Welcome to the College Ahead blog!

Julia Surtshin

I'm Julia, a certified college counselor specializing in college planning, preparation, search and admissions. Welcome to my blog. For more than 12 years, I wrote a newspaper column titled College Corner. This blog continues that tradition. I’ve been an independent college counselor for more than 20 years. That means I’ve worked with dozens of students and I’ve seen the successful resolution of dozens of different challenges. Read more about my background here.


First and foremost, this blog is about you! If you want to see a topic addressed here, or if you have a question about college selection or application, feel free to email me. I’ll do my best to answer it, or if necessary, find someone who can.


My professional motto is “Navigating the college search and admissions process with confidence and optimism.” I want you to approach this transition enthusiastically and I’m here to help you do that.


Recent Posts

“Visit” Multiple Colleges in a Single Afternoon!!

No, I’m not talking about supersonic travel, but rather fall college fairs sponsored by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (www.nacacnet.org) where you can speak directly with admission professionals from dozens of colleges nationwide.       

Attending a college fair should be helpful, and leave you feeling energized, optimistic and confident about your future. However, with so many people and so much going on, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and exhausted before you accomplish much. Whether you’re a sophomore or junior just beginning your college search, or a senior who is putting the final touches on your college list, pre-fair preparation is key.

Before the Fair

1. Pre-register at www.gotomyncf.com. Print your barcoded ID and bring it to the event.
2. Decide what you want to accomplish by attending the fair.


1. Use the fair to connect with colleges to which you’re planning to apply.
2. Determine a few things you don’t know about those schools and come to the fair prepared    with thoughtful questions.

Junior & Sophomores

Ask yourself some questions to help you identify 5-10 colleges that you’ll want to visit at the fair.

1. What do you want to get from your college experience.
2. What factors describe the best learning environment for you?
3. How much academic pressure helps you achieve you best?
4. What academic programs & extracurricular activities would you like to participate in at college?

Time at the fair is limited, so decide on a few questions that are pertinent to you.

At the Fair

1. Use the college locator handout to determine which college booths you’ll visit.
2. Determine which information sessions you’ll attend and what times they’re offered.
3. Take notes–waiting until you get home is a mistake.
4. Get the names and contact information of people you meet.
5. Consider how representatives interact with you. Are they friendly? What do they communicate about their colleges?


1. If at all possible, let your teens take the lead about how to spend your time.
2. Refrain from speaking for your teens.
3. If you have questions for college representatives, go ahead and ask them.
4. Consider splitting off from your teens for at least part of the time. This will allow you to attend a financial aid presentation and your high schoolers to explore on their own.

Questions to Ask College Fair Representatives as You Start Your College Search

Ask open-ended questions which require more than a yes or no response.

 Tell me about ____ College.
 I’m interested in ___. What can you tell me about this program at your school?
 What makes your college unique?
 What is your college best-known for?
 What do you like best about your college?
 If you could change anything at your college, what would it be? Why?


Many college fairs have counselors as well as financial aid and testing professionals whose sole reason for being there is to support you. If you have questions or are unsure about how to make the best use of your time, be sure to meet with them.




The Major Myth

The Myth

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times, “I don’t know what I want to study in college and so how can I figure out where to go to college?

The belief that you need to know what you’re going to major in during college in order to thoughtfully select schools to apply to is perhaps one of the most prevalent and damaging myths surrounding the college application process. Although it’s true that some students need to decide on a major prior to applying to college, particularly those interested in specialized subjects such as architecture, engineering, or nursing, the vast majority of college applicants don’t need to have chosen a major in order to engage in a thoughtful college search.

So, What’s the Reality?

When college applicants are asked to identify their desired major or course of study, they list “Undeclared” or “Undecided” more commonly than anything else. And even when students do enter college with a major in mind, an estimated 75 percent change their major at least once before graduation. Finally, while students may agonize over their choice of major, many sources including The Washington Post, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and the Census Bureau report that the vast majority of college graduates work in jobs unrelated to their major.

What to Do?

So, if choice of major isn’t the best way to go or only way to select colleges to apply to, what academic factors should guide your choices? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Are you a visual, aural or tactile learner? Is your favorite class lecture style, discussion based or hands on? Each of these have implications for the types of schools and classes that would best meet your needs.
  • Do you prefer to work independently or in groups of students?
  • How much does your relationship with your teachers impact your performance? Many students report that they do much better in classes where they like the teacher and the teacher knows them. If this is you, keep it in mind. If your introductory biology class has 600 students, it will be next to impossible to develop a relationship with the instructor.
  • How assertive are you? How comfortable are you with seeking support? Academic advising and support systems vary widely by institution. Know your own style and seek colleges that will foster your success.
  • How well do you manage time? Are you a “quick” study? How you answer these questions might suggest whether you’d be happier at colleges with quarter system calendars versus those with semester systems. Keep in mind that a few colleges offer alternative calendars such as a block calendar.
  • How do you prefer to demonstrate what you know? Objective tests and term papers are very different ways of demonstrating knowledge. Class size impacts how you will be evaluated.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but one to help you begin thinking about yourself and what kind of student you are. Understanding yourself, your strengths and your challenges are key to choosing colleges that will help you not only succeed, but also thrive.

Calling All Seniors: How You Can Boost Your Chances of Admission!

With just a few short weeks before college applications are due, using your time wisely to make the biggest impact on your applications is critical. By fall of your senior year, much of what goes into an application portfolio is largely “in the bag.” Your GPA is, for the most part, set, as is your record of extracurricular activities. Your teachers know you and you can’t, at this point, significantly influence what they might write in their letters of recommendation. But you do still have opportunities to boost the likelihood of being admitted to the colleges that interest you.

Everyone likes to be liked, right? Yep, it’s a no-brainer. But, what’s that go to do with applying to college?

Well, colleges want to be liked, just as you do. Yes, it makes them “feel” good (okay, I know colleges can’t actually feel), but this is not just about vanity. The more a student engages with a college, the more confident admissions officers can be about that student’s likelihood of enrolling. If you follow college rankings or are a statistics geek, you’ve heard the term “yield”. Yield is the percentage of students accepted by a college who in turn, “accept” the college by enrolling. Yield is one factor that goes into college rankings. Yield information is used to inform a wide range of decisions including how many students to admit, how many to wait list, how to use the wait list, and how to allocate and use resources. Consequently, yield is critical to college admissions officers. So, it should go as no surprise that students who “show the love” may increase their chance of acceptance.

It’s important to stress that, more than anything else, you must be genuine. This is NOT about “kissing up” to colleges, but rather, authentically engaging with them. Admissions officers are experts at sniffing out insincerity.

And this is not just about the colleges either. From your perspective, the more you sincerely engage a college, the more you’ll know about how closely it matches what you’re seeking in the college you attend.

Demonstrated Interest

My colleagues and I call this engagement “Demonstrated Interest”. Approximately 50% of the colleges responding to the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s Admission Trends Survey www.nacacnet.org/news–publications/publications/state-of-college-admission/ report that Demonstrated Interested is of Considerable or Moderate importance in making their decisions.

So, how do you demonstrate interest?

Ways to Demonstrate Interest

1. Request additional information after looking at the website.
2. Engage your admissions counselor in a meaningful “conversation”. Identify the admissions officer      who handles your geographic area or high school and ask him/her a couple of significant                    questions. Genuinely endeavor to learn more about the institution than is available through online      resources.

3. Open emails from the college and, if appropriate, forward to your parents.
4. Attend a regional information session.
6. Visit the booth at a college fair.
5. Visit the campus.
7. Request an interview.
8. Write a genuine “Why College X” statement.
9. Ask to be put in touch with a current student to get more of his/her perspective.
10. Supply all requested and recommended information and materials.
11. Write thank you note.
12. Apply early.

Some Words of Caution


1. Keep up a constant dialogue with an admissions officer. He/she is extremely busy and you don’t        want to become thought of as a nuisance.
2. Ask questions whose answers are available online or in print.
3. Ignore directions, most typically by sending materials that are not requested or recommended.
4. Behave inappropriately. Be friendly and put your best foot forward. Applying to college is                    important business.

You’re in the home stretch. Keep positive, focused, and submit your applications before the last minute.


TIP: The PSAT is coming up. Doing a little prep beforehand will help you do as well as possible.


Gathering The Team: Students, Parents, School-Based Counselors & Independent College Consultants Working Together

As the new academic year gets underway, now is the time to refocus on how best to meet our goals and aspirations. College-bound high school students, their parents, school- based counselors, and independent college consultants all have at least one goal in common: to have students gain admission to several colleges that meet their academic, personal, and financial needs and preferences. Most of us would agree that having all parties on the same page and cooperating is likely to be the most successful approach.

So, how do we accomplish this?

Here are some thoughts about “Best Practices”.

Students With Both School Counselors and Independent College Counselors

If you’re a student who has both a school counselor and an independent guiding you through the college search and admission process, please…

* Understand that one does not replace the other. These two professionals have different perspectives, different pressures, and different roles. There is a great deal of variation as to how each will assist you. Be sure that you understand how each can support you, respect their different roles, and interact with each accordingly.

School Based Counselors

Are experts on school curriculum.
Understand you in context of your peers.
May/may not suggest colleges they believe will be good fits.
Write recommendations.
Likely will not have time to support individual applications.

Independent College Counselors

Will suggest colleges with probability of good fit.
May facilitate college research.
Won’t recommend you to colleges.
Guide applications.
Assist with final decision making.

* Be both tactful and respectful when letting your school counselor know that you’re working with an independent counselor.

* Assume responsibility for your own college search and pay close attention to the information, expectations, resources, and deadlines that each counselor has made available.



If you’ve hired an independent college consultant to help you and your teen navigate the college search process, please…

* Like your teen, understand and respect the different roles, perspectives, and responsibilities of each counselor and interact with each accordingly.

* When relaying information or suggestions from one counselor to the other, be mindful that counselors want to collaborate, not be adversarial.

* Support your teen in taking charge of his/her own college search.


School-based Counselors

Whether you’re in a large public or small private school, if you know (or think) that one of your students is (may be) using an independent college counselor, please:

* Clarify any uncertainty.

* Understand that independents recognize the pressures you face and know that you’re working hard to meet the needs of students.

* Know that reputable independent consultants respect your perspective and want to collaborate with you, not replace you.

* Recognize that what a student has relayed from an independent likely has been “filtered” either intentionally or unintentionally and may not be what the independent actually said.

* When in question about an independent, reach out and contact him/her. We welcome partnering with you and, as long as we have permission from our students and their parents, we’re happy to discuss them with you.

* Get to know the independent college counselors in your area, either by participating with them in local professional development activities, or by inviting them to meet with your department.


Independent College Consultants

Most of our students have school-based counselors and it is their best interests that we work constructively together. Please:

* Understand that school-based counselors frequently have a wide range of responsibilities and depending on their school size, hundreds of students in their caseload. College counseling may be only one small part of their job.

* Explain to your client families the different roles of school counselors and independents and emphasize that one does not replace the other.

* Ask your client families to sign information release consents and reach out to their school-based counselors in a respectful and meaningful way.

* If given permission to do so, contact school counselors. Ask how you can work with them most effectively and what, if anything, they would like from you.

* Support the policies and procedures that school counseling departments have in place to regarding curricula, recommendations, and transcript requests.


For further thoughts about counselors as team players, see https://www.nacacnet.org/news–publications/publications/journal-of-college-admission/how-iecs-fit-into-the-counseling-puzzle/


Here’s to a new school year! Cheers everyone.










From Home Education to Higher Education

From Home Education to Higher Education by Lori Dunlap
Book Review


Education continues to evolve and the number of students who are homeschooled continues to grow. Here are my thoughts on one “just off the press” resource that recently caught my attention.


From Home Education to Higher Education is a short, very accessible and substantially researched book. Dunlap has two goals: 1) to introduce and explain homeschooling to admissions personnel and counselors and 2) to provide homeschooling parents with guidance about how to demonstrate their children’s academic achievements.


Dunlap, a homeschooling mother and former Director of MBA Career Development at the University of Arizona, devotes most of her book to her first goal, and herein lies the strength of this slim volume. Dunlap has made considerable effort to debunking common myths about homeschoolers, documenting home schooled students’ preparation for college and their college successes. For educators and others wanting to understand the wide range of homeschooling experiences, examine the myths surrounding homeschooling, and become familiar with some of the research regarding homeschoolers’ academic outcomes, this book is a great place to begin.


Chapter Six addresses how post-secondary institutions view homeschoolers and how they’ve adapted their application review processes to accommodate homeschooled applicants. The book’s last chapter provides recommendations about what colleges and universities can do to increase their homeschooled populations.


Dunlap has done a marvelous job of shedding light on the world of homeschooling and how post-secondary institutions might adapt to this growing population. She devotes less attention to detailing and supporting the legitimate needs of colleges and universities to homeschooling families, and as such, does not accomplish her second goal quite as thoroughly as she has her first.


From Home Education to Higher Education opened my eyes. It taught me a lot about the world of homeschooling and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to better understand the homeschooling experience.


For more information about Lori Dunlap and her views on homeschooling visit https://teachyourown.org.