A College Guidance Counselor's Perspective (a three-part series). Part Two: “What I'd Like Colleges to Know”

September 08, 2021

or part two of this three-part series, HAI sat down with Krista Sergi, Director of College Guidance at the Beekman School in New York City. Krista shared with us what she would most like colleges to know.

HAI: In our first discussion, we talked about your experience with the rapid and recent changes in the college admissions landscape. This time, we’re focusing on what you—as a high school college guidance counselor—would like college admissions and financial aid professionals to know.

Why don’t we start by continuing the thread of our prior conversation as it relates to how COVID revealed income-related disparities in the application process, and how admissions offices might start thinking on how to address some of them. For example, we talked last time a bit about schools going test optional -- I’m assuming a lot of your students applied test optional this year?

Krista S: Yes, the only kids who applied with test scores were the ones who happened to have taken a test before the pandemic and did well on it. I think I had two students who applied with test scores, so about 95% applied without scores.

HAI: Did a lot of your students sit for an exam, or did most not?

Krista S: Only two had taken it and that is because they had done so in their junior year. I would say that half of my seniors tried to take an exam and couldn’t, and the other half didn’t attempt to take it. And, once again, it broke down by income. More affluent students tried to sit for an exam because they had invested in prep and less affluent kids didn’t sit at all because they had not had the same access to test prep. In NYC, virtually no one was able to sit for a test. I had some kids try two and three times to sit, but the exams were always cancelled because NYC was such a hot spot for COVID.

HAI: We work with some schools in the south where there was more testing available, and it’s been hard to know who took the test and chose not to send scores and who truly wasn’t able to sit. So, I think there are probably regional differences around the U.S. in terms of the breakdown between those with and without scores who applied test optional. Do you hope that schools will remain test optional?

Krista S: Yes. To me, the SAT is gameable. Unless you are going to make test prep more equitable, what is the point? The ACT is a bit more equitable, but, even then, because it’s a speed test, it is less relevant. We’re not giving students speed tests very often these days. Extended time is really becoming more ubiquitous, so the ACT is losing some students due to the timed nature of the exam. I don’t recommend to any of my students that they take the SAT just because I feel that it is incredibly inequitable.

HAI: Let’s shift to GPA. When we remove testing, often schools will look at a cumulative GPA. Do you have thoughts on what else schools should consider when making admission decisions if testing is taken out of the picture?

Krista S: I sit in a place where I can fully contextualize my students’ journeys via a counselor recommendation, and I write long counselor recommendations because I also work with kids who have been through more than the average high schooler to get to the point of earning a high school diploma. I’ve worked with students who have anxiety and who have just given up on themselves and on school for an entire year. Something like that can drop a student’s GPA by a whole point. I have the time and the luxury to be able to contextualize that for my students, and I still have universities that will barely look at the application because their GPAs are not where the school wants them to be. I can back students and form relationships with the admissions teams at colleges, though.

HAI: We have heard from high school counselors that their biggest challenge is just being overwhelmed by the number of students they are trying to help.

Krista S: I have no idea what a counselor does when they have 100-200 kids on their caseload. How do you work with a student whose GPA is artificially low and they don’t have anyone pushing them to find summer programs that will enrich their college applications? Sometimes I have to hold their hands and drag them there because not every kid sees the value in becoming involved at their school or in outside activities. I can push them to get involved in things like student council. Usually, by the time they graduate, they understand the value of being involved. But there are so many counselors who don’t have that luxury.

HAI: So, what is your sense of what college admissions offices know about this, or whether they adjust their review accordingly?

Krista S: I wish there was a way, other than the school profile, for colleges to understand the challenges that students are going through. I think the counselor-to-student ratio should be a mandatory element on a school profile. A student who is getting good grades at a large, public high school, but not participating in activities may not have anyone in their life who is pushing them to do that and once they get to college, they might bloom.

I also really wish that there was a timed, on-camera writing exam for students because, at small charter and private schools, kids often get a lot of coaching and help with their essays. I almost wish we could bring back the SAT Writing exam, but only the Writing exam, so that, when schools read supplemental essays, they can compare students in a more equitable way – removing the tutoring and coaching and editing piece that more affluent students have at their disposal. GPAs are great and writing is important, but if a student isn’t getting support with their writing, that really affects the quality of the essays they are able to send. In many cases, colleges are looking at essays that have been highly polished by a student’s support network, and many students don’t have that support network.

Some kids need to be encouraged by someone, but they don’t have anyone to push them. And then they are not admitted to colleges where they’d be a great fit.

HAI: Right, or you may have a student who is working a couple of jobs to help support their family and therefore are not able to participate in a lot of extracurricular activities. They may not have a counselor to advocate for them and contextualize their applications.

Krista S: Yes, every college really needs holistic review. I feel that if we could unilaterally force counselor-to-student ratio to be put on school profiles and have a timed essay exam, so that schools were able to compare a student’s timed writing with their supplemental writing, just to have that point of comparison, that we could move toward a more equitable admission process.

HAI: In some ways, it seems there has been a snowball effect. As things like the Common Application and the Coalition Application created a lot of opportunities by making it easier for students to apply to more schools, institutions have had more and more applications to sift through. This has led them to add things like supplemental essays to better gauge the interest of their applicants, which also creates more work for them. It creates a situation where schools can’t read through every application, so they rely more on things like GPA and test score minimums to sort their pool. I can see how this is a difficult problem to solve.

Krista S: Yes, it’s a complicated situation. I understand completely where the colleges are coming from. They don’t have the person power to give everyone a holistic review and high schools don’t have the person power to make sure that students are effectively demonstrating who they are to the colleges.

HAI: We work directly with higher ed institutions and saw a lot of our schools extending their deadlines this year. Did you see that as well?

Krista S: It is difficult when some schools extend, and others do not. Last year (2020) was the worst. There were some schools with May 1 deposit deadlines and others with May 10 deadlines. This year it seemed better, but it might have been artificially better because kids were just double-depositing.

HAI: Right. On a related note, do you see, in certain cycles, that your students are slow to deposit, and in other cycles they are quick to deposit? What we’ve seen with the schools we’ve worked with is that the timeline can really vary from one year to the next. In one cycle, they may have 90% of their deposits by April 15th, and in another the deposits really come in right at the deadline. Is that something that you’ve seen from where you sit on the high school side?

Krista S: This year was interesting because we had a lot of “panic depositing” because there wasn’t a unilateral extension. The schools that did not extend their deadlines probably got the most panic depositing, but then lost a lot of those students. Schools that extended their deadline saw their deposits come in later but had less melt. When a school on a student’s list changes how or when they do things, it can change the behavior of students and when they make decisions. We certainly have seen that in the last couple of cycles.

HAI: You mentioned there was a lot of waitlist activity this year.

Krista S: Yes. Last year was the most I’ve ever seen, but this year almost ran even to last year.

HAI: What do you think led to the slight decrease in waitlist activity this year? Was it that schools adjusted based on what they learned in the 2020 cycle?

Krista S: My hunch is that it had something to do with the test-optional piece. Schools probably had a higher volume of applicants they considered admissible and so they waitlisted a lot of people. I had the same number of students waitlisted this year as last year, but this year the waitlists seemed to move much more quickly. I had students being admitted off the waitlist on May 2nd and May 3rd and I’ve never seen that before. We also had schools giving us timelines for anticipated waitlist activity, which was nice.

HAI: And did you see more students double depositing this year or depositing at one school and then withdrawing and depositing at another?

Krista S: I had more double deposits this year than I have had in any year. I tell my students that they are not allowed to do that, and they did it anyway. The reason why we had so many is because colleges weren’t allowing extensions or were not making it clear to students that they could get an extension. I work with a lot of kids in my community, outside of my job, and many don’t know that extensions are possible, so they get nervous and deposit at one school but then are admitted off the waitlist at another school.

HAI: That may have been no big deal (financially) for some families, but it was probably hard on others. What do you wish people in the higher ed space, or in the consulting space, like us, would consider as they create admission and financial aid strategies?

Krista S: A few things come to mind. I think we need to be looking harder at our middle-income population. They need some TLC. I understand that colleges don’t necessarily have the bandwidth for that, but what is happening with middle-income families is a big problem. I sometimes find that my high-income students with lower GPAs get more money than I would expect and I feel that some of that money could be given to middle income students who need it instead.

The other thing I wish is that there was either a better appeal process or a way to sus out whether a student will enroll. I may have a middle-income student who, after Stafford loans and parent Plus loans, is left with a $5K gap at a school that they really want to attend. If the school would give the student $3,000 more in aid, the student and parents will figure out a way to make it work. The problem is that middle-income families are being asked to pinch pennies so often, that an extra $3,000 -- $5,000 in aid really will make the difference for them. If there were a more forthright appeal process, where a school agrees to increase aid if a student commits to attending the institution, it would be helpful. Colleges should pay close attention to financial aid appeals, particularly for middle-income families.

HAI: That is a good point and it kind of calls into question whether the Federal Methodology, or any methodology, is effective at assessing true financial need. Are the EFCs produced realistic, particularly for middle-income families?

Krista S: Exactly. The families with EFCs between $10K and $30K are the ones who really can’t afford it.

HAI: We see that when we work with colleges. There is often a U-shaped distribution where they have the strongest yield on admits from low-income and high-income families, but the yield is very low on the middle-income admits. #

Note: Special thanks to our guest Krista Sergi for her insight on this important topic. Check back soon for part three of this discussion.

About Our Guest

Krista Sergi began her career as a high school English teacher, and later moved to the field of college admissions at MIT. While completing her grad work at Harvard, she discovered her passion for the field of guidance counseling. Today Krista is the Director of College Guidance at The Beekman School, a small coeducational college preparatory school in New York City, where she also teaches and serves as Student Activities Director.

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