Over the last few weeks, you may have heard a sound rumbling from the “Under GAC”... a great collective sigh of relief as many of our seniors submitted their early applications and applications to the University of California and California State University systems. Hitting the “submit” button is a significant milestone for our seniors, and we are proud of the hard work they have put into getting to this point. Through our many years of experience working in the college counseling field, we have acquired a great deal of knowledge and expertise, as well as a firm belief that the process of applying to college is about much more than filling out forms, checking boxes, entering grades, and writing essays. Ideally, the college application process should be about self-discovery and reflection on personal values.
In fact, values are at the heart of our mission-driven approach to college counseling. Our school’s deeply held values such as risk-taking, exploration, the development of self knowledge, connection with others, and engagement with the greater world guide us in our work.
Teenhood: A Time for Exploration
We know that the teenage brain is wired to crave novel experiences, to take risks, and to explore the world. We have taken that need for the “new” into account in our curriculum, with special programs like Exploratory and Intersession. We also consider this in our approach to college counseling, because when teenagers have the chance to experiment and learn new skills, they can discover exciting new passions that can become rewarding careers.
The primary task in the first two years of high school in terms of college preparation is to engage in and explore academics and meaningful co-curricular involvement. We have a light touch with our 9th and 10th grade students, providing course planning support and a few parent workshops, because we want our students to focus on establishing a strong academic foundation and investigating their interests and strengths, rather than obsessing about college outcomes in these early years. Instead of approaching activities with a “this-will-look good-on-my-resume” mindset, we encourage 9th and 10th graders to follow their existing interests, to have the courage to be a beginner, and to step outside of their comfort zones with a spirit of open-mindedness. These are all qualities that distinguish students in the college application process. In fact, colleges do look for students who have developed a genuine love for learning for learning’s sake and are adept at sussing out those who have spent their high school careers ticking boxes for the “looks good on my college application” effect rather than developing genuine interests, passions, and skills.
By the time our students are ready to begin the college search, in the spring of 11th grade, the exploration afforded to them in their early high school years, as well as the course advising support they have received up to that point, will have helped them develop a strong academic foundation and a honed sense of self.
This self-knowledge is critically important as they embark upon their college search, so that they truly know what they want in their college years. We strive to put our students in the drivers’ seat through the college application process, confident about which direction they are heading.
Academic Rigor with Heart
Our curriculum goes beyond the college-prep basics offered at other high schools. We have a slate of unique Advanced Studies electives exploring topics like Postcolonial Literary Theory, Statistics, Medical Biochemistry, and Constitutional Law, in addition to AP offerings. College admissions officers recognize the unique opportunities and rigor available to our students, and they appreciate that our course offerings are not cookie-cutter, off-the-rack high school classes. Additionally, college admissions officers look at a student’s transcript in the context of the course offerings available to them--NOT in comparison to other school’s course offerings--and they assess breadth, depth, and rigor accordingly. Our AS and AP classes do much more than simply prepare students for standardized tests; they are deep dives into complex subjects, with opportunities for sophisticated projects and intense research.
In the second semester of 9th, 10th, and 11th grade, we work with students to help them select a course load that will challenge them and provide a breadth of academic and artistic experience. We also promote a balanced approach as students make their curricular choices, leaving some space in their schedules for meaningful co-curricular involvement and leadership opportunities, and of course, time to relax and have fun!.
Connected Community Where Each Individual Can Thrive
Our school culture is one where we strive to ensure that every student is known and seen as an individual, and this is one of the foundational ideas in our College Counseling program. The small size of our school allows each of us to carry a caseload of about 40 students per class year, and we get to know those students very well during the time we are working with them. All in all, each student receives approximately 50 hours of in-class counseling and up to 20 hours of individual college counseling during the 11th and 12th grade years.
Our College Counseling program begins in earnest in the spring of 11th grade, when every student takes a semester-long College Counseling class. This is when we work together to explore different types of colleges and post-secondary options, build lists, brainstorm about essays, request recommendations, and learn about how the process will look in senior year. We also begin meeting with students one-on-one. The fall semester of 12th grade includes another class, and individual meetings continue throughout the year so that we can check in on progress, answer questions, and process decisions together.
This personalized attention provides us with a deep understanding of each student’s unique profile of strengths, interests, preferences, goals, and financial and geographical considerations. This knowledge then allows us to help each student narrow in on a well-matched, deeply intentional college list with many strong options.
We do not have a template list of colleges we provide to students, but instead tailor-make a college list that takes into consideration all of the unique factors of each individual student and their family. Sometimes, this results in colleges on the lists that parents may not have heard of… mostly that is because there are literally thousands of exceptional colleges of all sizes and locations; while only a small number get the kind of brand name attention that makes them household names. Each fall, we host admissions representatives (both in-person and virtual) from many colleges of every kind–large universities and small liberal arts colleges, research institutions, arts colleges, etc–to help expose students to a wide variety of different kinds of educational programs. We want to assure parents that there are so many good options beyond these limited “brand-name” choices and we always strive to collaboratively create a list that really meets the needs of the individual student.
We work hard to help students find colleges that suit their needs and interests, and we enthusiastically support every possible pathway. We celebrate every graduate’s plan, whether that plan includes a gap year, a junior college, a small liberal arts college, a private research institution, a large public university, a fine arts conservatory, an international university, or a trade program, with the same genuine joy and pride. We are confident that any road a student chooses will lead them toward a satisfying, interesting, and successful life– however they uniquely define those terms–because at SA, our students are given the tools they need to thrive in the real world.
In the months ahead, as our seniors begin to receive their decisions and start to solidify their future plans, this will be the most important message we hope to impart to them: college is not the end of the road, nor is it the only road. We believe that with the self knowledge, preparation, and caring community they have benefited from during their time here, they have the power to navigate through these next few years with grace and fortitude, on their way to an exciting future.
To help parents orient themselves to the college process and the various milestones and touch points over the course of the four years, we’ve created this College Counseling Timeline
. And we look forward to getting to know each and every student here as they explore high school and, when the time is right, embark upon the college application journey. It’s an amazing experience and we are honored to be able to guide our students through it.