How is college advising at MCDS particularly suited to its students?

At MCDS, college advising comes down to personal attention. The college application process is a highly personal one, and as such, it takes time and attention paid to the unique aspects of each student. Our knowledge of each individual student—both academically and personally—as well as the time and resources we dedicate to the process make MCDS highly unique in the Madison area.

With the Common App, a student can create one online profile that she or he can use to apply to more than 600 colleges. How has the Common App changed the landscape for prospective students? What other changes are on the horizon for college applications?

The number of applications has risen significantly for every college. The Common App is part of this, as it has made sending out applications very easy; all you need is a credit card. A strong academic record and standardized test scores are still necessary at the most selective colleges, but there are a lot of applicants with strong academic records. As such, our goal is to make the student come alive in the application process. We want all of our students to be more than just another application, and our advising process is designed to do that.

There are a lot of new pieces in the college advising landscape this year and next. We have a new SAT, some changes made to the ACT, more colleges going test-optional, and new financial aid procedures. Happily, the new financial aid process is going to be great for families.

Also new is the College Advising Center at MCDS. What can students expect to find there?

The College Advising Center will offer something new to MCDS students—a place to talk privately about their plans, or to meet with a college admissions representative for an interview, or to make a private phone call about admissions or financial aid. We’ve always made do with limited physical resources, but it will be great to have a dedicated space to display college materials, make standard reference works available for student use, and meet privately with students and families at this very sensitive time in their lives.

How early should students start thinking about what kinds of colleges might be a good fit for them?

At MCDS, college advising is expanding to include eighth grade, which is a really good time for students to start looking ahead to college and thinking about their interests. It’s also a good time to take some of the mystery out of high school—transcripts, summer activities, extracurriculars, SAT/ACT. Students are always delighted to hear about the excellent test-optional colleges that care more about essays, grades, teacher recommendations, and activities than they do about test scores, or that they can do an internet search for colleges that offer vegan dining options or allow reptiles in dorm rooms.

Starting freshman year, MCDS students begin their lists of extracurricular activities to be used on applications. What should students consider when choosing extracurriculars as they think ahead to applying for college in a few years? Is there a “right” way to do extracurriculars?

There is no one right number of extracurriculars, as the answer will vary depending on the student and his or her interests. That said, the number of extracurriculars should allow the student ample time to pursue them fully. It is very easy for colleges to see if a student is only paying a cursory amount of attention to his or her extracurriculars; they see it all the time. Students need to be able to authentically discuss why their extracurricular choices suit them and show their dedication to what they have done. Quality is more important than quantity in this regard.

Colleges vary in what they are looking for with regard to extracurriculars, and it varies from year to year as they build classes according to changing institutional priorities. Most of the time, we can’t know in advance what those are going to be (although occasionally we get a call asking if we have any double reed players—our music department has quite a reputation). We know that might feel like students have to be chasing a moving target, but that’s looking at it from the wrong angle. Students should concentrate on finding a college that matches their interests, not on changing their interests to match what they think colleges want.

Being able to write insightfully about one’s life outside of academics is very important. This is one of the ways a student can show herself as a person, rather than a collection of numbers (GPA, test scores, awards). Students who recount their wins and losses in soccer, or their awards in music, or the number of community service hours they logged are missing an opportunity to tell colleges who they are, what they value, and why.

Course selection also impacts college admissions. What should high school students keep in mind when deciding what to study at MCDS?

Students should pick a course of study that allows them to authentically demonstrate their interests. There is no one course that looks better than the others, and since all of our 11th and 12th grade courses are IB (International Baccalaureate) courses, there is no question about the level of rigor in each course. Students can select among art, music, or a second science, world language, or social sciences course, for example, based purely on where their interests lie and know that their course of study will be viewed as the most challenging available.

What every college is looking for, including the STEAM-focused ones, is a well-educated student who has demonstrated success in a challenging academic curriculum and knows how to lead a balanced life. Our high school graduation requirements exceed those of most high schools, and they definitely meet the requirements of even the most selective colleges and universities. I’m thinking about our requirement of four years each of foreign language, lab science, and mathematics, as well as our requirement of at least two years of music and two years of art. When we discussed our graduation requirements with the colleges we visited in Boston recently, all of them—including the most elite—were very impressed.

In addition to taking some IB courses, MCDS High School students have the opportunity to formally pursue an IB Diploma. How do prospective colleges view IB?

What we have heard from multiple colleges, stated in these exact terms, is that the IB Diploma program is the gold standard when it comes to college applications. From an academic standpoint, it requires a rigorous academic program across the board. The colleges we have spoken to, including some of the most selective colleges in the world, all say the same thing: completing an IB Diploma requires a student to work hard in absolutely every area of his or her academic program. As such, colleges know that IB Diploma Programme students are prepared for success in college.

Here are some things we heard from several colleges recently: “IB students know how to write a research paper, including how to manage their time from start to finish.” “IB students know how to avoid plagiarism, no matter what the subject.” “IB students are more likely than anyone else to be able to pass the final exams from our science courses in order to be placed out of an introductory science course.” “IB students demonstrate a maturity we don’t see in most other students; they are aware that there are views other than their own, and they enjoy engaging those views.” “IB students are intellectually curious and critical thinkers.”

In order to make it possible for applicants to be compared across a variety of grading systems, many colleges recalculate applicants’ GPAs. Most of these recalculations involve excluding art and music courses from the GPA. However, IB Art and Music are considered serious academic courses involving research and writing, as well as production and performance, so colleges include them in the GPA. This speaks highly of the rigor and challenge level of all IB courses. Students should never feel that they should abandon an interest in the fine arts in order to impress a college by taking a “more academically challenging” course. All IB courses are recognized as rigorous and challenging.

Some high school students know what majors and careers they’d like to pursue, but many do not. How is advising the student who has a laser-beam focus on a specific career different from advising a student with a variety of interests and strengths and no clear career goal?

It is a bit silly to expect every 17-year-old to have determined his or her passion in life, and so advising our students effectively means that we don’t expect that of them. Even those students who seem to have a clear focus can change their minds as they progress through college. So we encourage students to think about all aspects of the colleges they research. This includes the things that will help them make the most of their experience. The size of the school, location, existence of extracurriculars, study-abroad programs, and ability to explore multiple areas of interest are all examples of things that students should take into consideration when researching colleges. Having the academic programs they are interested in may certainly be the main area of focus for some students, but it should not be the only one. Every student will be looking for different things from their college experience, and so we tailor our process accordingly. Are they thinking about grad school? Are they pursuing a career that requires more schooling? Do they want an experience that will give them opportunities to leave the country? Do they want to pursue interdisciplinary studies? Do they want undergraduate research opportunities? Ultimately, we want the students to head to college ready to make the most of the experience, even if they have not yet chosen a future profession.

Over the years we have advised a few of those laser-beam-focused students. Advising them means listening carefully to what the student has to say about what is most important to him or her, and trying to find a good higher education match. It’s every bit as personalized as it is with the student who doesn’t know where their next steps will lead them and is happy to find out along the way.

With the devoted musician, mathematician, artist, or thespian, it’s important that they think about the difference between a liberal arts education in which they can pursue their passion seriously, as opposed to an education that is focused almost solely on their most intense passion. Usually, these young people have discovered a few other things they like to do and think about because of the rich variety of experiences MCDS makes possible for our students. What would the next four years be like if they didn’t have ways to continue those other interests, however minor?

Encouraging young people to leave doors open, rather than closing them prematurely, is something we always try to do. Even if the student decides to follow that intense interest 100%, they will at least know that it’s never too late to shift gears and pursue another interest. MCDS provides the preparation needed to be successful in higher education, no matter what the student’s path might be.

Letters of recommendation continue to be an important part of the college application process.  How are MCDS faculty members able to support students in this?

Writing those letters is a joyful task, really. It’s so wonderful to remember the squirrelly sixth grader when describing the amazing young adult we see at the end of high school! Our teachers write recommendations that several admissions officers have described as “rich” and “deep.” They are truly helpful in the admissions process, because they—along with the student’s essays—personalize the applicant. We don’t just say, “He’s a hard worker and a good member of the community.” We can talk about growth over time, about what we’ve observed in and out of the classroom, and about the student’s plans and interests. This can only happen when the recommender really knows the student, and at MCDS, we know them very well.

How do colleges view small graduating classes like the ones at MCDS?

Colleges don’t see them as a benefit or a drawback. What they want to see is how well the students do with the opportunities that lie before them. How have they made the most of their high school experience? Have they engaged with their work and the school community as a whole? In my personal experience, there is a benefit to MCDS being a smaller school, with graduating classes capping at 48 students, because it allows us to know our students in a highly unique way. This, without a doubt, aids our students in the application process, because it allows us to be very detailed in our letters of recommendation and help the colleges know who the students really are.

Something a lot of people don’t realize is that in a small community such as ours, students have meaningful and ongoing opportunities to engage a diversity of values, cultures, religious beliefs, political opinions, everything. In a large school environment, students can usually find a group of peers very much like themselves. They never have to have those difficult, but transformative, conversations with classmates who see the world differently—unless they seek them out. At MCDS those conversations happen all the time. Some of our graduates have written about this in their essays, and it’s a point we make when describing the MCDS environment. Colleges do appreciate the different experiences available at a small school; we just have to tell them about it!

MCDS has the resources to help guide students—and their families—through college admissions. How do parents factor into the process?

The college application process is an opportunity for the student and the parents to look at the realities of who that student really is. This goes beyond grades and ACT scores, though those are a part of it as well. It is an opportunity for parents to have honest conversations with their child and take an honest look at their child’s academic record and interests. Authenticity is key in every aspect of the process.

The process of applying to colleges seems so complicated and high-stakes that parents are often powerfully tempted to do everything themselves in order that it be done right! But colleges really do expect that students will be driving this: sending e-mails or making phone calls when they have questions, signing up for campus tours, making (and following) a calendar of tasks and deadlines. At MCDS, we do everything we can to facilitate that process while still leaving the student in charge. We often say to anxious parents, “Trust, but verify.” To students we say, “Show your parents your task list and update them on your progress regularly, at least every few days.” When it works like that, the parents have less cause for anxiety, and the students have the experience of taking care of serious business with a good deal of independence.

What should the student consider when choosing a college, besides the college’s name and reputation?

The big question a student should ask is, “what is important to me?” If the school’s name or reputation is important, why? What does that specific school offer? Since the most selective colleges have an acceptance rate hovering around 4 to 5%, is it really healthy for a student or family to base their sense of self-worth on acceptance to that school? So we tell our students to look inward and think about who they really are and what they really need from a college. Then we can find a good fit.

There are a lot of factors that go into the final decision about where to attend college. With the exception of Early Decision commitments, everyone has at least a month (April) to consider their options. Finances are extremely important for most families, and sorting out the details of multiple financial aid offers is something we can help with. Beyond that, it’s important for students to choose a college where they feel they can do their best work, among people they will enjoy being with, in a place that feels comfortable.

Is it fair to say that the goal of college advising at MCDS is to encourage students to be their most authentic selves and to apply to schools that best suit them? Not to try to conform to what students think particular colleges want?

Yes. Absolutely. Not all colleges want the same thing, and institutional priorities change from year to year. Most students apply to 8 to 12 colleges, and those colleges are not all looking for the same thing. As Steve said in our community presentations, we’d never propose that people should try to change themselves when choosing a spouse. The same goes for choosing a college. At MCDS, we work to help students figure out who they are and what they hope to do with their lives, and then help them identify colleges that would be suitable. The process of figuring out, “Who am I and where am I going with my life?” parallels the college search process. It’s a very special transition time for our students, and we feel very privileged to facilitate this part of their journey.