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Conquering the College Application Process

Conquering the College Application Process
Kelly Slonaker
A look inside Canterbury’s annual College Day and interview with Director of College Counseling Sarah Ferland

On Friday, April 16, Canterbury’s College Counseling office hosted a College Day for Fifth Form students. The event took place in Maguire Auditorium and began with opening remarks from Head of School Rachel Stone, who welcomed the Class of 2022 to their College Day, and—as a former college counselor—encouraged them to share their stories, questions, concerns, and aspirations throughout the process and to be open to a full spectrum of options. “If I could do my college search over again,” she reflected, “I would have better prioritized what mattered most to me as a learner and the ways in which I hoped to be involved in the community as an undergraduate.”

Students then heard from Keynote Speaker Drew Carter, a Senior Associate Director of Admission for College of the Holy Cross, MA, who joined the class via Zoom. Drew spoke to the Fifth Form about their approach to the college search and application process, and emphasized “controlling the things you can control.” His examples included how students approach their academics from this moment until the end of the fall semester of senior year, how they engage with the colleges in which they are interested and demonstrate that interest, and how they write their college essay. Drew also imparted valuable advice about the essay, emphasizing that students need to write about what genuinely interests them, saying “If you are bored writing it, we will be bored reading it.”

Following Drew’s address, students broke into groups and took part in mock admission committees. They were tasked with reading three applications and choosing to accept one student, deny one student, and wait-list one student. The groups were led by Canterbury faculty members and Sixth Form students, who helped with the activity and contributed their own experiences to the discussion. Students were able to gain enhanced insight into how an application is read and what colleges are looking for in applicants.  

The day closed with a panel of Sixth Form students who shared their recent experiences with the college application process and answered questions from the Fifth Form. To be sure, the college process has seen many changes in the wake of COVID-19; we sat down with Director of College Counseling Sarah Ferland this spring to find out more about these updates and how Canterbury has adapted to best prepare students for the next phase of their education.

How has the college selection and recruitment process changed during the pandemic? Do you think any of these changes will be long-term?

Last spring was challenging because we immediately jumped to remote learning, which meant holding our College Workgroups and individual meetings with Fifth Form students on Zoom. We were still able to see students “face to face” and accomplish all that we wanted to in the spring, but I missed seeing students in person. College visits also came to a halt at a time when our Fifth Form was starting to explore colleges more closely and our graduating Sixth Form students in the Class of 2020 were making their final decisions about where to enroll. Our students could not visit college campuses, so we helped them connect with colleges by utilizing our alumni network, contacting college representatives for meetings, and advising students how to best take advantage of the virtual offerings colleges provided.  

College representatives could not visit our campus either, so our College Day in April went virtual! We had a keynote speaker, mock admission committee sessions led by admission professionals, and guidance about interviews and approaching the college process during the pandemic, all available for our Fifth Form students last spring. This fall, we hosted individual college representatives via Zoom so our Sixth Form could meet with them to ask questions, express their interest in applying, and make a more personal connection with the admission representatives at the schools to which they applied.

Another significant impact the pandemic has had on college admission revolves around standardized testing. Access to the SAT and ACT was impossible last spring and into the summer, forcing colleges to adopt a test-optional policy for the 2020-2021 admission cycle.  Many schools committed to more than one year of this policy, and this is a change I certainly can see many colleges sticking with for the future.

Why is finding the “right fit” college or university so important? What is your process for helping students find the schools that best match their interests and needs?  

The “right fit” is so important because we want our students to ultimately enroll at a school that is an academic and personal match, setting them up for the best chance to have a positive four-year experience in college. Individual meetings are an essential part of crafting an appropriate initial list of colleges and adjusting and narrowing that list over time. In College Workgroup—a small-group session formally added to students’ weekly academic schedules beginning in their Fifth Form year—we give our Fifth and Sixth Form students opportunities to write and reflect on what is important to them, prioritize their goals and desires for college, and conduct honest assessments of their abilities and interests. Helping students get to know themselves and give thought to what they want out of their undergraduate experience also prepares them to answer the questions they will be asked on their applications moving forward.

How did you adapt that process to fit the needs of our students and the schools they were applying to during this time?

Honestly, we were able to keep our process very much the same during this challenging time. Of course, there were adjustments made along the way, and we had to change right along with the college landscape as it relates to standardized testing and campus visits. However, last spring, we kept meeting with students individually and holding College Workgroups on Zoom, and we communicated with parents every step of the way. This fall, it was incredibly beneficial to be on campus and meet in person with our Sixth Form as they prepared to apply to college. Individual meetings stayed the same, and College Workgroups, though smaller and socially distanced, allowed us to connect and communicate weekly with every Sixth Form student for updates on their progress and to help ensure they were ready for their deadlines and feeling good about their college lists. We held virtual parent meetings for both Sixth and Fifth Form families this fall, and I have met with parents and students on Zoom consistently throughout the past year. The ability to meet virtually has made it easier for our parents who live further away to engage in our entire process. We will be keeping some of the lessons learned during the pandemic to enhance our College Counseling programming in the years to come.

What is the most challenging aspect of your work? The most rewarding? 

The most rewarding part of my work is my daily interactions with students. Of course, their success in the college process and ultimately finding the best-fit college is extremely rewarding and supremely important. Still, meeting with students in my office for the first time to start the process, learning about their interests and their families, or comparing and contrasting their acceptances in spring of senior year to make that final decision—these are the moments that are so rewarding.

The most challenging aspect of my work is less about the actual work and more about the pace and volume at certain times of the year. As the November 1 deadlines are fast approaching and Sixth Form students are finalizing their applications and putting the finishing touches on their school materials, the final days of October are some of the busiest days of the year. Those days can be a real push, but that is also what makes me love this field so much. Students are excited and a bit nervous, but those moments in between—connecting when a student comes up with the perfect final line of his college essay or prepares to interview with a college representative from a school they love—that’s what makes the busy, hectic, long days worth it.  

What path led you to this career?

I worked in college admissions at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont (my alma mater) for five years before joining the Canterbury community. Early in my fifth year in admissions, I realized that I wanted to work more closely with students every day, and I started to look into “switching sides of the desk” from admission work to college counseling. I am from Connecticut originally and looked specifically at boarding and independent day schools. A fun fact is that I attended Canterbury’s spring college fair as a Saint Michael’s admissions representative the day after I applied for the Assistant Director of College Counseling position. I thought of mentioning it to the Director of College Counseling at the time (Cathy Pietraszek) when I was here but thought better of it when I saw how busy she was that day! I was Assistant Director for four years before Cathy retired, and I was then offered the Director position. In my time, I have also coached Girls’ Varsity Basketball and Track and was the Dorm Head of Carter House for two years. Coming to Canterbury has been one of the best and most rewarding decisions of my life; I am so grateful I found my way here.

How is Canterbury’s college counseling program unique? 

College Workgroup is a unique program at Canterbury that helps our students engage in and navigate the college process by encouraging them to work with their peers and be part of guided discussions that help them better understand it. At Canterbury, the college process is not something big and scary, looming in the distance. Our younger students know their time, too, will come for College Workgroup to begin and for them to start their college journey. The Workgroups begin in the winter of Fifth Form year and continue through the fall semester of Sixth Form year. We help Fifth Form students understand the resources available to them, explore their interests, prepare for college visits, and even start their applications and essays. The Workgroup also allows us to check in each week with every Sixth Form student and postgraduate. This is invaluable as students continue to narrow and finalize their lists and prepare to submit their applications. I always want our students to feel fully supported every step of the way, and our College Workgroups allow us to do that for all students.

At Canterbury, we know our students well, and that is no different in the College Counseling Office. College Workgroup is undoubtedly unique, but the way we get to know our students individually, and the emphasis we put on that as a school, is paramount. From coaches to teachers to advisors to dorm parents, the college process is truly a team and a school effort. So, it is only natural that the connections made with students across the board help find the best fit for each student and ensure their process is as smooth and student-centered as possible.

Lastly, communication is key! One of my most important roles involves communicating with both parents and students about this process.  We communicate both formally and informally with our parent groups, and I find the one-on-one conversations or meetings most helpful, so we encourage those early and often!  I prioritize open communication, clarity and accessibility above all. 

What are some tips you could give to any student beginning to consider colleges?

Fully engage in the process! In my experience, the students who feel best and most in control of their process are those who actively engage in it. Talk to the adults who are helping you—your parents, your counselor, teachers, and coaches. Admission representatives are also there to help. Reach out to them, ask if they have time to meet over Zoom, ask a question, send an email. They are real people, and they do the work they do because they love working with students! Listen to yourself; be true to what you want in a college. Do your research; no one knows what is best for you like you do!