College admissions occupies a uniquely important and often highly emotional part of the high school experience. Even the most mature seventeen and eighteen year olds struggle to marshal the wisdom and fortitude needed to remain composed during the complex years-long process, the outcome of which is inherently uncertain and public. Indeed, helping students — and, sometimes, parents — manage the range of emotions accompanying what Newark Academy’s Director of College Counseling Kerry Winiarski calls “the college admissions rollercoaster” is a task she and her team take quite seriously.
“We focus our energy not only on helping students find and get into the colleges and universities that best fit their interests and needs but also on helping students build the skills to be their own best advocates and to be effective decision makers,” says Kerry, who came to NA in 1994 after working at Ohio State and Duke universities. “The extent of each student’s growth, through the process of self-discovery enabled by our program, speaks to the quality of our work.”
Comprehensive by any measure, the college counseling process at NA engages students and their parents in a carefully designed program. During junior year, each student is assigned a college counselor. A required sequence of workshops, which appears on each student’s schedule of classes, covers the nuts and bolts of the admissions process – from understanding the differences between early action, early decision and regular decision application plans to getting the most out of a college visit. These workshops are supplemented by optional evening seminars and round tables, many led by nationally recognized experts and leading practitioners in the fields of college admissions and financial aid. Students can also take advantage of practice interviews, summer essay-writing workshops, on-campus visits by representatives from more than 100 colleges and universities, financial aid counseling sessions, and more.
Each spring, seniors who have completed the process speak with juniors about the lessons they’ve learned. “That conversation is a perennial favorite,” recalls Associate Director of College Counseling Kerri Speck. “It’s a visible reminder for the juniors that the process does – as we say it will – ‘all work out in the end.’” Kerri began counseling at NA in 2014 after 12 years “on the other side of the desk” as an admissions officer at Muhlenberg and Lafayette Colleges. “Understanding the nuances of the reading process and having a historical perspective on the changing admissions landscape,” she says, “provide a level of credibility with students and parents here at Newark Academy.” And as a parent who has seen her own children go through the admissions process, Kerri empathizes with the parents of her students. “I appreciate the anxiety that surrounds this process and work to do my best to keep all things in perspective.”
Associate Director of College Counseling Jessica Cohen, also brings an empathetic approach to her work. “I still vividly remember the emotions involved in my own admissions process,” says Jessica, who worked for six years as an admissions officer at Lafayette College, her alma mater, before joining the NA staff in 2013. “I try to remember my experiences as a student in order to relate to the excitement and anxiety my students are feeling, especially when emotions run high.”
“The extent of each student’s growth, through the process of self-discovery enabled by our program, speaks to the quality of our work.”
– Kerry Winiarski, Director of College Counseling
The College Counseling team has crafted a counseling process that respects the talents, interests and needs of each student. Among the students who require the most individualized counseling are those with collegiate athletic aspirations. Governed by the NCAA, the athletic recruiting process is remarkably complex, and each sport and division has unique protocols. The College Counseling Office works closely with the NA Athletic Department and its coaching staff to educate, guide and advocate for student athletes.
The recruiting process for wrestler Steve Bonsall ’16 began during his junior year and was, at times, grueling. “I went to camps, met with coaches and spent a lot of time touring schools and getting a sense for the programs and teams at every university on my list,” recalls Steve, who, during his freshman year at the University of Chicago, led the wrestling team in victories with a 33-14 record and was named All American. For basketball player Jocelyn Willoughby ’16, Steve’s classmate, the process began much earlier: she received her first offer, from a Division I university, during the summer before her freshman year of high school. Yet Jocelyn remained uncommitted until the late fall of her senior year, seeking the college that could best meet her interests both in the classroom and on the court. While her recruiting process was long – “I could probably write a book on the whole experience,” she jokes – it proved successful. She chose to attend the University of Virginia and, last year as a freshman, started at guard for all 33 games of the season; she was also named to the ACC All-Academic Team and is co-captain of the 2017–18 UVA team.
Athletic Director Ted Gilbreath, who played lacrosse at Hofstra University, has seen the demands on recruits increase in recent years. “An accelerated timeline and the proliferation of services trying to profit from the pursuit of college athletics put immense pressure on athletes,” he observes. Despite the pressure, “recruited athletes have the chance to continue doing something they love and, perhaps, the opportunity, because of their athletic prowess, to gain admission into a school that might otherwise be a reach.” Still, he warns of “broken hearts” if the process doesn’t work out or if a student chooses a school solely because of sports and then discovers it’s otherwise a poor fit.
Recruited athletes have the chance to continue doing something they love and… to gain admission into a school that might otherwise be a reach.”
– Ted Gilbreath, Athletic Director
Aspiring collegiate artists also face distinctive opportunities and challenges during the admissions process. Many seniors seek out colleges that particularly celebrate the arts and allow them to continue to develop their artistic sensibilities and technical skills. They also highlight their artistic accomplishments as applicants. Along with the College Counseling Office, Arts Department faculty members work closely with these students throughout the application process as they hone their craft and prepare portfolios and audition materials.
The process of preparing a portfolio helped filmmaker Bailey Galvin-Scott ’14 narrow his college search. While putting together his reel, which featured “introspective and heartwarming pieces as well as flashy, stylized films,” Bailey realized that he wanted to attend a film school that would allow him to, as he puts it, “explore story and self-expression through film.” He chose to attend Emerson College, where he is majoring in visual media arts with a focus in cinematography. Jazz bassist Shaan Pandiri ’17 ranked artistic opportunities alongside academic rigor and location in evaluating prospective colleges. “I wanted to attend a school that offered me a structured way to engage with music, a thriving jazz scene so that I’d be able to find like-minded students, and a location that would allow for me to readily see live jazz,” says Shaan, who supplemented his college applications with audio recordings that showcased his musical talents. Shaan chose to attend Columbia University, where he is planning on majoring in history or political science. He is also participating in Columbia’s elite Louis Armstrong Jazz Performance Program.
“Students who choose to submit art portfolios,” notes Arts Department Chair Elaine Brodie, “often spend months creating stunning testaments to their talents, whether as visual or performing artists. These portfolios can be powerful recruiting tools.” While nearly a dozen seniors prepare art portfolios each year, only a handful pursue a primary major in the fine arts or apply to study in art schools or conservatories. This may be in part because, as Elaine observes, “those who aspire to play the sax, dance or paint for a living may struggle to make ends meet, regardless of their talent.” Nevertheless, Elaine and her colleagues are delighted to inspire and to support students no matter their artistic path. “We hope the lives of all Newark Academy graduates are enriched by art, in college and beyond,” she says, “whether as professional artists, amateur artists or patrons of the arts.”
“We hope the lives of all Newark Academy graduates are enriched by art, in college and beyond.”
– Elaine Brodie, Arts Department Chair
Applicants with special talents – athletic, artistic or otherwise – are often encouraged or, in some cases, required to submit binding applications early in the admissions process. Yet in recent years, pressure has mounted on all students to submit a binding early decision application to their first-choice college. “With each passing year, the admissions timeline becomes even more rushed,” observes Kerry, noting that the number of schools that accept applications even before Labor Day has increased in recent years. Because some schools enroll half or more of each incoming class through the early decision process and because the admission rate is often significantly higher for students in the early applicant pool, many students fear missing out on the sometimes real advantage of applying early. Indeed, among the NA class of 2017, two-thirds of students submitted an early decision application.
In addition to supporting students through the college search and application process, Kerry and her staff help families consider how they will fund the cost of higher education. With tuition, fees, and room and board at some private colleges and universities nearing $70,000 per year, finances weigh heavily on the minds of many families. College Office Manager and Financial Aid Coordinator Mary Ellen Weinel sup-ports these families as they navigate the financial aid application process and as they evaluate – and sometimes appeal – financial aid offers. Because, as Mary Ellen notes, “understanding the financial commitment of a college education can be daunting,” she works individually with families to discuss financial aid needs throughout the process. For example, so that students who are considering taking out student loans understand the financial impact of their choices, Mary Ellen prepares personalized budget forecasts that illustrate the impact of debt on life after college graduation. In recent years, she notes, “more and more families are seeking information about financial aid, both need-based and merit-based,” making her analyses all the more important.
At the beginning of this school year, the College Counseling Office moved into a newly renovated suite. It consists of private counseling offices as well as a large common space with tables and couches.
The layout creates opportunities for conversation and collaboration – “two key ingredients,” says Kerry, “in the counseling process.” The common space is also surrounded by a wall of windows, a design that Kerry considers especially fitting. “People often think we are the keepers of a secret formula,” she jokes. “The windows invite the community into our offices. They help demystify our work.”
The windows also reflect an authentic connection between the college counseling process and NA’s educational approach. “Throughout the college process, we ask students to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses, to problem solve, to show resolve,” says Kerry. And those, she notes, are among the character traits and habits of mind that NA students develop over the course of their entire educations here –in classes, on fields and courts, in studios and concert halls, on immersion trips, and through community service. “Newark Academy students are so well prepared to undertake the college process,” Kerry says. “Our job is reminding them of that.”
“Newark Academy students are so well prepared to undertake the college process. Our job is reminding them of that.”
– Kerry Winiarski, Director of College Counseling