#176 – Supporting Students With the College Application Process, with Sally Fouché

Unpacking Education April 19, 2023 44 min

Applying for college is a big milestone in many students’ lives. It’s a step toward independence and adulthood, and it’s a process that will help to shape their future. It can also be very challenging and stressful.

In this episode, we are joined by Sally Fouché, a college application expert who has significant experience guiding students through the college application journey. She shares insights and tips for supporting students through this process.

Sally points out the pressures that these students are facing as they apply for college. She says, “Don’t forget how hard this process is for kids. It is a lot of emotion, and it can feel so judgmental. You’re either getting in or you’re not, and it feels like they’re turned into numbers, and they’re not beautiful human souls. These young people are so great. So don’t forget how hard this process is for kids, and don’t forget that the process being hard is teaching them something. So have compassion but also understand that some of their learning and disappointment is also good learning.”

Read a transcript of this episode.

Paul Beckermann
PreK–12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
STEM Facilitator and Digital Learning Specialist
Dr. Winston Benjamin
Social Studies and English Language Arts Facilitator

If we are truly going to ensure that students become college and career ready or—more importantly—life ready, then we must help develop students who can work together, engage in respectful discourse, problem solve, and collaborate in both physical and virtual spaces.

Eric Sheninger and Thomas C. Murray, from their Edutopia article, Rebooting Industrial Era Seating

Helping Students Navigate This Process

Teachers and other supportive adults can play an important role in helping students navigate the transition from high school to college. They can provide the necessary guidance and support to help students work through the stress of the college application process and the uncertainty of their lives entering adulthood. Despite a desire to help, many adults are not sure how to best support these students.

Sally Fouché, our guest for this episode, helps us navigate the college application process. She offers both insights and experiences that can empower us to help our students. The following are a few highlights from our conversation:

  • About Our Guest: Sally Fouché has past experience working in a high school counseling office at a small public high school and also with her own private business in college planning. Before that, she had a 20-year career in computer programming and software management.
  • Timelines and Mileposts: Sally outlines a few of the key mileposts in the college application process. During students’ junior year, they should begin building a college list and take either the SAT or ACT college entrance exams. She stresses the importance of completing an entrance test early in the process, saying, “It can be so anxiety-producing to have delayed test taking, so that means to start in junior year. Just give it a try and see what happens.” Finally, the fall of senior year is “full-on” college application season. Some early deadlines begin by October 15. She adds, “You think about Thanksgiving or winter break as sort of the finish line for applications, although some schools accept applications on a rolling basis, but it’s much earlier than we were all accustomed to.”
  • Admissions Is Like a Business: Sally explains, “While colleges themselves are deeply committed to education once students get there, the admissions process is essentially a business. It’s a marketing team looking to fill seats with a certain kind of array of students, and their timeline for application and the process of doing all that is built for the benefit of that marketing process. . . . As you can see from the early deadlines, it’s not really built with students in mind.”
  • An Insider’s Game: “The world of college admissions is still deeply inequitable. It’s an insider’s game. There’s a lot of lingo you have to know, and knowledge and access is a big advantage.” Sally points out that the more insider information teachers can share along the way, the more empowered students will be.
  • Like an Extra Class: “The thing that I do like about college admissions for high school seniors is the process of applying is like having an extra class, and this is a good metaphor to remember just in terms of workload. It literally is the workload of an extra class, but it also is the learning of an extra class. You learn about risk management. You learn about planning and task management. You learn a lot about writing. . . . It’s a great opportunity for kids to learn more. We shouldn’t be too scared of the process because it does bring learning.”
  • Eight Elements of a College Application: A typical application includes deciding where to apply, completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), taking a college entrance exam, creating an activities list, listing out honors and awards, providing letters of recommendation, completing the college essay, and attaching a transcript and student profile.
  • Letters of Recommendation: “What colleges are looking for in these letters of recommendation is not a repetition of what they can learn other places. They don’t need to know what the student’s grade is, what activities they participated in. They want to know: What did they do in the classroom? How are they as a student?”
  • Be Concise: Many sections on the application allow only a limited number of characters for each response. Therefore, Sally says, students need to “learn how to write short, and pithy, and powerful” and “use action words and really describe what you did.”
  • An Introspective Essay: “It’s a kind of writing that’s really hard for kids. Even our strongest writers, they’re not used to introspective writing, and they’re still maturing in their level of introspection. So this is where teachers can really help, and not just English teachers, but teachers all along the way by those questions of curiosity.”
  • You Are Not Your School: “The college process makes them think, ‘Good college, great life. Bad college, terrible life.’ And it’s, of course, not that simple, so the more you can layer on and help them understand that, I think that’s the biggest thing teachers can do.” She adds that teachers should spend time “helping students identify strengths and really just supporting and celebrating them in this process.”
  • Four Buckets: Students should apply to schools in four different buckets: confident schools, match schools, reach schools, and lottery reach schools. Students will want to make sure that they are accepted to at least two schools “because having choice at the end of the day is power.”
  • Schoolwide Support: Schools can help all students be more successful by offering schoolwide opportunities. These might include the opportunity to take the SAT or ACT at school for free. It might be a college boot camp or a chance for all college seniors to apply to the closest community college.
  • Mental Health: Students will need support throughout this process. Sally says, “We all know that mental health challenges are at an epidemic level right now, and I do think the college application process is a big contributor to that because it feels like your whole life depends on this one decision.” She adds, “And families bring this stress to students’ lives, too, because parents are terrified. They’re terrified their kids won’t get into the schools they want them to, or they’re terrified they won’t get in at all. And they’re terrified they can’t pay for it.” Finally, she points out, “It honestly isn’t as high stakes as it appears.” In fact, 87% of colleges accept well over 50% of their applicants.
  • Top Third: Sally points out that it’s often better to attend a college where you are in the top third, rather than in the bottom half. Research shows that students who end up in the top third of their college class have some of the best experiences. “What happens when you’re in the top third, you get opportunities. People tell you you’re amazing. Professors invite you to do XYZ, and . . . you get success experiences, and you internalize the idea that I’m amazing.”

Guiding Questions

If you are listening to the podcast with your instructional team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:

  • What was your college application experience like, and what did you learn from it?
  • What insights did you gain from Sally’s comments and expertise?
  • How can you individually support a student’s journey through the college application process?
  • How might your school as a whole support students as they apply for college?
  • What action steps can you take away from this episode?

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