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Inside the College Process: Big Takeaways from the W+H Young Alumni Panel

Inside the College Process: Big Takeaways from the W+H Young Alumni Panel
Sarah Honan

Last week, The Wardlaw+Hartridge School hosted its Annual Young Alumni Panel, featuring recent graduates from W-H, including: Leila Hernandez-Webster ‘21 (Connecticut College), Sydney Johnson '20 (Princeton University), Brian Machado '21 (University of Connecticut), Jessie Ni '21 (Emory University), Neil Shah '21 (Brown University) and Mark Zhang '21 (University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign). Over the course of an hour these students shared their reflections about the college process, advice for our current juniors, seniors and parents, and insights into the unique academic and student life experience at each institution. 

While the students on the panel represented a wide variety of backgrounds, academic and extracurricular interests, and lived experiences - a demonstration of our community’s compelling diversity - there were some central themes that rang true for all students that I think are worth highlighting here:

Knowing yourself and your priorities is critical to success in the college process. When asked if they were happy with their college decision, the answer from each of our panelists was a resounding: Yes! The common thread: each panelist was able to articulate exactly what they were looking for in a college experience and how their chosen school met that need. For Mark, it was a strong and well-resourced Computer Science program; for Jessie, it was a Core Curriculum that would allow her to explore her myriad interests before declaring a major; for Brian, it was attending a big sports school with a lot of spirit and a strong engineering program. Identifying these different interests and priorities allowed each student to build a college list uniquely suited to them. This is something we constantly emphasize to students and families in College Counseling - there is no “right college” (full stop), there is only the right college for you. 

Visiting - in-person or virtually - can be a powerful way to learn how you really feel about a school. When asked how she knew Princeton was the place she wanted to be, Sydney (SJ) fondly reflected that it was a gut feeling she got the moment she stepped foot on campus. Brian echoed this same feeling when he described his Admitted Students Day at UConn. While not all students will enjoy the “aha” moment that SJ and Brian described, many will, and the only way to know is to visit. College visits have understandably been a pain point for many students and families in the wake of COVID-19, with campuses limiting in-person opportunities. However, virtual visits and tours remain a compelling way for students to learn more about schools on their list. Reflecting on her college search, Jessie acknowledged that while she was not able to visit any of the schools on her list in person, she was still able to experience “love at first sight” when she participated in Emory’s virtual tour and saw the Student Center - her favorite spot on campus to this day. 

Carving out time for college application work and reflection is essential in senior year. Of all the students on the panel, Neil had perhaps the most robust college list, stemming from his decision to pursue both accelerated BA/MD and traditional pre-med programs. As he described the pieces of the application process for each of his schools - researching the programs, attending virtual events, preparing for and completing interviews, crafting supplemental essays, and much more - it became clear to students in the audience that the college process is a major endeavor (some might even call in a part-time job!). The keys to success? Organization and starting early. This is why we focus so strongly on building a solid, well-balanced college list in junior year to help students to get that head start over the summer and early in the fall. Similarly, Leila talked about the importance of building in time for reflection along the way - both in crafting your college list and making your final college decision. Again, the sooner you submit those applications and receive your decisions, the more time you will have to schedule Admitted Student Visits at each of your schools and ask the questions essential for making the right college decision for you. 

Parents can play a critical (supporting) role. Finally, when asked what parents can do to help their students navigate this process, all of our panelists emphasized the importance of letting students be the ones in the driver’s seat. While parents (and counselors for that matter!) may have very strong opinions about which schools seem like the “right” places for their students, at the end of the day the decision about where to apply and where to attend has to belong to the student. As adults and partners in this process, our role is to help students reflect on their priorities; listen as they grapple with the process of self-actualization and growing up; expose them to options and opportunities; and, most importantly, celebrate each victory - every application submitted, every acceptance received - regardless of the college name attached to it. Knowing that their parents, teachers and counselors are proud of them for who they are, not where they go, is perhaps the greatest gift we can give our students.