Independent schools

There is (apparently not) "that of God" in the Sidwell College Counseling Office

I’m sure that approximately zero percent of my readers just got that reference, but I couldn’t help myself! I graduated from a different Quaker independent school (elementary) before heading off to Choate, so maybe that’s why I find the recent antics at Sidwell to be so troubling. I’m not Quaker, by the way, nor are most of the kids who attend Quaker schools. But I very much respect and identify with their belief system, which runs 100% contrary to the behavior exhibited up on Wisconsin Avenue.

If you are not familiar with the story, you can get up to speed here:

I’ve actually been following the Sidwell story for quite a while and there’s much more to it than what has been reported in the mainstream media. Long story short, there’s a lot of unhappy parents that believe that the college counseling office is “not doing a good job” and it seems that a select few have become outspoken about it. I’m writing about it because I think that there’s a bigger-picture lesson that parents considering an independent school education can take from the situation. I warn you that this is going to be a long post!

There are amazing independent school college counseling offices in the DC area and there are also really poor ones. However, I really believe that the problem here comes down to expectations. If parental expectations about their college counselor’s role are not in line with reality, families can have the best independent school college counselor on the planet and they will not be satisfied with that person’s performance.

I have a unique perspective on this because I spent a total of eight years working in two independent school college counseling offices. I directed one of those offices for six years, and started my business while there (it grew rapidly and I had to step down so I could concentrate on it full time). For a while, though, I had a foot in each role. It was not until that time that I was really able to understand why a parent at a top independent school would hire an independent counselor. In fact, I will admit to being a little offended myself whenever I’d previously found out that one of my students’ parents had contracted with an independent counselor. This didn’t happen often at all because independent counseling wasn’t as widespread then, but I can think of 2-3 occasions. I am embarrassed to admit now that I took it sort of personally and thought that maybe they didn’t have confidence in me.

This was not the case at all. I was totally wrong.

The reason that independent school parents hire independent school college counselors is because the function of the job is TOTALLY DIFFERENT. As an independent counselor, I can do anything I want for a student as long as it’s within ethical/moral guidelines. I’m also compensated accordingly.

I can work alongside Jennifer, McClain, Alan or Elizabeth, collaborating together to spend twelve hours helping a student craft an amazing essay that we think about for years to come because it is just that great. I can ask Rebeccah to hound a teenage boy and finally start texting him repeatedly because he refuses to do his 15-minute HW assignment between meetings and we NEED HIM TO FINISH! Or I can have her run to Staples to pick up a leather portfolio and fancy paper for a student who needs to leave for her audition in less than 24 hours and is unprepared.

I can help an enterprising teenager fill out paperwork from the State Corporation Commission to incorporate her very legitimate business (which should have been incorporated anyway a long time ago), giving her the ability to take it up a notch in her activities section by reporting that she owns an LLC. I can pick out outfits for interviews and sign kids up to get the Skimm for an easy way to be informed on current events (I can also send someone home to change when she shows up in yoga pants on the way to a college fair… eeek!).

I can help with rush resumes and head shots, a ton of summer camp/program applications - I can even moonlight as a miniature babysitting agency by passing out phone numbers via private message to members of the Vienna Moms facebook group after a few girls tell me they wants to babysit more hours to enhance their activity list but don’t know how to make that happen! Actually, speaking of Vienna Moms, I can even find a former client a very legitimate and impressive internship off that same group when she comes home after freshman year to stop in and visit, and confides that she dropped the ball with her school’s career center. And I can get into about five million fights with my husband who goes to bed alone most nights and yells at me that I have no boundaries because I am sitting in my home office writing emails at 2 a.m. and boomeranging them to be sent at 9:30 the next morning!

I could literally write a novel about all of the random stuff that my awesome team and I do on a daily basis to help “our kids” reach their ultimate goals. And while I’d like to think that it’s because we are just that amazing, the truth is that it’s also because we have the capacity to help in this way. Yes, we enjoy it and we are good at it, but we also have the time. And, as I mentioned, we are compensated on an hourly basis for this work.

In my office, we work with about 30-40 students each year on an ongoing basis before closing our doors to new clients in a given cycle. We also have 6 rockstars on our team providing help. If we did not have that kind of ratio, we would not be able to give the help we give.

To be clear: I could not do ANY of this stuff for the kids with whom I worked in my position as their school college counselor. Well, I guess I did sign some of them up for the Skimm, if I’m being honest. But it was just a very different kind of relationship. It’s not that I loved them any less - I actually really enjoyed them and am still in touch with many of them and their parents. I LOVE seeing them move through their adult lives on social media (the fact that some of them are parents already sort of blows my mind). So my inability to go above and beyond wasn’t about a lack of care, concern, or professionalism on my part - it was just about time. When you have a ratio of thirty kids to one counselor, it’s a matter of math. I did much more for those kids than public school counselors could have ever done, but the parents’ expectations were also much higher than the public school parents.

Now, we have 25, 35, and 55 hours of time to work with students on a 1:1 basis - plus another 20+ hours of individual administrative help (aka nagging) provided to each student, depending on their package. Is it any surprise that we can do more for them?

I will never forget (I wonder if I should post this - I won’t say which school it was) meeting a prospective parent on a tour given by a member of the admissions staff at a school at which I worked. That in and of itself was not strange, as I met prospective parents all the time. But on this particular day, everything was unusually quiet because there were no kids in my office and the hallway was empty. As they left, I could hear the person telling the parent information that was patently false about the services that my office provided. I can understand a little spin, but this was just … not true. You should have seen the horror on my face! I was younger at the time, and it was hard for me to speak up, but I did - in a professional way - because I felt like I had a moral obligation to do so. I think about that moment all the time, basically every time an independent school parent comes into my office and tells me that their counselor is horrible.

Maybe the counselor is horrible. That’s totally possible. Counselors like that exist. However, upon digging a little deeper, it’s typically the case that the counselor in question is not horrible at all. It’s just that the admissions staff may have been a little creative in terms of the expectations that they set back when they tried to sell the school to the family.

So when they reach the college process, parents automatically assume that it must be the counselor’s fault that she doesn’t have time to edit multiple drafts of essays, provide individual interview prep or analyze an activities list. I don’t blame them at all - I’d be furious too if I paid amounts that often add up to be hundreds of thousands of dollars based on inaccurate information!

In reality, the reason the counselor doesn’t have time is not because she’s incompetent or lazy. It’s because twenty-nine other families are asking for the same thing in her eight-hour work day. Depending on the school in question, she’s also teaching one section of a class, coaching a sport, working car line duty, planning college nights, responding to questions from over-excited fourth grade parents, and the million other responsibilities that come along with life at an independent school. She’s writing the school profile. She’s planning the junior college trip. Hosting a hundred college reps. Oh and attending “administrative team,” “management team,” and “department head meetings.”

Oh and here’s the best part:

Guess what Sidwell is looking to pay their new counselor to replace the one that everyone has issue with (not the one who wrote the letter)? Keep in mind, this person must have 3-5 years of specialized experience. I can’t verify that this is true, but the salary range listed on at least one website for this position stated $45,000-$58,000 per year.

Why would anyone accept $45,000-$58,000 per year to deal with what is probably a sixty-hour work week and an abusive parent community chock fill of unrealistic expectations? I mean seriously?

So, here’s my advice (I know it took a while to get to it!). Look at an independent school education for what it is: a luxury that is often-times completely worth the money for a multitude of reasons, but one that will probably NOT, and I repeat NOT, tip the scales to get your child into a better college. Your child can get into a fantastic college from any of the high schools in our area. I work with kids that do, every single year, so I can promise that for sure. The kids from independent schools generally do end up with better recommendation letters, and if their counselors are willing to make counselor calls, that’s very helpful. Other than that, though, there’s not a heck of a lot of direct impact to admissions outcomes once you strip away the other variables that account for parental income, student ability, drive, etc.

I want to be clear that I’m not anti-independent school at all. I actually LOVE independent schools. There are a zillion reasons to go that route. If there was an independent school for elementary-aged children on our side of the Potomac that I felt would be a good fit for my family, I would be all for it - we just don’t have very many options within a reasonable commute because our public schools are so strong. I firmly believe that kids who graduate from independent schools have a whole variety of advantages and that my education had a large part in shaping my personality, abilities, and professional success.

So, parents, manage your expectations. Think about what you’ve been promised and whether it is reasonable given the staff in place and the ratios. And if you find yourself in a position where you’ve been the victim of “creative” marketing techniques, for the love of God, please do not take it out on your overworked and underpaid college counselor. Start advocating for change and put pressure on your school to increase their staff to be able to actually provide the services that they advertise to prospective families!

Maximizing the High School Experience: A Teacher’s Perspective


Today’s post is brought to you by McClain Herman, one of our fantastic essay coaches!

High school: two words that ignite strong emotional reactions in adults everywhere.

For many of us, these words bring back memories of a carefree time. For others, high school may be associated with awkward school dances or that one teacher.

Today, however, for adults whose kids are quickly approaching the teenage years, the term high school can trigger a very different reaction. Anticipation. Anxiety. Confusion. Due to the constantly evolving nature of technology and advances in pedagogical theory, school looks much different today than it did 20 years ago. I have no doubt that these advancements, coupled with the fact that the college process becomes more competitive every year, contribute to any nervousness parents may feel as their children approach high school.

I’ve been fortunate to work both as an English teacher and an administrator at two very different local schools--a JK-12 independent school and a public high school. In my current position, I teach the most advanced level of English offered at my school, as well as general education English. What I’ve learned is that regardless of the type of school your child attends or the academic rigor of their classes, the recipe for success is largely the same. With the right habits, high school doesn’t have to be something your children get through. It can be something they actually enjoy.

Here are some suggestions to promote your child’s success in high school:

Create a routine. Especially if your child is taking a rigorous course load, transitioning from middle to high school, the workload can feel overwhelming. It is essential for students to create a consistent after-school routine to juggle their many academic and extracurricular demands. This will look different for each student. Most kids need a short break after school before diving back into school work. But the students I teach who struggle with procrastination and completing work lack a set schedule outside of school, and this often leads to working into the early morning hours. This obviously takes a toll on not only their academic records, but also their physical and mental health.

Discover and pursue interests. It’s not a coincidence that the most involved students in high school are also some of the most successful. Encourage your children to get involved with something they are truly passionate about (or to discover what that even is). Whether it’s sports, clubs, the arts, or student government, extracurricular involvement will enable them to form connections with their school beyond the classroom. Students who invest in their schools in this way often begin to care more about how they do in the classroom as well.

Self-advocate. Changes in best practices have led schools to offer many opportunities we simply weren’t afforded as students. These include the ability to ask for more time on assignments, and to retake or make corrections to assessments. Most teachers offer these supports, but in most cases, your child will have to ask for them. Many schools also build study hall time into their schedules for students to seek help from teachers.

Build relationships with teachers. I continually tell my students that they will catch more flies with honey than vinegar. This of course leads to laughter and that classic teen eye roll, but it’s true! Students who create a positive, respectful, and friendly rapport with the adults in the building reap the benefits, whether that means using their classroom as a quiet study space after school, getting extra help, or receiving glowing recommendations for leadership opportunities or even college.

Do things right the first time. I teach students who, feeling stressed about everything on their plates, often rush through reading or assignments just to get them done. While this can be tempting, even for adults, rushing through work often results in students having to redo their work or relearn concepts, and performing poorly on large assessments. Making sure their academic work is done right will actually save your child time in the long run, and make the learning stick.

After graduating from Clemson University, McClain began her career in education at Flint Hill School, where she worked in Upper School Admission and coached field hockey and lacrosse. McClain then graduated from George Mason University with a masters degree in Secondary Education English and Curriculum & Instruction, and began to work for Fairfax County Public Schools as an English teacher. Currently, she teaches IB English Literature II and English 11.

Future clients interested in more tips to help maximize the high school experience can book a Strategy Session here.

Current students interested in working with McClain on their college essays can make an appointment here.

Independent School Admission Tips for Success

In my last post, I briefly discussed the two top considerations that independent school admission officers use to evaluate a candidate’s fit. This time around, I’d like to share some practical tips to help families achieve success in this process:

  • Do your own research and keep an open mind. It can be really easy to make decisions about the right school for your child based on information from your friends or even friends of friends. However, you will receive the best information about a school from the school itself. Scour their website (i.e., go beyond the admission page). Have conversations with not just admission professionals, but also current parents, students, and faculty (many schools can make these connections for you if requested). It is important to keep an open mind when considering the “best fit school” in which your child will thrive.

  • Visit schools, and visit early! I encourage you to schedule tours at a wide variety of local private schools with your child. This will enable you both to determine what you are really hoping to find in a school, and to ensure that you are applying for the right reasons. Most tours include conversations with not just admission officers, but also teachers, coaches, and administrators, making them a great opportunity to learn about schools’ communities and values. I suggest visiting schools the spring before your child applies so that you know exactly where you will apply as you enter the fall admission season.

  • Be aware of admission deadlines. Most local private schools require that applicants complete all steps of the admission process by mid to late January for admission the following year. Many won’t even consider an application if even a small part of it is submitted late.

  • Attend school events.  A great way to get to know a school is to attend its events. Admission events are effective for learning the nuts and bolts of a school, and spending quality time with the admission team and some administrators. However, even more valuable to truly understanding a school is attending community events--homecoming, sports games, arts events, etc. This will enable you to observe and interact with students, parents, and teachers in an authentic environment. Also, attending multiple events, admission or otherwise, sends the message that you are serious about the school and helps admission committees remember your child come decision time.

  • Schedule a shadow visit. If you move forward with submitting an application to a school, most private middle and high schools will offer you the opportunity to schedule a “shadow visit.” This means that your child will have the chance to actually attend classes at the given school for a half or full day. You should take this opportunity, as it will help your child determine if he or she can see themselves in each school environment. On the other hand, passing on a shadow visit suggests to the admission committee that a family might not really be interested.

  • Prepare your child, but don’t overdo it. Most admission processes for middle and high school require a student interview. It is important to talk to your child about what that will be like. Share that they will have a conversation with a member of the admission committee, and that this is an opportunity for them to get to know him/her as a candidate “off paper.” The admission committee will ask questions about the student’s interests, educational habits, home life, etc. Parents should also encourage students to be themselves and relax. Over-preparing your child will often lead to anxiety, a robotic conversation, or excessively rehearsed responses.

  • Follow through on the little things. Encourage your child to write handwritten thank you notes to tour guides, the interviewer, any coaches/teachers who met with him/her, etc. You as a parent should also do the same, either with a handwritten note or email. This may seem like a small gesture, but these personal efforts are remembered.

Hitting the Rewind Button: Independent School Admission in the D.C. Area

There are many benefits to living so close to our nation’s capital, including the incredible options we are able to pursue for our children’s education. Not only is the D.C. area home to some of the best public education systems in the country, but it also includes excellent private options. On the other hand, these many great choices can create confusion. Where should my child apply? What is the process like? What are her chances of getting in? It’s not an easy decision and it’s one with which I continue to struggle myself, as a parent.

Northern Virginia Private School Admission Consulting

When I started DC College Counseling back in 2010, my goal was to use my expert knowledge to guide families through the college admission process. Even though I ultimately spent eight years of my career working in independent schools, independent school admission was not on my radar. However, along the way, two developments occurred: first, families began to ask if we could assist their younger children with private school admission after we worked with their older children during the college admission process. These parents realized how much we were able to help simplify everything and wanted the same level of assistance at an earlier stage.

After guiding families through that process a few times, the next development occurred in the form of a lightbulb that went off- we realized that we were actually uniquely poised to do so with an insider’s perspective on each school community, because of our college admission work! We assist so many area private school students with the college admission process that we have picked up quite a bit of insider knowledge along the way. While it wasn’t initially our intent to use it in this capacity, we actually have a pretty clear view on the strengths and challenges of many area schools. Not only do we know their communities, their administrators, their curriculums, and their teachers - we are able to learn about the school within the context of the very reason many parents opt for private school in the first place - outcomes.

If you are stressed about the private school admission process, remember these key points:

Schools genuinely want to set your child up for success. They are looking for students who they believe, first and foremost, can thrive academically within their specific rigorous college preparatory environment.

Schools also seek students who will diversify their student body. Yes, this means fostering racial and ethnic diversity within the community. However, diversifying student interests and talents is considered to be just as important. Independent schools want to welcome students who have genuine and unique passions and who will be engaged in the life of the school.

Try to move forward while keeping these ideas in mind, and begin to develop a strategy to show your student’s diversity and potential for engagement. However, you also need to make sure that you are putting your child in the right environment. If they don’t have the capacity to succeed, it’s not the right fit.

Stay tuned for more specific tips in our next post, and good luck to all of the families hearing their independent school decisions in the next week!