Finding perfect-fit schools is at the heart of college counseling program
Posted 05/12/2016 06:15PM

Gathered on the Upper School quad for a group photo, the 100 members of Durham Academy's Class of 2016 wear T-shirts representing the next chapter in their lives, the 50 different colleges and universities they will attend in the fall. After a few snaps of the camera, a woman emerges from the crowd, and the soon-to-be alumni erupt into wild cheers. Why the enthusiasm? This woman, Co-Director of College Counseling Kathy Cleaver, helped ensure that each shirt was just the right fit, just the right shade of red, blue, purple or orange. Finding the perfect-fit school for each student is the mission of DA's college counseling program, and the wide smiles of graduating seniors are proof of the program's success. 

"The fit part is pretty important to a students' overall happiness once they're on a college campus," said Jazmin Garcia Smith, who serves as co-director of the program along with Cleaver. "Half of our job is advising students on the actual application process, but the other part of it is trying to understand where that student is at, where they want to be and what is the right school to get them there."

Some students might want to continue their education in a setting similar to Durham Academy, where there are small class sizes and it's easy to get to know their professors. Others seek a big-time athletics atmosphere, with ESPN trucks regularly on campus and bountiful school spirit. Some want opportunities to work in a research lab as an undergraduate or an environment in which professional connections are easily forged.

"Those might intersect in some places, but they might not," Cleaver said. "... Ideally, in having conversations with us, in completing their junior questionnaires, in doing some explorations of colleges and trying to picture themselves on a college campus, they'll eventually get their heart, their head and their gut in concert with one another and say is this a place where I can be happy and challenged for the next four years."

The 50 institutions to which the Class of 2016 will matriculate run the gamut from far-flung schools like the University of Sussex in Brighton, England, and Stanford, to those closer to home like UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke. There are women's colleges like Spelman and Smith, Ivy Leagues like Dartmouth and Brown, small liberal arts colleges like Pomona and Gettsyburg, and art-centric schools like the Savannah College of Art and Design.

The fact that the sign outside the suite shared by Cleaver, Garcia Smith and administrative assistant Nancy Swain reads "College Counseling," rather than "College Guidance" is no accident, Cleaver said. So much of what they do is helping students to not just go through the steps to earn admission to their dream schools, but to determine what their dream schools are.

For graduating senior Caroline Ghio, who describes the college counseling program as the best part of her DA experience, that was certainly the case. After getting help from Garcia Smith and Cleaver on identifying schools to apply to, choosing senior course selections, critiquing scholarship applications and mock interviews, Ghio found herself back in Cleaver's office in late April with a weighty decision on her hands — which do I choose?

"Mrs. Cleaver helped me realize that I wanted to go to Northeastern University as a part of a program that includes a full-tuition scholarship along with opportunities for mentorship, research and travel," Ghio said. "Mrs. Cleaver did not push me to enroll at one of my Ivy League acceptances that would have probably looked better for DA in a list of colleges at the end of the school year. She genuinely cared about where I would be most happy and successful."

The importance of happiness and success in college is something Cleaver and Garcia Smith work to convey to parents as their children navigate the college admission process. Cleaver and Garcia Smith urge parents against trying to mold their children into what they might believe is the perfect candidate for a particular school, but rather to allow students to discover themselves first, and then find a school that fits them.

"Sometimes what's lacking, and yet what a college really wants to see, is why do you think this school is such a good fit? They have many straight-A students with terrific SAT scores, but why is it a strong fit for you?" Cleaver said. "... It may completely shock you as a parent, what your child is going to gravitate toward and what they're going to discover, a teacher that might inspire them or a discipline that might get them interested."

Garcia Smith is wrapping up her first year at DA after having worked in admissions at UNC-Chapel Hill for five years and in the years prior, in the admissions offices of DePaul University and the University of Notre Dame. Cleaver has served as a DA college counselor for 24 years. Before joining the DA faculty, she worked in college counseling at Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles and in university admissions at Southern Methodist University and Duke.

While Garcia Smith transitioned into her role at DA this year, Cleaver served as primary college counselor for the Class of 2016. Going forward, each class will be split evenly between the two counselors. That means that each of the counselors will bed responsible helping about 50 students navigate what can be a pretty stressful process.

"I tell students that there are a lot of steps that you have to take to get through the college admission process and there are a lot of unknowns, and that in and of itself can be scary," Garcia Smith said. "But the steps are broken down into small chunks, and Kathy and I are working to get students started now as juniors so that they're not so overwhelmed in the fall of their senior year. ... I tell students that I know it may seem painful, but it will all go by so fast. In 12 months, you will know where you're going to school. It's fascinating to think that in 12 months you can get through all of that and get to such an exciting place."

The college counseling program begins in ninth grade with yearly college nights for parents of freshmen and sophomores. Students and families' involvement with college counseling intensifies as students progress in the Upper School, with an additional college night added junior year, when there are also individual meetings with students and parents. And, of course, during the fall of students' senior year, students and college counselors spend a great deal of time together as students dive into the application process.

Cleaver and Garcia Smith provide assistance with every detail of the application process, from helping students to find the best order for their extracurricular activities (yes, it does make a difference), to offering essay critiques, to writing letters of recommendation — and, of course, making sure everything is submitted on time.

"The most helpful aspect of college counseling in my experience was essay editing," said graduating senior MacKenzi Simpson. "The first draft of my college essay was not Common App worthy and I owe a lot to Mrs. Cleaver for sitting with me and helping me figure out a new topic and throw together an essay in just a few weeks before the deadline. She truly cares about each individual student, and the amount of time and energy she spends on her job is truly amazing and inspirational."



College Admissions Case Studies Presentation

Parents of current freshmen, sophomores and juniors are invited to join DA college counseling for a case studies presentation on Tuesday, May 24, at 7 p.m. in Kenan Auditorium. A director of admissions from UNC-Chapel Hill will be on hand to examine several sample applications with parents and discuss how the UNC admissions team reads applications and makes admissions decisions.

An independent, coeducational day school, pre-kindergarten through grade 12.
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