#AdmissionsPros: College Wisdom From Katie Sprague

Welcome to #AdmissionsPros! In this series, admissions advisors and educational consultants offer their advice and insight on the big picture of elementary, secondary, and graduate school admissions — from extracurriculars, to essays, to, (of course) standardized tests.

Katie Sprague is a Senior Director at Collegewise, a nationwide admissions counseling firm that advises students all over the country and the world. As an experienced counselor and an expert in adolescent psychology, Katie has unique insight into college admissions from both sides of the table. She spoke with Noodle Pros about her work with Collegewise, her timeline for tackling college applications, and the importance of recognizing a student’s unique needs.

Can you tell us a little bit about Collegewise, and about what you do specifically?

Collegewise is a national, and also now international, college admissions counseling company. We started on the West Coast back in 1999, in Irvine, California, where I am now, and slowly started expanding. In 2014, we started opening up offices on the East Coast and in Texas. I opened up the New York City office of Collegewise in 2014, and at the same time we started branches in New Jersey, Boston, D.C., North Carolina, and Connecticut.

Basically, we’re trying to spread as much quality college planning information as widely as possible. When I was in our New York City office, we would go into high schools and do workshops, seminars, webinars, parent nights, anything that allowed us to share information about the different parts of the college admissions process.

There so much stress and hype around the college admissions process, so we’re doing whatever we can to really combat that.

What types of students do you usually work with? Is it a wide range?

Most counselors at Collegewise do have a wide variety of students, but some of us have areas in which we’re a bit more specialized. For example, in New York City, I saw a lot of students that were interested in highly selective college admissions, and I also worked with students who had learning differences and anxiety, because my background is in mental health counseling and school counseling. So those are areas where I tend to have more students. But I really have students across the board: every level of student in terms of their academics, as well as athletes, musicians, vocal performers, and all sorts of other interests. I am also one of the counselors at Collegewise who works with international students, so I see them as well.

And I’d add that, although we have brick-and-mortar offices in different locations, many of our counselors, even in places where we have offices, do a lot of online work. Even for students in New York City who are local, sometimes we do a hybrid — if they feel like it’s too much to take the Subway because it’s rush hour, we can do an online meeting instead. More and more students actually prefer that, because it’s just more flexible and convenient for them.

What are your thoughts on parental engagement with these programs, whether in person or online? When should parents be involved with the process, and when should they try to step back?

I always like to find that healthy balance. What we try to do at Collegewise is empower students to take ownership of the process and drive it themselves. But of course, we want parents to be there; what I often say to parents is that we want them to be the supportive cheerleaders, so that we can be the bad guys. We sort of act as a buffer to keep the students on track, and then loop in the parents so that they’re aware of what’s happening. And of course, parents can have thoughts and opinions on a school list, or the process, anything like that. But we want to try to make it so that they’re in a position to just be supportive of the student and the work that they’re doing, and proud of them for digging into that college research. I like to call it “college soul-searching,” figuring out which schools are going to be a good fit for a student, rather than pulling or dragging the student from the front. So I am sort of the project manager for the application process, and parents get to play the cheerleader/supportive role.

I will say that one area where we ask parents to step back is the essay writing process. With both parents and students, there’s often this misconception that the college essay has to be impressive. And when a student sits down to write their essay, and they think to themselves “What’s the most impressive thing that I’ve done throughout high school,” it’s the quickest way for them to write a generic, clichéd piece that admissions officers have read over, and over, and over again. So we try to dispel the myths that surround the college essay, and get parents and students to understand the role that it plays in admissions. Then we work one-on-one with the student to help them find their authentic voice, so that it will come across on the application.

Though some parents might be great editors, we always want the student to really feel as if they can be authentic and genuine. We don’t want them to worry about what their parents might think. So it’s really best if it’s just the two of us — student and counselor — working on it together. Sometimes, if the parents are too involved, their voice will come through instead of the voice of the student.

Speaking of the essay, are there any essay topics that you tell students to avoid?

So there are a couple of what I’d call “overused” essay topics, but that does not necessarily mean that they are off-limits. You just need to be extra mindful, so that they don’t turn into one of those clichéd generic essays that schools have read a million times. For example, students are often tempted to write about their travels to other countries, and how they’ve broadened their horizons. And that’s a trap, in that it can feel like it’s trying too hard to impress. It’s not always an authentic story specific to the student. Sometimes, these essays also end up being about how different that culture was from what we’re used to in the US, and that comparison is not quite as personal as we’d like the essay to be.

The other trap that students fall into is taking an activity, or something they’ve been involved in, and talking about how this activity helped them develop X,Y,Z admirable characteristics. So: “Sports taught me the importance of teamwork,” or, “Community service allowed me to recognize the importance of helping others.” In these cases, students are not injecting their own voices or adding enough specific details about themselves into their stories.

Are there some basic questions that you typically ask students in your first meeting?

There isn’t necessarily a specific question that I always ask; I usually end up allowing the student to guide the conversation, and then I pick their brain on a lot of different levels. My ultimate goal is to really get to know the student, and to figure out their academic and extracurricular interests and strengths as well as their anxieties about the admissions process. Then together, we can come up with a game plan to address those areas that they’re most concerned with.

In terms of what I’m asking them, what I like to do in those first few meetings is start with the academic piece. So we’ll go through the classes that they’re taking, and I’ll ask questions about which ones are really exciting to the student, and which ones they’re dreading doing the homework for. I want to know if there are any subjects that they are so excited to learn about, that they are going out of their way to watch YouTube videos about the topic, or read books related to the subject, or find online forums where other people are discussing it. Learning what makes students really light up when they’re talking will help us figure out what their academic interests are, which could translate well to potential majors.

I use a similar approach for the extracurricular piece. So asking them, “What are the kind of things that you’re involved in,” “What are the things that you love,” “How do you enjoy spending your free time.” Because colleges are really interested in knowing what you’re doing outside of school when you’re not studying. The ultimate goal is for students to do more of what they love once they’re in college, right? Academically and in terms of extracurriculars.

What is the ideal age for students to begin engaging with you on this stuff?

When it comes to developing those interests, as I was just describing, it is nice to get students in ninth grade. We’re not really talking about college stuff much then at all — I don’t want to overwhelm them too early. Instead, our conversations in ninth and tenth grade are all about facilitating the development of the students’ interests.

When students start in the beginning of junior year, there’s still so much that can be done. In terms of the actual college list development and application support, we usually get students in the summer before Junior year. Then we can get their standardized testing timeline all set up, and make sure that they’re engaging in thoughtful college research. Then, in the end of junior year, we’ll start to think about essays, and start crafting the narrative that they will be using to present themselves on their applications.

I love it when I have students who set foot in the door on the first day of their senior year, and they’ve already gotten the bulk of their applications done. Then they can really just enjoy being seniors!

What is your advice on test prep? When would you recommend that students begin their test prep?

It’s different for every student, so we always try to help students figure out what’s going to be best for them. We have to look at where they are, in math in particular, but I’d say that the standard timeline for most of our students is to test twice in the spring of junior year. So we’re still trying to be thoughtful about doing test prep early — or at least setting up a plan for it. Some students don’t realize how much they don’t remember until it’s too late.

And we always tell our students: these tests are coachable! They don’t measure your intelligence, they measure your skill at taking the test.

As you’ve mentioned, Collegewise works with students all over the country and international students as well. For those of us who hadn’t even heard of hiring an advisor or an admissions consultant back when we were applying to schools, how has the landscape changed to make a service like yours so important?

You know, you see it in the media that college admissions are just getting more and more competitive each year. But we always like to say that, at the same time, it’s weirdly easier than ever before. Because there are so many schools out there that are accepting more than half of the students who apply! So we want to help students and families understand that those schools you hear about, and you read about on U.S. News and World Report rankings, are only a list of about 40 schools that are rejecting around 80 of every 100 applicants. And those highly selective schools are just getting more and more competitive, because more and more students are applying to them.

There are so many misconceptions about the application process today, and it’s important to know that, now more than ever, colleges are looking at this in a holistic way. So that’s the biggest thing that the educational consultants in a place like Collegewise can do for families: help them understand the process, so that they can go into it with less stress and hype and more knowledge.

Is there a common misstep that you see parents and students making in this process?

Yes. I particularly noticed this in New York City: their biggest misstep is thinking that name brand of the school, or how famous it is, or its ranking, is more important than fit. And that’s a mistake, because one of the biggest and best strategies that will help a student in the college admissions process is having done that thoughtful college research, so that they can understand why a school is a good fit for them and articulate this on their application. Also, in making a well-researched list, students figure out a little bit more about who they are — and their applications will express that.

Last question: What is your top piece of advice for students who are applying to selective schools and programs?

I’m sure you’ve noticed this theme throughout our conversation, but my biggest piece of advice would be to be authentic on your applications. Consider what really makes you unique, and don’t attempt to game the system, or try too hard to impress the admissions officers.

I always like to see the students that can just be their weird selves, and let that shine through! If you’re funny, be funny! Allow yourself to be expressive if you want! Don’t feel like you have to follow a specific formula in order to get admitted to a school. Because really, there is no formula.


Are you interested in working with Katie Sprague and her colleagues at Collegewise? Reach out via their website.

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