Charlene Aguilar, Lakeside School

Charlene Aguilar is Director of College Counseling at Lakeside School, an independent day school for grades 5 through 12 in Seattle, Washington.  A graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara and Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, Aguilar has worked both sides of the desk in college admissions during her career.  She began as an admissions counselor at her alma mater in Santa Barbara and served as Associate Director of Undergraduate Admission at Stanford and Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Santa Clara University.  For ten years prior to coming to Lakeside, she was Director of College Counseling and Dean of the junior class at Castilleja School, an all-girls independent school in Palo Alto, California. She also has personal experience of the college admission process -- two of her children are already in college and the youngest will be headed that way -- once he moves on from elementary school.

A strong advocate of access to and success in education, Aguilar's resume also includes stints at the Stanford Center for Chicano Research and at the University of Washington, where she served as Director for Undergraduate Education Initiatives and Special Assistant to the Executive Provost. With a strong personal commitment of service to the Mexican American community of which she is a part, she serves as a member of the Board of Directors of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and chairs their Community Education Leadership Development program.

With views of the Cascades and Olympics from her home and the sight of Mt. Rainier whenever she travels across town, this third-generation San Francisco native says she even loves the snow in Seattle, which she has quickly claimed as home since arriving in 2007 -- walking Green Lake three times a week and exploring the city's excellent "foodie" scene. Most recent welcome arrival: A La Mode Pies Café.

We're thrilled to feature her considerable expertise as our Counselor of the Month for March.

How did you become a college counselor?

My dad received his college diploma when I was six years old. I remember that moment in my abuelos' (grandparents') kitchen – no pomp and circumstance, no cap and gown—just my grandmother looking at her son, saying, “I’m proud of you, hijo.” (Hijo means son in Spanish). My mom did not go to college. Her aspirations for higher education were overpowered by the norm for women of her generation to NOT go to college.

I received academic honors, was a leader in student government, and played competitive soccer in high school.  Like my peers at Lowell High School, I planned to go to college, seeing this as a natural next step. I believed that a college education would lead to intellectual growth and new challenges, and was essential to my finding purpose and effecting positive change in the world. At some point in high school, my parents told me that they could not afford to send me to college. I was already the neighborhood babysitter but I resolved that I would add another job to earn money for college. Classmates pointed me towards an available job at a local McDonald’s, and I took on a third job at the aquarium during the summer.

I applied to and chose University of California, Santa Barbara, because it was affordable, and just far enough away from my hometown of San Francisco that I could grow in my independence. The summer before I was to start college, there was a hiccup with my financial aid. A friend directed me to a non-profit agency called LULAC (The League of United Latin American Citizens). There I met Georgia Quinones, an experienced college advisor who helped me to access resources and navigate the maze of financial aid. I have never forgotten her kindness, and I will be forever grateful to her.

I loved my undergraduate experience, and sought a job where I might help others navigate the path to college. I wanted to “pay it forward.”  Upon graduation, I landed my first full-time job as an “outreach officer” at my alma mater. How lucky I was to find purpose and inspiration to propel me towards my future vocation.

As a professional, I’ve worn many hats: involved at universities for twenty years and in schools for fourteen years. I find the field of education to be dynamic, inspiring, and where my heart is. I have been a student advisor, coach, resident fellow who lives with college undergraduates, admission dean, and director of college or high school programs centered on access, diversity, and inclusive communities. Though my titles have changed, what remains constant is that my best time is spent  working with young people invested in their education and their future. I value students’ growth, change and discovery as they take on a challenge or think through a problem. And…I always remember Georgia Quinones.

What is your motto?

“We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community... Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.”  That was said by Cesar Chavez.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

Prudence. The origins associated with wisdom, insight and knowledge are noble. However,   today prudence is more commonly associated with reluctance or cautiousness—implying fear over reason. I’m not a fan of fear. Fear clouds good judgment and healthy risk taking.

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

My thoughts about freshmen and sophomores are informed by my experience working with students at independent schools that, at the core, maintain a commitment to providing a rigorous college preparatory curriculum for every student. Students who give their best efforts throughout high school, study with purpose, and pursue areas of interest to either broaden or deepen their knowledge take full advantage of the opportunities available. Their teachers serve as accessible advisors guiding students in a balanced course selection to thrive academically and socially. As a result, independent school college counseling is structured to give freshmen and sophomores exposure to the college process in strategically placed forums - distilling specific testing and curricular information relevant to grade levels. The direct 1:1 contact with a college counselor really begins junior year.  Of course, the college office is open to any student who has questions or wants to avail resources.

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

Do the research and be a wise consumer, first and foremost. Establish whether your school has the resources to support you. Visit your school’s college office; meet with the college counselor/s.  Then ask yourself, what will the independent consultant provide that my school’s college counseling office cannot? If the answer directs you to pursue resources beyond your high school, ask whether your school’s college office has knowledge of reputable people in the local area. You want to hire the services of someone who has respected experience and follows stringent ethical professional standards.  You want a professional who is registered with IECA (Independent Educational Consultants Association), and who adheres to NACAC’s (National Association of College Admission Counseling) Statement of Good Practices and Policies. Check out the twelve questions you should ask, and the twelve warning signs you should observe at

What are some of the “don’ts” for students as they work with their counselor?

I prefer to cast this answer in terms of “do’s":

Do trust that your counselor is firmly in your corner and has your best interests in mind. If your counselor asks you to think more openly about some solid college options that are not readily apparent to you, engage in the research.

Meet or beat deadlines when your counselor gives you an assignment.

Understand that the college process is a lesson in anxiety management, and your college counselor wants to provide perspective along the way.

Be on time for appointments. If you cannot make a meeting, let your counselor know right away.   Your counselor has  a schedule  as valuable as yours, and other students need your counselor’s time.

Appreciate and thank your college counselor for supporting you with time, expertise, care, and perspective.

What should a student do if she thinks her counselor does not like her or doesn't fully appreciate her gifts?

College counselors abide by a professional code of conduct; we honor and value our work with students. We are committed to this vocation because we like students and we enjoy the diverse gifts of each student. We grow personally and professionally in our work with students, and we are open to honest communication. Ask your counselor for a time to meet; relay that you need to talk about an issue that is important to you. In the meeting, discuss your concern respectfully.  Use “I” statements, and own that there may be another interpretation of the counselor's behavior.

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

At the front end of this process, I encourage students and parents to set some ground rules for communication and clarify the roles each will take. The student manages, owns and directs this process. As a young adult, he or she has the responsibility to keep open lines of communication.

The parent listens, supports, and asks clarifying questions based on observations and statements from his or her student. If a parent’s concern is with the student, he or she should speak directly to the student, or in partnership with the college counselor, who may be able to provide perspective. If the concern is with the college counselor, confer with your student about the best way to tackle the situation. The win-win solution is to empower the student to handle the concern directly.

What are some of the do's and don’ts for parents?

Do feel confident in your student’s ability to manage this process.

Do understand that this process has an impact on you.

Do draw upon your life experience, acceptance, understanding, love, and patience while maintaining your healthy sense of humor during anxious/stressful moments.

Do be forthright at the front end about mitigating factors that your student must consider when applying to college. (Finances come to mind.)

When I was working with parents at Stanford and the University of Washington, I’d ask them to embrace the notion of being an “umbrella” parent.  Provide enough protection for students by walking beside them on the road, umbrella at the ready. But unless there is a rainstorm, the umbrella remains folded, as you trust your students to navigate, gain confidence and make their own way and embrace their decision making and independence.

What is the one thing a high school counselor should never do?

Promise that you can guarantee admission to a college or assure that a student will receive a specific sum of money for college.

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

Firmly support a young person in his or her authenticity, agency and capacity to manage this process as the student discovers colleges where he or she will thrive.

What is your best advice for families about financial aid?

Explore options early. Resources for research are abundant. Net price calculators are accessible on college websites, FAFSA 4-caster is readily available online, and there are many scholarship search engines. If financial aid is essential to making a college decision, students should consider some colleges known to distribute merit aid to those whose grades and test scores fall at the top of the applicant pool. Students can gauge whether they might be in that group for a particular college by reviewing the profile of the college’s recently admitted class.

What do you think is the most important thing for families to understand about financial aid?

Colleges aim to make undergraduate education affordable and expect students (and their families) to invest in that education over four years. Families should understand the following terms and definitions: Self-help, loans, grants, FAFSA, SAR, CSS Profile, Average Student Debt Load, work-study, need blind vs. need aware, institutional and federal methodology (Definitions for most of these terms are available in the Financial Aid Glossary beginning on page 295 of College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step.)

Parents and student wage earners should get into the habit of filing IRS tax forms by February 1. In the senior year of high school, students and families applying for financial aid should file necessary financial aid forms such as the FAFSA, CSS Profile, and/or institutional forms by February or March deadlines.  (And students applying to Early Decision programs should count on November 1 as the deadline to submit the CSS Profile.)

How do you manage to stay up to date with the rapidly changing world of college admission?

To keep current in the field I attend two or three national professional conferences a year and meet with 150-plus college admissions directors and deans who visit our campus and Seattle. I participate in regional admission forums and contribute my time and knowledge to non-profits that support first generation students and their families in accessing higher education (including Lakeside Educational Enrichment ProgramMALDEF: CELDRainier Scholars, LEAP).

I am very fortunate to be able to accept “fly-ins” to colleges and invitations to observe admission committee discussions, and I sit on the University of Chicago’s High School Advisory Board. I am blessed with a cadre of colleagues in the Northwest and across the nation whose collective knowledge always helps inform my own. I read discussion papers, The Journal of College Admission, Chronicle of Higher Education, New York Times, Inside Higher Education, the Wall Street Journal. I carve out time each week to review college websites, scan non-profit websites, and read admissions blogs.

Also, I invite teachers and parents in the Lakeside community to keep me sharp by sending me current articles they see about college!

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

El Numero Uno, and the book I recommend to all families as a must read, is College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step by Mamlet and VanDeVelde

Others on the shelf include:

The Insider’s Guide To the Colleges by Yale Daily News (students love this one)

Fiske Guide to Colleges by Edward Fiske

Colleges That Change Lives by Loren Pope

The K & W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Disabilities, 10th Edition by Princeton Review

College Unranked: Affirming Educational Values in College Admissions by Lloyd Thacker

Making the Most Out of College by Dick Light

The Shape of the River by William G. Bowen and Derek Bok

The Official SAT Study Guide by College Board

Real Subject Tests by College Board

Don’t Stalk the Admission Officer by Risa Lewak.

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

There are some  that I value:

And the specific web sites on a student’s college list.

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

Some students are organized at every turn, beat deadlines, communicate effectively with adults, and compose authentic essays the summer before senior year. Others are ready to begin their hard work senior fall. The student who ignores deadlines, avoids communication, and has little sense of purpose in the process will struggle mightily.

What is your single best piece of advice for applicants?

That you go to college is more important than where you go to college. Provided you haven’t skimped on your internal homework, you should trust your instincts! Take time for honest personal and academic reflection. Knowing who you are, what you value, and how you best learn will set you on a path to choosing a set of colleges that have the programs, campus culture and resources to challenge your intellect and help you grow in every way. I remind applicants that most four-year colleges admit at least half of all applicants—with almost 500 accepting more than 75 percent of applicants.

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?

Yes! Students should access outside resources early in high school. I am a big fan of a new accessible resource for just such students:

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

I admire deans who are ethical, humane, courageous, responsive, open-minded, effective communicators (oral and written), creative problem solvers, good listeners, clear-thinking, and inspirational. They believe in access to higher education for all students, and find genuine joy in the job each day. In addition these deans possess integrity; kindness; honesty; a good sense of humor; and are forward-thinking leaders as they envision the “new normal.” They are committed to mentoring and coaching a new generation of deans; empower others to make decisions; and work well with complexity.

Which Common Application prompt would you choose if you were writing the Common App essay?

Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.



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