Advice from a college counselor: Be in it to win it

Start your college planning early, and do your homework

Shanyn Grenier doesn’t get much downtime on her job.

Starting her second year as college counselor at Portsmouth High School, Grenier is gearing up for another non-stop school year of helping 1,150 students forge their paths to higher education. “I’m always busy, always doing something different,” she said. “But I love it.”

Portsmouth High School is one of only two schools in the state that has dedicated college counselors, she said (the other is Winnacunnet High School in Hampton). “Every fall, I start out with two functions,” said Grenier, 35. “One is to meet all the seniors by January, alone or with the senior guidance counselor, to find out their goals. Are they thinking about a two-year [program], a four-year, military, community college – and start to guide them. Second is to meet with parents of incoming freshmen to talk about how important high school is, and to encourage kids to get involved in more than just grades to help achieve their college goals.”

Grade-by-grade planning

Grenier notes that college planning needs to begin earlier than some people expect. “There are parents of incoming freshmen who want their kids taking the right classes now so they have the ability to compete [for college acceptance],” she said, “But that planning starts in middle school. To be on the Honors track, it’s important to lay that groundwork in middle school.”

Her high school offers programs for each grade to make sure those interested are on the right track. “We have transition nights and orientation for incoming freshmen; parent meetings, talking about expectations and college culture; then we begin resume-building,” Grenier explains. “At freshman mid-year, we talk about their four-year [high school] plan, and talk about high school requirements for graduation versus what colleges want.”

For sophomores, Grenier said they discuss each student’s strengths and how they correlate to careers. For juniors, “we start college planning, and by mid-year talk about visiting schools, revisiting their resume, and majors choices. Over the summer, an English teacher does college essay-writing classes. We also offer standardized test prep for SATs and ACT.”

For the senior class, Grenier said shemeets with families non-stop, getting applications done. “We have programs in-class, and evening classes for parents on topics like finances and athletic recruiting.”

For younger students, one of Grenier’s biggest pieces of advice is “to take the most demanding curriculum that you can get As and Bs in. A lot of kids think, ‘I’ll just take College Prep and get all As,’ instead of stretching and challenging themselves with AP (Advanced Placement) courses.”

For juniors or seniors, Grenier wants them to realize that they are competing in a different way than they might think.

“I would say all high schools and colleges are different. For instance, Portsmouth has a seven-point grading scale; we don’t even grade transfer students because it doesn’t correlate. Some kids worry about that. But colleges look at individual students within your own high school. Don’t think that because someone from another, ‘better’ high school didn’t get accepted to your college of choice, that you don’t have a chance. That’s apples to oranges; you can only compare apples in your own bushel.”

The process should be fun

Applying for college has naturally changed dramatically in the last few decades, with the profusion of technology. Grenier spends a lot of time “helping navigate how to apply and to where. Most of it’s online now. Portsmouth High School is almost 100 percent online with recommendations.”

Grenier does a lot of talking with parents who don’t realize college is a lot different than when they went. For instance, “some parents think certain courses are important in this economy, like business or technology,” she notes. “But it’s really what you do with whatever you major in that’s more important.”

The “where to go” decision must be carefully considered, she says. “For me, I find I spend most of my time finding the best choice for them, not based on the name [of the college] or what they think college ‘should’ be. It’s important to consider what’s important to them. If they have a place they want to go, but don’t have the grades, we talk about alternatives.”

Finances and student maturity levels need to be taken into consideration, too.

“Two-year community colleges are really helping kids edge toward four-year colleges, for those who are not quite ready,” said Grenier, who has a financial aid background from her previous work with NHHEAF (New Hampshire Higher Education Assistance Foundation).

“It is a process, it is stressful and busy. But it should be fun. Visiting campuses, eating at dining halls… If it’s not fun, let’s figure out why it’s not. Yes, there will be frustrations and disappointments, but it’s not a burden to get worked up about. There’s lots of great places to choose from!”

Finding the right campus

Part of Grenier’s job is “making kids and parents more comfortable [with the process]. Talking about themselves can be intimidating for some students, and they don’t always think to share what’s really important, and what makes them themselves,” she states. “We’re not all meant to be physicians or athletes. It’s still OK. You’ll find what’s good for you.

“I encourage them to extend themselves a little – consider a college a little farther away, or one a little different than what’s in your head. Expose them to something different.”

This is especially true with the juniors, Grenier said. “That’s the push – to get out to as many places as possible” for campus visits. With the technology age, some students can get wrapped up in doing all their college shopping online. But Grenier warns that often “it’s all just pretty pictures on the Internet. Getting on campus for a real visit is very important.”

Campus visits can create a disconnect in what they were expecting versus reality. “The most common surprise for some kids,” Grenier said, “is that they think they want to be in an urban setting, like Boston, Manhattan or D.C., but that can be uncomfortable, as much as a location that’s too rural.”

There is a difference between high school culture versus. college culture, she said. A completely foreign environment could be good for you. “Take Skidmore versus George Washington, rural versus urban,” Grenier offers. “Maybe one of those locations is totally opposite your high school experience. But maybe that would be good for you. Some students aren’t capable of having analytical conversations to consider where they would grow the most.”

The social culture of a college needs to be considered as well: “What if 70 percent of the [student population] leaves on the weekend? What if you’re too far to do that? Most kids feel academically comfortable, but it’s the social issues that are harder to deal with.”

Grenier also said students need to think about the “big fish, small pond” dynamic. “In high school, you may be in the top five of your class. But what about being at a college where everyone’s their high school’s top five? Would you thrive in that kind of competitive environment? Or do you want more academic diversity?”

What makes you, you?

Grenier said it’s more critical to choose extracurricular activities that reflect “what makes you, you – not everyone has to be an athlete or a musician. What’s your outside-school strength?” Her school hosts a co-curricular fair in the fall to show students all the choices of clubs available.

Extra-curricular involvement should reflect a lot about the student doing it, and should showcase growth, commitment and leadership. That can be found in more surprising activities, Grenier notes. “In the past, being involved in student council, or athletics… those things were thought to mark a leader. Now it’s more about the quality of the experience; what’s important to you. Don’t do soccer if you hate it. Do what you love.”

“Work, volunteer, you’ll do it longer and take on more responsibility. It will show evolution of maturity and leadership,” Grenier said. “The colleges will see, ‘here’s a kid who’s able to follow their passions.’ That matters.” She also notes that students who have to work are recognized by college administrators, too. “They see the kid’s potential. Colleges are recruiting just as much on potential as on the success they’ve already achieved. It’s just like pro sports.”

In it to win it

Does Grenier have any words of warning to future college students? Yes. Watch your social media. “Beware of Facebook! I tell juniors, this is the time to start being conscious of who you ‘Friend,’ what you post on your page and what you allow others to post. What kind of light do you want the colleges to see you in?” She notes that she “actually had a college athletic coach call me and ask about something they saw” on the Facebook page of a student they were considering.

She also wants seniors to remember that it ain’t over til it’s over. “Colleges have taken away an offer based on poor performance in the second half of senior year,” she said.

In short: Early planning, late-inning commitment and make sure you show what makes you, you.

Categories: Advice