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Upper School College Counseling Office Aids Students, Parents In Making College Choice

Upper school college counselors provide guidance in the college decision-making process for students and parents. 

Andrew Mouzin

On a cool January evening, dozens of junior parents and students pack into Hall Student Center Auditorium to learn from the upper school college counseling team about embarking on a journey that will influence them for the rest of their lives: making a college choice.

According to director of college counseling David Burke, preparing for the college application process starts earlier and earlier. “For the parents in the room, they didn’t probably send in their college applications until Jan. 1. Now, that process starts much earlier. Nov. 1 has become the new Jan. 1.” 

The college counseling office is unique in the Kansas City metropolitan area, with five counselors to assist students in the college application process. The team has nearly 80 years of combined experience helping students at PHS. “Three of our counselors teach classes; two of us are athletic coaches; and we are all advisers,” David shared, ”So we get to know the students in several different contexts. In many cases, we’ve had their siblings as advisees as well, so there’s a family connection, too.” 

In their first year in upper school, freshmen are encouraged to take part in several extracurricular activities, such as sports, speech and debate or Science Olympiad. In the second semester of their sophomore years, students begin working with their counselors to set up a plan to prepare them for testing they will take as juniors. “We map out their classes, standardized test schedules and what activities they plan to do over the summer,” David shared. As students become juniors, the focus shifts to their grades, what extracurriculars and classes they can manage, and setting themselves up for success. It’s during this time that students take the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, which can lead to National Merit honors.

Additionally, many colleges send admissions representatives to campus in the fall. And, because of early decision, many juniors are attending college fairs and meeting with these representatives much earlier in the process. “We are seeing a lot more juniors coming to meet with representatives than when I started at Pembroke Hill 20 years ago,” David said. 

Early decision has grown remarkably in recent years, David said, as some selective colleges admit nearly half of their freshman class during this time period. “It’s always been there,” David explained, “but schools have realized that accepting students early in the process creates a buzz around their campus of students excited to be there, rather than for those who might have ‘settled’ after their first choice schools did not accept them.” According to David, over a third of current seniors already know their college destination. Many of these students were admitted in December by colleges that utilize early decision or early action admissions plans. 

The college counseling team is quick to emphasize that there isn’t a magic formula for the best way to be admitted to a school. “Colleges do have an academic threshold to begin with, but there are a lot of students who will meet and exceed that threshold,” David said. “Schools will see more qualified applicants than they have room for, so then schools begin to serve their own interests, whether they need students for particular majors or programs, athletics or art programs. Colleges and universities also need to reach their budgetary goals. Therefore, students from out of state might be looked at more closely at flagship universities outside of the Midwest, for example. Many schools have focused on becoming more national and even international in their reach, too, so they may be looking at students from all 50 states and international students as well. Each school is unique in its needs.” 

The college counselors encourage students to not focus their attention on a single top choice school, but to recognize that there are several colleges that can, and will, serve their needs. To help relieve stress and anxiety during this time, the college counseling team gathered the entire class in December and had the students recite an oath, created by the Georgia Tech admissions office (click here to read the oath). “It helps them focus on the fact that there are a lot of factors that go into a school’s admissions process, many of which are beyond their control, so we urge them not to take it personally if any one college sends them bad news,” David said. 

The college counseling team suggests that families beginning to think about college stop at universities while they are traveling. “If you are on a road trip and are close to a college, pull off for a little bit and explore the school. Compare big schools and small schools. Start to do your research. Outside of the obvious financial implications, start to get a general feel for the different types of schools.”