A Flint Hill Insider’s Perspective on the College Counseling Process

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Director of College Counseling and Flint Hill parent Suzy Chiarolanzio shares her insights on Flint Hill’s program and the state of college admissions.

The Class of 2000 was the first class I worked with at Flint Hill. There were 63 Seniors and twice that number of anxious parents, wondering who this new college counselor was and how she would shepherd their children through the college admission maze. I was new, but fortunately, I had come to Flint Hill after working in the admission office at Georgetown University, something that inspired a sense of confidence and, as a result, garnered trust within our community.

When I came to Flint Hill, there was a solid college counseling program in place that served as the foundation for the program that we have today. Students were challenged to think about themselves, their strengths and their weaknesses and to then find the college setting that would suit them best, concerning their learning style, interests and goals. Now, though, students and their parents are confronted with information about college admissions everywhere they turn, and it is often anecdotal or simply incorrect.

As a result, the college search process has become a much more stressful undertaking than it used to be. At its core, the process of finding a college is about figuring out who you are, who you want to become and which school can help you get there. However, particularly in this region, it has become much more than that. Once a rite of passage, the college process has become a family event and has taken on a life of its own, dictating student choices from a young age, all in the name of securing a spot at a particular college or group of schools rather than developing real interests and essential skills.

With the increased attention and investment in the college admission process, some important things have been lost. Families have come to view high school as a training ground for what are perceived to be bigger and better things. This mentality has created intense pressure for students and robbed teenagers of the opportunity to learn, make mistakes and grow in ways that align with normal human development.

An unfortunate byproduct of the need to create and ensure a “perfect” high school experience is that a growing number of students are no longer developing the critical resilience and coping skills they will need when they encounter obstacles or fail. College campuses are seeing an increase in students in a state of emotional crisis and are beginning to develop and/or expand their wellness programs in an attempt to arm students with the skills they need to manage stress before they reach a breaking point. Tonight’s Grade 12 Community of Concern: Transition to College Workshop will help set the foundation for important conversations between Seniors and their parents regarding the many changes they will encounter as they leave home and begin a more independent period in their life.

While there’s an academic transition, the social-emotional changes a student encounters during his/her first year of college are also significant and can impact academic performance. Students need to know how to care for themselves, how to make decisions and how to cope when things don’t go their way. For some students, college may be the first time they receive a grade that isn’t an “A.” This can impact their sense of self and cause them to question their abilities.

Students need to understand how to assess obstacles and adapt in order to improve. They need to be resourceful and self-reliant, even though their parents will always be an important source of support for them. The focus of the Transition to College Workshop will be the many distractions students will encounter living on a college campus and the array of resources available to help them if they stumble. We hope to inform students and parents about what they can expect to experience, so they can be prepared and know where to turn if things become difficult.

Since I arrived at Flint Hill, my own perspective on the college admission process has evolved along with the field itself. We’ve adjusted our college counseling program to address the changes in admissions and the way our families approach it. I’ve always felt we provide a developmentally-appropriate program, and now, as the parent of a college sophomore and an Upper School Junior, I am sure that we do. I approached the admission process for my older child with a bit of trepidation. What if the program didn’t work? What if my efforts to stand firm against the pressure to start college counseling earlier and earlier were ill-conceived? Fortunately, I found the opposite to be true. Our Upper School program encourages students to define their values and understand their strengths and challenges, so by the time they are Juniors, they have a solid understanding of who they are and what they need to be successful. This self-awareness allows them to make good choices during their college search. It will also allow them to make good decisions when they arrive on campus and beyond.

My advice to parents — at any grade level — is to allow your children to learn to make age-appropriate decisions for themselves, so when they encounter the really big ones they will face in college and later in life, they’ve had plenty of practice making good choices. If there are areas of academic challenge, address them directly. Watch for signs of social-emotional stress and help your child learn coping skills. When your child reaches the Upper School, create a balanced but challenging academic program that allows him or her to perform at his/her best. And when it’s time to start the college search, share any parameters that you will require your child to stick to, listen to their hopes and appreciate the goals they set. Make it a priority throughout the process to keep the search contained to a reasonable scope, remembering that your child will be leaving soon and memories of family time and traditions will be important to you both as he or she moves on.