The Search

Episode One Transcript

 

Lee Coffin:
From Dartmouth College, I'm Lee Coffin, vice provost for enrollment, and dean of admissions and financial aid. Welcome to The Search.

[MUSICAL INTRO]

Hello from my living room, here in Hanover, New Hampshire. Like all of you, I've been working remotely since late March, and this podcast is my way of reaching beyond my sofa to offer some guidance as your college search begins from home. You can't come to us, and we can't come to you, so I'm pod-ding into your life, and I think I just invented a verb.

As our shut-in spring inches towards a stay at home summer, I'm sitting on the floor with my dog, Logan, by my side, as I record this conversation with you via Zoom. This podcast won't be slick, but it will be sincere, as I share what my colleagues would have shared with you, had COVID-19 not interrupted your junior spring. Yet, life goes on, we can't keep blinking into the future and saying, "What if?" I'm an optimist, and I'm looking ahead, as I invite you to join me on this podcast, which I'm seeing as a conversation in many parts that becomes a roadmap for you to adopt as much of it, or as little of it, as you need to move forward.

The podcast will offer you, students from around the world I hope, advice about the college admission process. We'll talk about how do you research the best school for you, what counts when you apply, and someone like me reads your application. How do you tell your story in a powerful way? How do you navigate the important question of affordability, and the maze that can sometimes be financial aid? How do you figure out a college's vibe, particularly if you can't go to the campus right now? How do you join an American college if you live outside the United States? Our focus throughout this pod series will be on helping you carve a path for yourself.

But, let me be clear about an important point, as we meet each other. This is not a podcast about admissions in a global health crisis, but it was inspired by the consequences of the pandemic. In mid-March, I was wandering around McNutt Hall at Dartmouth, my campus was buzzing with juniors and their parents, as you started visiting for info sessions and campus tours, as the snow was just starting to recede in New Hampshire. Admission officers were planning spring travel, where we were anticipating meeting you at college fairs, at high school visits, at case studies. And then, everything stopped. It was like the Road Runner had hit the edge of the cliff, and we were all peaking over the edge. I think the Road Runner has a different path ahead of him.

If you're wondering how to start your search, how to plan an application, how to think about testing, and financial aid, and the essays, and you're doing all this from your bedroom, which is now a classroom, I know how you feel.

My own college search was hardly well conceived, certainly wasn't very strategic, and yet, here I am. I'm the oldest of five kids, I was the first in my family to earn a college degree. That's now known as first gen, but when I was a senior in high school it just meant I was clueless. I really had no idea how to get to college, although I always knew that was my goal. I attended a large public high school in Connecticut, which I now appreciate was an under-resourced place, particularly around guidance counseling, and we had a huge student to counselor ratio.

So, my first visit to the guidance office was October of my senior year, I made an appointment to see my guidance counselor. I went in as a straight A student, I was the president of the National Honor Society. He pulled out my transcript, he looked at it, and he said, "Ugh, I don't have time for the smart ones, go back to class. Here's an application to the University of Connecticut," and that was it. I went back to class. As it happened, a bit of serendipity, I had a makeup exam in chemistry a couple days later, my teacher give me a ride home. She asked the question everybody asks high school seniors so, "Where are you applying to college?" I said, "I don't know."

As double luck would have it, her husband was a guidance counselor in a nearby town. She said, "Why don't you come over after dinner later this week, with your dad? Bring your report card, and we'll take a look." I did that, and all of a sudden, opportunity opened in front of me. I had a list, I had something to do some research on, and getting started moving forward. That experience taught me something really important, that there are students around the world doing really well in high school, they don't necessarily have the resources in school or at home to make a plan and follow it. That motivated me, many years ago, to be a college admission officer, I wanted to be a resource to students like me, who knew that college was their future but didn't necessarily know how to make it happen.

I've been doing this for over 30 years, at this point. The last 25 of them, I've been a dean at Dartmouth for the last four, at Tufts University for 13, at Connecticut College for six, and for a couple of years at Milton Academy, an independent school near Boston. I also worked as a freshman proctor at Harvard, as well as a freshman advisor at Tufts while I was there, so I have some experience thinking about how do students arrive at college, and build off their admissions experience, and make the first year fall a meaningful one. That's me, I'm here to help.

I will invite into this conversation, from episode to episode, students, fellow admission officers, some college counselors, maybe a journalist or two, to help you think about the search, help you think about the questions you need answers for. And together, I think we'll have some fun as we think about this, and get you started on what should be a really exciting moment in your junior year, and into your senior year.

As my first guest, I've invited two high school seniors who both just enrolled at Dartmouth College. They come from really different places. Jack is in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Aditi is in Phoenix, Arizona. But, their search brings them to the same place, that is a path to Hanover, New Hampshire next fall. I'm excited to begin the podcast from a student perspective, and they will share their thoughts with you about where they were a year ago, how their search ended in this virtual space, and what lessons that might transfer to your beginning, that helped them pick the college that ended up being the right fit for them.

Maybe tell us a little about each of your schools. You're in Phoenix, you're in Charlottesville. What kind of support did you have in your respective schools, as you launched your college search?

Aditi:
Okay. I go to this school called BASIS Phoenix, and it's in North Phoenix, kind of an industrial part of town. It's a very diverse school, we have a great Latino and Asian minority. I don't know, it's a very diverse school. There's always been a lot of people from different backgrounds, so people's college searches are drastically different.

There is one segment of people who always apply to elite schools and things, and then there's another segment that goes to community college, or state school, or something like that. It's been very interesting, and therefore the guidance we get is very multi-faceted. Because some people are, again, trying to get recruited for sports, et cetera, et cetera.

But, I would say around spring 2019, I honestly did not know a lot of the college experience or anything about it. I thought I was going to apply to two or three schools, and I ended up applying to more than 20.

Lee Coffin:
Oh my God! Okay, we'll come back to that, more than 20.

Aditi:
Yeah, every time I added a new app my mom was like, "Don't do this."

Lee Coffin:
Last spring, when you started doing your research, did your guidance counselor give you a list, did you come up with options on your own? How did you start?

Aditi:
Yeah, I don't think that started in spring, to be honest, I think that was more of the time of me being like, so I should make a resume, so there's a common app, that starting factor.

Yeah, eventually I gave them a list, and then they cut it down a lot. Then, we kept going back and forth. I think that yeah, I did definitely get some guidance. Not as much as some other people who have private counselors and stuff, because again our counselor had a lot of kids. But, I really liked how they learned each kids' name and things like that, that's really important to me, just connecting and knowing why everyone's unique.

Lee Coffin:
Okay.

Aditi:
Yeah, I would say around spring I was in the boat of a lot of today's juniors, except they're probably a little bit more confused than I was.

Lee Coffin:
Yeah, okay. That's helpful. How about you, Jack?

Jack:
Yeah, I actually had a pretty similar experience. In Charlottesville, Virginia, I go to Charlottesville High School, it's a public, very diverse high school. Some people are going to extremely rigorous college, four-year programs, some people are going to community college, some people are joining the workforce, some are going to the Armed Services. There's a very broad array of students. But, my parents have always been pushing me to stay on that and build that list really quickly. Like Aditi, my list ended up being over 20 schools as well that I applied to, which was a lot of individual working on my own. But, I also think I did some of that by choice, because I felt comfortable with working with my parents just because I had an older brother that they did this for, they know a lot of the process already.

Lee Coffin:
As you started exploring, and maybe visiting last year, but exploring, finding things on the internet, where did you start? What jumped out that might be applicable to the juniors this year?

Jack:
For me, I always knew that I wanted to go into theater, but not exclusively theater. I wanted to have a very balanced education, so a place that really emphasized a well rounded liberal arts education was something I really wanted, and I knew that immediately. The schools that stuck out were the schools that really praised that idea, and really talked a lot about how they want their students to have a well-rounded education while they were there. Because of that, that started my search, and I was able to find similar programs and schools from there. But, I knew I wanted a solid theater program that also had pretty strong academics as well, personally.

Lee Coffin:
Okay. That was your list, how did you know that? Did you use the college board website, did you use a guide book? What resource helped you figure out where strong theater existed?

Jack:
Yeah, I definitely used college board a lot. I looked up, literally, build a college list and there are plenty of websites that have lists of schools. I looked at top 10 theater programs in the nation, and then I would click on each school. Then, look at other programs that existed. I just surfed the internet a lot, looking around on different resources like that.

Lee Coffin:
Okay. You found that valuable?

Jack:
Yeah, it was extremely helpful, definitely.

Lee Coffin:
Okay. How about Aditi, what started your search?

Aditi:
I started off not knowing what I wanted. For example, when I read about flexible versus core curriculums, most of them sounded appealing in different ways, because what I was craving was really just diversity in classes. Every time I read a course catalog for any college, I drooled, it was so much better than high school. I was like, "Where's AP Calculus? This is all so interesting, and specific."

That struggle of finding what kind of curriculum I wanted took a really long time. Even urban versus rural, I thought there was appeals to both, being in a big city, or being isolated and connecting more with your community than the outside city. So, it took a long time to pare down what I even wanted. It honestly took until after February to realize what I was going for, there.

But, I ended up deciding on that flexible curriculum. I would say the most helpful thing for me was just college blogs, on their website. I know most people say they're biased, but I like hearing about the students, I like just hearing about their days and things like that, even hearing the drawbacks.

Another thing that was really useful is I found out how to connect to other students. I would even DM students on Instagram and say, "Hey, you're at a college that I'm applying to. Can you tell me everything you hate about this place? Or, that you love?" It was very interesting. I honestly think connecting directly with students is the best option.

Lee Coffin:
We get that feedback every year, that the peer to peer dialogue is really powerful. Finding a peer that can give you a true, lived experience is, I think, really valuable. That got you going, you started to sort your lists. How did vibe start to emerge, as you met places? The blogs, it sounds like, for Aditi. Jack, did you have a similar vibe filter that you were looking for?

Jack:
Oh, definitely. For me, it was actually the website, specifically. I would look at ... I've looked at so many college websites now, looking at a bunch of schools, and they all have this same, normally general format, of different tabs. Where one would be academics, one admissions, and events, alumni, whatever. I noticed that there were so many schools that, for some reason, I don't know why, I couldn't understand why for this, but the student life area on the website was hidden at the bottom of a drop down menu, and I couldn't find it.

It made me realize what different schools prioritized, or at least seem like they prioritized to me. I knew that, obviously while I want to get a very good, well rounded education, I also want to enjoy it, and have a fun college experience for the next four years. When schools didn't quite talk as much about their student life, or didn't try to express that with prospective students, it pushed me away a little bit because I knew that I wanted to go to a school that had a strong sense of community.

Lee Coffin :
Were there turnoffs, as you did that? Were there things that you would wander into and say, "Well, this isn't really helpful?"

Jack:
Yeah, definitely. There were certain aspects of a school that I feel like were very prioritized, and shoved in a person's face, that I didn't care about as much. A lot of the specific stats of a school, a lot of places would talk a lot about their numbers, and specifically percentages, and percentiles, and scores and stuff like that.

I didn't care as much about the numerical standpoint of a school, I really wanted to look more at the vibe, and the general feeling because I wanted to feel like a person and not a number, or a statistic. I wanted to go to a school that cared about me, as a person. I definitely felt like some schools were very, very focused on stats, and yields, and numbers and everything, and I didn't like that as much.

Lee Coffin:
Yeah, parents like those things.

Jack:
Yeah.

Aditi:
Yes, they do.

Lee Coffin:
How did you start to narrow it down, as you moved through April? I think the parallel for the recruitment side of this is what virtual conversations really helped you move forward?

Aditi:
I think there's two conversations. For the juniors listening, one, you're going to have to have a very real conversation with your parents that you may have been avoiding since junior year, about where they see you ending up in all those things, and whether your goals are on the same page. Whether they think either it's worth it to send you here, or what they're hoping for you. I was communicating with a lot of my friends, because most of my friends are seniors during this process, and they just had some disjointing, almost, in experience. It's important to have those conversations, first and foremost, when you get your acceptances. Then, afterwards when you start to narrow it down, I would recommend doing every student event ever, we joined a lot. Jack and I even planned a couple with Dartmouth, like some Zoom calls for networking, things like that. We have a movie night on Friday, we're still picking the movie.

Jack:
Yeah, I guess for me, when it came down to narrowing down my list, I compartmentalized my schools. I noticed that some were very similar, and I ended up having different groupings. I had large, big state public schools, and then smaller, liberal arts schools. They were all over the place, so from there I started it in each category and figured out which schools I was most passionate about. Then, ended up having to choose between the different categories, and choosing a size and everything, which was stressful.

But, I think actually what was most helpful for me was talking to current students, and admitted students, and the social media events. Even on Group Mes and different chats, you get different vibes from different people, and figuring out stuff about the school just from that alone. So, I definitely think that just reaching out, and not being afraid to just talk to people will really help a lot, and you'll discover a lot more about schools that way.

Lee Coffin:
Let me back you up a little bit, to a different part of this journey you were just on. When it came time to fill out our application, how did you tell your story? One of the things, as admission officers, we invite kids ... You've got your transcript, and it's got courses and grades, you have testing that amplifies your courses and grades. But, a big part of the introduction of you to us is the way you frame your personal narrative. How did you each tackle that one?

Jack:
Well for me, when it comes to the common app personal essay, at least, I was forced to write that junior year as an English assignment, and obviously I changed it a lot. But, when it came down to just thinking about that, I just didn't want to take a normal approach that I would have to writing an essay, and I just wanted to wait and see what came to me, and think about what's most important about me that I want to share. It ended up being about my sexuality, and how I came to terms with that. I was literally trying to go to sleep one night, the spring of my junior year, and it just hit me like a truck and I just started writing. I wrote it all in one sitting, and then I edited it, and revised it a lot.

But, it just came out of nowhere. I don't want to say it was just a random moment of clarity that I had, but it definitely wasn't a normal approach that I took to most of the other parts of the process. I guess, from there I knew that was the important part of me that I wanted to share. It just felt like the most personal, honest aspect of my life that I felt like colleges had to know. I knew that it was wanted to write about because after writing the essay, I knew that if I got rejected from a school, it would sting for some, definitely. But, at the same time, if a school saw that aspect of me and still didn't think I was the right fit, then I would be able to accept that it wasn't the right fit because this is the most honest and true form of myself. And, it's not meant to be if it doesn't work out that way, because I'm sharing and being so honest. From there, I guess I just framed what I valued most. I think I cared a lot about how my past would shape my future, so I talked a lot about past experiences, and I translated that into what I want to do in the future, and how they connected with each other. That's what I proposed most on my application, I would say.

Lee Coffin:
No, that's great. Well, the word we use all the time when we give advice is be authentic. Don't tell us something you think we want to know, which I hear a lot of students say. "Well, I'm doing community service because it looks good." I'm like, "Don't look good if it's not sincere." But, the way you frame a narrative, it's got to be a reflection of yourself as you want us to meet you. In the Dartmouth example, we have a lot of applicants, and we can't take everybody. So, the shaping that goes on towards the end of the process, where we're asking, how do we make this community interesting, and dynamic, and diverse, and lively, and the only way we do that is by the way you have shared your story with us. Aditi, how did you tackle storytelling?

Aditi:
Yeah, definitely. I wanted to tell a really close, personal, sincere story but that's not really who I am. My friends like to say I'm lighthearted, so I took a lot of their advice. I had a lot of loved ones read every single draft I wrote. Half of them, they were like, "This doesn't sound like you, this isn't you. You can't submit it, because you're trying to be honest."

Actually, I had the inspiration for my real Com app, it is my desk.

For everyone listening, there is checks, and water bottles, and duct tape, and political stickers, and a lot of other stuff on my desk. I wrote it about how it's very messy, and a reflection of my life, since my mom likes to say I talk like I have 40 tabs open in my brain. I wrote about how while that, for some people, may show juvenility, or a lack of maturity or something else, or a lack of commitment, for me it displays an interest in diverse issues, and a form of passion, so I wrote about that. It ended up being a little bit more serious than it started off to be, but it took so, so, so many drafts to get to that point.

Honestly, yeah my biggest advice when it comes to essay writing and storytelling is have someone who knows your story read it. If that isn't your family and friends, if it's some close English teacher, people always have those connections with English teachers. If it's them, if it's anyone else, if it's an old camp counselor, honestly anyone who knows you, they should be reading it and telling you if it sounds like you.

Lee Coffin:
To that, one of the tips I give students is write a draft, hand it to someone you know and say, "What headline would you put on this piece of writing?" Or, "If you were going to tweet about it, how would you distill the content of this essay down to 160 characters?" If you hear back a headline or a tweet that doesn't sound like what you wanted the reader to take away, time to rewrite it because the way you presented it didn't line up with the way someone's interpreting it.

But, what's also interesting is you both answered that question is, Jack had a moment of epiphany in the middle of the night, where he just popped up and wrote it, and you wrote draft, after draft, after draft, until you ... It's like, neither one was right or wrong, you both came to your storytelling in the way that was organic to either your comfort with being spontaneous, and feeling like this is true, or you had 40 tabs open in your brain, and it took you while to click through them all, and get to it. I'll tell you, just as a little insight, that I peaked at your applications before we went on the pod, and the things you're talking about came through. You introduced yourself in really lively ways, that helped the admission committee "meet you," and I see meet with air quotes, because we didn't meet you until just now, in a way that was more dynamic than just saying, "Here are two students with lots of As, and nice testing." Here are two people that can join a community like the one we're trying to frame, and make it a richer experience for you and your peers. If you could go back into either a year ago, as the search was starting, or as you started to apply, would you change anything about the way you ... Now that you've got the wisdom of being a senior in high school whose got a college sweatshirt that you can say, "That's mine."

Jack:
I think one of the things I would change would be I wouldn't want to focus on the name of the school as much. For me, a lot of it was about a reputation, because there are certain schools that I just heard more about because they have larger academic or artistic reputations. I think I would have taken a second to just look at a school for what it is, instead of it's name, or reputation, or famous alumni that went there 40, 50 years ago. Schools change a lot, and there's so much to a school besides just it's title, and I think I would tell my junior self to look at every school honestly and openly, and not focus as much about what I've heard about it from random, other sources, based solely on reputation.

Lee Coffin:
Yeah, great. I love the way you just said, "what I would tell my junior self," that's a good way of imagining it. How about you, Aditi?

Aditi:
I would agree with what Jack said. And then, I would also have added on, take more advice from people around me, especially people who went through college in the US. My main source has always been my parents, who didn't go to college here, and they learned about the college process side by side of my learning it.

Lee Coffin:
Oh, interesting.

Aditi:
That's been very interesting. Yeah, we were reading the same books, we were like, "What? What? Okay." Each step was just so interesting for us. Yeah, I would have moved our whole ... All of this started around summer of junior year, before senior year, so I would have moved that back a few months is one thing, because we had a lot of learning to do in a little time.

Lee Coffin:
That's really interesting. Now, you both seem like happy, optimistic people, so this next question might not make sense. But, what stressed you out?

Jack:
Oh, everything. [crosstalk 00:26:52]. This senior fall was definitely very stressful, I think especially applying to over 20 schools. Which I'm not going to specifically not recommend that to anyone listening, but definitely don't force yourself to apply to a bunch of schools if you don't feel comfortable doing that, or don't want to do it.

Lee Coffin:
Yeah. The dean's going to interrupt and say don't apply to 20 schools, that's too many.

Aditi:
I'm going to second that.

Jack:
It was a lot, it was a bit excessive. But, I think just not only doing the amount of work about writing a bunch of essays, and having to feel like you're sharing yourself with a bunch of people, and trying to wrap yourself up in a nice little package to give to somebody. But, on top of that, I guess, a lot of what I was dealing with was still coming to terms with the fact that, in a year, I would be a in totally new environment. I knew I wanted to go out of state, I knew I wanted to go further away, so moving out of my hometown, meeting totally new people, I think just dealing with the fact that a lot of the things you experience your senior year are going to be the last time you ever experience something like that, on top of doing all of that work, it was definitely a very stressful time. But, this sounds so cliché, but the only thing I can say about that is that it'll get better, just keep doing it, and pushing through, and doing the work. But also, appreciating the time that you have with your loved ones, and where you are, because that will change. Acknowledge it, but also keep going, I guess, if that makes sense.

Lee Coffin:
Were you a stress ball, too?

Aditi:
I would second part of what he said, in the part of just developing a sudden love for your hometown when you realize you're going to leave it. I was like, "God, I miss 120 degree weather, I'm going to miss every single part of it."

Lee Coffin:
But it's a dry heat, right?

Aditi:
That's what we say.

Lee Coffin:
I know that's what you say.

Aditi:
But yeah, I've lived here my whole life, so every time I drove by some old place we used to eat with my friends or anything like that, I would just have so much nostalgia. Yeah, just realizing that, and the last 17 years of my life were about getting out of my hometown. Then, this last year I was like, "Oh wait, now I'm going to miss it."

Lee Coffin:
That's really interesting. You're both, in response to this question about stress, you've both pointed towards nostalgia. Like, part of the stress was this wistfulness about moving on. That's kind of poetic.

Aditi:
Thank you so much.

Lee Coffin:
You're very welcome. Guys, thank you both for spending some time with me on The Search. I look forward to welcoming you to Hanover.

Jack:
Thank you so much.

Lee Coffin:
You're welcome.

Jack:
This has been so much fun.

Lee Coffin:
Thanks! Awesome. I hope you can tell how much I enjoyed that conversation with Jack and Aditi, and I had many moments where I stepped back and thought, wow, these are seniors in high school, and they're so poised, and charming. Their stories helped start this podcast, and to give us lots of important topics that we'll come to in future episodes, as we think about storytelling, and fit, and how to make a list, and check it twice, and understand what is the set of criteria you ought to each be using to frame your search, and the one that makes sense for you at this moment in your life.

We'll bring in some experts, also, to talk about a really important part of your search, which is affordability, and how you and your parents can asses affordability and price as part of your understanding of which college is the best one for you.

Next week, we'll be back with what I'm calling act one, the beginning of your search, with two college counselors who will share practical insights from their roles on what we call the other side of the desk, in schools, working one on one with students and parents, as a search takes shape. Look forward to our future conversations.

Here we go, The Search is on.

[MUSIC OUTRO]

Thanks for joining us for this episode of The Search. This podcast is brought to you by Dartmouth College, and we look forward to meeting you again on our next episode.