Questions for a Legendary Guidance Counselor

For nearly 40 years, college applicants in the New York suburbs have sought the wisdom of an extraordinary guidance counselor known as Smitty. He routinely contradicts parents and guidebooks. He tells kids not to choose a college based on an intended major, "because if you're like most youngsters you'll change that major three times before graduation." He goads top students to look beyond big-name campuses: "It's about the fit, not the brand." In boom times and recessions alike, Smitty urges high-school seniors to avoid taking on big loans: "It's better to have savings for grad school than to be handcuffed by $70,000 in debt."

With his silver-flecked hair and his gravelly voice, Gwyeth Smith Jr. has a way of making families listen to his unconventional notions. He sees the months- or years-long period of considering colleges and writing essays as a journey of self-discovery—America's rite of passage. He reassures parents with the message that where kids get into school is less important than how the process has prepared them to become critical thinkers.

I shadowed Smitty during his last two years at Long Island's Oyster Bay High School, leading up to his retirement in the summer of 2008. By then, he'd worked at six schools with students from all sorts of backgrounds. He'd sent them on to Princeton and Caltech, as well as his favorites—lesser-known campuses like Lewis & Clark College in Oregon, Miami University in Ohio and High Point University in North Carolina.

I told Smitty's story in a book, Acceptance: A Legendary Guidance Counselor Helps Seven Kids Find the Right Colleges—and Find Themselves. Smitty the guidance guru is now Smitty the admissions consultant. Forget economic malaise—he has a packed schedule of teenage clients, at $500 or more per session. Perhaps the most important point he makes: slow down! In Smitty's view, applying to college is all about dreaming. Yet he frequently tells seniors to defer their dreams and spend a year earning money or doing community service. That way, they will be ready not merely to get through college but to relish every day of it.

Here are Smitty's answers to questions gathered from parents and students by the editors of the NEWSWEEK-Kaplan College Guide.

What advice do you have for an average student who wants to go away but has no idea what to study?
Don't go to college next year. Instead, take a "gap year" to work, do community service or dabble in courses at a community college. Grow up, find a passion, save some money. You'll get far more out of college when you're ready—and not everyone is at age 18. College is too important and too expensive to waste on those who aren't prepared.

Is it worth doing the optional college interview?
The interview shows genuine interest in the college, allows the student to demonstrate interpersonal skills, interests, and maturity. At the same time, it's good to have questions about the college answered by a reliable source.

Do colleges really put ceilings on the number of students coming from a specific high school?
Admissions committees often accept a large number of applicants from a high school with extraordinary students, but even the biggest admirer of a high school would like to put some cap on the number of admitted kids. Keep this in mind: in their search for geographical diversity, selective colleges try to limit the number of acceptances from a region.

Are private college counselors worth the money?
As someone who spent almost four decades working in public schools, I'm sad to admit that private educational advisers often have more expertise and passion about admissions than school counselors. The best advisers constantly visit campuses to stay up to date. And as budgets are cut, counselors' loads are likely to increase in coming years. The good news is that i still meet many top-quality counselors at schools.

How many colleges should students apply to? How many should be safeties? How many reaches?
Ahhh, the numbers question. One of my students sent out 28 applications last year, and that was not a record. I think eight apps is more than enough. Ten and over means the student really isn't focused on what he or she wants. By the way, I don't like the term "safety"—who wants to end up spending four years at a "safety" campus, anyway? I call them "target" schools because a student's grades and test scores make them a good target.

Do you recommend applying early decision?
If you've found the college of your dreams, apply ED. After all, statistics show that early applicants have a better chance of admission. But if you're a typical 17-year-old who has changes of heart, avoid binding early applications.

Do colleges give preference to students who take advanced placement exams?
Admissions offices like AP exams because the A average at one high school is a B at the neighboring school, while scores on the tests are easy to compare. Yes, take AP courses, delve into them, and study for the exams.

What is the single most important element of the application? The essay? Grades? Standardized-test scores? Activities? And how do they rank in importance?
First, you need a rigorous program and top grades. Second, you should have high scores on standardized tests. Then write a great essay and get strong recommendation letters.

If students are close to 2100 on the SAT and/or 30 on the ACT, how many times do you recommend taking the tests to push them over the bar?
Do some self-assessment. If the scores are consistent, retesting probably won't boost them significantly. I recommend taking the tests no more than three times—and don't be afraid to try different kinds of test prep.

In this economic climate, are "need blind" schools really need-blind, or do students have a better chance of acceptance if they say they don't plan to ask for financial aid? Colleges are doing their best to honor the "need blind" policies, but quite a few endowments have tanked. I'm sorry to say that when you get beyond Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and others with billion-dollar reservoirs, a youngster's ability to pay can give them an edge over less-fortunate applicants.

How much do colleges weigh recommendation letters?
Some admissions officers are very influenced by a rec letter that gives a surprising insight into a student. That's why students should get to know teachers and counselors well.

Are there some schools that you should not apply to if your scores are mediocre?
I think schools place too much emphasis on scores, but if yours are well below a college's median, you'd better be a champion athlete or the inventor of gene therapy. Or you'd better have an administration building named after your family.

How useful do you think college rankings are for assessing which schools to apply to?
Parents hate to hear this, but I toss rankings in the trash. Come on, could you rank the best sports shirt? The fit matters, not the name. Also, it's not where you go but what you accomplish. Just ask kids who have dropped out of the most prestigious universities—the ideal school for one person is a nightmare for another.

Is it better to get lower grades in more challenging courses than straight A's in easier classes?
The most competitive colleges want it all, but they're especially keen on students who take challenging courses and do well. Relax, though. If the AP curriculum is too difficult, go for the lower-level class and make the most of it. Schools appreciate curiosity.

How important is it to visit a college before applying?
If you have any chance of visiting a school in advance, do so! Your parents wouldn't put a bid on a house before seeing it. If you can't get there, e-mail or call students and recent grads to ask them what they liked and disliked the most.

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