge your students to explore all that small, supportive, striving colleges like Union have to offer. The focus should be on getting a broad, high-quality education, on exploring opportunities to interact with people from diverse backgrounds, and on appreciating how such a college’s unique environment can help students grow academically, socially and personally.

Gretchel Hathaway is the Senior Director of Campus Diversity and Affirmative Action at Union College.




Categories: General

Does the college search deserve its bad rap? One counselor explores the student experience

  • Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

Helen Scotte Gordon is the Director of College Counseling at Moses Brown, an independent, college preparatory school in Providence, Rhode Island, founded in 1784 and enrolling 765 boys and girls, nursery through grade 12. Guidance welcomes her perspective to our blog.

The college application process has a distinctly unflattering reputation. As experienced college advisors and guidance counselors well know, most families approach the project with dread.

Seniors worry they’ll fail to meet expectations. Uncertain parents fear the unknown. The media bombards students with worrisome stories about highly-competitive application levels and low acceptance rates. Families wonder how they’ll pay for college. Relentless deadlines loom at every turn.

Sadly, few stop to consider the benefits of the search process.  In the college office at Moses Brown, we look forward to our end-of-the-year senior survey, which asks (among other questions): “What did you learn…or how did you grow/change during the college process?”  The replies are fascinating—and remind us that applying to college often imparts valuable lessons and insights.

Some replies to our “What did you learn?” query make us chuckle.  One young woman answered: “That I will never be applying to college for fun or work as a college counselor.”  (Is my job really that unenviable?) Another student, somehow overlooking our second floor suite and constant Naviance messages, wrote: “I learned that there was a college counseling office at school.”  One senior quipped: “Do more homework in college.”  Our staff favorite, penned by a student newspaper editor, follows:




*Helen, Scotte and Jill (the college office team) are your saviors


Other responses are quite introspective.  One young woman appreciated the precious opportunities for family bonding during campus visits.  “I loved traveling around and spending time with my Mom,” she shared.  Other students recognize a new self-confidence. “I learned that I may not be as bad at writing essays as my English grades suggested,” one young man commented. “Getting into my first choice has made me so much more confident in my academic abilities,” another student summarized.

Our survey sometimes brings out the inner philosopher in our students. “I began to question what I really want from life, and that is how I decided to take a GAP year instead of heading straight off to college,” one young woman reflected.  (She will travel to Cambodia, South Africa and Thailand.)  Another senior (who has faced adversity with admirable strength) mused: “I realized how big decisions in life are what make you the kind of person you are.”  Another senior, who’s attended Moses Brown since age three, stated: “I realized college is not scary, and I can do it.”

Some emphasize the practical benefits of the search.  “I learned how to build a resume and profile, which will help me in the future when applying for a job,” one senior noted. One young woman was proud of the discipline she’d developed. “I am glad this hectic process is over,” she explained.  “But I’m also happy it happened because it furthered my ability to work independently. Knowing that all this was ultimately my responsibility…will strengthen my adult life.”

Class of 2012 graduates offer differing advice to younger students and their parents.  Some advocated efficiency. “Try to find a good college over the summer and get it over quick,” one young man advised. (He’s also a cross-country team runner.) One young woman, who received many acceptances, was more contemplative. “I Iearned it is beneficial to give yourself lots of time in order to decide where the best place is.”

Several seniors stressed that the search should focus on individual needs and goals – rather than outside opinions and prestige ratings.  “I feel that during the college process, I learned how to listen to my heart in order to find out what was best for me and where I belong,” reflected one student.  “Even though it resulted in a somewhat unusual college choice, I am extremely happy with my decision.” (She will venture abroad.)

Lastly, seniors learned that surprise and discovery play key roles in the college quest. The best-laid plans and intentions don’t always work out. “The school that I initially rejected because I didn’t want to do engineering (and it was too small) is the one I will end up going to!  You never really know which school will make its way into your heart,” one class member marveled.

One student’s reply was particularly rewarding. In this Quaker school, we’re proud when students listen to their own instincts and trust their integrity.  “I learned that being happy/content with your decisions is all that matters,” one senior concluded.

Deadlines, expectations, overabundant choices, grade and test score pressures: they represent overwhelming and inconvenient aspects of the college search.  But in our role as advisors and counselors, we must encourage students to explore and enjoy the growth, confidence, pride, self-knowledge and humorous moments they experience during the application process. Maybe it isn’t quite so miserable, after all.





Categories: General

Advising parents: how to prepare for the first year of college

  • Monday, May 21st, 2012

The first year of college can be stressful for students and parents. For students, it’s a time of new people and new demands; they’ll be expected to read, write and produce more than ever before.

For parents, it can be equally difficult, as they experience their kids truly separating – individuating – from them, maybe for the first time. It can be hard for parents to accept their children’s need to speak and think for themselves. And it can be tough to draw the right lines, because even as students mature and develop, they still need guidance.

So how can you, as a guidance counselor, help prepare your students and their families for the hug goodbye on campus this coming fall? Here are some suggestions.

First, for parents looking for a good resource, I recommend Letting Go by Karen Levin Coburn. It has helpful tips about what to expect during college years, with chapters on the “sophomore slump,” “orientation and disorientation,” expectations and identity. It can help parents of new college students put it all in perspective.

Before freshman year, I really encourage families to have frank talks about healthy choices and how to make them once kids are running their own daily routines. Students’ overall well-being is so important for success; they need to take care of their minds, bodies and spirits. They need to achieve a healthy balance, getting enough sleep, exercise and food. (And yes, eating breakfast!)

It’s hard for students to remember to take care of themselves. They might be used to a very scheduled existence, filled with high school, after-school sports or activities and homework. At college, they’ll have a lot more freedom, but many more distractions – and no one making sure they get everything done. That’s why it’s important to stress balance, so they can create a routine and lifestyle that works.

I personally advise students to treat their days like “work days.” Some might nap between classes or hang out and talk when they could be reading. They’re probably used to doing homework at night and think they’ll hit the books later. But residence hall life is distracting, and campus is teeming with evening parties and social and sports events. If students use their days to study, they can relax at night with their friends.

Understand, too, that student rooms are not for studying. They’re for socializing and sleeping.  One of the first things students should do on campus is identify a quiet place – and time – for study. Nine out of ten students have a roommate. And students trying to study in their rooms at midnight might have a dance party overhead, a Nerf football game in the hall and music blaring next door. What should take two hours during the day can take four at night.

Parents should also encourage students to visit faculty members with any questions or issues they encounter. Remember, students really do get brownie points for visiting faculty, who are also advisors at Union.

And a word of advice for parents: do not call professors on your student’s behalf. This is a big no-no. Obviously, there are exceptions, such as emergencies or serious illnesses. In these cases, a call to the Dean of Students office is best.  But generally, students must learn to advocate for themselves, so they can manage themselves after college, as well.

Parents should also encourage students to honestly assess their strengths and weaknesses when registering for classes. If a student has a learning disability, for instance, he/she should not pick three heavy writing classes.

Parents should also encourage students to plug into college health, counseling and writing centers. Tuition is paying for these services, so use them!  Especially in the beginning, during the transition, remind students to make connections and ask for help when they need it.

Parents should understand that when students first arrive on campus, there’s a bit of a honeymoon phase.  They love everyone! But after about three weeks, they can get homesick. They get tired, and the first work becomes due.  The homesickness is often just normal fatigue and stress.

We see some parents who are too quick to call with worries about their child’s mental state. Maybe a student had a bad day and vented to mom and dad, who are too far away to properly assess the situation. Often, when we contact these students at their parents’ request, they’re fine. So parents should encourage kids to reach out for help if they’re truly depressed. There are, of course, some kids who become isolated and stop going to class, and that kind of behavior must be treated seriously.

But mostly, I encourage parents to fight their natural urge to fix everything. Students need to fend for themselves. Advise them, provide tools , but teach them independence.  Allow them to make mistakes.

Parent-student relationships have changed so much in recent years. When I was in college, I called home once a week on Sundays, and long-distance charges meant the clock was ticking. Now, many students and parents communicate many times per day, connected constantly via texts, email and cell calls.

This can make it even harder for parents to let go, and not remain overly involved in their children’s daily ups and downs. But it’s important to encourage students to find their own solutions to problems and challenges, so they can eventually make their next transition successfully:  from student to adult.







Categories: General

Helping students make the most of the summer break: now is the time to think college!

  • Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

Summer is almost here, and as a parent of three kids at various stages of the high school-college continuum, I know college applications are probably the last thing on your students’ minds right now.

But if they can dedicate a little time to their college searches and applications over the summer, it will really help them once the school year fires back up. For many students, fall – especially senior year – is filled with activities, sports, rigorous school work and social events. Why not use summer to get ahead and make an impression on potential colleges?

Here are some tips on early college prep that I offer during our campus information sessions at Union:


Many families think summer is not the best time to visit a campus, since there are no students! But the break can be an ideal time. Families often have more flexibility over the summer, whereas during the school year, it’s hard for students to miss school, and both parents and students must find free days.

Union offers open house events at the end of May and in early August, as well as tours, information sessions and interviews throughout the summer. Encourage students to do their own legwork on tour dates and appointments with admissions officials. They may not want to make these calls; it might make them nervous. But it’s good practice for students to learn to advocate for themselves and organize their own lives. It’s part of growing up and a valuable life skill for college.

Get on our radar

Tracking student interest is a growing trend in college admissions. With a significant increase in applications, schools are looking to identify highly-interested students and collect additional pieces of information about them. The thinking is that students who demonstrate interest through multiple contacts are more likely to enroll. Students who maintain interest over a year are far more attractive to admissions officials than those who just apply through the Common Application in January.

In-person visits and interviews are great for getting on college admissions officers’ radar, but we understand not every student has the means and time to travel to campus. Students can also make contact with admissions staff at local college fairs, at school events and through alumni and admissions staff in their regions. Encourage them to contact their colleges of interest during the summer to learn about opportunities close to home. Students can also arrange interviews with college admissions officers via phone or Skype.

Start that essay

No students want to hear this, but summer is a great time to start college application essays; they probably have more time to think deeply and write during vacation. If they can develop an early rough draft, they’ll also have more time for feedback and editing. Like many schools, Union uses the Common Application, and the essay questions really don’t change from year to year, at least in my 30 years of experience! I recommend students work on their essays, then put them aside for a few weeks and come back to them. Time is the friend of good writing.

Think about activities

The Common Application also calls for a list of activities and awards. It can be tough to remember three years of experience in one sitting. Encourage your students to start this list over the summer, looking at it periodically and adding items as they come to mind. Making this list in advance can also show students their “holes,” and maybe they’ll decide to do a new volunteer experience, camp or activity over the summer – something that will make them more well-rounded. Remind students to stay active over the summer; downtime is important, but they should also make effective use of their free time.

Start the application

The Common Application goes live at the beginning of August, and students can start to fill in biographical information at that time. Urge them to start completing basic information early; it will save time and stress in the home stretch.

Prep for Interviews

Another really useful activity students can do over the summer is to prepare for interviews with college admissions officers. They can work with family members or friends to brainstorm questions and practice confident answers. Some students are very good at talking about themselves, but others have trouble bragging about accomplishments. They can find example questions online; Union offers a list of potential questions admissions officers might ask – along with sample questions students can ask – here.

I really encourage students to approach college interviews with a list of real questions. And they shouldn’t feel like they have to memorize everything; they can reference notes. I love it when kids pull out notes during their interview. This tells me they thought about our school and did their homework.

Start recommendations early

And here’s a tip guidance counselors probably don’t want to hear:  summer is a great time to start those recommendation letters students need every year, before the deadline crunch.  And students can ask teachers for recommendations early as well – right after junior year or directly after the teacher’s class is completed (when the teacher’s impression of the student is still fresh). Most high schools have a handful of teachers students absolutely love, and these instructors can get buried in requests as college application deadlines approach. Encourage your students to give teachers plenty of notice and consideration. They’ll undoubtedly get better letters from you – and their teachers – when you’re not under the gun!

Categories: General

Taking full advantage of orientation

  • Monday, May 7th, 2012

The first days new students spend on campus can be crucial, giving them an overview of everything a school has to offer and helping them envision the next four years of their lives.

At Union, we do new student orientation for three days before classes start; this year our program will run from Sept. 2-4. As a guidance counselor, we hope you’ll urge your students to participate in everything orientation has to offer – wherever they’re attending.

My best advice is to participate in everything, from campus tours and official meet-and-greets to social mixers and alcohol education. We tell incoming students this is the last time they’ll have campus all to themselves until senior week – so enjoy!

What goes on at orientation? Here are some details from our specific program that will help you prepare your students.

Our first day is dedicated to moving into the residence halls, meeting roommates, attending informational sessions and panels and connecting with our 40 student volunteer Orientation Advisors. Each student mentor leads a group of about a dozen students, who will travel together during the three-day orientation. (They also reach out to incoming students ahead of time, via Facebook pages, so first-year students will already feel some connection with their advisors and each other.)

There are a number of talks by student affairs staff and directors for students and parents, and special programs for transfer students and medical-track students. Students also receive an introduction to our popular international study program and tour the career center. Finally, after lunch, it’s time to say goodbye to the parents.

Next, students take their class picture and learn our alma mater, which they sing to our president and his wife outside their home; with 560 new students and 40 orientation advisors, it’s a pretty boisterous scene! And a great warm-up for our evening “Orientation Karaoke.” Students also meet their Resident Advisors and learn dorm rules, and participate in a nationally-recognized alcohol education talk, “The Four Stages of Drinking.”

We spend much of Monday exploring some of the social issues students can face at college. Students with learning and physical disabilities meet with support staff and all students attend workshops on sexuality, focused on safe sex, consent and sexual assault. We also hold diversity workshops, preparing students to embrace a new environment full of people who could be quite different than themselves. And Orientation Committee members give incoming students insight into Union’s “True Life” social culture.

Campus-wide tours are also held, along with visits to the library and Kenney Community Center, where students learn about volunteering. This year, “Townie” author Andre Dubus will also return to discuss his award-winning book, which all incoming students receive over the summer.

The capstone social event is “All Around U,” in which students visit all seven of our Minerva houses, designed to provide social and networking opportunities. By this point, all students have been assigned to a Minerva house, but this night gives them a chance to explore all the houses through fun activities, like tie-dying, photo booths and Jackson Pollock-style painting. The goal is for students to see the houses as a social and support outlet.

On Tuesday – the last day of our orientation – we focus on academics. Students meet with advisors, learn about our required Freshman Preceptorial courses, explore choosing a major, talk about goals and complete last-minute class drops and adds. The day concludes with our official Convocation, a campus barbecue and First-Year Fest, a mini carnival.

Obviously, it’s a lot to take in and a lot of fun. Again, I personally urge all students to take advantage of all the activities. They’ll get a broad overview of campus and their next four years, and potentially meet lifelong friends. Orientation really helps them feel they’re not alone, especially when everything and everyone is new and strange.

I also urge guidance counselors to encourage students and families to orientate themselves over the summer. College is such an exciting time – a huge opportunity for students to invent or reinvent themselves as adults. It really helps if students take time prior to the start of school to think about their goals, values and what they want out of the next four years.

Maybe they want to develop new skills, take on new activities, or become more extraverted. Maybe they just want to become more comfortable in their own skins. It really helps to come in knowing what they want out of their college experience and education.

Families should discuss everything from academic goals to alcohol use. (Studies show, by the way, that parent expectations shape college alcohol consumption.) I think if kids and parents do a little soul-searching on these issues before college, they’re less likely to be overwhelmed by the whole scene later.

The transition from high school and home to college and dorm life can be difficult; many students will be making their own decisions for the first time. They’ll face a variety of influences and meet diverse people, and will need to shape their own personal morals and ethics. They’ll be challenged to grow and learn – and grow up.

As a guidance counselor, you can help ensure your students’ success by encouraging them to do a little self-exploration before college. Our orientation is designed to take it from there, preparing students to make the most of their college years.



Categories: General

Transferring in: there’s more than one way to get there

  • Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

At Union, we don’t see a huge number of transfer students. In any given year, we might have about 30 transfers, relative to a class of about 565 incoming freshmen.

But we really encourage transfer students and have stepped up our recruitment in that area over the past four years. We like to leave our door open for students to enter college in a variety of ways and at different times and ages. Transfer students are usually a little older and obviously come to us with very different experiences, which can be really valuable.

“Access” is a word we hear a lot these days on college campuses, and we all know students find different routes to a college education. So, if you have advisees who aren’t quite ready for a four-year college now, but want to pursue higher education, talk to them about the transfer path. It can be a good option for a number of reasons.

In some ways, it’s much easier for us in admissions to assess transfer students because the college academic experience is more standardized than the high school experience. But recruiting transfer students can be more challenging than finding talented high school students. Younger students have more guidance from counselors and other forces directing them to college; transfer students don’t always have those resources.

The challenge for us is to compete for the best transfer students in the nation and world.

How do such students find us? Our staff isn’t really set up to visit community colleges across the country. The web helps us recruit students nationwide and worldwide, and we participate in community college higher education fairs.

Transfer students come to Union for a variety of reasons at all stages in their college careers. Some are leaving other four-year colleges, where they didn’t have the experience they hoped for. Maybe they chose a large urban campus, but really wanted a small intimate campus.

Some transfer students are continuing educations they began at community college, building on their two-year degrees. I personally think community college can be a great start for some students. I have a brother who went to community college and transferred, and now has more advanced degrees than anyone in our family. It was the perfect path for him. He found his academic voice and passion in community college, then just kept going.

At Union, we have articulation agreements with several local community colleges, including Schenectady, Hudson Valley and Berkshire County.

Our challenge at Union and other four-year colleges is to find the best transfer students coming out of these schools and help them continue their degree paths.

Advisees should also know that our transfer students are considered for financial aid just like first-year students. Proportionally, they receive the same level of support. We’re as committed to helping transfer students fund their educations as we are to helping incoming freshmen.

I personally just signed off on ten new transfer students a few weeks ago, coming to us from schools as diverse as Boston University, Smith College, Emerson College and Mount Holyoke. There is no “typical” transfer student; the only thing they have in common is Union’s required 3.0 grade point average.

Here, we look forward to taking these diverse students across the finish line to their degrees. After all, there’s more than one way to get there – wherever “there” happens to be.

Categories: General

Test scores optional: why Union lets students choose

  • Monday, April 23rd, 2012


Three little letters. So much stress for your college-bound students. (And don’t forget the equally anxiety-producing ACT.)

Frankly, that doesn’t have to be the case anymore. Union – like a growing number of colleges and universities around the country – is test score optional, meaning we allow all applicants to choose whether to submit or withhold their standardized test scores.

According to recent U.S. News and World Report statistics, selective liberal arts colleges around the country are increasingly embracing this model, which we adopted in 2007. Of the top 50 liberal arts colleges, 34 percent don’t require SAT or ACT scores.

Obviously, we’re proud to be on this list, which you and your students can learn more about at www.fairtest.org. (Here, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing offers a searchable database of schools that don’t require test scores and explores why colleges go “test optional.”)

I admit I can see both sides of the test score argument. But at Union, we think requiring them creates more harm than good.

First, let me say that between 71 and 76 percent of our applicants in the past four years still voluntarily chose to provide SAT or ACT scores. When applicants do include them, we assess them as just one piece of the puzzle, a glimpse into a student’s skills. When applicants don’t include them, obviously all of the other pieces – transcript, interview and essay – gain importance.

At Union, we look specifically at the rigor of students’ classes and their performance, class standing and overall environment. We value Interviews, activities, recommendations, essays and all other aspects of a student’s application.

We believe standardized test scores are just too problematic to require or rely upon. They simply are not the best indicator of a student’s college performance.

A Union student recently completed her senior thesis on student admissions; her research found that students who submitted test scores with their applications performed no better at Union than students who did not, when controlling for high school GPA and/or rank. Her findings correlate with national studies.

We also know standardized tests like the SAT and ACT are culturally biased and favor students from higher-income families. Students from wealthier families can receive more private test prep and have the advantage of being able to take the tests multiple times. Sometimes highly competitive students find themselves chasing a kind of “Holy Grail” test score, paying to take tests five or six times.

Of course, students from wealthier families also benefit from other advantages:  better-resourced schools, more highly educated parents and more tutoring and support.

That said, I’m aware of the downside of not requiring test scores. They can be useful in assessing students from both high-performing schools and low. At the high end, you may have a pool of students who all have strong transcripts and excellent grades. High test scores could set a student apart. For students from low-performing schools, test scores can demonstrate skill and ability against a standardized measuring stick. That can be important when college admissions officials question a school’s rigor or grades.

As a counselor, when advising students whether to include or exclude test scores in their applications, the question is: will the test scores help the student put his or her best foot forward? If so, great.

Ultimately, we in admissions want all students to have the opportunity to show themselves in the best light. That’s why we encourage personal interviews, which many schools don’t offer. We want to evaluate students holistically. We’re not just looking for kids who can test well on any given Saturday. We want students with passionate academic interests, who will contribute fully to our tight-knit community.

Increasing our school’s diversity is a priority for us, as it is for many colleges. We’re proud that in the past four years – comparing two sets of distinct four year cohorts – we’ve increased our domestic multicultural diversity by 4 percentage points and our international student body by 2 percentage points. We’re looking all over the world for the best students.  And we think allowing students to choose whether to submit or withhold standardized test scores helps us attract more diverse applicants.

There’s also a stereotype that only students with bad test scores withhold them. Not true.  Some students disagree with standardized tests and purposefully apply to schools that don’t require testing. Some students withhold scores from all the schools they apply to through the Common Application because they know their scores are a plus at some schools and a drawback at others (depending on a school’s average SAT or ACT scores for incoming freshmen).

So… to submit or not to submit? We think that’s a question for the individual student. It’s something you, as a counselor, can help them work through.



Categories: General

Helping your students understand and compare financial aid award letters

  • Thursday, April 12th, 2012

We’ve talked a lot here about applying for college and financial aid – but what happens when students are accepted and receive those sometimes baffling financial aid award letters? As a guidance counselor, how can you help your students understand and compare aid awards?

Typically, these award letters include financial aid from all sources:  state and federal governments and institutions. Students should start by clearly identifying the grants and scholarships, sometimes referred to as the “gift aid” – assistance that doesn’t need to be repaid.  If merit scholarships are included, it’s also important to understand whether these awards are contingent upon maintaining a certain GPA or are tied to a specific school or major.

Students and parents should look very closely at the terms of any loans offered. Consider:  What is the interest rate – is it fixed or variable?  Is the loan interest deferred, or will it accrue during enrollment?  How long do I have to repay the loan? Can I consolidate upon graduation? What will be my total indebtedness and my monthly payment?  If I attend graduate school, can I continue to defer my loan?  If any of the information is unclear, contact the aid office for help. There are also online tools that help students estimate average monthly loan payments.

Although families will initially see the freshmen award, they should determine if any portion of the aid is guaranteed for the full four years of college. For merit scholarships, ask about renewal policies and criteria; it is likely students must re-apply annually for need-based grants and scholarships. Aid renewal policies differ from school to school and application requirements and deadlines for returning students tend to differ from the first-year process.  If clear information is not included with the student’s financial aid package, he or she should contact the aid office. And If families are aware of upcoming changes in their situations, they can ask aid officials how that might affect future eligibility.

At Union, I tell families that if they expect their financial situation to remain stable, they can expect their aid award to continue at the same level. But, if they experience a significant change, be ready for a revised aid award. Probably the one change that most significantly affects financial aid eligibility – and generally surprises parents – comes when another student in the family leaves college.

Many students will see work-study as part of their financial aid package. At Union, students who accept work-study aid typically work 8-10 hours per week and receive a paycheck, which is generally used for books and personal expenses. Students should know how many hours they’re expected to work and how much they’ll generally be paid. At other schools, they should question whether this money can be applied to tuition and room/board costs.

Different challenges emerge when comparing financial aid award letters from multiple schools. Letters are not standardized, though there is talk at the federal level of imposing some structure. The two big numbers to nail down are the total cost of attendance and the total award amount.

It’s tough when different schools include different numbers on their letters. For example, School A might include the cost of tuition, fees, room and board. School B might include tuition, fees, room, board, books and personal expenses. Obviously, School B is going to look more expensive, but School A’s award did not factor in all the real costs of college life.

Advise your students to make an Excel worksheet, with categories for total costs, grants, loans and work study for each school they’re considering. This exercise will help them compare true costs.

Once students have chosen a school, advise them to review and follow all instructions for accepting their awards. At Union, financial aid offers are reserved for students as soon as they pay their enrollment deposit. Some schools ask students to accept awards online or complete and submit an acceptance form. If the process is unclear, call the aid office for clarification.

Students should also remember that their financial aid awards were based upon the estimated financial information they provided on their initial FAFSAs and, for some schools, CSS Profiles.  All need-based awards are subject to income verification and schools typically verify students’ eligibility by reviewing actual tax documents and supplemental verification forms. Aid offices may ask for specific documents to complete this process. If there are significant differences between estimated and actual information, aid awards may be modified. This process generally occurs during May and June.

Many of the calls we receive from admitted students go something like this:  “I am so excited I was admitted to Union and I really want to attend, but I don’t know how my family can afford to send me.”  We generally then ask if their families have experienced any changes in their financial situations since they completed their applications. Or do they have any extenuating circumstances?  More often than not, they offer additional information that can be considered through our appeals process. At Union, we require all requests for additional aid be in writing and accompanied by previous year’s tax returns, W-2s and supporting documentation.

In addition, we discuss other options available to families, such as our 12-month payment plan and Federal Direct Parent Loans (PLUS), as well as private alternative student loans.

Wading through these financial aid award letters – especially when comparing multiple schools – can be confusing. So we always recommend that students or parents just call financial aid offices if they have any questions. That goes for guidance counselors, too.

We’re here to help, and we want to do all we can to get students to college with as little financial and emotional stress as possible!

Categories: General