Perspective on the Process: Alumni Reflect on the College Process

Perspective on the Process: Alumni Reflect on the College Process

Headlines related to the college application process in major media today tell the story of an often high-pressure and high-stakes scenario that can lead to anxiety among students: “What Colleges Want in an Applicant (Everything);”  “Why Applying to College is So Confusing;”  “Mapping Anxiety about College Admissions.”

At Community School, 100 percent of students who apply are accepted to a college or university; and, 80 percent of applicants are often accepted into their first- or second-choice school. This year, those top choice acceptances included a range that reflects the high level of academic achievement among the school’s students as well as the diversity of interests and goals: Acceptances from Auburn, Brown, Chapman, Montana State, Princeton, Reed College, Smith, Villanova, and Wake Forest were among the list of early-action and early-decision schools the class of 2018 will attend next year. It’s clear that Community School students are seeing impressive results—but the process feels different here.

From the earliest years at Community School, students benefit from a school culture that continually prioritizes self-examination and reflection. The college counseling process is no exception. “What makes the process and Community School different, and healthier we think, is the emphasis on self-discovery and intentional reflection in which our students engage,” said Chauncy Gardner, new Co-Director, with Bayard “Bags” Brokaw, of College Counseling. “From the earliest conversations about college in ninth and tenth grade, we are asking our students to reflect on what drives them, what situations are optimal for their learning style, and what landscapes inspire them.” This approach, Chauncy noted, is a natural extension of the school’s overall educational philosophy. “This is who we are as a school; there are so many pieces and places in our program wherein students are asked to think about who they are and what matters to them.”

Bags agreed and noted, “We ask students to really consider, thoughtfully, where and how they will spend the next four years. What do they want from their college experience: Big lecture classes? An urban campus? An experience that replicates what they have had here? We then focus on the best fit for each individual based on their vision—the result of reflection and deep thought—and offer guidance.”

The result, reflected in the experiences Community School alumni describe, is a college counseling journey that students say ultimately reflects both their self-awareness and the deep knowledge of counselors and faculty who know them well and understand their priorities. But how does the process—and the end result—feel for Community School students? Here, three alumni describe the college journey from the inside, and with the perspective of distance from the process.

Devon Sherrerd ’14, University of Virginia ’18

Devon Sherrerd ’14  laughed a bit in response to the question of when she thinks the college process began for her—and offers one word: “Early.” She went on, “I think I visited my first college campus in eighth grade. When my parents and I would take family vacations or visit relatives, we would often check out a college campus and take a tour. I think we ultimately visited 18 schools—from University of Washington to Florida State University to Vanderbilt. I think all those visits helped because the more schools I saw, the more tours I took, it became easier to see what was unique at a school, what made it stand out.”

Devon acknowledged that her wide-ranging and long-term search process might not be the norm. “I love school, and I was really excited about the prospect of college, so I definitely jumped in early. It was fun for me.” Initially, every college seemed ideal in some way, she said. “I loved every place I visited initially—they all looked great—and I was all over the map, literally and figuratively, in the search process.” While geographic location wasn’t a major factor, she knew she wanted to study something related to criminology or law, so she initially narrowed her search down based on those programs.

Needless to say, Devon entered into her college counseling sessions with a lot of her own information, having researched and visited quite a few schools. But the guidance and information she received from Bags was essential, she said. “College counseling at Community School is really proactive, focused, and personalized,” she said. “Even though I came in with a list of schools I was interested in and had some information, Bags really helped me dig in and think about what it was about those schools that was really drawing me in—and provided the important details about the process that I needed to apply.”

In fact, it was Bags who recommended that Devon apply early action to University of Virginia—the school she would ultimately choose. “I had been resistant to the idea of UVA because both my parents had gone there and I didn’t want to feel as though I was playing a legacy card; at the same time, I was really drawn to the school and what it offered,” Devon said.

While she acknowledged that aspects of the application process and awaiting decisions were stressful, Devon felt she had put in the time and ultimately created a good list of options. She was accepted early action to UVA, but she held off making a decision until the spring, still unsure of which school would be the right fit. It was when she attended the admitted student days at UVA that she had her “a-ha” moment: “I was standing on the steps of the iconic rotunda at UVA and looking out over the grounds, and I just knew. This was the place. I could see myself on the campus, and, most important, I could identify with the students I saw walking around,” she said.

That instinct played out when she entered UVA as a freshman—or a “first year” according to UVA terminology—and over the almost four years since. Devon found her place academically, feeling well-prepared to manage coursework, and developed meaningful connections with faculty; a passionate equestrian, she joined the UVA Riding Team; and, she opted to pledge a sorority. Elected to Phi Beta Kappa last spring, Devon will graduate in June with a double major in sociology and media studies and a minor in foreign affairs.

Devon’s advice to students just entering into the college search process: “Be honest with yourself and reflect about where you can truly visualize yourself. And, know that you are smart and capable and that you will end up where you’re supposed to be; value the process and value yourself.”

Courtney Hamilton ’09, Pomona College ’13

For Courtney Hamilton, who graduated from Community School in 2009, reflecting on the college application process requires a bit of backtracking; “That feels so long ago,” she said. But the perspective that distance provides offers valuable insight into the long-term impact of that process and the outcome of her choice.

As an Upper School student at Community School, Courtney was a competitive cross country skier and an outdoor enthusiast, loving all the opportunities the Outdoor Program presented. Born and raised in Sun Valley, Courtney’s family’s roots in Idaho run deep, going back several generations. When it came time to apply to colleges, she really wasn’t sure what she was looking for: “The group of schools I applied to was kind of a hodgepodge,” she said. “I applied to Amherst and Dartmouth but also to Pomona College, among others. I really had a lack of vision.”

As she progressed through the process, she increasingly felt that what she could identify was a need to stretch herself and try something new. “I got the idea that I needed to step out of my comfort zone and spend four years doing something really different,” she said. “I wanted to gain a more broad view of the world.”

She chose to enroll at Pomona, and when she arrived as a freshman it was immediately clear she had indeed stepped into a different world. “I remember sitting in my dorm room that first day, after my mom had left, and recognizing that I really didn’t know anyone in a 500-mile radius,” Courtney said. “And I was probably the only Nordic skier on campus.”

While the transition at Pomona presented challenges, Courtney noted it also offered a valuable opportunity for growth. “I was forced to be proactive and reach out to people who didn’t necessarily share my interests and to navigate those relationships,” she said. “I learned a lot about the world.”

Initially heading toward a pre-med degree, Courtney became deeply interested in politics and government courses in her junior year and changed her focus, ultimately graduating with a degree in public policy. Armed with a liberal arts degree, Courtney did not assume that her chosen major would lead to a specific career trajectory. “I chose my degree and my classes based on my desire to learn, not to get a job,” she said. But, as she stepped into her first professional roles, she realized that the subjects she had studied provided an invaluable skill set: “As a public policy major, I had studied large-scale problem solving and how people and governments work and think, individually and as a society; I knew how to find solutions.”

Having travelled after graduation and then spent several years working for a global software company in Ketchum. Today, she’s working to build a business consultancy here in her hometown. In November 2017, she was elected to Ketchum City Council, a position she loves. “This role combines all my experiences and education and allows me to represent my community.”

Courtney’s advice to students entering the college search process: “Be true to yourself and something good will come of it. Embracing who you are and who you want to be will lead you to the right place.” She also recommends considering the big picture, understanding that the “college process” and college itself will come to an end. What then? I would encourage constant reflection. What do I want to be in the world? Where do I want to be? Think about what you want long-term and how you can make that happen.”

Max Tanous ’16, Bowdoin College ’20

Like many high school juniors and seniors entering into the college application process, Max Tanous had some vague ideas about colleges that seemed appealing and places he might want to live, but no clear sense of which schools he should apply to: “I thought I wanted to look at schools in the northeast and in California,” he said, “but beyond that I wasn’t really sure. It wasn’t until I started meeting with Bags and Chauncy that I was able to narrow it down. They both knew a lot about so many different colleges, and they helped me figure out what I wanted and what would be most important to me in a school.”

Bags identified Bowdoin College in Maine fairly early on in the process as a school that would be a good fit. “Bags and [Upper School English faculty member] Elliot Jacobs had both gone to Bowdoin, and, knowing me and my interests really well, they both thought it would be a place I would find a lot of like-minded people but also plenty of diversity of thought and experience among the students,” Max said.

The application process—and waiting for notifications—was stressful, Max said, but not overly so. “I was taking a heavy course load and racing on the cross country ski team, so it felt like a lot, but overall it fell in balance with everything and wasn’t overwhelming.”

When he was accepted at Bowdoin, Max visited the school and toured with a Community School alum, Bryce Ervin ’11, who works in the admissions office there. That visit, and his conversations with Bryce, made up his mind, Max said. “As I toured and met people, it became clear that students were really intellectually curious and had a really diverse range of perspectives. It felt like a really welcoming community, where I could also open new doors.”

Max made the decision to enroll at Bowdoin, propelled by what he said was a “really strong gut feeling that it was the right place,” and the information he gathered while touring and talking with Bags about the school. While the decision-making process was not entirely easy—he was ultimately deciding between Middlebury College, where he had also been accepted, and Bowdoin—he knows he’s in the right place.

Max encourages students engaged in the process now to really try to reflect about how they feel, and avoid solely focusing on a school’s ranking or prestige. “One of the hardest things is to be sure you’re making the decision for the right reasons,” Max noted. “It’s easy to think you need to go to the best or most prestigious school you get into. In retrospect, I think I initially focused too much on applying to schools based on how competitive they are, but in the long run it wasn’t really that important; it’s most important to go somewhere you’ll be happy.”

That approach definitely worked for Max. Now finishing his sophomore year at Bowdoin, he remains totally satisfied with his choice. He is a member of the rugby team—an activity he joined in his first weeks at school and has loved—and plans to major in computer science and minor in physics. “Physics has been an interest since high school, and I became interested in computer science during a class here my freshman year. It really involves a lot of creative problem solving, which really appeals to me.”