Meet Brianna Bellows, a motivated senior at Edina High School who is preparing to delve into dentistry or journalism at a Big 10 school next fall. Her confidence and enthusiasm for her chosen path are reassuring to her mother, Tracy, who just a few years ago was overwhelmed by the process ahead. With increasing competition and financial demands on those pursuing post-secondary education, preparing for college and discovering the right path is a crucial part of the high school experience.
Unfortunately, with only three short years to work with, this time of discovery and learning can easily become a pressure cooker for students and a point of contention within families. That’s why Tracy did her research and found that resources abound in Edina to help students and parents navigate today’s high-stakes decisions and reclaim the college search process.
When students enroll at Edina High School, they are automatically assigned to a school counselor, who will help them register for appropriate classes and guide them through the college application process. “It’s evolved [over the years],” says Bill Hicks, who has been a counselor at Edina for over 20 years. “Today we are more proactive in our role than we used to be.” Counselors meet with students regularly to keep them on track with academic goals and they provide additional workshops and information sessions for parents and students as they near junior year. “This whole process is a partnership between students, parents and the counseling department,” says Hicks.
Seminars in the fall of senior year cover a variety of topics, such as writing the college essay, and bring speakers from prestigious schools such as Princeton and Northwestern. Marsha Hunt, mother to a current junior, recommends students take advantage of the school’s information meetings, since that’s an excellent opportunity to meet a regional counselor. Hunt was pleased to learn that colleges have counselors assigned to certain geographic regions of the country. These counselors will advocate for students in their region during the admissions process, so “getting to know that counselor on a one-on-one basis is a valuable strategy,” she says.
Hicks and Toni Jones, another school counselor, are also great advocates for their students. They and four other counselors write hundreds of letters of recommendation every year on behalf of their students, and have insider’s advice from years spent in the field. First they recommend that students take the most challenging course they can handle and still do well. But straight As aren’t everything. “It’s not just about what students have done on paper, but what have they done to establish something new; to be innovative and change the world,” says Jones, who suggests students take on leadership roles and step outside of their comfort zone. Finally, Jones points out that “it’s important to know oneself” in order to find that perfect workload and extracurricular balance, and to start thinking about the future.
But that road to self-discovery is hard for busy high school students who barely have time to relax, let alone envision their future career goals and aspirations. That’s where independent educational consultants like Suzanne Luse step in. Luse, a former guidance counselor at Eagan and Eastview high schools, runs her own business as a college expert. “I’ve always had a passion for college,” says Luse, who used to visit colleges just for fun, even while on vacation. “I’d just have to see whatever colleges were in the area,” she explains. Now that she’s visited more than 200 schools, Luse has become a valuable resource for many high school students throughout the metro area. She often meets with kids early in their high school career to get to know them and devise a plan for the next few years. “I’m like a treasure hunter,” says Luse. “I try and figure out what is special and unique about each child, because eventually that will make its way into the college application and essay,” she explains. “It’s not just about finding the right college, it’s helping them be the best applicant they can be,” she says.
Finding the perfect college fit for any student can be a challenge, but luckily, Luse has a few tricks up her sleeve. When students are ready to create their college list, she sits down with them in her office and plays a card game. But this is no ordinary card game. This deck contains more than 100 cards with different college characteristics, such as school spirit, religious affiliation, campus housing and majors. Students then prioritize these cards into three different piles: really want, don’t care and no way. In this way Luse can help her students get to the heart of what they’re looking for in a college, then create a list of schools accordingly. “You need to get kids actively engaged, and [this way] they can visualize it across the table,” she says.
Parents stay in the background during this process, since this is a time of discovery for the student, and parental involvement may impact the process. In fact, “oftentimes they are surprised about what their child is telling me in this meeting,” she says. When Brianna Bellows came to Luse, her parents assumed she was a quintessential small-school girl. But Luse “opened up the nitty-gritty details of what I would want in college,” explains Brianna. “If I didn’t have [that experience with Luse] I would be 180 [degrees] in a different direction.” In the end Luse finds that parents are grateful to let go of the responsibility. “Sue took a lot off my plate,” says Tracy Bellows. Instead of worrying about deadlines, proofing their child’s essays and reminding them to take a practice test, “parents can enjoy the process—they aren’t the ones nagging,” adds Luse.
The important thing to remember, Luse points out, is that this is “a journey for [students] to learn who they are, what their strengths are, how to adhere to deadlines and how to make decisions.” But with the pressures of high school and the trend to over-schedule and over-commit, kids aren’t spending enough time on this important stage. According to Luse, one of the most valuable things a parent can do for their child is resist the temptation to over-schedule. Let them “take time to kick back and relax, look at the stars and wonder who they are and where they’re going and give them time to grow and learn,” she says.
School counselors and college experts can help parents and students navigate the college application process, but there’s no denying that it’s a competitive market these days. “It’s more high-stakes today than it was 20 years ago,” says Hicks. With a daughter in the midst of her junior year, Hunt has seen the tension first-hand. “It is an eye-opener to see how much more polished, successful and driven the students have to be,” she says. But Hicks is quick to point out that because of this increased pressure and competition, kids are learning at a younger age how to prepare for college and reach their potential as students. “The silver lining is that they understand the significance of a good education.”