The Five First-Choice Colleges Approach with Foxcroft School Director of College Counseling Barbara Conner

Barbara Conner is the Director of College Counseling at Foxcroft School and the creator of the Five First-Choice Colleges Approach. 

Here is what Barbara had to say when we asked her about the Five First-Choice Colleges Approach: 

GenHERation®: What are your primary responsibilities as Director of College Counseling at Foxcroft School?

Barbara Conner: My main responsibilities are building relationships with students, families, and college admission officers and building on my knowledge and expertise on everything related to college admission. It is such a gift to get to know students when they arrive as freshmen or when they transfer to Foxcroft School. Since we live and work on a boarding school campus, I know students well when they begin our College Seminar class in their fall of junior year. It is a tremendous way to practice college counseling. There are subtle and sometimes large changes in the college admission landscape each year. Staying on top of changes and new trends is important. This happens by researching specific college admission policies, discussing admission trends with admission officers when they visit our campus each fall, and traveling to college campuses to meet with admission officers across the country. I typically visit 15 to 30 college campuses per year. This is an intentional way of becoming more knowledgeable about the various opportunities offered and the different personalities of college campuses. These visits allow me to share information about my school, advocate on behalf of interested students, and return to my campus with increased knowledge I can share with students and families. It is also important to meet with other directors of college counseling to better understand what trends these colleagues are seeing in their geographic areas regarding admissions. I have been honored to present at various professional conferences over the years and to work on a number of committees, which focus on current trends and future issues in college admission and ethical professional development.

GenHERation®: Why did you develop the Five First-Choice Colleges Approach? 

Conner: Back in the day, we used the “reach, zone, and safety” model as we worked with students in college application cycles. That model worked 25 to 30 years ago because of the admissions landscape at the time. It was very different back then. We used to ask students to figure out what reach schools they were most excited about, find some in their zone, and then identify safety schools. Safety schools were the schools where students expected admission offers. When you think about teenagers and students, they tend to dream big. We want students reaching and stretching, but when students start to exclusively focus on their reach schools, this can lead to increased stress and disappointing outcomes. Reach schools are often found at the top of the rankings lists and they are schools where the volume of applications for admission is sometimes exponentially larger than the number of seats in their first-year classes. They are typically difficult to get into. Students think about these places like rainbows and glitter and they imagine themselves attending and having perfect lives because they have been admitted to their dream school. I found that students were spending 90% of their research time in the college process focused on their reach schools and far less time on schools, which were far more likely to be tremendous matches, and were more likely to offer admission. Across the country, we were seeing adolescent stress and anxiety levels rising, in part based on the stress of the college admission process. I knew there had to be a better approach.

I wasn’t seeing students applying to a broad list of colleges, which included one or two reach schools. I was seeing students load their Apply Lists with mostly reach schools and then adding one or two zone or safety schools. There is nothing wrong with applying to one or two reach schools. If a student is outside of the typically admitted academic ranges, applying to a high number of reach schools can be problematic. This is especially true when these reach schools become the focus of the student’s college search. This is what I was seeing. Students would focus almost exclusively on their reach school and when they would look at the others on their list, there was no excitement. I began to hear sad commentary when students were admitted to tremendous colleges and universities, which were not the schools deemed “reach” schools. If students were not offered admission by reach schools, they felt they had lost something and that they were “settling” for something lesser on their college list. They were looking past great campuses where they could do research and build relationships with professors. They didn’t see value in college campuses where they could engage in rigorous academic debate and participate in experiential learning, such as internships, co-ops, service learning, and research. Their focus was just on getting into the reach school. I began to look at the data and numbers. What we were doing in college counseling across the country was not working. I wanted to reframe the conversation. I knew we needed a new approach to the college admission and application process.

GenHERation®: Can you tell us more about the Five First-Choice Colleges Approach process and how students can use it when applying to college?

Conner: My Five First-Choice Colleges Approach helps reduce stress and improve admission outcomes for students. It may seem obvious, but it is important for each student to keep themself at the heart of the process and not be focused on external factors, such as college rankings. A student’s Apply List should reflect their academic preparation and profile, learning style, values, experiences, and goals. I encourage students to apply to five to eight colleges—among these should be at least five, which meet these criteria: Have a typical admitted pool that aligns with their current academic profile. Match their academic/social/cultural setting goals. Be a school that they’ve looked at from a financial perspective. Be a school they’re excited about attending! A student’s Apply List is not complete if it does not include at least five of these schools. Here is a detailed breakdown of the criteria:

Understand your academic profile. Know thyself. Ask yourself: What courses did I take during high school? Were they the most rigorous courses offered? What grades did I achieve? Did my grades trend up, trend down, or remain the same as the classes got more challenging? What are my test scores? Am I a typically admitted applicant based on the college’s recently admitted classes (explore admission data to see if your academic profile is within, or better yet, above the mid-50% of recently admitted applicants)?

Research colleges based on your academic areas of interest, your learning style, and your academic goals for your college years. Again, know thyself. We want the student to explore broadly and consider the academics and extracurriculars they found meaningful at the high school level and build on those experiences. What has worked well so far? Are you a student who prefers STEM or humanities courses? How do you do with writing-intensive classes? Do you prefer academic research or more hands-on activities? Do you love delving into independent work or do you prefer team projects? How do you learn best? What do you value? Do you want a campus with students who bring diverse perspectives and backgrounds? Is studying abroad important to you? After considering those questions, you are ready to explore college options, which are a great fit for you!

Explore the financial realities of paying for college with your family. College is expensive, so the realities of the financial aspects of college should be determined early in the process. Students need to know which parts of paying for college they are responsible for in their family. It is helpful to ask the following questions: Is the family in a position to pay for college? Is it important to apply for scholarships and actively look for generous financial aid packages? It can be heartbreaking if you apply to a college having no sense of your financial reality and then recognize you cannot attend that school. You might have admission offers in the spring, but you have to ask yourself if attending is realistic for your family’s financial situation. Stay grounded and look for opportunities that are viable options. It is not good to have these conversations late in the process. I encourage students to have this conversation early in the game. While families are primarily responsible for paying for college, there are additional sources, which can help students pay for college. Colleges administer federal funds annually (a family’s Expected Family Contribution can be determined by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and some colleges have funding to offer institutional merit scholarships.

Remain open to the possibility and potential joy of each campus you are researching. Embrace each college option with an open mind and an open heart. While your experience on a variety of campuses would be different, each one offers tremendous potential. In order to qualify as a Five First-Choice College, the student must be excited to attend the college. You should be excited and happy about all of the schools on your Apply List. I never want a student to apply to schools they do not want to attend. That is a complete waste of time. Apply to places you are excited to attend. It is important to keep in mind there is no guarantee you will be offered admission. Great students get denied every year from schools where they are strong matches for the typically admitted student profile. 

GenHERation®: How can students manage the stress associated with applying to college?

Conner: There is a lot of pressure on students to be and do so much these days. Students think they have to be athletic, be a leader, volunteer, and do a million other things and check off all the boxes in order to be a strong candidate for admission. There are a lot of expectations and it can be really challenging. This is why I encourage students to follow the Five First-Choice Colleges Approach as they think about their time. What brings you joy? If you had a free Saturday, what would you do? Do those things! If you are thoughtful about the way you spend your most precious commodity—your time, outside of the classroom, you are likely to write about it with enthusiasm, and this will be evident to the admission reader through your application and essays. 

GenHERation®: What is the best piece of advice you have for students navigating the college admissions process?

Conner: It is easy to give a cliché answer like exhibit passion and authenticity. My advice is actually easier than that standard answer. The more you can center yourself in this process, the better the results will be for you. If you are looking at external measures, meaning someone else’s value over what you know is true for yourself, the process will be stressful. Keep self-care at the forefront. Stay grounded and centered. You want the best outcome, which involves thoughtful research and an intentional application process. Know yourself. Center yourself. Identify your learning style and needs. Understand your financial situation and options. Consider geography. Focus on the goals that are important to you for your college experience. Practicing these things can help you find Five First-Choice Colleges for your Apply List, and it can help reduce stress and improve your admission outcomes!

Barbara Tragakis Conner is the Director of College Counseling at Foxcroft School. She is a frequent speaker on ethics in college admission, narrative voice in college essays, building the college counseling toolkit, institutional priorities in selective college admission, and other topics. She is a member of a number of professional organizations, including PCACAC, PACAC, NEACAC, SACAC, and ACCIS. She is the creator of the Five First-Choice Colleges Approach, which reduces stress and improves college admission outcomes.

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