Navigating college admissions

The key to picking the college that’s right for you is to focus on who you are, say Exeter’s veteran college counselors.

March 21, 2019
Exeter College Counselors: Sherry Hernandez, Cary Einhaus and Betsy Dolan.

Sherry Hernandez, Cary Einhaus and Betsy Dolan.

The wide array of colleges and universities attended by Exeter graduates reflects the work that students do, guided by a team of veteran college counselors, to identify their true interests and pursue schools where they will flourish.

Two new members will join the College Counseling Office this fall, bringing Exeter’s team to nine full-time counselors. The added staff will give students more one-on-one counseling time and allow for expanded programming. We sat down with the dean of the department, Betsy Dolan, and counselors Sherry Hernandez and Cary Einhaus for a conversation about their work with students and families. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Q: Tell me a little about Exeter’s college counseling program. How is it structured?

Betsy: Everything we do is intentional and developmentally appropriate. We build a foundation of support in the initial phase of the college process, and then we empower students to take initiative, so that when they go to college they are resourceful, resilient and self-actualized enough to make good choices.

Cary: Our ninth-grade messaging is about balance and finding your academic stride. It links with our health curriculum, which focuses on how to take care of yourself, how to be present, and not worry about what's going to happen three years from now.

Betsy: Right, we’re not focused on college at all with ninth-grade students. We ask them to take a learning-style inventory at the end of the year, so they reflect on who they are and how they learn. We have another inventory for 10th graders that helps them explore interests and be intentional about their choices. Then we start with a much more reflective period with the 11th graders.

Sherry: Our whole [early] approach, asking students to think about who they are and what they want, lays the groundwork for everything to come. By the time we start working with them one-on-one they’ve already been thinking about this is who I am instead of where they want to go to college. If you focus on who you are, what you want, the college list comes more organically.

It used to be a business of accepting. It's now a business of denying."
Betsy Dolan

Q: We hear a lot about changes in college admissions … what has changed most during your careers?

Sherry: Technology is really changing the landscape. Colleges today see recruitment as a global initiative. No longer are they limited by just the student population of the United States. More application fees translates to more dollars for institutions, but makes it harder for them to predict yield. In order to determine the likelihood of students actually enrolling, college admissions offices are relying heavily on early decision programs and also investing in technology to measure demonstrated interest. They are tracking who is visiting their campus, who is interviewing, who is opening email and how long they are spending on their websites.

Betsy: The shift in admissions is not just different from a statistical standpoint, in terms of how off-the-charts schools are with applicants, but also in the amount of denying that’s going on. It used to be a business of accepting. It's now a business of denying.

Q: Does that influence how Exeter administers its program?

Betsy: Counselors have extensive conversations during and after the review season with college representatives so we can understand their institutional agendas. It helps us understand the context in which our students are evaluated and informs the advice we give students. We teach our students how to understand themselves and how to take that knowledge and incorporate it into a candidacy that will be distinctive and distinguishable even amongst their peers here and nationally.

Sherry: The high volume of applications and correlated denials at the most selective colleges can make for a disempowering process. Our students are academically competitive for the schools they’re applying to but will not always be admitted. We are here to support Exonians, and they are all more than well prepared for the process.

It's about becoming a citizen of the world who is ethical and moral, and who understands the notion of 'not for oneself.' "
Betsy Dolan

Q: What are some distinguishing features of Exeter’s program?

Cary: Most of us have worked in college admissions and understand the nuances of that process. We are always thinking forward to college committee deliberations, we know the questions that the committee members are going to bring up, so our students are prepared to tell their stories in relevant, compelling and interesting ways.

College readers give our recommendations lots of positive feedback. They’re called “cumulative reports” because they are an accumulation of all the voices in that child's life, a story about why the student is an interesting person. We read every piece of information about the student, every teacher comment, the adviser comments, information from coaches and dance, music and art instructors. We solicit information from parents and the students are required to submit their own questionnaire, which teases out who are you?, what do you want? and what makes you unique? We tell students it's just like writing a history report; all this information is primary source material, so give us as much as you can because it helps us argue your candidacy.

Betsy: A highlight of our work is the class review. We gather as a team to review each student profile; by the end of the process, each counselor knows the entire class. We are constantly evaluating the college lists of our students so our class review isn’t just about the aspects of the individual’s candidacy — it’s in relation to the colleges to which the students apply.

Q: To what extent do you work with families?

Betsy: We put students at the center of the process and partner with parents in supporting students to take ownership of their process. We have programming for ninth- and 10th-grade parents during Exeter Family Weekend. Eleventh-grade parents are invited to college admissions weekend, where they hear from and engage with a dozen deans and vice presidents of enrollment from a wide range of selective universities. We encourage 11th-grade parents to check in with us, maybe once a term, and discuss what they are hearing from their student or address any questions they may have.

Cary: We copy parents on everything that students receive, so they are informed through weekly news and notifications. We also compose individual updates to parents twice a year that detail where the student is in the college process, where they may need to focus, or coaching them a little bit about how to tweak their essays or revise their college list to add greater depth and opportunity.

Parents can sometimes feel anxious about something falling through the cracks and they worry that they aren’t there to pick up the pieces. It’s important to remember, to Betsy’s point earlier, that in the transition from late adolescence into young adulthood it is our role – counselors and parents – to empower the student and show that we trust them to make wise decisions and advocate for themselves.

Betsy: As college counselors it is our job to build relationships, to know our students well and to help them navigate the college process. And this process is not just about getting into college. It's about becoming a citizen of the world who is ethical and moral, and who understands the notion of “not for oneself.”