(Three Words You’ll Never Hear Regarding the College Process—Except at Calhoun!)
A conversation with Lisa Merritt, Director of College Counseling, and Jarrad Nunes, Associate Director of College Counseling, on how the process of writing essays, taking tests and submitting applications has become a joyous journey for Calhoun’s seniors.
So, Lisa and Jarrad, how are you feeling now that another class has graduated and is moving on?
Jarrad: I’m feeling like we just crossed the finish line of a long race—happy but exhausted.
Lisa: Well, if there’s one thing we know about the college process, it’s a marathon and not a sprint.
J: We play the long game! And that game certainly ended successfully this year. It’s amazing to look back and realize how beautifully our students navigated it.
L: We’ve enjoyed literally looking back through the Submit Selfies we took throughout the fall and posted to our office’s Instagram. In each photo, you get the sense that sending off the first application is truly a milestone for our kids—one they’re eager to share with us.
There were so many success stories this year...
L: It would be disingenuous not to talk a little bit about what happened this year after those applications went out into the universe to more than 120 colleges, 88 of which sent back wonderful news!
J: As remarkable as all those acceptance letters were, I was floored by the conversations we had with admissions counselors. Those chats really encapsulated what was special about this class in particular and Calhoun students in general. Hearing deans of admission gush to us about students’ Junior Workshop projects, for example, was really lovely.
L: Jarrad and I have both worked in college admissions and have seen applications come from a diverse array of high schools; we’ve gained a great appreciation for the way that Calhoun allows students to really stand out in a hyper-competitive environment.
J: We know that admissions counselors are witnessing something altogether different and refreshing when they visit Calhoun. I love when our students talk with admissions folks about the books they’re discussing, their social justice work, and the research they’re doing in places like Black Rock Forest . . .
L: The huge number of colleges visiting Calhoun—we had nearly 100 this year—says so much about how they view us. It’s not just about which high schools offer the most AP courses; it’s about which ones offer the kinds of authentic learning experiences that translate into success in college. And so we try our best to build our college counseling program around the things that are special about this place and make us different.
What makes Calhoun’s college process so unique?
L: It’s all about honoring the individual student. We ask students to reflect on their educational experiences, their interests, their talents, their own curiosity, and then work to use that foundation to search for colleges and universities that are a particularly good fit. That’s difficult to do when students, parents and entire communities have a very narrowly defined sense of what makes a “good” college—a perception that’s all too often tied to U.S. News & World Report rankings or a certain athletic conference.
J: Not only does a place like Calhoun largely reject that kind of thinking, but there seems to be a genuine excitement about the hidden gems out there. Having families open their minds in that way really liberates us to be creative. When we step in, we ask students and parents to trust us. We also encourage parents to trust their kids—and they do! We intentionally start from a more philosophical place than most schools, working with students to identify what makes them tick and what might make them happy. From there, we move into the mechanics of the process and guide students as they put together the nuts and bolts of their applications.
L: We also try to minimize stress. This is, in some ways, an inherently stressful process, with students putting themselves out there in a very vulnerable way. We start really working with families during junior year, which is a busy time everywhere—but especially at Calhoun. Among other things, our students are tackling the independent Junior Workshop project, which is distinctly Calhoun . . .
J: . . . and something like standardized testing, that’s decidedly not . . .
L: Which is why we start giving students exposure to standardized testing during their sophomore year. The reality is that, at many colleges, standardized tests play a role—even in a holistic admissions process. So we do everything we can to make sure our kids have the skills they need to be successful.
J: We’ve partnered with a test preparation firm to offer after-school classes here at Calhoun. They value many of the same things we do, including the belief that successful test preparation shouldn’t just prepare students to perform well on an exam, but also equip them with tools and information that will be useful in the classroom and in their lives.
L: We also provide financial support for these prep classes to students who receive Calhoun tuition assistance. Now, more than half of our students prepare for these tests right here at Calhoun.
J: We are always trying to understand and respond to what’s happening externally without damaging the balance we try to strike internally. But it’s hard. The calendar has shifted, with more colleges encouraging earlier applications. We’ve responded by introducing focused work on the Common Application in junior year—which is a big change for us.
L: Another addition to our Junior College Seminar course, which begins mid-year and continues into the fall Senior College Seminar, is essay-writing instruction. Luckily, our students come to us with a leg up in that respect. Nevertheless, it’s probably the part of the process that induces the most anxiety. Admittedly, it’s daunting for students to ask themselves, How am I going to communicate the essence of my being in 650 words or less?
J: We’re using technology to our advantage, too. Students can share their writing with us electronically, so we can supplement our in-person conversations with constant feedback and guidance.
L: We’ve also introduced a Senior College Kickoff program, right before classes begin in the fall of their final year. We actually have a pretty intense morning with the seniors, to ensure that they have a clear sense of what the next few months hold.
J: And we try to respond to other changes in the landscape, as well—not the least of which is the exorbitant cost of higher education. We’ve built a lot of financial aid literacy into our program, bringing in experts to help families strategize about how to finance college. We play a quiz game with students in College Seminar, asking them to guess the average cost of attendance at a private, four-year university; their jaws always drop at the answer, regardless of their socioeconomic status.
L: That sort of literacy is important for all of our students, not just those who receive tuition assistance at Calhoun. Having that awareness is important; this is a social justice issue.
There’s a lot that you do in the background to support our students, as well.
J: Well, we certainly can’t take all of the credit. We’re unbelievably lucky to have someone like Victoria Eatman—our college counseling office manager—on our team. She makes so much happen for our kids behind the scenes.
L: She sure does! Beyond Victoria’s magic, Jarrad and I have great relationships with our colleagues at the colleges, and we try to leverage those relationships in ways that benefit our kids in this process. One of the most important things we do is the writing of recommendation letters on behalf of the school. We work hard to complement the students’ personal narratives and provide context for the stories they’re telling. I always like to say that we’re microbiographers. And again, one of the great joys of working at a place like Calhoun is sharing these stories.
J: What’s wonderful is that, because our relationships with students don’t stop once they hit the submit button, we can share all of the amazing things our students do after they’ve applied. We can give a college a real-time update about a student—the sorts of tidbits that can actually tip the scale for a student. Thankfully, colleges are becoming increasingly vocal about the fact that they value more than just test scores; they really want to see how students prove themselves as scholars and as citizens. Those are the kinds of stories we’re proud to share with colleges.
L: More and more, character counts in the process, and that’s a place where our students really have an ace in the hole. That certainly comes out of the broader Calhoun experience, but I’d like to think that it also comes from the fact that we treat the college process as an opportunity for character development.
J: With this particular class, that meant lots of early conversations . . .
L: . . . and, of course, our famous—infamous, maybe—catchphrase: Stay in your own story. We really hammered it home from our first meeting and repeated it every time we met, because we know how hard it is to navigate a rite of passage like this, something that’s so personal and communal at the same time.
J: You know, at so many places, the college process is like going shopping, and that’s just not how we frame things here. We don’t want students to visit a college and superficially decide what they do or don’t like about the place; we want them to understand what they value and determine how a particular school might align with those values.
L: That philosophy leads our kids to apply to a well-edited and distinctly tailored list of schools. So many kids out there are stressed and not getting good guidance—so they are throwing out 15, 20 college applications in a panic. That’s just not something Calhoun kids are doing; this year, in fact, the average number of schools our students applied to was about five. And because they were making smart choices and getting feedback on how to keep their lists in balance, they ended up getting mostly good news. In this year’s class, 89 percent of our students who applied to multiple schools were admitted to more than half the schools to which they applied.
L: It is! And it speaks to the fact that our kids are being ambitious, but appropriately so. The counter-statistic to that is, of those students who applied to multiple schools (not Early Decision), only one got in everywhere she applied. So, virtually everyone got at least one rejection.
J: Which is all part of the process! And they handled all of the news with grace—which, I think, is partly a result of our focus on self-care. I always tell our kids to prepare to do something nice for themselves on the day they know they’ll be receiving college news. That way, regardless of the result, they are putting their own health and well-being first!
L: And in that vein of character building, one of the things that I thought was most beautiful about this senior class was their resilience in the face of rejection.
J: To me, that’s the legacy of this class. Even more than their impressive matriculation list was the way they held one another up in the face of setbacks; it was pretty astounding to watch. Equally amazing was how supportive they were when the inevitable good news came. That healthy mindset is even more amazing when you consider what a pressure cooker college admissions has become.
We’ve heard the word “fun” associated with the college process here. FUN?
J: With all of the forces that influence the college process from outside Calhoun, it would be easy to retreat to a place where the work we do becomes more transactional and serious. Yet, we’re really focused on making sure that a genuine sense of joy informs our college process, from beginning to end.
L: Too often, we use the language of war—we talk about surviving the college process, and I worry that can set an expectation of joylessness, if not cause some actual damage. We’re flipping the script. For example, instead of having application boot camp, which is how many schools frame the work, we host “Appy Hour”!
J: For our first Appy Hour, we promised students essay-writing advice, application fine-tuning . . . and mocktails. I remember thinking we’d be happy if five or six kids showed up; we were overwhelmed when 30 kids were waiting for us! Since then, it’s become a lovely tradition that we sort of stumbled into.
L: That fun reaches its pinnacle with our Halloween-themed Dawn of the Deadlines party at the end of October. November 1 is a big first deadline for many of our students, so it only makes sense to combine a party with one last opportunity to have your college counselor look over your application before you click submit.
J: And there’s nothing as beautifully absurd as watching a high school student submit a very consequential college application in his or her Halloween costume!
L: Amen. The other bit of programming I’m proud of—something that celebrates going to college, which is what this is all actually about—is our Senior Send-Off program, which takes place right before graduation. Students wear their college gear and, as a group, take time to their high school experience as well as the future they face after Calhoun.
J: We cover a huge range of issues, from roommate dramas to self-advocacy in the classroom to the joys of laundry. We try to cover the full scope of what it means to be an independent college student.
So, they’ve graduated! Is it all over?
L: One of the things that’s really special about Calhoun is that our kids go off to college and they come back. They tell us about their experiences. And if, for some reason, students need to find a new home, that’s a search we can help them with.
J: I always tell our students that they have college counselors at Calhoun for life.
L: That’s right. But we will not do their laundry!