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A Visit to Help U

College Prep, Step by Step



The college application process is a veritable reckoning day for students, revealing how their high school years stack up in the eyes of prospective colleges. Fortunately, this rite of passage has fueled numerous support industries to help intrepid applicants. 

Guidance Gurus

Outside of the home, a student’s most important relationship during the college search is with the guidance counselor. Both Fairfield high school guidance departments meet with every student throughout each school year to familiarize them with the available resources, including comprehensive websites (often underutilized by parents). “We’re a one-stop shop—from choosing the appropriate level classes to initiating the athletic recruiting process,” says Vanessa Montorsi, director of pupil services and counseling for Fairfield Ludlowe High School. Caryn Campbell, Fairfield Warde High School’s director of pupil personnel and guidance services notes, “The counselor also can take some of the burden off the parents. We have credibility from our insider’s view of school life, without the risk of discussing ACT scores over dinner.”

“Get to know your counselors!” Both Montorsi and Campbell agree. As early as ninth grade, schedule a simple introduction or inquire about course selection or ideas for summer opportunities. According to FLHS counselor, Allison Ofir, “The better I know my students, the easier it is to help them, especially during the college search.”

Some college candidates choose to pair their high-school guidance counselors’ input with an Independent Educational Consultant (IEC). For families sending the first child to college or  households with two working parents, the IEC’s year-round unlimited access is a good fit. Lisa Nelson, a partner at Dunbar Educational Consultants in New Canaan, works with 10 to 15 students per year, a contrast to the 150 plus students a Fairfield high school guidance counselor handles. Services include interest-based course and activity selection, interview coaching, essay consulting, and creating an appropriate list of colleges and test dates. Consultants can also manage the recruiting process and weigh in on early versus regular applications. “It’s all about viewing the bigger picture and developing a road map using informed choices,” states Nelson. While students are assigned to one consultant, they also benefit from the expertise of the entire staff, which collaborate frequently and follow admissions trends carefully.

Testing … 123

Preparation for standardized testing is the most common form of outside support students seek. “One-on-one tutoring is the gold standard because sessions are tailored to the student’s needs, and focus on strategies based on how he or she approaches each question. It also encourages a positive mentoring relationship and increased motivation,” explains Drew Heilpern, chief brand ambassador of Summit Educational Group, located in New Canaan. 

Why is there such a vast range in prices ($75 to $300 per hour) for tutors? Because there is no licensing for this specialty, anyone can study a guidebook and become a tutor. The pricier instructors are typically linked with a larger organization, such as Summit, which requires 30 hours of training, a “teachback” class, and a score of at least 95 percent on the standardized tests. 

An alternative for private tutoring is a review class, such as Alpha Prep’s course, subsidized by both high schools’ PTAs, providing an overview of the test content and coordinating techniques in a group format. Khan Academy, an online program which uses the students’ test results to generate practice questions, is ideal for someone with self-discipline or a tricky schedule that won’t allow regular meetings. 

It’s an art, not a science

If applications tell a story, the personal essays are the illustrations—a chance to give the pages some personality. According to Leora Johnson, Assistant Director of Admissions at Brown University, “Don’t try to impress us—write an essay that reflects your own sphere of interest and joy, which can come in many forms.” Nelson also advises taking notes while visiting campuses. “Subtle observations about what resonates will be helpful when you’re writing essays six months later.” If attraction to the school is based on an academic interest, by all means, mention it, but don’t invent connections. Johnson urges students to steer clear of trying to fill exotic niches. “Very few acceptances are based on an obscure talent or experience. No factor alone carries an application.”

Peace of Mind

The college search is made more complicated by the abundance, not lack, of information. By breaking the process into categories and creating a long-term timeline, each stage is less daunting. Holding periodic “meetings” instead of a constant flow of task-oriented exchanges may provide a more amicable daily existence. 

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