Navigating the Funnel
Advice from some experts on the college search
By Lisa M. Cania M’82 and Rachel B. Peterson ’04
First-year students at St. Lawrence likely began their college search
two or three years earlier. Many were in contact with St. Lawrence
for much of that period, with visits, calls, e-mails exchanged to gather
information. Others complete their search process in relative anonymity,
revealing their interest only with a last-minute application. Approximately
3,000 students apply to St. Lawrence every year; about 60% are considered
well matched and receive an offer to attend and of these, 30%-35% comprise
a first-year class of about 550. Admissions professionals describe
the process as something like navigating a funnel; prospective students
may feel they’re looking at the broad end of the funnel, too,
as they consider their hundreds of options.
Behind this process are many people. The admissions staff visit schools
nationwide and interview and correspond with prospective students to
help them best understand St. Lawrence; college counselors in high
schools and secondary schools help students sort through their goals
and complete their applications; parents share ideas and concerns,
sometimes setting such parameters as distance from home, cost and size.
When the students arrive in August, they seem to be a perfect fit.
In fact, most of them will determine that St. Lawrence is the right
place for them. It’s not by serendipity that students select
their college, as this issue of the University’s magazine will
We asked Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Terry Cowdrey, as well
as alumni and parents who counsel prospective students, to offer advice
about the college search process. Joining Cowdrey in a virtual conversation
are Susan Boyle ’90, assistant vice president for admissions
and marketing, Naropa University; Joanne Rotella Honeywell ’80,
guidance counselor, Bethlehem Central High School, Delmar, N.Y.; Jackie
Pinover’75, guidance counselor, Colton-Pierrepont School, Colton,
N.Y.; Jamyn Moore Sheff, college counselor and language department
chair, Lawrence Academy, Groton, Mass., and parent of Dan’00;
and Susan Kastner Tree ’74, director of college counseling, Westtown
School, Westtown, Pa.
What is your favorite advice for students preparing to begin
the college search process, or for parents?
Boyle: Communication between parents and students is the most important
part of the process. I encourage a heart-to-heart conversation about
what the student is looking for in a school. Parents are often surprised
to hear what their children are interested in. Establish ground rules,
setting up regular conversations so everyone feels informed. This is
about the student’s development, so it is very important that
parents communicate that they will be supportive of whatever decision
their child makes. The choice of college is not about what bumper sticker
to put on their car. It is finding out where their child’s passions
will be nurtured and supported.
Cowdrey: A very practical piece of advice for parents:
consider having college search discussions by e-mail. Because it’s more impersonal
than face-to-face communications, e-mail can eliminate the sometimes
difficult relationship issues that parents and students can experience
with the college search. With e-mail, it’s harder to “hear” tone
of voice and even harder to see facial expressions that can discourage
communication. Plus, the writers get the chance to complete their thoughts,
so they can learn more about and from each other.
Sheff: My advice is the same for both students and parents: 1) Open
your mind! There are so many excellent colleges out there and many
students and parents confine their investigations to only a few. 2)
Don’t judge how “good” a college is by how selective
it is. How good a college is depends on how that college suits the
student’s needs and desires. It is a place where that student
is comfortable, is appropriately challenged, and can continue to develop
the confidence to become the best student and person he or she can
How do you advise students to begin to search for colleges?
Tree: Students need to think long and hard about what kind of environment
will empower them. What do they need to do with their non-academic
time in order to feel happy, accomplished, rewarded? College should
not be about being in a safe cocoon where everything is comfortable
and predictable. College should be a springboard for a life of risk-taking,
adventure and growth. No one can rank colleges according to the potential
quality of your experience there. You have to create your
own list of important factors, do the research, and come up with your
own rankings. I recommend that a family invest in one encyclopedia
(like Barron’s) and one of the better-researched “underground” guides
such as Fiske. Students who dig deep into Web sites and make
connections with current students and faculty involved in fields of
study and activities in which they are interested really strike gold.
Pinover: I like to have my students think about what
they want in a college—size, competitiveness, region, cost, etc.—and
then once they’ve figured out what categories are most important,
use online search engines to find colleges that match their criteria.
Also, I encourage students to look for schools with a strong alumni
How do you advise students who are really indecisive? Cowdrey:
I’d try to understand the reasons. I’m concerned that high
school is losing its inherent worth. Students should be using high school
to develop their interests and goals, and then finding colleges that
meet their aspirations and value their attributes. Instead, I see students
establishing a goal for a particular college and then shaping themselves
to be attractive to that school.
Tree: Do something else between high school and college! If indecision is
a commitment or confidence issue, grow up some before spending all that time
and money and potentially racking up a low GPA that will follow you. Take some
time to work with your hands, do community service, live in another culture.
Don't stay in your comfort zone — get out and experience life and grow
your confidence, judgment and communication skills. Go through the college
application process while you have the support of your guidance or college
counselor; then defer and buy time. Colleges are happy to grant admitted students
a semester or year's deferral; they know that the student they enroll a year
later will be more ready to take advantage of opportunities and more likely
to contribute in positive ways.
Pinover: I really encourage a strong liberal arts background because that’s
how to make leaps in the job market. Liberal arts schools teach communication
Once a student has made a decision, how do you know it was a
good decision? Honeywell: Beyond my "gut feeling," I try
to identify factors. Is the school the student's choice, or the parents'? Was
the decision based solely on financial aid? Is the distance appropriate for this
student and his or her circumstances? (Some students thrive on the independence
that distance can offer, while others need the security and continued support
of being closer to home.) Was the decision based on academics or athletics? These
factors help me "feel" whether the school is a good match for the student.
Tree: I always tell my seniors that they will change more in their college
years than during any other four-year period in their lives. It is a time of
accelerated growth because of newfound independence coupled with a richness
of academic and social opportunities. Students often discover new talents and
interests, so that the college they chose (for all the right reasons) is no
longer a good fit. Students may find that they need to transfer after one or
two years because they need more academic challenge, less academic pressure,
different academic opportunities, a less competitive level of athletic competition — all
valid and respectable reasons. Transferring is not a disaster; it may be the
result of increased self-awareness.
How do you know when a college succeeds with a student? Honeywell:
Grades are just one measure of success. Surviving the first month living with
a stranger or strangers in your room is a success. Learning to share a bathroom
with many strangers is a success. Getting yourself to class on time with no mom
or dad waking you is a success. But I guess I know a college is successful when
a student tells me, "I love being home but I can't wait to go back!"
Sheff: Confidence is key. A college succeeds with a student if the student
comes out with the confidence to take the next steps in life. This comes from
a college that provides a good balance of support and challenge, as well as
stimulus to grow. High school is a time when students mature a lot, and college
should continue that process. I consider our son Dan’s experience at
St. Lawrence a wonderful example of how a college succeeds with a student.
He connected with teachers there who truly cared about him and who convinced
him that he was a good student and urged him on to greater accomplishment.
They believed in him and that made him believe in himself.
St. Lawrence Admissions At a Glance
Early Decision: Apply by one of the following dates and be notified one month
later: November 15 or January 15
Regular Decision: Apply by February 15 with notification in late March.
70% of students qualify for need-based assistance, including grants, loans
and campus employment. The average St. Lawrence grant received by the Class
of 2007 (most recent statistics) is $15,931.
Legacy Grants: St. Lawrence awards $10,000 grants ($2,500 a year for four
years) to the children, grandchildren and siblings of alumni or current students,
regardless of financial need.
Scholarships: Merit scholarships range from $7,500 to $15,000 annually and
are awarded to students based on academic and co-curricular achievement. Categories:
Augsbury/North Country, Community Service, Presidential Diversity, University,
1856, and Vilas (for those interested in business).
Lisa Cania is associate vice president for University relations; her own college
search took her to Wells College. Rachel Peterson was Cania’s intern in