Welcome to the College Ahead blog!

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.

Externally Published Articles

  • Destination Maturation
    Julia Surtshin, The Journal of College Admission, Summer 2015
  • Where to Start Your Summer Search for Colleges and Financial Aid
    Brent Huntsburger, The Oregonian, June 2013
  • Reassuring Words About Financial Aid
    Higher Education Consultants Association Newsletter, January 2009.
  • College Consultant Tries to Allay Jitters
    (Interview) The Oregonian, November 2007.
  • Liberal Arts & Professional Education
    Under 25, Spring 2002.
  • How to Write That College Essay
    Under 25, Winter 1991.

Recent Posts

September 7, 2016

Follow Your Interests to Find the Right College

Follow your interestsA new college guidebook, Follow Your Interests to Find the Right College, by Janet and Paul Marthers, offers students a new way to look for college options. This book groups colleges thematically: by college type and areas of study.   College Types Explained   Other than differences in size and cost, many students don’t understand the distinctions between small liberal arts colleges and large universities. This book effectively highlights the characteristics, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of private liberal arts colleges, public colleges, and flagship research universities, as well as the service academies, technical schools, single-sex institutions, historically black colleges and universities, hispanic-serving institutions, and native american colleges and universities. The Marthers have included a section on Canadian institutions and another focusing on faith, which includes Catholic colleges, Christian colleges, colleges with Jewish heritage, and Quaker colleges.   Search by Major or Area of Interest   Perhaps the biggest benefit of this guide is that students whose passions are well in place, can search for schools based on their interests. Sections include: Environmental Studies; Business; International Relations and Public Policy; Journalism, Communications, and Creative Writing; Music; Performing Arts; Art, Architecture, Design and Film; and Health Professions. Groupings contain both names of colleges and meaningful college profiles with narratives focusing on the college grouping.   This book is not a replacement for the well-known comprehensive standards, but is an interesting and useful addition, especially for students seeking options in one of the included niches. The Marthers have made a useful contribution to the college guidebook arena. Follow Your Interest to Find the Right College is available from Amazon and Wheatmark Publishing.

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.

Articles

Recent Posts

Essential Wisdom from An Expert

Courtesy of Dr. Steven R. Antonoff & Independent Educational Consultants Association

Dr. Antonoff is a nationally known expert in the field of independent college consulting, the author of several books, and a close professional colleague. I am continually impressed by the scope of his knowledge and the wisdom of his perspective. Students and parents alike can benefit from his experience.

Here are several “golden nuggets” that I hope you all will consider carefully, whether you’re about to begin or are in the midst of the college search and admission process:

  • Picking a college is not just about what you’ll do when you graduate; instead, it’s about the four years you spend there and the experiences you accumulate.
  • The value of a college education is determined not by the name of the institution on your diploma but by whether you choose to take advantage of the resources available to you.
  • The college or university that can provide you with a happy and fulfilling four years is not limited to just one school or even one group of schools.
  • Your college search should focus more on educational aspects and less on admission concerns.
  • Don’t panic if you’re uncertain of your major; consider yourself not “undeclared” but rather “multi-interested.”
  • Never lose sight of the following statistic: 75 percent of colleges accept over 75 percent of applicants.
  • Always remember you are more than your test scores, and the SAT and ACT are not intelligence tests.
  • The more you look for fit and match (rather than name or prestige), the less stress you’ll feel and the fewer tears you’ll shed.
  • You have more than 100 truly elite colleges in the United States to choose from.
  • Your grit, passion, and perseverance will impact your college experience and success in life far more than your IQ, class rank, or popularity in high school and college do.

Test Optional: Is It Really? What Else You Should Know

When the COVID-19 pandemic caused the spring administrations of the ACT and SAT to be cancelled, many colleges declared that they would become “test optional”. Plans ranged from test optional for students applying for the Class of 2021 only, to test optional as a complete change in policy for the foreseeable future.

But test optional? Just skip testing entirely? Could it be that easy? Wouldn’t it be better to have test scores, especially good ones? A few months ago most people, myself included, advised many students to “stay the course” and try to test in the fall. But now as August test sites close, test dates are cancelled, and stress levels mount, it’s time to rethink.

If you’re in the Class of 2022 or later, unless you’re already registered for one of the exams, put concrete plans for testing on the back burner for now.

Is Optional Really Optional?

The short answer is, YES. Just recently the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) released a statement by admission officers just under 500 colleges “affirm[ing] that they will not penalize students for the absence of a standardized test score. Together, [they] strongly endorse a student-centered, holistic approach to admission that will not disadvantage any student without a test score.” Holistic review has been around for a long time and college admission officers are skilled at evaluating applicants along these lines.

Test Optional ≠ Test Blind

Test optional and test blind are two different policies. Under the first, students who don’t have scores won’t be disadvantaged when their applications are reviewed, but those who do submit scores will have them considered. Under the second policy, no test scores will be part of the review process.

For colleges that are test optional but not test blind, it’s not completely clear how they plan to evaluate applicants who submit scores without disadvantaging those who don’t. One option would be to group score submitters into one pool and those who don’t submit scores into a separate pool and then make decisions accordingly. Because admission officers haven’t explained their plans, asking questions might be your best bet.

So, should I still try to test?

Like so many other things in college admissions, “It depends”. The short answer is that you should submit test scores if you believe they will strengthen your application.

That being said, the decision to test or not is highly individual, and while it’s beyond the scope of this post to give comprehensive advice about whether to test or not, but here are some questions to consider:

  1. Have ALL of the schools on your short list adopted test optional policies? If not, this could be the deciding factor.
  2. Is testing available in a convenient location? Traveling a long distance or to an unfamiliar location could add unnecessary pressure to an already stressful situation.
  3. Do public health conditions allow you to feel comfortable about being in the testing situation? Although both the ACT and the College Board have policies and procedures in place for test sites, masks are not being required and there have been reports of less than ideal circumstances.
  4. What is your testing history? Are you a strong standardized test taker? Have you taken a diagnostic test that predicts a strong score that would be commensurate with your grades?
  5. To what extent have you prepped for the exam? If you haven’t prepped yet, do you have enough time to do the work to earn a score that will boost your application. If you’ve already started prepping, can you keep up that level of readiness until you actually test? Retesting will be unlikely.
  6. How much time do you have? Time is not unlimited. Are you better off spending time prepping for one of the tests or devoting it to preparing and refining your applications and essays?
  7. How are your other academic credentials? If you have a strong high school transcript with rigor and strong grades you might make a different decision than if you haven’t really applied yourself during high school, are a strong tester and have been counting on your test scores to boost your application.

As with many issues during this time of COVID, circumstances change constantly. With all the uncertainty swirling around, it’s important to keep in mind that the number one priority should always be students’ mental and emotional well-being. There is already more than enough stress to go around. This just might be the right time to choose to apply to colleges test-optional.

Be well.

Turning the College Admissions Process on Its Head

If you’re like most parents, you want your student to navigate the college admission process with curiosity, confidence, and optimism. That’s a tall order in the best of times, and as we all know, these are not necessarily the best (or easiest) of times. So what’s a parent to do?

One thing you can do from the comfort of your own, physically distanced space, is read The College Labyrinth: A Mindful Admissions Approach, by Dr. Erin Avery, CEP. A deceivingly slim volume, this read packs a decidedly big punch.

Avery demonstrates her understanding of teenage angst and the unspoken, frequently unrelenting, pressure felt by college-bound teens. Avery’s goal is to define the college search process “in terms of what is best for the student by keeping students centered, rooted in perceptions of self- worth and self-identity in order to emerge from this process a more fully formed adult prepared to embrace the often circuitous pathway of life…” (p. 13). She wants students to view the college search and admission process as a “pilgrimage, a quasi-sacred journey… within which [they] can reflect and explore rather than merely engaging in a win/lose task…” (p. 43).

Turn the College Admission Process on Its Head

In other words, Avery is advocating turning the entire college admission process on it’s head! How’s that for a radical thought?! Rather than students focusing on what credentials they need in order to be admitted to the colleges of their choice, she’d prefer that students start with who they are and what they want, along with thoughts of where they might like to go in life, and only then research colleges to determine how effectively they will support those goals and dreams.

Want to join the revolution? Become and stay student-centered. Steer clear of the US News and World Report college rankings that will hit newsstands on September 9. Step away from the focus on “name brand” that’s perpetuated by the media. Where your teen attends college is not a referendum on either their worth as a student or on your success as a parent. So forget about the car decal cachet competition.

Encourage your teen to start with what they know. Suggest that they begin by identifying their strengths, challenges, preferences, and goals. Have them reflect on their learning styles, social preferences, and extracurricular interests, as well as their goals and expectations for college. Using these as the starting point will help them determine the types of environments in which they’ll thrive and will aid them in maintaining a sense of personal efficacy and control.

Why It’s So Hard

There are umpteen factors at play that make the college search process fraught with uncertainty. Perhaps one of the most salient is Avery’s concept of liminality – of being in between and without the security of structure. Adolescence is liminal, in that it’s a period between childhood and adult-hood with more chaos than structure or order. Avery says, “Applicants to college are journeyers through liminal territory, standing in the doorway of their current life stage and looking outward into the wider world and as such they constitute a nomadic tribe searching and eagerly awaiting their arrival on firm ground…” (p. 26). Our teen nomads are engaged in a journey or quest (think Don Quixote) in which they feel they have little control.

What Parents Can Do

Provide grounding ballast for your teen. Teens, by their very nature, lack the perspective that you, as an adult, have. You know your teen’s strengths and their challenges. Reiterate their strengths, especially when they seem to feel that they don’t measure up. Help them brainstorm for ways to cope with and overcome their challenges. Helping them stay balanced is perhaps the most significant thing you can do for your teen.

Empathize with your teen. If you’re frustrated by your teen’s procrastination, consider this: people always procrastinate for a reason. Why is your teen putting off prepping for the SAT/ACT? Why do they sidestep writing their college application essays? Think about the uncertainty of Avery’s liminality. Contemplate the feeling of futility your teen may be experiencing that no matter how much test prep they do, there’s no guarantee that they’ll get the score that will open doors or that no essay they write will be exceptionally noteworthy. Imagine the anxiety of believing that their future rests in the hands of college admission officers who don’t know them from Adam or Eve?

Be your teen’s cheerleader. We all need them now and then. The process of presenting their academic career for review likely has your teen feeling judged. When your teen’s confidence lags, bring out the pom poms – no, not literally, of course. Be the carrier of your teen’s confidence until they’re ready for it back again. And rest assured, they will be. Just wait until those college acceptance letters come rolling in.

The College Labyrinth contains considerable wisdom. The messages are deep, complex, and far beyond the scope of this post. You may find this seemingly accessible book a challenging read, as it is packed with numerous references to authors, developmental psychologists, philosophers, and theologians. The repeated references to religious symbols, figures and concepts can be off-putting for those with a secular mindset. However, approach this book with an open mind and you’ll discover quite a few precious nuggets that will help you and your teen navigate the college search and admission process with your sanity intact.

Hidden Treasure: The Best College Research Tool You’ve Never Heard Of

In a previous blog post I wrote that researching colleges is like peeling onions. There are many layers to examine. You start by using readily available resources and then, step-by-step, move to an increasingly more intimate understanding of a school’s core nature by visiting and talking with people. Unfortunately, options for visiting colleges are slim to nonexistent during this Summer of COVID 19, which leaves many students and their parents wondering how to get “up close and personal” with the colleges on their lists.

Since writing that post, I’ve discovered a wonderful new resource that can help you make an end run around this nasty virus. Enter the “virtual college tour”. Design your own virtual college road trip with the help of StriveScan, a company that provides scanning services for college fairs. StriveScan has helped fill a need by hosting a huge library of video recordings on its website, enabling to you “visit” multiple colleges from the comfort of your own home. At www.strivescan.com/virtual/recordings/ you can learn about a wide range of colleges from Augustana College in Illinois to York College of Pennsylvania. Colleges you may be more familiar with include include Whittier College, the University of Puget Sound, the University of Redlands, and Washington University in St. Louis.

Think of these approximately 45 minute recordings as private Info Sessions, minus the Q&A. Although not quite like being on campus in person, these recordings can give you both valuable information and a sense of college culture. They have the added advantage in that you can watch them at your leisure, rather than by traveling to two or three colleges in a single day, leaving you exhausted, dazed, and often confused about what you saw where.

StriveScan’s recordings go far beyond college-specific videos. For those of you just beginning your college search, the site has numerous videos with titles such as: Finding Your College Fit, Being Undecided at a Large Public Research University, How to Utilize your College Admissions Counselor, College Without the Sticker Shock, and the Best Questions to Ask Admission Counselors. To take full advantage of what StriveScan provides on this site, browse the recordings. This site is truly one of the best kept secrets in the college research toolbox.

Getting to know colleges and their individual cultures during the time of COVID 19 requires that you be creative, innovative, and persistent. These are qualities that colleges want to see in applicants. So, think carefully about what YOU want to know about colleges, get off the beaten path, demonstrate your ingenuity, and enjoy the treasure hunt.

How To Research Colleges While Campuses Are Closed

As a recent guest on The College Financial Lady’s Facebook Live series, Ask The Experts, I was called upon to address this topic. This is drawn from my remarks.

Obviously this is of huge concern because finding good college “matches” is key to college success and “match” is based on the coming together of student priorities and institutional offering.

The current stay at home orders, while inconvenient, and by this time probably unpleasant, offer a unique opportunity for you to engage in a very important first step to your college search: thoughtful and focused self-reflection. If you aren’t clear about what you want and need in your college experience, it is impossible to find a great match.

Establish your own list of desired characteristics for the college you attend. These will become the criteria for researching and evaluating colleges. The most effective lists are comprehensive and include:

Academic Factors: intellectual environment, degree requirements, major offerings, learning/teaching style, academic advising services, class size, quality markers.

Personal Factors: institutional size, type of location, residential life, student diversity, extracurricular interests, campus culture, Greek Life, and socio-political environment, among others.

Family Parameters: distance from home, travel logistics, access to public transportation, and affordability.

These are the things that are important to you and should be the factors to focus on while researching college options.

Researching colleges is like peeling onions. There are many layers. The deeper you go the closer you get to understanding the core of an institution.

COVID-19 can’t stop you from peeling the outside & middle of the onion.

Learn everything you can about colleges from a distance. Colleges want students who are resourceful and participate in their own learning. Now’s the time to breakout your research skills. Consult guidebooks, websites, and articles. Don’t limit yourself to institutional websites, Wikipedia, and the obvious suspects: Big Future, College Express and the like. Dig deeper.

Let your criteria direct your search. If you’re looking for engineering programs, visit the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology website and see where that takes you. Budding journalist? Visit the Associated Collegiate Press website to learn about college newspapers. If you’re a young woman, check out the Women’s College Coalition. Data geeks, College Navigator may be the answer to your dreams, but if you’re wanting to really understand which colleges offer quality student engagement, you’ll want to visit the National Survey of Student Engagement website.

By expanding your research beyond the obvious, you enhance your understanding by including a diversity of perspectives. Not only do you get a fuller understanding of the institution you’re researching, but you also demonstrate you’ve done your homework when you do connect with college admission officers on a personal level.

Connect in spite of COVID-19.

Colleges and universities are as concerned about this distancing as you are. They’re working hard to offer robust virtual offerings. Most college websites prominently feature virtual info sessions and campus tours either from their homepages or from their admission websites. That’s not all. Type the name of any college into the YouTube search box and you’ll see a plentitude of options from students sharing their activities and experiences, to professors discussing topics of current interest, admission officers offering suggestions about applying, and sports teams highlighting their exploits. Make thoughtful use of these and you’re on your way to great college matches.

Check out college newspapers and pay attention to how institutions are responding and communicating with students regarding the current COVID-19 situation. These are key to understanding institutional priorities.

Contact the admissions officer who handles your region/high school. This person is not only a valuable resource who can connect you to a wealth of information and campus personnel, but also typically has a significant impact on furthering your application for admission. To put your best foot forward, make sure you’ve done your homework and, have a significant reason for reaching out.

And now for an end run around COVID-19.

Current restrictions are keeping you from campus tours, visits with coaches and sports teams, and overnights in residence halls, but they won’t last forever. Until large gatherings are allowed and travel is easy, you’re going to need to be creative.

Think about your ideal campus visit. If you were ruler of the world, what would you see, what would you do, who would you meet? Use your brainstorming to direct your subsequent connections. Reach out to faculty members, coaches, financial aid officers, career development specialists – any college staff member who might further your understanding of the institution. If you can’t find these people online using campus directories, ask your admission officer to connect you. The same goes connecting with students from your hometown, athletes, orchestra members, club officers, Greek Life ambassadors, or students from any group that interests you. Lastly, request introductions to college alumni who are additional sources of information and perspective.

No two students’ college research will look the same. Your research should be directed by your priorities. COVID-19 may be turning your college search on its head, but it just might make for more thoughtful and effective “matches”.