Chat Leonard, Metro Academic and Classical High School

Chat Leonard is Director of College Counseling at Metro Academic & Classical High School, a magnet school in the St. Louis University neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri. She joined the administration of the school she calls "one of the gems of the St. Louis public school system" last year, after 13 years as a College Counselor at Clayton High School. Named one of the top 100 public schools in the nation by Newsweek magazine, Metro prides itself on its diverse ethnic and socioeconomic student body, where 50% of the 326 enrolled students are African American who live within the St. Louis city limits. In Ms. Leonard's first year as Director, 100% of her students went on to attend four-year colleges.

Originally from Peoria, Illinois, Ms. Leonard attended St. Louis University so her stint at Metro brings her back to her college stomping grounds. After majoring in speech and theatre, she went on to earn a Masters of Education degree from the University of Missouri, returning to St. Louis University to pursue doctoral studies in Counseling Education. A member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, Missouri Association for College Admission Counseling and the College Board, she also serves on the Admissions Advisory committees for St. Louis University, the University of Tulsa and Purdue University.

A self-confessed "college geek" who has visited hundreds of campuses across the country, Ms. Leonard is also an avid theatergoer. Her current recommendation: War Horse, How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and The Book of Mormon. A little-known fact about Metro's Director of College Counseling? She was a runway model in high school and college.

How did you become a college counselor?

I earned a Masters of Education degree in Counseling and worked in a high school for about 5 years doing everything.  I was considered a generalist, however I was most passionate about supporting my students in the college admissions process and during the past 20 years, college counseling has been my primary focus.

What is your motto?  

With regard to college counseling, my motto would be: “Control the Process, don’t let the Process control you.”

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

 Humility…too much will not get you far.

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

Freshman year is fine for discussing in general terms what colleges are looking for in admitting students…grades, co-curricular profile, communicating to students to pursue their passions both in and out of the classroom. . However, I don’t think it is age-appropriate to start getting into the specifics of college admissions and taking tours. Junior year comes soon enough before students need that pressure of how to select the right college. Allow them to have normal freshman/sophomore years.

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

They never tell me that this is what they are planning to do. Usually the motivation to see an independent would come from the parents who think independent counselors may have some type of magic potion or inside scoop that will get them into elite colleges.

But I have found that schools where college advising is a priority, a student’s own advisor is in the best position to give support. We are that student’s best advocate. Unfortunately, there may be some schools where college advising is not adequate due to the demands of an overworked counseling staff and independent counseling may be helpful.

Bottom line…it’s the family's money and they have the right to spend it where they choose.

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

I really don’t have any "Don’ts." I feel it is a counselor’s responsibility to accept the student as he/she is and then allow the student/counselor relationship to develop as naturally as possible without a lot of "Don’t" parameters.

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

A student should not be defensive or assume her counselor doesn’t like, understand, appreciate or know her. Counselors have several students on their case load. The student should make an effort to get to know her counselor, keep in contact with her counselor and share details of where she is in the college process. A thank you now and then is always appreciated.

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

My advice to parents is to understand that this is the student’s process, not the parents'. At this stage, students should be taking the lead in the process and if they are not, parents may ask themselves why? Are the parents being over-controlling or over anxious?  Students are sensitive and can pick up on parents’ anxieties very easily, which may cause students to act out in some way. Parents should keep the lines of communication open with their child and perhaps recommend a family meeting with the college advisor to make sure that the process is going the way it should, discussing timelines and any concerns.  I am not in favor of having college meetings without the student present and totally involved.

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

 Don’t be anxious and over-controlling. Don’t complete your child’s applications or write the essays. Do understand that this is the child’s process…the start of separating from parents and becoming independent young adults who will soon be off to college. Don’t be critical…this time is tough enough as it is.   Do be supportive and encouraging and offer to help in ways that are appropriate…organizing applications, helping with timelines/deadlines, helping to research scholarship resources etc.

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

Counselors should never tell students they are not college material and should think about doing something else after high school.

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

A counselor should be encouraging, supportive, provide adequate and up-to-date information and help the student develop a balanced college list. (One that is not  all top tier schools.)

What is your best advice for families about financial aid?

Start planning for your child’s educational future as early as possible. (Yeah, even in utero.)  In these difficult financial times, it is not always possible.  Be realistic…few colleges give full rides…”do you play football?  Well, maybe.” Colleges expect families to contribute their fair share. The concern is what is considered fair?  What can families realistically contribute?

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

I often tell families to think of aid packages from 3 perspectives…past, present and future.  The past being what you have saved for your child’s education. Present is out of pocket money  families will pay each year and  scholarships, grants and work study the student will receive while in college. And the future may be loans that parents and students will need to repay. For my students who are counting on financial aid, I insist ( I know that’s pretty strong) that one of their schools is a financially safe school, which is usually a public 4-year in-state university.

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

I always attend the national conferences  (NACAC and College Board ) each year. I also try to attend my regional conferences as often as possible. I consistently attend informational sessions that colleges have in the St. Louis area. I participate in college fly-in trips, and visit colleges campuses on my own time. I subscribe to the NACAC listserve and read (usually online) current issues and concerns in college admissions. I serve on colleges’ advisory boards and on several committees, most notably the College Board’s Task Force on Admissions in the 21st Century.  I also never hesitate to pick up the phone or send an e-mail to a college rep, Dean or Director of Admissions, all of whom are always so informed and helpful.

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

Book of Majors (CollegeBoard)

Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges

Cool Colleges for the Hyper-Intelligent, Self-Directed, Late Blooming and Just Plain Different (Donald Asher)

Colleges that Change Lives (Loren Pope).

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

College Board 

ACT   

The Student Guide to Financial Aid

200 scholarships for Minority students   

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

Applying to too many colleges and not having a balanced list. That’s where I try to help. I find that when the list is too long (over 10 schools) a student hasn’t done the proper research and has allowed the process to take control, rather than controlling the process. I also think procrastination is one of the biggest mistakes and can result in missed admissions and scholarship deadlines and/or increase the anxiety not only in the students themselves but their parents as well.

What is your single best piece of advice for applicants?

Don’t stress yourself out trying to find that perfect college because a perfect college doesn’t exist for anyone. Believe that no matter which college your path in life may take you to, you will make the most of your experience because of who you are.  A college is the brick and mortar, but the experience is what you make of it…your professors, the people you meet, and the friends you make will  help define that experience.

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?

Absolutely.  I would like to re-phrase that to say that I feel their college advisors should approach the process with such students differently. All students benefit from individualized and personalized attention, however students who have parents who have attended college have more specific support at home than those whose parents have not attended university. College-educated parents have knowledge about standardized testing, a good fit and financial aid. They are also more likely to take their children to visit various colleges and to suggest colleges and programs that may be a good fit.

As reported in recent research conducted by the College Board’s Task Force on Advocacy:  "…lower-income students have aspirations and understandings about college admission and costs similar to those of upper-income students, but they don’t always receive the needed support to enroll. As counselors and college advisors, we need to be more intentional in reaching out to those students and parents to make sure they have the necessary support to not only apply, but to also enroll in a post secondary program."

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

Deans who understand that a diverse student body is the best student body and advantageous for everyone at the college. Deans who are willing to take your calls, present at school meetings, and listen to what you have to say. Deans who are approachable are the best deans.

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

Name a difficult and/or challenging experience you have faced in your life. Discuss how it has made you the person you are today.  It would demonstrate where I’ve been, how far I have come and where I hope to be in the future.

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