- The Doane Stuart School's Director of College Counseling, Kathleen Bracken
Applying to college is more anxiety-inducing than ever—for both parents and students. The process seems like it’s defined by an ever-morphing list of deadlines and requirements—made all the more serious by its far-reaching impacts post-college, too.
To help us figure out what really matters in the college admissions process, we turned to Kathleen Bracken, an admissions pro with over 15 years of experience and the Director of College Counseling at the Doane Stuart School, an independent preparatory school in Rensselaer serving grades preK through 12.
How do you help students find a college that's right for them?
When do you recommend students start applying to college?
At Doane Stuart, no applications are done before senior year. Yet, in some ways, the process begins when students enter high school. The grades and activities from that point forward will be part of students’ applications. As students progress through high school, it begins more in earnest.
How many colleges should a student apply to?
I recommend students enter senior year with a list of about 6 to 10 schools they want to focus on.
Does the mix of in-state vs out-of-state schools matter?
A common myth I hear is that staying in-state is always cheaper than going out of state. The reality is much more nuanced and depends greatly on the schools themselves, the student’s academic profile, and the family’s financial situation. I’m lucky to work closely with families to navigate their specific circumstances. Students in New York State are very fortunate to have a wonderful group of public schools to consider.
How important is selecting a major?
Balance is everything! There can be way too much pressure on high school students to select a major or career they’ll pursue for the rest of their life. Studies show that it’s very common to change one’s mind during the college years. I strive to strike a balance by helping students explore careers, while not putting pressure on 16-year-olds to choose their life path.
Should students consider applying early decision?
Early decision continues to be an important recruiting tool for many selective colleges. There are some colleges that fill more than half of their incoming class through early decision. This is a big commitment, not to be undertaken lightly, but it’s important for students to understand the role it can play. Here’s an example: Hamilton College filled 50.7 percent of the class of 2022 through early decision. The early decision acceptance rate was 42 percent versus a regular decision acceptance rate of 19.2 percent.
How important is a student’s GPA?
A GPA means nothing without the context of a high school transcript. The transcript can show trends in performance over time, as well as how a student has challenged him or herself. The GPA is just a number, which varies among different high schools using different grading scales. At Doane Stuart, we use a very standard 4.0 scale and don’t weight any of our courses, which makes it easier for colleges to understand.
Are standardized tests like the SAT still valued by colleges?
The weight given to these tests varies greatly by school. At some schools, standardized tests aren’t even required, a trend I applaud. I’m a strong supporter of Fair Test, a nonprofit that works to prevent the misuse of test scores. They maintain a list of test-optional and test-flexible schools, which grows longer every year.
The surge of test-optional admissions shows no signs of stopping. It’s encouraging to see the waning influence of the College Board, and see colleges recognizing that many wonderful, bright, motivated students don’t show their strengths from a grueling four-hour exam on one Saturday of their life.
The college admissions process seems like it gets more competitive every year. How do you keep students grounded despite all that pressure?
I tell students at the onset of the admissions process that this is not fatalistic. College admissions is not an evolution toward one perfect school. Students should have the mindset that there are many places they can be happy and get a great education.
In this process, there are factors both inside and outside of a student’s control. They should focus on the things they can do to bolster their applications, rather than factors completely outside their influence, like legacy connections. Your grades, however, are in your control!
I often repeat something a great yoga teacher told me: Stay on your own yoga mat! This process is very personal. It’s not helpful to spend time comparing yourself to others. Focus on your own journey, and define success for yourself. Don’t invest your time and energy worrying about what other people are doing.