Understanding the College Admissions Process
The search for the perfect university is a delicate dance between students and parents.
Zoey Bonitatibus, a senior at St. Mark's High School, with her dad Kris, a student counselor at the school.//Photography by Leslie Barbaro
It’s a cool but sunny Monday morning in Newark in early December. Most of the leaves have fallen along South College Avenue as University of Delaware students, back from Thanksgiving break, rush to classes, patiently waiting at each crosswalk for the light to change.
Inside a small, Federal-style brick building across the street from the Morris Library, I join a group of about 40 high school students and parents filing into a simulated classroom at the college’s visitors’ center. Inside, a video loop is playing on an elevated screen, giving the newcomers information about the university’s 275-year history and what life on campus is like in 2018.
It looks about half-and-half as to whether each student has brought one or both parents, and parents and students are both dressed casually for the day. In a few minutes, we will be separated into three smaller groups, each led by two current Delaware students who will take us on an exhausting, three-hour walking tour of dorms and dining halls, libraries and classrooms, recreational facilities and student centers, quads and campus landmarks. Along the way, the visitors will ask the cheerful guides dozen of questions about campus life and their respective academic and social interests. Not surprisingly, parents will do most of the asking.
But now, as the clock ticks just past 9 a.m., a young UD alumnus walks to the front of the room and begins explaining to us how the tours will work and asking a few game show-style questions to get everyone warmed up.
Meanwhile, an hour’s drive south in Dover, the same process is being repeated at Wesley College, if on a smaller scale. After all, Wesley’s 1,500-student body is about 12 times smaller than Delaware’s almost 19,000 undergraduate students. “We do a lot of proactive outreach, visiting high schools mainly in the Mid-Atlantic region,” says Christopher Jester, associate director of admissions at Wesley. “We have standard visits Monday through Friday, and we try to limit campus tours to no more than four families at a time.” Similarly the visits are shorter, only an hour, as the Wesley campus is smaller, followed by a Q&A session.
But whether the college is large or small, local or far away, big city or rural, thousands of Delaware students annually are making some of the most important journeys of their lives, some that may start as early as their freshman year and slated to end no later than May 1 of their senior year—National Decision Day for college admissions. In between, they will each log hundreds, maybe even thousands, of miles with one or both parents—journeys they will remember always for their fun and their stress, arguments and debriefings, even times when everything seems to run together, temporarily forgetting what they just experienced and where they experienced it.
THE SEARCH CONTINUES
12 TIPS FOR THE ROAD
1. During the student’s freshman and sophomore years, start making a list of potential colleges to visit, and don’t hesitate to change it frequently. Be prepared to start visits no later than second semester of a student’s junior year.
2. It’s important that the student be in charge of planning and research. Let parents handle travel logistics.
3. Be efficient, but don’t cram too many visits into one trip—they’ll all run together.
4. Once the colleges to be visited have been selected, the three most important things are (a) plan questions in advance, (b) take good notes during the tours and (c) debrief immediately after the tour—and take notes on that as well.
5. Take a look at the community around the campus, talk to passing students if you have a chance, pay special attention to areas of interest and ask yourself—“Can I see myself living here?”
6. Don’t fall in love with a college just because you love your guide—whom you’ll probably never see again.
7. If possible, set up an appointment with your school’s college counselor to discuss what you’ve seen and heard on your visits; having parents come along isn’t a bad idea.
8. Don’t make a decision based on a summer visit or an open house—they are good informational exercises, but you won’t get a chance to feel the real campus vibe.
9. When looking at colleges, don’t oversell your capabilities or undersell them. Pick a “reach” school and a “safe” school.
10. Similarly, don’t be scared away from a famous college just because of finances. Once accepted, you can find out if there is scholarship money to help make it more affordable.
11. When you’ve narrowed your choices to two or three finalists, try to make second visits just to be sure.
12. Discuss the pros and cons of applying for early admission.
As Thanksgiving passes, and Christmas quickly approaches, two seniors at St. Mark’s High School, located midway between Wilmington and Newark, are looking at colleges. Their initial campus visits have been completed, most applications have been sent out, and the wait is under way to see which colleges have accepted them, and what decisions that might entail.
Jennifer Miley, petite and peppy, who plans a career in business but is also interested in volleyball and cheerleading, has just returned to her family’s home in Bear on a Tuesday evening about the same time that her parents, Yvonne and Brian, arrive from work. “I saw the letter first, and I knew it was good news,” Brian, an enthusiastic and involved parent, tells me “because it said ‘accepted’ on the envelope.” Everyone is upbeat and excited. Even the three Miley cats seem to sense the mood, as the family sits around a small kitchen table to discuss the latest news.
The acceptance is from La Salle in Philadelphia, the second such letter Jennifer has received. The first, which arrived a couple of days earlier, was from Neumann over the Pennsylvania line in Delaware County, and it involved scholarship money. “We want Jen to make up her own mind,” Brian emphasizes, “but Neumann has set the bar pretty high.”
“I started getting interested in colleges during my freshman year,” Jennifer says, still beaming with excitement. “It took a while to pick out the ones I wanted to visit. The visits that college recruiters made to the school allowed me to ask questions and narrow my list.” It isn’t atypical for as many as 100 recruiters from different colleges to visit Delaware high schools each year to make presentations about their campuses and answer questions.
“Yvonne is the most-organized person you will ever meet,” Brian says of his wife, although he has been a full participant in visits and post-visit discussions. Before the first one took place, the Mileys put together a list of questions and assembled a checklist, complete with a clipboard. Visits were made during a two-month period in the fall, most to nearby campuses.
“We have a few more visits,” Jennifer says, “DelTech tomorrow, then Wilmington University and Jefferson.” To make her decision even more foolproof, she has sought out a current student from each campus visited to discuss the college’s pros and cons.
Of course, all students are different in what they want out of college—which is the case with Jennifer and her St. Mark’s classmate Zoey Bonitatibus. While both started the process during their sophomore years, Zoey, whose dad, Kris, is a student counselor at St. Mark’s, cast a wider net.
Sitting in Kris’ office between classes on a Thursday morning, Zoey, tall, with long brunette hair and studious eyeglasses, explains what is on her shopping list. “One, I want to go where there is an active, tightly knit student community, whether the school is large or small,” she says. “Second, I’m tired of cold weather, so I want a southern college. Third, academics are obviously important, but, to a lesser extent, so are college athletics.” Zoey plans to study journalism or communications “with a chance to keep up with the field of music.”
She put together a list of 10 or 11 colleges, and this year started her visits with her dad and mom, Jennifer, and her younger sister, Anna, an eighth-grader getting an early look. “I prepared questions for each and took notes during the visits,” Zoey says, “and we went over the visits that night in the motel room.”
Zoey has now whittled her list to six—Notre Dame (even though it’s not a southern school), Tulane, Elon, Belmont, College of Charleston and Clemson. “I really like Belmont, especially their music business program, and I just got accepted there,” she says. “We spent a whole day and did three different tours.”
Belmont wasn’t on her original list, then serendipity set in. Zoey was planning her visit to Nashville and Vanderbilt—which didn’t make her final cut (“The guides kept saying, ‘You’ll never have to leave campus.’”)—when she saw nearby Belmont on the map. After doing research, she decided to make a second stop in Music City—now, perhaps magic happened.
SO, THERE'S THAT
Although Gregg Somerville is a big fan of education, he’s very happy he and his wife, Lydia Cox, will never have to take the steering wheel on another college tour. It began with son Erik (Sanford Class of ’13), a graduate of Hobart, continued with daughter Alexandra (Class of ’16), now at Northwestern, and just concluded with Leah (Class of ’18), a freshman at Duke.
Somerville says that the visits were a lot of work and occasionally a source of humor. “Visiting sometimes three colleges a day, you have to work to keep everything you’ve seen and heard from running together. We’d debrief as we went along,” he says, “and the family would now and then get together doing rankings, which kept changing.”
“Erik barely worked at school—he’s now trying to become a comedy writer—but he got a good offer from Ursinus. I said, ‘You really should look at Hobart,’” Somerville says. “He didn’t want to, but he went there and fell in love with it. On the way back, we talked to them on the phone, and they matched Ursinus’ offer.”
Somerville also remembers one trip from hell. “Erik wanted to visit this college in Bloomsburg, so I told him the night before, ‘You better really want this. Don’t make me miss a day of work for nothing,’” he says. “The next morning, I had to pull him out of bed and he slept all the way there in the back seat. When we got there, Erik said, ‘I don’t even know why we’re visiting this [expletive] place, anyway.’”
By contrast, “Alex and Leah were relatively easy and made early decisions,” Somerville says. He leans forward and commands his phone, “Call Leah at Duke.” She answers, her voice a combination of sleepy and happy as they take a minute to catch up.
“Hey, I have this guy here who’s writing a story on college visits,” Somerville says, and Leah and I begin talking. She also, as it turns out, has a humorous college visit story. “My sister Alex in Chicago talked me into coming out and visiting the University of Chicago. We had this very chipper guide. She would make a statement, add something and then make a qualification, finishing with, ‘So, there’s that.’ Over and over. That whole weekend, we went around Chicago, ending every statement with, ‘So, there’s that.’”
Leah rings off, and Somerville and I wrap up. “My wife and I are the opposite of helicopter parents,” Somerville says. “We tried to serve as a sounding board. I believe whether you make a great choice or a poor choice, you can still make it work.” That said, he adds: “I still wonder if Alex and Leah couldn’t have gotten one notch higher in their selections—but they didn’t like those schools.”
It’s a question no doubt many parents ask themselves, while their offspring have most likely moved on long ago.
Casey Zimmer, the college counselor for Sanford School, believes it is important for students and parents to look beyond the canned tour presentations.//Photography by Leslie Barbaro
THE MYTH OF THE FIT
Counselors are important and integral members of their students’ search teams, almost as much as parents. Except for getting into the cars with them, counselors are along for the ride, helping find the destinations and serving as sounding boards for the final decision.
“We think the students should be the ones driving this process whenever they are ready, which is as sophomores for some,” says Casey Zimmer, college counselor for Sanford School on the outskirts of Hockessin. “But they certainly need to get started no later than the second semester of their junior year.”
Zimmer talks with me in the lounge outside his office, having gently shooed away a trio of young guys studying there. Behind him is a wall of school flags that indicate where last year’s Sanford seniors now attend college. “Unfortunately, sometimes parents believe there is a golden egg, the one college that is just right,” he says. “I call it the Myth of the Fit. During the college visit process, students should consider a variety of fits and not expect rainbows to appear and angels to sing.”
There are options other than regular group tours and presentations, says Rebecca Rose-Howell, college counselor at St. Mark’s, as we sit in a school conference room with two of her colleagues. “Scheduled open houses are a good choice, especially on early visits.” Some universities will allow a committed student to “shadow” someone for a day, even sitting in on classes.
“College visits are very important because this is when students find their new homes,” she says. “Most of them will get a feeling of ‘this is where I belong.’”
David Toomer, college counselor for Tower Hill in Wilmington, finds that many students needlessly limit themselves by thinking they are only interested in a certain type of school or a certain locale, preconceptions that visits may change. “A student may want to first visit a large university, as an example,” he says, “then see a smaller, liberal arts college and a big-city campus.”
And the road trips shouldn’t be just about academics. “If you have a passion for hang-gliding in your free time, you may not want to go to college in Philadelphia,” Toomer says. He also tries to dissuade students who look ahead to medical or law school from getting hung up on attending the university where they plan to get their professional degrees. “In fact, it’s probably better to broaden your experience by going to undergraduate school somewhere else.”
Rose-Howell also says get accepted first and worry about the money later. “Students will sometimes mentally lower their sights, but first they should see if the school where they really would like to attend has scholarship money. They often do.”
Zimmer says that it’s important for students and parents to look beyond the canned tour presentations. “They all sell the same four stock attributes: their food, school spirit, friendliness and campus safety and security,” he says. All three counselors note that, while many high school seniors are sure of their major-to-be, many end up changing goals after the first year—so getting the right college is top-most.
Andrew Cercena said it was love at first sight when he toured the campus at UD.//Photography by Leslie Barbaro
A LONG AND WINDING ROAD
Andrew Cercena and Hugh Love were buddies at Tower Hill and share many of the same passions. Both are intelligent and ambitious, and both want to be entrepreneurs. In fact, Cercena worked with Love on Tech Wisdom, a business Love founded in 10th grade to help older people understand and use digital communications. “For example,” Love says, “we worked with residents at Country Home,” a retirement community off Kennett Pike in Greenville.
But when it came to searching for colleges, the two never considered looking at the same schools. “With most students, friendship is not a factor in their college searches, unless romance is involved,” agrees Tower Hill’s Toomer.
“I grew up in Delaware and lived all my life in Hockessin, and the last thing I wanted was to go to the University of Delaware,” Cercena says. “My dad went here, my mom went here, my aunt went here. I applied to a lot of schools—NYU, UNC, Columbia—but I didn’t get into my ‘reach’ school [one a step higher than grades might support and where there’s more competition], which was NYU,” he says.
But it was love at first sight when he actually toured the UD campus and saw its innovation and entrepreneurial resources—in fact, today Cercena as a sophomore is director of the college’s Delaware Innovation Fellows program. His own innovation startup, collegesnoop.com, which he expects to launch this year, will allow high schoolers to talk with students at colleges they are considering attending—the one need all students I spoke with, whether currently in high school or those recently started in college, say remains unmet in the decision-making process.
Several days later, I met Love just after he returned from Christmas break from Duke, where he is a sophomore. “Andrew and I never really considered going to the same college,” he says. “We each had different academic interests.” But, like Cercena, he “knew I wasn’t going to Delaware,” and didn’t.
For Love, choosing a college turned out to be a hectic adventure, a marathon started years earlier and ending up as a sprint to the finish line in the days after National Decision Day.
Love cast a wide net, visiting many colleges and applying to 12 of them, even though he had been admitted as a junior to Clemson. His father, Robert Love, graduated from Clemson, but Hugh says being a “legacy” student didn’t figure into his considerations and that his father didn’t pressure him. “My parents were very much a part of my college visits,” says Love, an only child. “Mom wanted to sit down and have conversations, while my dad would chart things on an Excel spread sheet.”
Love had applied on an “early action” basis, which does not require a commitment to attend, to Yale—“my reach school”—and to Duke on an “early decision” basis, which does require a commitment. However, both put him on their wait lists. So he made return visits to Virginia and Clemson, and decided to attend the latter.
“I was all set to go to Clemson, then on Decision Day I got an email from Duke asking, ‘Are you still interested?’” Love says. He was, but he knew if he didn’t attend Clemson, he would lose his sizable application fee. “I talked with Duke on the phone, then dad and I decided to do a rush 24-hour-visit to there.” On May 9, Love gave his acceptance to Duke.
“Was your father disappointed you weren’t going to his alma mater?” I ask him. He laughs, “No, actually dad was once all set to go to the Fuqua Business School at Duke, but then DuPont transferred him, so things worked out fine.”
In fact, they usually do.
“Often freshmen begin by being attracted to big schools because of their sports programs—especially once they see ‘Rudy,’” Rose-Howell tells me, referring to the inspirational movie of a football walk-on at Notre Dame, a campus many St. Mark’s students visit and some attend.
In the end, after all the computer research, school counseling and road trips with parents, the act of attending college and showing what a student can do is the basis for everything else. “My philosophy,” Rose-Howell says, “is that there is a college for everyone, even if it means starting their careers at a two-year college. The road is not always direct. Sometimes you have to enjoy the curves.”