DEB DONLEY COLLEGE COUNSELING
An individual, student-centered approach to applying to college
Welcome to an individualized, student-centered approach to the college application process. Located in the northern suburbs of Chicago, our goal is to take the fear out of the college admission process.
With over twenty-five years of direct, individual college counseling experience, Deb knows the process inside and out, and will help students navigate the journey with ease, reducing anxiety with every step.
Individualized college counseling designed with you in mind
The college admission process often induces anxiety and so our goal is to de-mystify the process and organize the tasks involved to make the process less overwhelming. It's also important to understand the philosophy of admission at the various institutions you are considering.
The most selective colleges are difficult to get into because they are popular, not because they are inherently better; selectivity typically has nothing to do with what goes on in the classroom. Generally, college admission becomes selective when colleges receive more applications than usual, often due to a winning sports team, the rumor that a celebrity is enrolling, or because of other media attention that increases their visibility.
Other colleges use different approaches because their institutional mission determines how they will admit candidates. Some public universities must follow state-mandated admission standards, while other universities set admission standards that reflect a student's chance of success in the classroom. Those standards may include the overall grade point average, trends in classroom achievement, how any submitted standardized (ACT or SAT) test scores compare to classroom achievement, and any obstacles a student has encountered that has impacted their ability to achieve in the classroom or participate in activities.
Applicants need an understanding of the way admission works for their particular colleges. The goal is to create a list of options with the academic programs and co-curricular life that meets the expectations each student sets for their college experience as well as having this list include schools the student would be proud to attend.
COLLEGE INVESTIGATION BASICS
By Grade Level
The first year in high school should be spent acclimating to high school; as freshmen, students learn how to adjust to the increasing demands and independence of learning in their new high school setting. The best way to prepare for college this year is for students to focus on their education: to learn to how they learn best, to develop a disciplined study habit, and to achieve at their optimum level in every class. As appropriate, students should enroll in the five traditional academic subjects including English, mathematics, lab science, social studies, and international language. In addition, freshmen should begin to explore the world outside of themselves and engage in activities that they find rewarding. These might be in athletics, employment, volunteer work, or the fine or performing arts.
The second year of high school is one where students continue to work on their intellectual skill development. Students use the freshman year experience to evaluate what worked and what didn't work in and outside of the classroom to fine-tune their academic and extracurricular achievements.
Sophomores interested in pursuing specific college information might purchase a Fiske Guide to Colleges or a Yale Daily News Insider's Guide to Colleges and read about a college each week, annotating in one color what they like and in another color what they dislike about what they read. Reviewing this information every week with a parent provides the student and parent the chance to discuss what college life is like. While these books are helpful, they have limitations; they only include some 240 schools and are based on campus interviews, so while they may help assess how student life might fit the reader, they are largely based in opinion, not facts.
This year is when the investigation process becomes more intense. In many cases, the school counselor helps students find colleges that might meet their interests. If not, we can accomplish this. Students who have a preliminary list of colleges to investigate should, after reviewing the Fiske or Insider's Guide to assess the personal fit, next check out the websites of those colleges and universities, looking beyond the propaganda and photos into "Academics" and "Programs" to see what kinds of intellectual and professional opportunities are offered. This requires some significant digging through websites, and helps students determine the academic fit, from prospective career options to finding interesting majors and/or courses with which to fill their heads. Only after this work is done should students and families decide if and when to visit colleges.
Of course, continuing dedication to developing a strong transcript of grades remains a priority.
Most college applicants need one letter or recommendation from a teacher. It's important this year to develop solid, respectful relationships with teachers so that applicants will have teachers who like them and who can positively describe those candidates in any required letters of recommendation. Only some 68 colleges and universities require more than one letter of recommendation.
This is also the year that students complete standardized, now largely optional testing such as the ACT and/or SAT. An increasing number of colleges no longer require testing for admission; this list can be found at www.fairtest.org.
It is possible to begin the work of the application - particularly if the student is considering some of the over 850 colleges and universities that use the Common Application - even before the list is finalized. Some of this work can be completed junior year or during the summer between the junior and senior year.
This is the year students actually apply. Many colleges have priority application deadlines of November first for candidates to be considered for scholarships or early notification of admission.
Unless applying under a binding early decision admission plan, students have until May first of their senior year to determine where they want to enroll. Admission offers are sent based on the college's admission programs; some are sent one to twelve weeks after the application is submitted, others on specific dates in January, February, or March. Students should wait to hear from all colleges under consideration before submitting an enrollment deposit, as that deposit serves to commit the student to enrolling at that university.
If finances are a concern, the core financial document, the FAFSA, is available on October first of the senior year and should be completed at least by Thanksgiving to maximize a student's opportunity to obtain all the funding for which they may qualify.
It is possible, and encouraged, for students to work ahead on most of the college application in the summer before the senior year. The most popular application format, The Common Application, is updated in late February prior to the senior year. College-specific supplemental sections are typically available August first. This leaves the fall for tweaking the application, writing any college-specific supplemental essays, and reviewing the overall list before submitting the applications. - many colleges release applications in August, and some offer their essays even earlier in the summer. Organization is key here. The more work completed before the school year begins, the better the student can focus on the academic demands and social excitement of senior year.
The Role of the Curriculum - Choosing what classes to take in high school
The generally recommended college preparatory program of studies includes four years of English, and at least three years of sequential mathematics, three years of social studies, three years of lab sciences, and two years of the same foreign language. Some colleges even designate that candidates should have three of the following four lab sciences: environmental science,biology, chemistry, or physics. Gaining admission to a highly selective college is like applying for a job; you want to be the best candidate you can be to win the space. For highly selective colleges, this means taking more than the minimum two or three years to demonstrate that you are taking advantage of the learning opportunities your high school has to offer. You may want to leave high school with four years each of English, math, social studies, science, and language; in some cases you may graduate with five years of math or language. Researchers at ACT have found a direct correlation between the program of studies and an increase in ACT scores; taking these core courses provides an advantage when it comes to standardized testing. Whenever possible and appropriate, graduating from high school with four years of each of the five, traditional academic courses demonstrates your willingness to attain a background for college success.
Throughout high school, students should make choices about the rigor of their classes based on what courses appropriately challenge the individual; learning should be a bit like Goldilocks in that it should not be too easy or too hard, but appropriately challenging - just right. It is better to do well in a regular, college-prep program than to load up on AP courses and end up with grades you aren't proud of showing to a college admission office!
Remember that each student has additional aspects of life to consider when building schedules, such as time-consuming extracurricular activities, family obligations, their learning styles, and their individual postsecondary goals. There are exceptions to every rule, and your school counselor and parents can assist students in making sound, appropriate choices. This is about what is appropriate for the student, not about trying to please an unknown, admission officer.
THE FEAR FACTOR - TAKING CONTROL
Taking charge of what you can control
Applying to college is putting yourself out there for an anonymous admission committee to judge you. Committee members will look at your program of studies, your level and trends in achievement, and consider this academic aspect in the context of what your specific high school offers. A high school description, or profile, accompanies applications so that admission officers can see the opportunities you have in your particular high school setting.
Using this process as a way to develop life lessons will help you see the bigger picture of college admissions. Let's consider this process of reviewing potential colleges, applying, and making a final decision in terms of life lessons.
Before you apply:
What's the purpose of your postsecondary education? In other words, why are you going to college?
What do you want to get out of your college experience intellectually - what do you want to fill your head with, what are you curious about?
What do you want to get out of your college experience professionally, with consideration to your potential career?
What do you expect or want college to do for you personally, such as building relationships, setting boundaries with individuals, and developing stronger communication and interpersonal skills?
How deeply will you investigate potential college options? This is not about figuring out if you can get in, but determining what colleges fit your expectations of college?
To how many colleges do you wish to apply?
What are your expectations of the outcomes of the process - how many choices do you want to have, and how many and what kind of admission risks are you comfortable taking?
During the application process:
How do you characterize yourself yourself? Do you have a solid handle of your personal and intellectual strengths? This process should provide you with the chance to reflect on who you have become and an appreciation for the gifts and talents you have developed.
What aspects of your intellectual and personal growth and development are important to you?
What teacher or teachers will you ask to support your application by writing letters of recommendation for you?
What obstacles or limitations have you encountered throughout your high school experience? How have you approached them and what have you learned from them?
Deciding where to enroll:
Consider all aspects of your college expectations when May first rolls around and an enrollment deposit is required to secure your space in the class. Unless you were admitted under an early decision program, you have until May first to decide where you wish to enroll.
What does the school offer in your potential areas of interest?
What are the depth and breadth of the courses available in your intended major? This should have been one of the initial investigations you completed in order to compare majors and programs across the colleges under consideration.
How does the location impact your choice? Is it so far that you won't be able to return home for a fall break? Is it so urban that you won't be able to sleep at night? Are there cultural differences the environment offers that you like or aren't sure about?
What social opportunities are there for you? Are you interested in fraternity or sorority life? Do you anticipate going to football games? Are there club or intramural sports in which you hope to participate?
How easily might you study abroad, obtain an internship, or work in a co-op setting given your intended major? Oh, and if you don't know what you major will be, don't worry - college admission officers expect up to 70% of their freshman class to be exploratory or undecided in their major.
What will the cost of your college experience be? Is it really worth burdening yourself and your parents with student and parent loans to attend the college of your choice?
Finally, one litmus test is to run through your list of potential schools and ask yourself what you like or would miss about College A by attending College B. It's like a pro/con list but a bit more specific.
And remember, you can't make a bad choice. There are lessons to be learned on every campus, from living with a roommate to doing your laundry to keeping yourself safe and healthy. You will be homesick! Here's the test: after you have been home work winter break for two weeks, do you miss your college life? Do you begin to refer to your university as "home?" If so, you know you are at the right place!
Who's reading your application?
The typical college admission officer is close in age to you, often a recent graduate. They are proud of their school and want to share their affection for their college experience with you. They want to like and admit you.
Treat any encounter or meeting with a college admission representative as if you are making a new friend. Be respectful, engaged, and positive.
In many cases, the reader is the representative that visits or conducts a zoom meeting with interested students from your high school. Or it may be an assistant dean in the academic unit to which you are applying - the admission dean in the College of Agriculture, for instance. Many universities have multiple readers; the University of Michigan will have a regional admission officer and up to four other readers whose feedback are all considered in the final decision.
Visiting campuses and building relationships
Once you have determined what colleges might fit your expectations through your research, you may wish to invest your tie and resources into campus visits. Check the school websites to make sure they are scheduling on-campus, in-person visits. You are strongly encouraged to sign up for information sessions and tours at each college when available, in order to hear the admission philosophy and process, learn about the make-up of the university, and have a baseline of comparison for each university.
Visiting will allow you to gain a feel for the students in attendance, and how visitors are treated. For instance, as you wander around campus with your parent, do students stop and ask you if you need directions? If you have time, stop into the university union or student center for a soda or coffee and listen to the conversations around you. If you don't believe you could find friends there or you don't feel comfortable, it might not be the school for you.
Having said that, use your visits to learn about specific majors and to develop adult relationships. How do technology and engineering intersect or differ at your public university? What are the differences between the programs and your potential job title and responsibilities? Animal sciences at Purdue and at the University of Illinois are very different!
While on campus, meeting with academic advisors may help you learn more about particular majors and graduation requirements. If you have met someone with whom you might want to speak later, or to whom you may wish to send a thank-you email, ask for a business card. It's odd for you to get used to, but adults in student services are happy to provide you with their contact information so you may make an informed, solid college decision. Practice saying, "Thank you for your time. This has been very helpful. May I have your business card if I have questions in the future?
Interviews are typically optional and contrary to rumor, will neither get you in or keep you out of any college. If you have strong people skills, an interview might be fun; if not, it may be overly stressful. Either way, should you decide to interview, use this as a chance to make a contact. You may interview with a local alumnus or with an admission counselor. Colleges develop networks of alumni interviewers in order to keep their graduates invested in the relationship they have with their university; these individuals are more likely to donate money to their alma mater.
So before you interview, do your homework about the programs and opportunities the school offers. Don't ask questions you can find answered on the website. Instead, ask about your interviewers' experiences, such as:
Why did you select this university to attend?
What in particular did you really enjoy about your time there?
If anything, what would you change about the university to better enhance your experience?
And, if your rep did not attend that school, ask: How would you characterize the typical student at this school? How does the student experience here compare to that where you attended? What do you like about working there? What would you change about the school to improve the student experience?
Just remember, the interview is another way to make a contact and strengthen. your interpersonal skills - always send a thank-you email!!!
How to apply to college
Over 900 colleges and universities have joined the Common Application consortium, which means that the colleges have agreed on a basic format for their application form. This format, the Common Application (www.commonapp.org), was implemented in 1975 after some thoughtful college admission officers sought to provide relief to high school students; by using a common format, students wouldn't have to write out ten different forms, but could complete one form and copy it nine times. The idea was to make the application process easier for students so they could focus on their classroom achievement. This was long before the advent of the personal computer.
Some colleges still have application forms on their individual websites. Over 100 colleges use the Coalition Application for College Access, some use the Universal Application, and others have a state application system, such as the University of California schools, or the ApplyTexas statewide form. Confused? The good news is that the vast majority of Coalition and Universal application schools also use the Common Application - the current holdout is the University of Washington in Seattle which only utilizes the Coalition Application.
So, this Common Application is likely to be used by most applicants. Even if candidates aren't sure of their complete college list, if they know they will apply to a school on the Common App, they can begin to work on that application form as early as - but this is NOT recommended - freshman year.
The Common App - Logistics
We recommend that students create a login for their Common Application in the spring or summer before senior year. Write down the login information created!!!
Work under the tab marked "Common App" first
This includes demographic information about you and your background. All of this can be edited and updated until you submit your application, so there is no harm in competing this section now. Just remember that in the education section, the questions pertain to senior year classes you anticipate taking.
This section will not be deleted when the Common App form is revised in the summer; the items you enter will remain for you to review, revise, and submit in the fall of your senior year.
Feel free to look around the site
You may go under the "College Search" tab and add a college to your application. It will show up in your "My Colleges" section, but it will apply to current seniors; information there will be deleted during the summer updates to the Common App.
Member colleges revise their information each summer
The entire site typically shuts down for anywhere between a day to a week in July each year. When it reopens on August first, most, but not all colleges will have their revisions completed in the "My Colleges" section. Until then, everything can change: application programs, deadlines, essay questions, required recommendations - everything that is specific to those particular colleges is reviewed and revised for the next year. Any information you enter preliminarily in the "My Colleges" section will be erased during the revision period, so do not spend your time completing
Speaking of essays....
The Common Application has one main essay, required by most of the member colleges. For instance, the University of Iowa, Indiana University and the University of Illinois do not currently require the main essay.
There are usually seven essay prompts from which students select one. The prompts are announced in early March each year for the following application cycle.
That means applicants can use the summer to brainstorm and draft their main essay for college. With a 650-word limit, the writing is no more than a page to a page and a half.
Still, it can be terrifying to a student whose high school writing training has focused on the development of objective analysis; now, when it counts, the candidates have to embed themselves right back into their writing.
A word about letters of recommendations
Most, but not all of the Common Application college members require a letter of recommendation from teacher and/or counselor.
The teacher letter describes the student in the context of the classroom: what kind of learner and citizen of the classroom is the candidate? Most will describe one particular project or assignment that highlights the candidate's intellectual prowess and insight, logic, and written for oral expression, for instance. They will also describe the student conduct in the classroom in terms of their collaborative working skills, cooperation, and respect for others.
The majority of colleges requesting a teacher recommendation want only one letter, and prefer letters from junior year if possible. Junior year is the most recent example of a candidate's academic challenge, and will review the student through the entire school year, thereby providing the most current and thorough information about the student as a learner.
More is not better here! Colleges often accept more than one teacher letter, but before you ask your entire schedule of junior-year instructors to write on your behalf, think about what each will say. If teachers will largely describe the same qualities about you, one will do!
Student Rights and Responsibilities
In accordance with the ethical guidelines set by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the Illinois Association for College Admission Counseling, and the Higher Educational Consultants Association, students and counselors have ethical rights and responsibilities in the admission process. Additional tips have been added to help facilitate the process.
Students have the right to factual information from colleges and universities regarding admission, housing, and financial aid practices, opportunities, and policies.
Students are responsible for investigating their college options, for submitting application materials on or before the deadlines.
Because students are responsible for their choices, they should feel free to be open and honest about their hopes and expectations for their college experience.
The application materials submitted by the student should be the student's own true and original work.
Students should not experience high-pressure sales tactics.
Unless applying under a binding early decision plan, students have the right to wait until May first of their senior year to inform the college where they wish to enroll by sending a nonrefundable enrollment deposit.
Students should only submit one enrollment deposit; after all, a student can only attend one college at a time!
Students admitted under a binding early decision plan will submit their enrollment deposit by the stated university deadline and will, upon admission, contact the colleges where they have applications submitted to withdraw those, even before being notified of any admission decision.
Parents should be clear with their student about any limitations or restrictions to cost, location, or any other facet of their college choice at and throughout the beginning of the process.
Parents should not complete the application materials on behalf of the student, and should pledge not to revise writing so that the voice of the student is lost.
Tip: Parents and students should meet together every week for at least a half an hour to discuss the student's progress; students and parents should as much as possible reserve conversations about college to these meetings so as not to overwhelm one another.
Another tip: Most of the anxiety students feel centers around the expectations that people have for them; it's essential for parents to be as judgment-free as possible, and to let their student know that the parent is proud of their child - say it every week!!! Find something you love or are proud of and recognize your student for it.
Yet another tip: Being quiet as students develop their opinions and being judgment-free are incredibly difficult tasks. Instead saying, "The College of Happy Kids?!? I have never heard of it, so it must not be good!!!" or "Anyone can get into that school!!! You can do better!!!" try saying, "Hmm, the College of Happy Kids...tell me what you like and have learned about it!" or "I have heard of that school - share with me why you see that as a good choice for you!" A positive tone goes a long way to foster communication and trust.
The role of the college counselor is to promote access and equity to college opportunities, and to work with each family with respect and kindness. Along the way, the counselor supports and may gently confuse the student. As a source of support, the counselor helps students learn how to investigate postsecondary options; organize and complete the work around pursuing those options; and assist in the application, essay writing, scholarship and/or financial aid pursuits. Confusion is actually a positive part of the process as the counselor provides additional factors to consider or seeks to expand the college list beyond the student's initial considerations.
The counselor is not in a position to guarantee admission or to state exactly what the student might or should do; it is the role of the counselor to provide options and walk the student and/or parents through the potential consequences; students make their own decisions about where and how to apply.
In addition, the counselor will not write or take over the application process for the student. Ethically, the application materials must be the student's own true and original work.
It is also vital that the counselor not talk about the student and student credentials to anyone except the student; confidentiality on behalf of each individual student is paramount.
Paid college consultants or counselors are also not ethically able to contact specific schools on behalf of a client.
After teaching high school English for two years, Deb earned a Master's degree in College Student Personnel and spent the following thirteen years in various positions in college student services, including college admission, testing services, and recruitment and retention for an undergraduate business school.
After a second Master's, this one in school counseling, Deb was a generalist school counselor before spending twenty-five years at New Trier Township High School in Winnetka, Illinois. She retired in 2019, but found retirement difficult for her workaholic tendencies, and after a brief maternity substitute position, decided to work independently with a small number of students.
She is also on the faculty and the assistant executive director of The Academy for College Admission Counseling, a stand-alone, professional development program that offers Elmhurst College graduate school credit for individuals interested in the college admission process. In addition, she has presented at national, state, and regional conferences. She is a member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the Illinois Association for College Admission Counseling, and the Higher Educational Consultants Association.