How we help students find their best fit for college

Jan 04 2024

How we help students find their best fit for college

“An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.”
-Benjamin Franklin

For high school students throughout the country, the conversation around college can feel overwhelming at times. While we do our best at Keystone to help students understand that there are many, many excellent colleges and universities they can attend, the societal pressure to get into certain schools can feel unrelenting. Young adults are bombarded by the media with the notion that if they don’t get into a certain college, their lives will be ruined and their whole PK-12 education has been for naught. For a dose of sanity, I strongly recommend reading “Where You Go Is Not Who You Are,” by Frank Bruni.

At Keystone, some of our seniors learned of college decisions just before we left school for the Winter Break. Like their peers around the country, those Cobras opted to apply early or commit to a school before January 1. In an example of unfortunate timing, they found out whether they were accepted, denied, or moved to the regular applicant pool later in the spring, at the same time they took their midterm exams. We hope that they were able to take a break and restore themselves during the vacation.

The Keystone college counseling process emphasizes that it’s not about getting into the “best” school, but the school that is best for each student. For some students, this may be a large state university; for others, it could be a small liberal arts college. Some young adults may wish for a specific program in a specialized university: their classmates may not be so certain what they want to study, so they might look for as much flexibility as possible.

There are a variety of factors that can influence a student’s choice. Some may focus on going to a certain part of the country; others may hone in on the size of an institution. The expense of a college education today is monumental, so the cost and possible aid may be the ultimate determinants.

Fortunately, for our Cobras, the college counseling process at Keystone directed by Ms. Sara Christiansen is highly personalized and extremely individualized. While high school students are welcome to drop in and meet with Ms. Christiansen, the formalized process in 9th and 10th grades comes through presentations for students and parents. Students learn about the importance of grades, a good work ethic, academic integrity, standardized testing, and off-campus enrichment opportunities. They are also advised to get involved in campus activities. Ms. Christiansen explains to juniors and seniors the resources on Naviance, financial aid forms, scholarship programs, interview and essay tips, testing information, teacher recommendation letters, the differences between early action and early decision, and the transition to college.

We recommend that families visit schools when they’re on vacation and emphasize to students that they enjoy their high school years, maintain good grades, participate in extracurricular activities, and pursue their passions rather than attempt to be everything to everyone or dilettantes who dabble in activities merely to build a resume.

In junior year, students fill out a thorough interest survey for Ms. Christiansen that enables her to create an initial list of schools particular to each student. Students, parents, and Ms. Christiansen then review the list with the idea that they will narrow it down over the spring and summer preceding senior year. While families may know some of the schools on this list, there may be other colleges and universities that students and parents are unfamiliar with and present an intriguing opportunity. Ms. Christiansen encourages families to begin researching the list and scheduling official college visits to identify those schools that may be a good fit.

Even before school starts, Ms. Christiansen and the seniors participate in an all day “college boot camp” where they learn more about the college application process. With the helpful guidance of Dr. Lawrence and Ms. Hall, students will also write the first draft of their college essay over the summer so they arrive on the first day of senior year with it in hand. For a full day later in the first semester while the sophomores and the juniors take the PSAT, the seniors and some of their teachers work on their applications and essays.

Students know that Ms. Christiansen has a fully “open door” policy where they can drop in any time to review an application, revise an essay, or just chat on where things stand. She also spends countless hours composing a highly personalized letter for each student that speaks to their individual strengths and assets. Again and again, students cite Ms. Christiansen as one of their favorite adults at Keystone, and one alum once advised current Cobras that “Ms. Christiansen is your savior.”

Year after year, Keystone seniors are accepted to and attend the finest colleges and universities in the world. They also receive outstanding scholarships to offset the cost of a college education. Perhaps more importantly, though, is the way students find schools that are right for them where they can flourish academically and personally. The diversity of the Keystone community can be seen in the variety of schools that Cobras select. Guided by Ms. Christiansen, students and families find the institutions that fit their needs and personalities. As a result, they excel at the next level as they did here at Keystone.

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