As admissions policies change, expert guidance can make a big difference.
College admissions policies are changing fast.
On June 29, the Supreme Court struck down race-influenced admissions policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, effectively ending affirmative action at institutions of higher learning across the country.
Already, many colleges and universities have stopped taking family legacy status into account when assessing a student’s application. There’s less openness than in the past to high school college counselors advocating for particular students.
Standardized tests like the SAT and ACT are no longer required in many places, and in any case are moving from paper exams to digital ones. Meanwhile, strategies like applying early and demonstrating interest through tours, visits and social media activity are more important than ever.
College counselors at local independent schools are adjusting to these changes the way they always do: by helping students choose a range of suitable college options, and working with them to build application packages that give them the best possible chance of getting in.
A Balanced Approach
“We want students and families to understand that it has changed,” says Elizabeth W. Almeter, director of college counseling at Garrison Forest School, a K-12 school for girls in Owings Mills.
She advises students and their families against setting their hopes on a particular school. “I think there is a healthier way to look at it. There’s not one right school, there’s not one wrong school. It’s not to say don’t apply, but be realistic. What can you add to that class? What does the school want?”
When families ask her when college prep starts, “the answer I give is ‘The first day of school,’ ” says Almeter. “It’s a matter of thinking that each class you take, each activity you participate in, each experience you have outside of school, that’s all part of your story.”
Preparation begins in earnest in 10th grade, she says, and includes career exploration, essay brainstorming sessions, and practice ACT and SATs. Officials from college admissions offices visit to talk to students about schools and their institutional goals in building a class.
“We advocate through letters of recommendation,” she says. “We write as if we’re speaking to the admission committee. We know the student and we have relationships with college admissions officers.”
Alice Margraff has been helping McDonogh School students and their families wrestle with the complicated and emotional application process for 30 years. Before that, she was an admissions officer at Johns Hopkins University.
“It’s really about making sure students have a balanced list,” she says. “You can be absolutely qualified, but when the admit rate is 4%, you just never know.”
Margraff warns against getting obsessed with the application process or focusing too much on acceptance to a particular super-elite school. “One of the best pieces of advice we give students in 10th and 11th grade is, ‘Don’t let college be your only conversation at home,’” she says. “Set aside an hour a week, if that, and enjoy your time in high school.”
McDonogh students are assigned a college counselor halfway through 10th grade, says Margraff. The goal at that point is for the counselors to get to know the students, the classes they take and their interests both inside and outside the classroom.
Next steps include prepping for and taking the PSAT, SAT or ACT; working on college essays; and meeting with students and parents to start developing a list of potential schools. At that point, they talk about affordability and financial aid, strategies around early decision and early admission, and insights about how different schools evaluate applicants.
Privilege not the First Priority
Halaine Steinberg has seen a lot of changes in her 15 years as college counselor at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, the Jewish private school in Pikesville for preschool through 12th grade.
One thing that hasn’t changed is that parents often ask her what they can do to nudge their child’s application into the “accepted” column, says Steinberg.
“Years ago, when I first started out, a parent said to me, back when you mailed the applications, ‘How about I just put the first semester check in the application?’ Not only is it going to be seen as crass, it’s not even a donation,” she says.
Some parents still ask if giving money to a school will boost their child’s chances. “I never tell people whether donating will or won’t help,” Steinberg says. “However, colleges at the highest level are trying to show that privilege is not their first priority.”
Instead, says Steinberg, who is also the school’s first diversity, equity and inclusion coordinator, “What I have been hearing from college admissions people is that they are looking for students who have had an impact.”
Starting junior year, she says, students are paired with one of the school’s three college counselors to begin selecting schools and crafting application strategies.
“What I would like for students and parents to know is that the most important thing is to be authentic,” says Steinberg. “To really pursue the things that you love and you care about. You can do that while at the same time being on board with what colleges want.”
For example, she says, a lacrosse player could coach children who have fewer opportunities to play.
“We help our students find ways to use their passion to lift up another person or community,” Steinberg says. “I don’t see my job as solely to get these students into college. In the process, I want to help them be the best people they can be.”
This article is part of the 2023-2024 Guide to Baltimore Independent Schools.