Laura Stewart, Ensworth School

Laura Stewart, our March Counselor of the Month, had both a unique opportunity and challenge when she joined the college counseling program at Ensworth School, an independent college preparatory high school in Nashville, Tennessee. For 46 years -- since 1958 -- the school had served only elementary and middle school students. Then, in August, 2004, Ensworth added grades 9 through 12, opening the new 127-acre Devon Farm campus one month after Stewart joined the school as Assistant Director of College Counseling.

Over the next five years, Stewart rose to become Director of College Counseling -- in 2009, one year after Ensworth School graduated its first senior class. As a result, she has had the opportunity to participate in building a counseling program where there were no preconceived ideas. As Director, she has been able to establish policies and procedures that reflect a philosophy with her own creative stamp and then watch the program grow. "It's hard for me to imagine being anywhere else because I've been so fortunate to get to do what I want," says Stewart.

But there are also challenges with a new school. Just trying to get the word out about Ensworth required pounding the pavement for Stewart and her staff  -- traveling extensively to colleges, meeting with their representatives, attending professional conferences, making sure all of the colleges knew who they were. "And it's always hard when a college is admitting an applicant to a school where there is no prior experience with the school. They can't go back and compare past performance in their files. 'Oh we've had great students from Ensworth before…' There was a lot of pressure on those first few classes because they were setting it up for future classes and generations. But we worked really hard to get the name of the school out there and in the time we've been open we've come a long way." Ensworth's Class of 2013 will graduate 105 students who will add to the lengthy list of college acceptances that includes Allegheny, Boston University and Dickinson College through University of Michigan, Skidmore, Stanford, and University of Florida, to Wake Forest and Yale.

A graduate of Vanderbilt University, with a Masters of Education from Middle Tennessee State University, Stewart began her career at her alma mater, working as an admissions counselor and assistant director of admissions at Vanderbilt before taking a seat on the other side of the desk at Ensworth.  Raised in Pennsylvania, she is the youngest of five children and spending time with her far-flung siblings is a priority, she says. Outside of school, she is an avid runner -- the former collegiate athlete played soccer at Vanderbilt and remains the all-tine leader in goals and points there. And education is a family affair for Stewart. Married in 2010, her husband teaches English and Latin and coaches track and football at Nashville's Lipscomb Academy, an independent K-12 school.

Read on to take advantage of more of what Stewart has learned in establishing the counseling program at Ensworth, as well as  her advice about early plans, the use of technology in admissions, and how to avoid the biggest mistake students make in applying to college.

How did you become a college counselor?

By chance. I was working at Vanderbilt University in undergraduate admissions and was very happy. A good friend of mine told me about a new high school opening in Nashville and an opportunity in admissions there. I was curious so I decided to apply. At the interview it became clear that the job in admissions was going to be more data entry -- not quite what I was looking for. However, I ended up interviewing with Ensworth’s headmaster, and he mentioned there might be an opportunity in college counseling.  I was offered the job of assistant director of college counseling and have never looked back. It is certainly not where I pictured myself ending up when I was in college, but now I cannot imagine doing anything else. It has been an absolute joy!

What is your motto? 

Well it is not really a motto, but a quote I try to live by: “To give anything less than your best, is to sacrifice the gift.” – Steve Prefontaine. 

How many colleges did you apply to? And how is the process different?

I actually only applied to one school, because I was a recruited athlete. I was being recruited at a wide range of Division I schools for soccer. I knew I wanted a top soccer program, but it was also incredibly important that the school have a strong academic program as well. I narrowed my list to roughly 7 or 8 schools before my senior year and then took official visits to five colleges, and about 5 unofficial visits as well.

It appears to me the process now produces much more anxiety in students and families. I do not recall seeing the same levels of stress and anxiety in my classmates. I think students and families feel the need to apply to more places because they are uncertain about outcomes due to the drastic rise in application numbers and the increased selectivity at many colleges.

Is freshman or sophomore year too early for students to start working with their college counselor?

Not necessarily. I think it is incredibly helpful for students in their freshman and sophomore years to know the college counseling office and to meet with them to discuss the importance of things like getting good grades, getting involved in extra-curricular activities, and scheduling the right courses.  I also think it is helpful for students to hear from us what they need to be doing early on in high school to ensure they have options in the college process. At Ensworth, we meet with freshman and sophomore students in groups about these topics. We want students to be comfortable with us and also to understand the process. We try to provide them the pertinent information in a way that does not overwhelm them or create more anxiety. It is important for students to understand that decisions they make early on in their high school careers can impact their college process. 

What advice do you have for students who are contemplating going to an independent counselor?

I would question the student as to why they are thinking about seeing an independent counselor and what they think this person can provide in addition to services at their own school. Furthermore, I would make sure that they have talked to some of that counselors’ other clients prior to making any commitment. Personally, I do not believe a student in an independent/private school, like Ensworth, should be looking at an independent college counselor. Most schools in this category have very strong resources so a student (or family) does not need to look beyond. To me the value of an independent counselor is not worth the additional expense to the family. However, I can understand why a student without resources available to them in their school may seek out the help of an independent counselor.

What advice do you have for parents who are concerned about their student’s college application process in some way? 

Relax. This is a manageable process, and there is a school out there for your child. I would also say trust your child in this process. Give them space to think and work through this process on their own with support from you and their counselor.

What is the most important thing a high school counselor can do?

 Listen intently to both the student and the family regarding the college process. Be honest and realistic, as well as supportive and encouraging. Develop a relationship with each student you are counseling so that they feel comfortable opening up to you throughout the process.

What is your best advice for families about financial aid?

First, do not let cost be a deterrent in this process. Sometimes the more expensive schools end up being the most affordable for a family when all is said and done. Second, APPLY! We often have families who do not think they are going to qualify so they never even apply. I understand that the FAFSA is a bit daunting, but I encourage all families to apply. Sometimes you just do not know until you try. Finally, I think it is important that parents communicate any financial constraints to their child and their child’s counselor. Gather as much information on the aid process at each college your child is looking at attending and explore all possible scholarship opportunities at the colleges your child is considering.

What are the favorite books on your college-counseling shelf?

The Insider’s Guide to The Colleges, Yale Daily News Staff

Colleges that Change Lives, Loren Pope and Hilary Masell Oswald

Rugg's Recommendations, Frederick Rugg

College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step, Robin Mamlet and Christine VanDeVelde

The Overachievers, Alexandra Robbins

College Unranked, Lloyd Thacker

What web sites do you find most valuable for students and families?  

Well, for our families I think Naviance provides wonderful information and helpful tools. I also really like the following:

www.collegeboard.com

www.scholarshipexperts.com

www.fastweb.com

www.thecommonapp.org

What is the biggest mistake you see a student make in applying to college?

Missing deadlines. No matter how many times we express that college deadlines are firm, students still tend to miss them.   It is crucial that applications are turned in by the deadline, as most colleges will not accept late applications.

What is your single best piece of advice for applicants?

Be thoughtful in your process. I often think students are so overloaded with activities and academics that they do not take the time for self-reflection in this process. It is crucial that a student sets time aside to think deeply about this next phase of their life: what they want out of it, what they absolutely need to have in a school, what they can live without for four years, etc. When a student does take the time to self-reflect, they end up with choices they are truly happy with and can own.

How do you encourage your students to broaden their college search and look beyond the four or five schools that they know best?

This is a continual challenge, but the philosophy of our office is deeply rooted in encouraging students to look outside their comfort zone. One way we do this is through playing a very quick, fun college name game with our ninth grade students in their seminar classes. We have the students break up into teams of three or four and give them one minute to name as many colleges as possible. However, we place stipulations on colleges they can use. For example, because of Ensworth’s location we tell them they are not allowed to use any colleges in the South, as well as, any colleges with University of (a specific state), for example University of Washington. This challenges them to think outside of their comfort zone, beyond colleges they hear about daily because of where they live. Students must think about colleges beyond a specific region of the country and/or certain schools they know from growing up. It is a great way to get students at an early age thinking about the countless opportunities for college that exist.

Another way we do this is through our individual meetings and group programs. We make it a point to bring in colleges that our students may not have heard of or do not know a lot about to participate in some of our junior and senior programs.

We also are very “hands-on” in helping students formulate their initial college lists, and our office makes it a point to put “outliers” on those lists. We want students to explore and understand all the opportunities available to them. We are very upfront with both parents and students from the beginning of their Ensworth High School experience that we will push them out of their comfort zone during the search phase of their process. We want to make sure they understand the full range of higher education opportunities available.

What percentage of your students apply early? What are your thoughts on early decision plans?

The total early number is approximately 90%, but that includes rolling applications as well. However, roughly 70% apply early action (EA), and only about 10 to 14% apply early decision (ED) each year.

Personally, I am not a fan of ED plans. So I do not encourage ED applications very often, and especially not as a means of strategizing in this process. However, I will support an ED application if the student expresses an absolute love of a school and is 100% committed to attending. I feel ED programs often put a lot of pressure on a student to make a decision before they are truly sure of what they want (teenagers change their minds frequently) or before families can accurately assess the financial cost. Many feel that ED is the “only” way to get into a particular school, and while I realize that is not always the case, as of late it is starting to feel like more colleges are moving in that direction.

How can students best benefit from technology in the college application process?

As with most situations, technology is a wonderful tool when used properly. Thanks to technology, students are able to apply to college faster and more efficiently than before. They also have access to unlimited information regarding college, which can be very helpful in this process. Students can use the web to tour most schools virtually, saving money and time. It really allows students to compare various colleges and whittle down their lists.

On the flip side, technology has contributed to increased applications, which is not necessarily a good thing. Students, thanks to online applications and the Common Application, can easily apply to many more schools using technology.  They no longer need to spend as much time on applications, which has led to an increase in applications at most colleges and increased competition amongst applicants. I think technology has taken some of the thoughtfulness out of applying to college.

Do students who come from homes without a college-going culture or from homes where they would be the first to attend college have a different timeline or need to approach the application process differently? 

Well, not in terms of the actual application process, but yes in that a student from this background needs more guidance and support. They need to start having conversations earlier (perhaps even middle school) with teachers, counselors, coaches or other mentors who can provide helpful information about college. Often, because they come from homes without a college-going culture, they do not have access to the same information as many of their peers, or they are misinformed which leads to misconceptions about the process. By starting the conversation earlier, students in this situation hopefully will see that this is not as scary a process as they might have been led to believe, but that it is a manageable process and that college is a real possibility for them.

Ensworth is a relatively new school. What challenges are there for you as a counselor in the college admission process because of this?

The biggest challenge has been getting Ensworth’s name out. I spent a good deal of time early on (and continue to spend a good deal of time) spreading the word about Ensworth. Thankfully, I have been very fortunate to always have the support and budget necessary to travel and talk to colleges about Ensworth. 

Another challenge was proving to colleges that our curriculum was what we were touting it to be. This was difficult in the beginning because we had no track record or tradition to fall back on. There was a lot of pressure on the first few classes to “prove” to colleges that they were prepared and capable in order to set up future Ensworth students. Thankfully, our kids have done a great job at the next level, which has helped our students now going through the college process. We have come a long way and done quite well in admissions in such a short amount of time.

Which national issues in admissions most concern you and why?

The increasing costs of college for families. We are seeing so many more decisions being made based on cost alone, which is unfortunate.  We are having more conversations with families about justifying the cost of a college, which I think is warranted at this juncture. And it is getting more difficult for me to justify the cost of higher education at some colleges.

With so much in the news about diversity and affirmative action, was there a time in college or your career when you had an “aha” diversity moment – a time when being in a diverse environment yourself taught you something valuable?

I did not grow up in an overly diverse community, so coming to Vanderbilt exposed me more to diversity than I had ever been. I do not know if I had one “aha” moment, but rather a series of valuable moments that highlighted the value of that diverse experience. Being on a team and in an academic environment that was diverse challenged me to think more broadly. I was pushed out of my “comfort zone” in many ways, which greatly shaped my experience and education. It enabled me to question what I had always known and to think beyond my own rather limited experiences.

When you think of deans of admission you admire, without naming any names, what are the qualities you admire in them?

I appreciate honesty and transparency. I admire deans who believe in the mission of their institutions and demonstrate that in their process by building communities even if it means the numbers do not always make sense. And, deans who truly seek to connect with students, counselors, and families rather than stay behind the scenes.

 

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