Inside the Inner Workings of the College Admissions Process
This article was written by Anthony C. ’22 and Kay T. ’22. It originally appeared in The Belfield Banter student newspaper.
Why did you choose college counseling as a profession?
Director of College Counseling Sandra Sohne-Johnston, M.A.L.D.: I started working in college counseling because I love working with students. The one-on-one relationships, the collaboration, and being able to work with high school seniors and cheer them on as they work towards their dreams. It’s also wonderful to be there to support them when things don’t go according to plan and to cheer them on through the process and into their years in college. The longer I stayed in college admissions, the more responsibilities I took on, and the less I got to work directly with students. Working with students is so important to me, and, so, here I am!
Associate Director of College Counseling Liza Rubenoff, M.A.: I became interested in being a college counselor by working in admissions, which is really the other side of the process. Being a college counselor wasn’t something I had been planning or anticipating. There’s no “college” major or class on becoming a college admissions officer. In fact, I didn’t really know that it was a job that you could do. But, people told me (growing up) that I would be well-suited to this type of role. I fell in love with higher education and working alongside students and being on the admissions side of things. My favorite time of the year as an admissions officer was the few months in the fall during recruitment, where I would get to travel to high schools, meet students face-to-face, tell them about my institution, and hear about who they are. I’ve always loved learning about people and hearing their stories. Once the eight weeks of recruitment end, decisions are made, and students either get in or they don’t. The relationships you form while traveling to high schools end, and I didn’t want them to. I decided that I wanted to interact more closely with students, which is a really wonderful aspect of working on the college counseling side of the process. In moving to the area of college counseling I was able to take my knowledge and love of higher education and use it in a context that allows for more student interaction. I got my first college counseling position at an international school in England, and it was the exact right fit for me. I love working with international students, which was something I loved doing at NYU.
How do you consider suggesting (or not suggesting) that students apply for Ivy League schools?
Rubenoff: We would recommend any school to students based on what they’re looking for in their personal experience, interests, and locations. I think an Ivy League can make sense if it’s the right fit for the student and if they’ve done their research to know what they’re looking for. I remember one student in my first year doing college counseling in England, one of the top students in her class, who came to my office and said, “Everyone tells me that I should apply to Ivy League schools, do I have to?” I, of course, told her “No! You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.” There’s a perception that, if you are so smart, the Ivy League is where you have to be. But, for some students, it’s not what they want. That student ended up at Carleton College, which was a perfect fit for her and her love of science, art, and the liberal arts. Applying to Ivy League schools is really a question of fit and of what you want for yourself and your college experience.
If you were a rising senior now, which colleges would you apply to and why?
SJ: In 1993, I applied to Franklin and Marshall College. In those days, we didn’t have the technology we have today. We had the old-fashioned cassette videotapes for college information There was a girl in my class who gave me a videotape for the school. “Franklin and Marshall,” I thought, “what a strange name.” Watching the clips, I learned there were some things I was looking for: I wanted a school near my brother in New Jersey. Coming from a graduating class of thirty, I wanted a smaller school. Coming as an international student, I wanted a school with a community. I chose to apply early and got accepted, and it turned out to be so transformative I changed in ways I could never even imagine. I think that, if I had to go back and do it again, I would make the same decisions. The reason I liked to push all of you is that, when I was a high school student, there were so many things I didn’t believe I was capable of. But, because I had people who believed in me and supported me, I was able to try. I am who I am because I got to do things I never would have imagined.
What’s the most unexpected story you’ve received in an application?
SJ: People tend to think that, to be an unexpected applicant, you need to have done something extraordinary, but, having read applications for more than 15 years, the kid that has stuck with me the most was an entirely ordinary kid. This applicant took his ordinary circumstances and looked at (and showed his readers) the world in extraordinary ways. This young man was an athlete; he wore half-knee high socks with incredible colors and patterns to every game as his lucky charm. Every time he put his knee socks on, he felt ready to take over the world. It became a part of how he approached soccer. With his socks on, he would go into his games feeling confident. He was not the captain of the team, but he found a way to show everybody else that it was okay to have fun to express your personality and that stuck with me. The piece that all of you may not realize is that, when you turn in an application, your essay is not the only part of the application that gets read. So, when I continued through this boy’s application to read his teachers’ recommendations, I learned that he was one of the most popular kids in the community, but, according to the recommenders, would also be the first to hold the door when somebody’s coming through; he was a culture setter, and was is also the first to reach out to people who are alone, sitting by themself, or didn’t feel like they belonged. The rest of his application also revealed he was openly transgender, and one of the few LGBTQ+ students in his school community. I couldn’t stop thinking about this student, being a caretaker for his peers, for the younger students, and having rich relationships and an impact on his community. I have never met the student– I just read about him– but I can still close my eyes and imagine him on the soccer field, running up with his crazy socks, and I see an absolutely phenomenal human being.
Which student have you met that was the most memorable?
Rubenoff: For five years before coming to STAB, I worked for a national scholarship organization called the Ron Brown program. The program is based in Charlottesville and works with high achieving African American students who are significantly under-represented in terms of income and access, and helped them through the college process. One student, Michael Brown, came to the program as a junior in high school. He became a Ron Brown scholar– one of twenty students (out of thousands of applications) selected to receive $40,000 scholarships to put towards their education. Michael was from Houston, Texas; he lived in the third world of the housing project and came from a single-parent family. I just know Michael is someone who we are going to hear about. He is going to be the next president, the next Supreme Court Justice– he’s going to be somebody because that’s just the kind of person that he is. He ended up receiving almost $300,000 worth of aid in college scholarships. He was excited and passionate about what he was doing in his life. He did all this while being an incredible student, being on several student councils, and doing an internship at the Supreme Court. He’s someone who found ways to impact others, and he had drive. He was just an incredible human being; I think it’s now his senior year at Stanford. Being in his economic circumstances and life circumstances, his faith and confidence in who he was in his community and what he could do to make it better made an impact. I don’t know if he wants to be the president, but, if he ever runs for office, I will vote for him.
What’s your favorite UChicago extended question?
Associate Director of College Counseling Colleen Belak, M.Ed.: One of my favorites talked about an untranslatable word: “choose a word, tell us what it means, and then explain why it can not or should not be translated from its original language.” When I was in admissions at UChicago my territories were China, South East Asia, and Oceania, and then, ultimately, I read for Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Having those international territories, I had a lot of students who spoke different languages than English. It was really fun because I felt I was learning as I read the essays. There were many German words, many French words, and certainly many characters in Mandarin and Cantonese. The prompt that I felt brought me the most joy was “Mash up a historical figure with a new time period, environment, location, or occupation, and tell us their story” (ex. Joan of Arkansas. Queen Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Babe Ruth Bader Ginsburg). When that prompt came out, my colleagues and I had an entire marker board where we came up with probably hundreds of name combinations that we were hoping to see come up.
What’s the funniest application you’ve seen?
Belak: The funniest essay that I’ve read was probably the student who wrote in their “Why Chicago?” essay with the title, “I don’t want to go to UChicago. My parents made me apply”. Did he get in? No! He did not. I mean, it was obvious he didn’t want to go. For UChicago you can also submit a video– sometimes they are lovely, fun, and whatever else. Sometimes, they are amazing– and I once saw one which was very unexpected for a girl who was really into biology. In her video, she walked us through her dead animal collection. She was dead serious about it, too. She walked through making comments like “and this is the coyote’s head.” It was kind of terrifying, but it was really cool. I fought for that girl, and she ultimately got in.