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

May 19, 2021

Don’t Mistake Training with Education

Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder, professors at Carleton College, recently wrote a thoughtful opinion piece, Don’t Mistake Training with Education, in which they highlighted the stark differences between these two, often confused, forms of teaching. Although the article was written to demonstrate how diversity training is insufficient for effectively addressing complex issues such as racism, their message has much broader application.

Failure to understand and appreciate the differences between training and education short-changes students, both those who would benefit from post-secondary training, as well as those for whom a college or university education is the more appropriate path.

Khalid and Snyder identify ten points of distinction:

■ Training makes assumptions; education challenges them.
■ Training is packaged; education cannot be contained.
■ Training rewards compliance, education curiosity.
■ Training is having to say something, education having something to say.
■ Training tells you what to think; education teaches you how to think.
■ Training answers questions; education poses them.
■ Training is generic; education all about context.
■ Training simplifies the world; education reveals its complexity.
■ Training promotes conformity, education independence.
■ Training is performative; education is transformative.

Khalid and Snyder write that training should be the preferred approach in many situations, especially when there are clear-cut problems and directly applicable solutions. Students who know they’re interested in such hands-on fields as auto mechanics, culinary arts, fire fighting, medical technologies, or welding, may want to pursue community college, trade school, or apprenticeship training which will equip them for immediate employment. Knowing how to repair the cars we drive and operate the variety of medical devices used to by health care professionals are valuable and necessary skills.

On the other hand, there are students who are interested in challenging their world views, engaging with complex issues, and developing new habits of thought and expression. These hallmarks of education, as identified by Khalid and Snyder, are precisely those of quality liberal arts education. Liberal arts education is less about the information students acquire and more about the habits and skills they develop. It is concerned not only with what is happening today, but also with preparing for a world that is currently unknown.

Futurists tell us that today’s young people are likely to work in jobs that haven’t even been imagined yet. Furthermore, they can expect that their world will be dramatically different from the one we live in now. Students who have the desire and ability to engage in transformative thinking should be encouraged to do so.

Recognizing the differences between training and education, and appreciating the value of each are critical for effectively guiding students and for addressing our current challenges, as well as those that await us.

April 4, 2021

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.
August 15, 2020

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.

July 17, 2020

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.

June 19, 2020

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.

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

Ten Tips for New College First Years

Yesterday’s thoughtful New York Times opinion piece, Overcoming Freshman Fear, by David Kirp, highlights a few of the challenges that some new college students experience during their first year. Feeling like an imposter at a highly selective college is much more common than you might think and anxiety of any sort certainly makes the first year transition more difficult.adult-education-572269_1920

 

Action can help moderate feelings, so what constructive habits can you practice to make your first year as successful and enjoyable as possible? Here are 10 tips to help you make the most of your first year.

  1. Live on campus and keep your dorm room door open.  This is key to making friends, finding commonalities and developing your personal network.
  2. Get to know your professors.  Visit instructors during their office hours. No, you’re not bothering them. Being available to students is the entire reason faculty hold office hours. Introduce yourself, ask a question, inquire about their research.
  3. Take advantage of the resources available to you.  Visit the study skills, tutoring, and writing centers before you actually need them. Scope out the career development center before you’re desperate for a job or summer internship. Seek out reference librarians who can assist you in developing your research skills. And by all means, don’t forget about the counseling center. It’s not uncommon to find first year challenging.
  4. Ask for help.  No one expects you to know all of the answers. If you’ve looked for your own answers and are still unclear or unsure, by all means ask. Waiting too long to ask for support is one of the most common reasons students flounder during their first year.
  5. Manage your time.  You may have been able to pull off As by cramming for exams the night before or by writing single draft papers, but that kind of effort will leave you high and dry in college. Effective time management involves two things: 1) accurately estimating the amount of time required to finish a task and 2) planning and executing a schedule with that time built in.
  6. Get involved.  Join a club, team, or other campus organization. Participating in an activity that connects you to campus and to others who share your interest is one of the surest ways to settle into college.
  7. Stretch.  Stretch your comfort zone and challenge your assumptions. Open yourself to new people, new experiences, new thoughts, and new feelings. Don’t toss everything about the “old” you, just be open to a “bigger and improved” version.
  8. Take care of yourself.  Work hard to establish a new routine that includes healthy food, regular exercise, and sufficient sleep. Managing stress is crucial, so make a habit of doing something you love each day – even if it is only for 15 minutes. When the machinery isn’t working well, everything else is more difficult.
  9. Know why you’re in college.  Sure, you’re going to college to meet new people, have fun, and learn new things, but let’s get real. When it’s all said and done at college graduation, what do you want to have accomplished? If you think about that now, and keep it in mind, you’ll be well on your way to making it happen.
  10. Remember, the saying, “Moderation in all things”.  It’s not exciting advice, but oh so true. Balancing academics with socializing and personal self-care is one of the keys to navigating the first year in college.

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.