Taking the friction out of college crunch time | AspenTimes.com

Taking the friction out of college crunch time

Charles Agar
Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly

Getting into college isn’t just about good grades and high test scores anymore. College-bound seniors today need self-marketing strategies and a lot of help along the way.

“Ninety-six percent of Aspen High School graduates go to college,” said Kathy Klug, the school’s college counselor. “And it’s my job to help kids find that right fit.”

Nationwide, there are more kids vying for the same number of college spots, and applicants have hoops to jump through that would surprise today’s adults, Klug said. Yes, it’s still about teacher recommendations, applications and essays, but the bar is high for today’s high school seniors, who must work hard to distinguish themselves.

Many Ivy League schools now accept less than 10 percent of applicants, Klug said, and even less-demanding schools have lower acceptance rates than they once did. Colorado College, for example accepted 53 percent of applicants in 2004 and just 44 percent in 2006. More girls are applying than boys, but schools want to have even numbers. This puts the girls at a disadvantage, she said.

“The competition for college admission has become a frenzy,” Klug said, and applicants are like a school of carp feeding on the same handful of crumbs. Part of her job, she said, is to “de-frenzy” the process.

Now is crunch time for college-bound seniors. Most applications for fall 2007 are due Jan. 15, which makes Klug’s mezzanine office overlooking the cafeteria into a beehive of activity. Kids drop in with questions or sign up for meetings with Klug to go over essays and application material.

“It’s not really pressure. It’s more like encouragement,” said senior Kathy Alexandra Erickson. And the encouragement starts about midway through junior year, she said.

Page Cottrell dropped in recently to talk with Klug about her essays. A big part of the process, she said, is “just sitting in this room every day.”

She’s visited some colleges and said the recent college fair at AHS was a great opportunity to talk with school reps and get some insights. A serious volleyball player, Cottrell said she wants to be a teacher. “I want to go to school for the right reasons,” she said.

Brittany Zanin is also serious about her volleyball and wants to find a school where she can play. She knows she can’t walk on to a Division 1 team, so she is looking at some smaller schools. Klug is helping make her essays interesting, real and quirky ” something different than another “how I would change the world” essay.

Klug will start working with her next crop of 133 high school juniors at the Nov. 2 “all junior night.” Kids make appointments with her over the winter, and she breaks down the overwhelming application process into “edible pieces.” She holds a summer workshop to get kids prepared, and she sponsors a college fair each fall (170 reps from different colleges attended this year). She stresses that students get an early start on the process ” have a plan and goals and work toward them ” and not try to play catch-up during the application process.

“It’s about setting realistic goals and making the deadlines,” Klug said. She helps kids get all of their teacher recommendations, fill out applications, write their essays and create a resume, or activity sheet.

Students must develop their own vision for themselves, Klug said. “Where do you see yourself?” she asks, and she has students “articulate their hopes and dreams” in letters to teachers asking for recommendations.

Some of her students have multiple-page lists of activities ” more like young professionals than high school students ” and some even do too much.

“We’re doing harm to kids by making things so stressful,” Klug said. It is important to find some balance in the process, she said, and she tries to find a good match for kids ” the right size of school and a place to meet individual goals. And there is a bit of “magic” to it all, she said. Sometimes it takes a little fairy dust and creativity to find that “glass slipper fit” of college to kid.

“Remember, you are a human being, not a human doing. It’s about who you are, not what you do,” Klug coached in her weekly college preparation class, which gives kids a little extra time with her and to work on essays.

“What kids need to do is tell a story with their application,” she said. It’s telling about where they are engaged in the community and where they are connected that helps kids stand out,” Klug said. Not just school, but outside pursuits, volunteering and faith-oriented activities.

But it has to be authentic, she said. “Cheese is cheese. Garbage is garbage. And they can smell it,” Klug said of college admissions officers.

“How are you engaged in life?” she asked the group. “What are your passions?” She asked kids to write about not just their successes, but about failures, challenges and difficulties.

“The essays are the hardest part,” said Whit Fuller, a senior who isn’t sure yet where he’ll apply. He said the process isn’t really that difficult, but organizing all of the details is stressful.

Cornelia Carpenter said the application process is time-consuming but said she likes to write, so the essays aren’t a problem.

“Kathy doesn’t tell you what to do,” Carpenter said. It’s up to students to come to Klug and “ask her” what to do. Carpenter has won early admission to the University of Colorado, which frees her up to look at other schools.

“Kids just get stuck a little,” Klug said, “I just help them get unstuck.” The only high standard she sets is that every application must be the best demonstration of that student’s work.

The application process has gotten so complicated that some families now hire consultants to guide kids through the maze.

With eight years experience as a consultant, Kathleen Callahan tries to give kids more time, help them find a focus and develop their goals.

“Don’t push your kids in a million directions,” she advised. “Always give them hope. Never kill a dream.”

Callahan tries to stay one step ahead of the process. She visits up to 100 colleges per year to get “the inside story” for her clients. She is a licensed psychotherapist and has both a family practice and a sports psychology practice ” a background, she said, that helps her develop a bond with clients.

“I don’t guarantee acceptance [to college],” Callahan said, but she works intensively with kids not just to help them stand out and go to the best school, but to find what is best for them.

“Sometimes a great school might not be what’s best for a child,” she said, and like Klug she said it is about finding the right fit.

“I care about ’em, but I make ’em work,” she said.

Ayla Angelo is an Aspen senior and said she didn’t have a great year last year, but Callahan has swung open doors for her.

“Kathleen helped me know what I am aiming for,” Angelo said. “I feel loved from Kathleen. She wants me to pursue my dream.”

Angelo is “starstruck” that she might be able to study filmmaking and business next year.

Both Klug and Callahan tell kids to get an early start on the process ” define goals, like the school they’d like to attend or a program of study, and then take steps.

“It’s not a one-shot deal,” said Klug. “And early preparation takes the stress out of it.”

He’s a musician who turned his attention to politics over the last year, and Andy MacCracken sees college as the next important step to making a difference.

“I don’t have lunch periods most days,” MacCracken said. His senior year has been a real squeeze so far, he said. He’s hard at work on his college application. “The hardest part is finding the time and the willpower to do it on top of all I’m doing for school,” but he adds that the busier he is, the better the work turns out.

MacCracken said that college counselor Kathy Klug has been “invaluable” to his senior year. He meets with her now and again for 45-minute consultations and said she helps guide the whole application process.

“She’s there to make sure everything looks as good as it can,” MacCracken said. And she’s a constant source of optimism, he said.

He will complete four International Baccalaureate courses, is active in the school’s Model U.N. program and attended the national leadership conference in Washington last February.

MacCracken plays cello in the advanced orchestra,and plays guitar in a band, but recently he got involved in politics. He’s not just the “head boy” of the school ” a co-president position along with a “head girl” ” he also stumped for State Senate candidate Gail Schwartz and volunteers with Rock the Vote. He’ll run a rally on the day before the November election.

“I feel like I’m the last hope for humanity,” MacCracken said. He’s dumbfounded by what he sees on the television news and wants to “go and create the world I want.”

She’s a born overachiever. She does it because she loves it, but Sara Faurer is likely on the top of the college application pile anyway.

“I’m a little bit of a perfectionist,” she said.

She’s near the top of her graduating class and said today her life is “getting a little crazy.” She takes seven higher-level classes, and her free time is filled with club activities and service work. On top of that she is hard at work on college applications, and regularly drops in on college counselor Kathy Klug for information and advice.

“It’s a hard balance,” she said.

A National Honors Society student, Faurer also has a prodigious resume of activities, including the job of yearbook editor. She puts in up to 25 hours a week on the skating rink with the Aspen Skating Club, and now coaches young skaters. She is also active in the Aspen Jewish Congregation.

After a summer college tour with her father, Faurer is gunning for a small liberal arts school on the East Coast, hopefully near the family’s summer home in Maine. She loves history and plans to major in liberal arts, but hopes to work someday in biochemical engineering.

“My parents have never put direct pressure on me,” Faurer said. She feels some pressure to live up to her older brother’s impeccable grades, and her dad gets on her case when she watches TV, but Faurer said the motivation is all hers.

“Our class is an overachieving grade,” Fauer said. “If you’re not an overachiever, you’re kind of on the outside.”

Sophomore year to junior year was a big academic jump, she said, and her schedule has been very busy since then. She had to learn how to manage her time, especially with her extracurricular activities. “I’m ready to be done with high school,” she said, and looks forward to college in the fall.

Faurer had some advice for juniors: “If you can push hard enough now it will pay off in the end.”

In today’s competitive college admissions climate, it is not uncommon for kids to look beyond what the school offers for help.

“There’s a lot of pressure senior year,” said Kyla Sobieralski. “It’s all about getting noticed.”

Sobieralski, an Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club racer, hopes to be a pro snowboarder one day. After an early career as a gymnast, she recently gave it up to focus on snowboarding and school.

Sobieralski is frustrated by the intensive focus on the International Baccalaureate courses, or advanced curriculum, at Aspen High School. She said it is disconcerting to the kids who aren’t taking IB.

And while she gets plenty of help from school counselors, she needed more individual work, she said. That’s where Kathleen Callahan, her education consultant, came in.

“She talks to you about what your interests are and your passions. Also what you want socially and where you want to go,” Sobieralski said.

Sobieralski has been a very focused athlete since she was a young kid. Callahan not only helped her through the process of leaving gymnastics, but also turned Kyla’s focus to preparing for college.

“Kathleen does a real good job with a lot of kids,” said Kyla’s father, John. “I think she’s really helped Kyla focus on stuff and take a look at where she’s going and what she wants.”

“She always has been a motivated kid,” John said. “And if you’re going to be a pro snowboarder you’ve got to be motivated.” He said Callahan helps with that motivation and gives Kyla options for schools where she can continue with snowboarding.

It’s been a hard year for Kyla with lots of advice from all sides, but she is grateful for Callahan’s help in charting her course.

Charles Agar’s e-mail is cagar@aspentimes.com

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