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Lee Capristo
Director of Publications
Email: lwcapristo@smcm.edu
Anne Arundel 100

Guiding the College Process One Student at a Time

Written by Amanda Jones Zimmerman '01

St. Mary's alumna Amanda Jones Zimmerman, now a guidance counselor in upstate New York, works with a student to help her choose colleges to apply to.

Each fall, there is a long line of students outside my high school counselor's office door. Some are accompanied by nervous parents, others are wide-eyed and eager. All are looking for some insight into the elusive college application process. What schools should I look at, they ask? Does it matter if I don't know my major? How important are my SAT scores? How can I write an essay that will make a difference? Do senior year courses matter? How can I get a scholarship? I have the answers, although the college process has become like a new language in my life.

When I was 17 and going through the process myself, I never envisioned that I would fi nd myself an expert in this field. My school counselor in Connecticut had heard about St. Mary's College of Maryland and I visited the campus on a whim in December of my senior year. I fondly remember the first time I crossed the causeway into St. Mary's City and the land gave way to the St. Mary's River. When my mother and I accidently walked into Calvert Hall and came across a student wearing a yarmulke and whistling, I knew we had found a special place. The next day, I decided to spend the next four years of my life at St. Mary's - I had no idea I would stay even longer and that my time there would lay the groundwork for who I would become.

During that first visit to St. Mary's, I met Rich Edgar, director of admissions. He made the process of choosing the right college exciting and helped me to trust my gut instinct. Once at school, I ended up working for Admissions as a tour guide for prospective students.

Then, after graduation, I accepted a position in the college's Admissions Office. I enjoyed the travel and the chance to share the experience of St. Mary's with potential future students. I also was inspired by many of the high school students and counselors I met, and decided to get my master's degree in counseling.

It was an easy transition when I started working at Patuxent High School in nearby Lusby in 2005. And today I am the counselor at Holley High School near Rochester, New York.

As a school counselor, no two days are the same. I work with many prospective first-generation college students who value higher education and the opportunities that were not available to their parents. It helps when I can tell them I worked in a college admissions office.

Through careful observation and listening, I have helped place hundreds of students at institutions across the country using a set of principles that have not changed much over the years. The most basic principle is guiding my students to find and fulfill their potential.

Ideally, students and their families should start to think about college early in high school. This allows students to understand that all four years of high school matter and that college preparation is a multi-year process. Students who start to think about college early tend to be more prepared academically, apply to fewer schools, get more scholarship money, and ultimately feel more confident through the entire process. On the other hand, students who do not see the big picture early tend to wait until senior year to responsively prepare academically, apply to large numbers of colleges without researching them extensively, and spend most of thesenior year tense and stressed, whichcan often result in hasty decisions. 

Some other thoughts: It is important or parents to trust their children to know whether or not a school is a good fit, and not force the bottom-line prices to be the only factor in selecting a school. Additionally, students need to pay attention to details when they visit campuses, which they should do before applying, and - as Rich taught me - trust their gut instincts.

Finally, both parents and students need to understand that putting hard work into the college application process will pay off in the end. This hard work needs to include early conversations about financing, determining the important factors in selecting schools, academic preparation that includes selecting the most challenging courses a student can be successful in (which does not necessarily mean getting an "A"), and putting 100% into the application process to ensure that students are more than a file folder or computer screen to colleges.

As the economy has changed, so too have the priorities of many families. Today, there is more thought given to jobs with security, and public institutions are in great favor. This does not change the approach I take; however, it has impacted where students have chosen to attend.

The college process is both a stressful and an exciting process that is the cycle of my professional life. This cycle will soon reset, with seniors anxiously waiting to hear from colleges and deciding their future plans, and juniors preparing to take the SAT and jump into the college process. The enthusiasm I continue to feel for the college process keeps me searching for new institutions and enjoying getting to know each year's seniors. I have found that with the right support and a little planning, finding the right college is something that everyone can do.