Alice Kleeman, Menlo-Atherton High School

Each month we'll honor a high school college counselor. In our Q & A, we'll find out about their pet peeves, real life heroes and best advice for students and parents. We want you to get to know them as professionals and individuals - and benefit from what they know about applying to college, too.

Counselor of the Month

As our very first Counselor of the Month, we are pleased to feature Alice Kleeman, whose advice and knowledge were integral to the writing of our book, College Admission. Ms. Kleeman is the College Advisor at Silicon Valley's Menlo-Atherton High School, which serves about 2,000 students each year. A graduate of Harvard University- she majored in Romance Languages & Literature - Ms. Kleeman has worked at Menlo-Atherton in Atherton, California since 1994. A little-known but fascinating fact about Ms. Kleeman? In addition to championing her students, she is the reigning national typing champion - winning with 147 words per minute and 97% accuracy. She is a local hero in more ways than one!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Sitting at my piano with my kids singing in harmony around me, knowing I'll be pulling a homemade pizza out of the oven soon for a heavenly family dinner.

What is your greatest fear?

That I would not be able to think of a "greatest fear" if someone were to ask me.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

I can be ridiculously self-righteous at times … but at least I'm right, so I guess it's not that deplorable.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

Sweetness . . . I prefer people whose virtues include a well-honed edge.

What or who is the greatest love of your life?

A few years ago, I would have answered, "My children," but now my grandchildren are giving them a pretty good run for their money!

When and where were you happiest?

I am happy in many places (including in my garden, at the piano, in my office!) but possibly I'm happiest at the ballpark watching a Giants game on a sunny afternoon.

Which talent would you most like to have?

I would love to have a streak of creativity - heck, I'd settle for an iota!

If you could change one thing about applying to college, what would it be?

Most of the changes I'd like to see (clarification, simplification) would follow naturally if college admission officers were asked to go through their colleges' application processes - and then clarify or simplify any areas that caused them to stumble or scratch their heads.

What is your most marked characteristic?

Enthusiasm!

What is the quality you most admire in another person?

I admire excellent (strong, consistent, articulate, timely, and correct) communication skills. What do you most value in your friends?
Their ability to make me laugh (and their patience with my crazy schedule).

Who are your heroes in real life?

People who combine idealism and/or creativity with pragmatism: Chris Bischof and Helen Kim (founders of Eastside College Prep) and Lin Manuel Miranda (creator of "In the Heights"), for example.

What is it that you most dislike?

People who are either passive or entitled... or both!

What is your motto?

"Do the next thing."

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Raising three absolutely amazing children - all of whom are teachers!

What is your proudest moment?

My proudest moments relate to my own children's accomplishments (including the production of grandchildren!) and those of my students - particularly first-gen students who complete high school and college, making their families - and me - so proud. Winning the national typing championship was a proud moment for me, too, but a silly one!

Where would you apply to college if you were applying today?

My first choice would be UC Santa Cruz, but I would also consider applying to UC Berkeley, USC, and Oberlin! (I know, I know... no internal consistency in my list!)

How did you become a college counselor?

Following four years of volunteering and substitute teaching at my own kids' high school, I took a great leap of faith when the college-advising position opened and someone suggested I might enjoy it.

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

Listen, listen, listen - and then listen some more.

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

Over-thinking . . . or under-thinking! And did I mention second-guessing?

What is your biggest pet peeve about college admission?

It makes me crazy when students say, "I want to go to an Ivy League school" (or parents say that's their goal for their kids). WHAT?! In the college-consideration process, "Ivy League" is an entirely meaningless designation (unless prestige is the only factor under consideration)! The student for whom Brown is a great fit probably wouldn't appreciate Columbia; the student who might thrive at Cornell might not be a great match for Princeton.

What is your largest frustration in college admission?

I am not only frustrated but devastated by the impossibility of providing adequate help for undocumented students, who deserve the same college options as their resident counterparts, but who face barriers every step of the way.

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

I admire deans with the courage to buck the trends in order to do what they think is right, whether that means refusing to comply with the U.S. News & World Report ranking process, choosing a testing policy that best reflects their institution, or publicly voicing an unpopular opinion that might not increase the number of applications to their institution or reflect what is fashionable in current admission practices.

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

Utter discouraging or belittling words to any student - ever. It's possible to be realistic without being hurtful.

What is your best advice for applicants?

Have fun with the process; you have the opportunity to think about who you are and who you want to become. Why shouldn't that be enjoyable?

What is your best advice for parents of applicants?

While I'm tempted to say, "Back off," instead I will more politely suggest that parents allow and encourage students to tackle any and every application task that a student is capable of tackling - which is probably just about every task except producing a credit card.

How can parents establish and maintain the most beneficial relationship with their high school counselor?

Introduce yourself early in the process, and let the counselor know you plan to allow your student to handle his/her own school-related affairs unless there is a clear need for parent involvement. For effective communication, ask the counselor whether s/he prefers that you drop in, send e-mail, call on the phone, or drop off written notes - then honor the chosen means of communication. Learn and respect school policies. And remember that the counselor is often responsible for a large number of students, but is of course delighted to build a positive relationship with you as well as your child.

What is your best advice for students on working with their college counselor?

Never hesitate to ask questions! So many problems, issues, and concerns can be easily tackled and resolved - but not if the counselor doesn't know about them!

Why do you do what you do?

Because the world isn't a very fair place, and I always believe each of us can make it a little more fair. And, of course, because I adore teenagers, with all their quirky qualities!

Is there any message you have for your college counselor colleagues across the country?

My message? Aren't we the most fortunate people on earth?! We spend our work days with teenagers - the world's most fun and intriguing people - and they entrust us with helping them plan for the future. We listen to them, chat with them, laugh with them, plan their trajectories with them, even scold them gently from time to time. And we have the unique opportunity to demystify the process, calm their fears and concerns, and counter the hype surrounding college admission. Lucky us!

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

That's easy: I would pick "Topic of your choice" I'd much prefer to direct my own thinking when I'm writing a "personal" statement. "Topic of your choice" will allow me to be entirely me!

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Comments

I appreciate Ms. Kleeman encouraging us to have fun with applications. I’ve always discussed applications with a ‘stressful and lots of work’ connotation. But it’s what you make of it.

This interview is pure, delightfully, real Alice Kleeman! Alice is an M-A treasure…we will bronze her when it’s time for her to retire. Thank you, Alice, for your service to my children, and to all the great kids of M-A!

We have a treasure at M-A and we know it–her name is Alice Kleeman! We’ve been through the process once already and are now looking forward to the sage advice and practical wisdom she has once again, this time for our second child. I recently had a friend whose child goes to a different high school ask me to recommend an outside college counselor they could hire for their child. I told him that we didn’t need to do that at M-A because we have Alice!

As I travel from DC to Seattle on trusted Alaska Air, I am treated to Alice’s sound advice highlighted in the Airline’s September Magazine article, “College Bound” by Scott Driscoll. Thank you, Alice for sharing your wisdom and timlines with families beyond the San Francisco Bay Area. Your impact and reach is substantive and great.

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