Director of college counseling Jane Bauman awards seniors for college acceptances with the M&M man. (Photo by Hermione Xian)

Counselors fight pressure to apply to ‘trophy schools’

Every fall, Country Day seniors begin applying to colleges, many with high hopes of acceptance into highly selective schools. 

Associate director of college counseling Chris Kuipers said highly ranked schools are “the end goal” for some students, but it’s not an institutional expectation for Country Day.

“I think it’s a range,” he said. “(In) most rigorous college prep schools, there’s pressure from both external and internal forces for students to have recognition through the college search process.

“That’s not our expectation. I think I spend a lot more energy combating looking for a trophy school.”

Director of college counseling Jane Bauman issued similar statements about pressure students face during the college application process.

“Unfortunately, I think they do (feel pressure),” she said. “But I see my job as a college counselor to guide parents and students to colleges that are the right fit for them.”

Bauman said she and Kuipers try to match parents and students with schools that fit them “academically, socially, financially and philosophically.”

Bauman offered one point of advice for college applicants.

“As a college counselor, I never want to tell students not to reach as high as possible,” she said. “On the other hand, they have to be realistic about their application and academic profile when they apply.

“The name and prestige of a school is not what makes it a good college experience. In fact, it could make it a bad college experience.”

“(In) most rigorous college prep schools, there’s pressure from both external and internal forces for students to have recognition through the college search process.  That’s not our  expectation. I think I spend a lot more energy combating looking for a trophy school.”

— Chris Kuipers

Senior Maddie Woo said Country Day seniors are expected to apply to selective schools.

“Country Day is a private school, so we’re pressured to show that we are worth all this money and can get into top universities,” said Woo, who’s headed to the University of San Diego. “But I don’t necessarily think there’s pressure to attend them.”

Woo, who attended Pleasant Grove High School as a freshman and sophomore, said expectations are completely different at Country Day.

“(For) a lot of people (at Pleasant Grove), their trajectory is a CSU (California State University) or (community college),” she said. “College isn’t really talked about a lot.

“The minute you’re on the Country Day campus, it’s setting you up for the next chapter in your life.”

Senior Chris Wilson agreed an expectation is placed on Country Day seniors from the students, not the school. However, Wilson said he didn’t feel pressure.

“I think Country Day is very good at helping you find your own path, so I think it’s classmates and other students putting the pressure on to go to higher-ranked schools,” said Wilson, who chose the University of California, Merced. “We see the previous years’ students going to these colleges and feel like we need to meet that expectation.”

Kuipers agreed.

“We are a small community,” he said. “As ninth graders, you see the M&M man and the conversations seniors are having.”

Watching multiple students go off to Stanford in 2018 and 2019, for example, does create an expectation, according to a senior who chose a highly ranked school and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“Country Day doesn’t have a bad track record at (highly ranked) schools,” they said. “All of those people who go to Stanford went to the same high school as us, so why not apply?”

Country Day has made some accommodations to decrease pressure, such as reducing the number of schools students can announce using the M&M man.

“You would think that would reduce the pressure, but I don’t see any evidence of that,” Bauman said.

“Country Day is a private school, so we’re pressured to show that we are worth all this money and can get into top universities. But I don’t necessarily think there’s pressure to attend them.”

— Maddie Woo

The senior who spoke on anonymity noted the “unlearning” that Kuipers and Bauman go through with seniors each year.

“A lot is already ingrained in us from our parents or reading The New York Times (for example),” the student said. “Weirdly, part of their job is contradicting what is in our popular culture. Otherwise, we’re never going to pick a school that will fit us well.”

While rankings traditionally are associated with selectivity and prestige, students and college counselors agreed they are detrimental to making college decisions.

“I never look at the rankings in order to find a school that’s the best choice for a student,” Bauman said.

Kuipers, a former admissions officer at Amherst College in Massachusetts, added colleges prioritize aspects of their image that aren’t reflected in the rankings and vice versa.

“We spent a ton of time trying to diversify the student body,” he said. “That’s an institutional priority that’s essential to what (Amherst) is about. And it’s not reflected anywhere in the rankings.”

Woo said rankings also don’t capture the culture of the student body.

“I think when you visit college campuses, you can kind of take a pulse on their students and get the vibe,” she said.

Another common misconception is a correlation between low acceptance rate and quality of institution, according to Kuipers. 

“Maybe in the big picture there’s a broad correlation,” he said. “Certainly, schools that offer really strong education and programs are offering a really good product.

“(However), the acceptance rate is a math problem. I know stories of colleges handing out free applications to students they know they aren’t going to accept, padding their acceptance rate by doing so.”

He added some colleges have rejected the most qualified students in their applicant pools, assuming those students would attend other schools, to boost their yield rate (percentage of students admitted to a school who enroll). 

“(Acceptance rate) is just a really poor measure of the actual quality of a school,” he said.

By Jackson Crawford

Originally published in the May 26 edition about the Octagon.