College counselors are center stage as college admissions decisions approach

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Olive Lopez

Urban’s college counselors, Susan Lee and Lauren Gersick, work in their office on the first floor.

Ella McLeod, Editor-in-chief: News

In one month most Urban seniors will receive their college admissions letters.  Where they get in depends on their grades, test scores, extracurriculars, family legacy, and who was helping them — specifically, the all-important college counselor.

While Urban has two full-time college counselors, Susan Lee and Lauren Gersick, some students have opted to hire an extra one, though just how many do this is unclear.  A Legend survey sent to juniors and seniors, conducted from Jan. 30 to Feb. 23, received 56 responses out of a possible 183 students. Of those, 16 percent of respondents had hired outside-of-school college counselors.

Students hire outside-of-school counselors for various reasons. For some, outside-of-school counselors can make the dread of applications a little less dark.

“I was getting really stressed out and I felt really confused, and I didn’t really know what I was doing,” said Leila Kaplan (’14) who hired a counselor last summer, after initially not wanting the “advantage.”

Others have had college counselors as part of a previous commitment. Urban student Kenneth Chou (’14), who attended middle school at Kipp San Francisco Bay Academy, has been involved with “Kipp Through College” since his freshman year.

Part of the KIPP, or Knowledge is Power Program, “Kipp Through College,” is “a national network of free, open-enrollment, college-preparatory public charter schools with a track record of preparing students in underserved communities for success in college and in life,” according to the KIPP website. Chou has met with two free outside-of-school college counselors eight times since the beginning of junior year but also corresponded with his more recent one via email this fall while he was at CITYterm, a semester-long school program in New York.

Similarly, Izzy Garcia (’15) began meeting with an outside-of school college counselor every week during her freshman year, as a part of the Smart Program she joined in 4th grade, which “provides highly motivated, financially-disadvantaged students with access to educational opportunities, personal experiences and social support services in order to foster academic excellence and community engagement” according to thesmartprogram.org.

Shane Bannon (’14), acquired his outside-of-school college counselor, David Montesano, for free through one of his mother’s hairdressing clients.

For these students, the many benefits of an outside-of-school college counselor outweighed drawbacks such as cost.

Not only did Kaplan’s counselor give her cookies and ice water, she also provided her with deadlines Kaplan felt obliged to meet since it was such a one-on-one experience. She and her counselor would go back and forth five or six times on a single supplement, and Kaplan said she received edits “really, really quickly.”

Bannon’s counselor, with whom he met for six hours over a period of three months, helped him choose schools based on what he wants from life, guided him to write about his experiences in math and science when applying for liberal arts colleges — so as to make himself a more unique candidate — helped him with his main essay, and assisted him with his scholarship search.

He also recommended that Bannon apply for Questbridge, a program that “offers full four-year scholarships covering tuition and room and board for high-achieving low-income students,” according to questbridge.org, and steered him away from schools that “don’t give financial aid.”

Along with pointing him towards scholarship opportunities through Bank of America, Google and other work-study programs, Chou’s counselor, Suji, also helped him with writing, which he described as imperative to him and other “Kipp Through College” beneficiaries.

“We’re not students who have grown up with people who talk all fancy; we’re not students who grow up with lawyers,” he said. “We’re students who grow up in the ghetto.”

Having an independent college counselor can be a mixed experience: Garcia’s program takes up a lot of time, and can interfere with schoolwork. Kaplan’s counselor urged her to apply to schools she probably wouldn’t have applied for, but did because “she’s a college counselor, she knows what’s best.” Bannon’s counselor “didn’t sugarcoat anything,” which he appreciated by the end of the process.

Whether or not Urban students seek outside help, in-school counseling is a big part of the Urban experience. However, according to Susan Lee, director of college counseling, the approach is different.

Lee and Lauren Gersick, associate director of college counseling, are motivated to help the students succeed. Lee believes that outside-of-school college counselors, who, according to the Legend survey, can charge more than $200 per session, are not in the business for the same reason.

Lee also sees outside counselors as unnecessary. “I think (that) students, just by going to Urban, have more resources than 90 percent of students in the country, and it’s sometimes frustrating to me that students don’t use that as much as they could,” she said.

She described the college process as similar to a difficult class at Urban, one that might be easier with a tutor but is doable by using the resources of the school.

Among the three financial opportunities that Lee and Gersick help students and parents to navigate are the College Scholarship Service Profile (CSS), the Free Application For Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and Cal Grants, for qualified seniors graduating from California high schools.

Both counselors also offer information on scholarships via Naviance.com, a college application database to which Urban students are connected. Lee and Gersick also conduct parent meetings to explain FAFSA, and will help any who seek their assistance in filling it out.

Though they will help students apply for scholarships, “We don’t talk with students much about financial aid because it really is the responsibility of the parents,” explained Lee.

Gersick believes Urban college counselors are more capable than ones without a connection to the school. “In terms of contextualizing that student in his or her classroom situation, in his or her academic class, and then to be also connecting out to the colleges, we are in a truly unique … position of being able to do that,” she said.

Unfortunately, students have to plan ahead for that help. With 190 students to manage, a student can’t always make an appointment the day a deadline strikes. “But if you look at the big picture we have plenty of time for everybody — it’s just maybe not immediately,” said Lee. When asked what they thought about possibly hiring a third college counselor, Gersick laughed. “I think there’s enough,” she said, “(but) more help is always good!”