How to navigate the college admissions process

Susan Weatherly runs Steps To College. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

Among life’s greatest challenges are the high-stakes undertakings that we have to do for the first time, unprepared by experience. Whether you’re filing your first car insurance claim, bringing your first newborn home from the hospital or shopping for a lawyer for your first divorce, it certainly helps to have someone around of whom you can ask questions — but there are bound to be some questions that won’t even occur to you to ask, simply because you’ve never done this before.

Picking out a college to attend, and jumping through the hoops of admissions and financial aid, certainly fall into this category of life-changing choices. You want to get it right the first time. If you’re the first generation in your family to pursue higher education, this process is especially challenging. And even if your parents and/or older siblings have been there, done that, they’re still not you. Your priorities are your own. So how do you get started if you’re not even sure yet what those priorities are? How do you know what institutions of higher learning will play to your strengths?

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Susan Weatherly was the beneficiary of good advice, growing up as the offspring of a college professor who taught in the Psychology Department at SUNY New Paltz, Donald Schiff. But when it came time for her to make her own choice for an undergraduate destination, she still had some surprises in store. “When I visited SUNY Albany, I couldn’t even get out of the car. I’d heard that it was a good school, but all I saw was concrete,” she recalls. When she ended up at SUNY Oneonta to pursue her BS in Business Economics, it was largely the excellent campus tour that sold her on it. As a community, Oneonta seemed “much like New Paltz,” but Weatherly also gives a lot of credit to the “amazing tour guide” who showed off the institution, introducing prospective students and their parents to faculty members they encountered along the way.

That experience made such a positive impression on her that Weatherly volunteered to become a guide herself, learning the fine art of talking animatedly and answering questions while walking backwards and not bumping into anything. “I worked for the Admissions Office all four years,” she recounts. On one of those tours, another student came up to her and said, “You’re the reason I’m here.” Clearly, SUNY Oneonta knew what it was doing when it came to showing the place off.

That encounter nudged Weatherly further in a direction where her footsteps — even when turned backwards — were leading anyway: wanting to help shepherd young people through the college admissions process. After getting her degree, she went to work as the Culinary Institute of America’s sole recruitment officer, bearing the title of director of enrollment services by the end of her 13 years there. Her next professional position was at SUNY Ulster, again as the sole recruiter, and she stayed for 12 years, finishing up in 2011 as director of admissions. Weatherly then went back to SUNY New Paltz to earn her MPS in Humanistic Multicultural Education. Wishing to work with economically disadvantaged urban students, she became admissions director at the Art Institute of New York City, commuting from Ulster County six days a week.

After two years, that institution folded, and Weatherly found herself faced with an unexpected opportunity to “start my own business — something I’ve wanted to do forever. I wanted to help parents and students get through the process of applying to college.” With all her years of immersion in the “front end” of recruiting and admissions offices — “the first door they walk through” — she had parsed all the challenges of that process into a carefully broken-down step-by-step approach, organized to help students know in advance what questions they should be asking about potential places to pursue the higher education that’s right for them. And that’s the service she’s hawking nowadays, through her consulting company called Steps to College. She offered a free “Finding the Right College” workshop this past Tuesday at the New Paltz Community Center, and is currently networking with high school guidance counselors and other education professionals as well as aspiring college students and their parents.

Every collegebound student is different, and a college that looks terrific on paper or has a good reputation is not going to be the best choice for everybody. The trick is “finding the college that fits you,” Weatherly says. “Admissions professionals don’t look for reasons to reject students; they look for reasons to accept students. My goal is to make it a positive experience… I want you to succeed, and that means you need to know what the expectations of the college are.”

Aside from a strong familiarity with the choices of colleges available in the US, based on her 30+ years of experience in the field, Weatherly knows all the tricks of the trade about what to ask a recruiter, or how to “break the script” of the docent providing the campus tour to get more specific information. She guides her clients through the layers of educational bureaucracy, recommending where exactly to go to get the information you need.

The matchmaking process begins with a battery of “interest inventories” that help a high-schooler (or veteran, or midlife career-changer) zero in on what kind of degree suits his or her strengths — but also to troubleshoot weaknesses that might make a desired educational/career trajectory unnecessarily stressful. The size of a school matters; so does its social, cultural and political climate. The availability of sports is crucial to some students, unimportant to others. Even the quality of dining-hall food matters. Once the first Steps to College are completed, clients have a much clearer sense of what to look for, and Weatherly can begin to make recommendations of schools to research further.

Her search process is broken down according to academic, social and financial criteria. Once the student has identified some appealing candidates, Weatherly helps him or her schedule campus visits and strategize how to get the most useful information from them. She helps applicants understand each school’s admissions criteria and the documentation needed to apply. While many families first approach the “Which college?” decision with the question, “What can we afford?” Weatherly recommends looking at the financial requirements last, once you’ve found some good fits. While “Financial aid is not a given,” it can sometimes be found in unexpected places, if you’re the right student for a particular school, she notes.

Even after a client has been accepted by the school of his or her choice, there are a few Steps to College left to negotiate. Weatherly will continue to advise you on preparation for success in the school environment, and check in with you once you’re there to see how you’re managing. It’s a soup-to-nuts service. The pricetag? $3,000 for the comprehensive package, but specific steps can be broken out for those who don’t need them all.

The S in the Steps to College logo resembles a spiral staircase, and that’s a deliberate design choice, Susan Weatherly says. Like careers in this ever-changing modern world, getting the right education for you is “not necessarily a straight path. It can be a winding road. That’s why knowing how to navigate those steps to your advantage is so important.”

To learn more about the Steps to College program or schedule a free consultation, call (845) 419-3506 or e-mail sweatherly@thestepstocollege.com. More info, including Weatherly’s helpful blog, is available online at http://thestepstocollege.com.

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