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A Saint Thomas Academy College Counselor meeting with two students
David Jacobson

As much as you may love Saint Thomas Academy, the time comes when every Cadet must seriously consider leaving. After years of late-night studying, marching in unison, and learning to shave, the time comes for life after Saint Thomas Academy.

For most, that journey kicks into overdrive their junior year, when their college selection process picks up steam and eventually barrels into submitting college applications. Of course, parents play an important role in both, as does Norma Gutierrez, Director of College Counseling, who offers these Top 10 Tips for students and their parents:

1.  Keep this process all about the student. Many students and parents don't know where to start, and it's easy to feel overwhelmed. The student’s vision for his college experience should fuel the family’s decision-making. “At the Academy, we slowly build this with students in their freshmen and sophomore years. We have the boys fill out personality assessments and learning preferences and self-reflect on who they are and what success in life after the Academy means to them. We want families to be engaged in the process, but the focus needs to be the student. We often say admission is a match to be made, not a prize to be won. The application form itself can help identify the best match. How long is the application? How many essays are required? Is there an interview process? If the student is not excited about completing all of the required tasks, this may be telling of his desire to attend that college."

2.  Make sure to talk about money. Gutierrez advises that parents speak openly and honestly with the student about what the family can afford, not just in terms of tuition, room, and board but also in the school's location, factoring in such costs as airfares, car rentals, and shopping for dorm room needs. "Can you afford flights for winter break, spring break, and Thanksgiving? Will the student have a car on campus? Families should utilize tools like the Net Price Calculator on colleges’ websites to get an idea of which colleges are affordable for your family. It can be heartbreaking when a student gets admitted to his dream school, and then the family realizes they can't afford it."

3.  Plan for standardized testing. Even if target colleges do not require test scores, plan to test in case circumstances change or if new school choices present themselves. Also, Gutierrez pointed out, even if the school itself does not require test scores for admissions consideration, sports coaches, for example, might want to know the student's test scores.

4.  Parents should guide their student's application process but not drive it. It's one thing for parents to check in with the student to make sure he submits all the necessary application materials, but parents should not submit the student's materials for them. "Some students want to control the process themselves and tell their parents, 'I just want you to be there for me.' " 

5.  Also, parents should not create their student's application materials. “Admissions professionals can tell if something is written by a 17-year-old or an adult professional,” Gutierrez said.

6.  Parents should offer general moral support and keep an open mind. Some things that parents might find themselves saying: "Take a breath. We'll get through this. There's not one perfect college, but there might be a lot of good fits. Control what you can control. You can't control outcomes. You can only control the amount of time and effort you put in."

7.  Manage expectations. "We'll never tell a student no, that they can't or won't get into a certain school," Gutierrez said. "We might say, 'It's great that you want to go to X college. What about X do you like? We encourage students to dig deeper, beyond the school's rankings. Let's find some other schools that have those traits, so we have a plan B and a plan C. Understanding and articulating what makes you a good fit for a school will help you find those traits in other schools that will be a good fit. Schools are going to ask, 'why us?' in essays and interviews, so the more research students do into a particular college, the better they can articulate their desire to attend that school.”

8.  Communicate with counselors. "It's important for students to have open communications with us about all things college-related,” Gutierrez said. “Things like what letters of recommendation they may need, and what their number-one school choice is. It's important for them to build relationships with us and make sure these letters of recommendation come from people who know you. I can't write an awesome letter of recommendation for you if I don't know you. I don't get to see all the parents and kids as much as I want. Connecting with us is key, and we make ourselves available for families not only during the school year, but also in the summer, which can be a great time to meet. Some kids and some parents are super-proactive, and that really helps us support them best."

9.  Be cautious of independent consultants. If you choose this route, do your research. There are some great independent counselors, and there are some who try to guarantee admission to an Ivy League school, when nobody can guarantee that. Gutierrez warned that most consultants "don't know your kid, don't see your kid in the building, and how they interact with their peers. These are the things colleges want to hear from counselors and schools. Most college representatives will not talk to independent counselors the same way they talk to us. We, as counselors, are part of the tuition you pay. Why would you also pay a consultant for what we do? We're the ones going to the conferences, promoting the education found here at Saint Thomas Academy, and getting to know admissions people on behalf of our school. You might end up paying the consultant to tell you what you want to hear. If your family chooses to use an independent counselor, we hope for a partnership. We, as the school counselors, still advocate on your son's behalf.”

10. Know how to handle disappointment. Admissions is not fair and we may never fully understand why one student is admitted and another is not. In case of a deferral, for example, parents should not call an admissions office in anger, Gutierrez said. "The student must be the driving force in communicating with the college. Parents can give the student tips on composing an email or how to handle a call, but parents should not try to fix things themselves."

That last point dovetails precisely with the way Saint Thomas Academy prepares students for self-sufficiency, resourcefulness, determination, and other key character traits. By the time most Cadets are of an age to seriously consider what to do and where to go after graduation, they probably are also ready to take on the challenge of choosing and applying for schools with the advice and guidelines given here.