Bruce Vinik on A College Admissions Counselor Reminds Us to Slow Down

Bruce Vinik is a private college admissions counselor and founder of Vinik Educational Placement Services (EPS). recently spoke to him about admissions madness and how to balance life and college goals and still come out on top.

By Megan Driscoll

Bruce Vinik Vinik Educational Placement Services Vinik EPS college admissions college counselor get into college What, exactly, does a college admissions counselor do?

Bruce Vinik: College admissions counselors (or independent educational consultants, as we are known in the trade) help students and their families navigate the complex world of college admissions. We are dedicated to helping students find colleges that match their interests and to supporting them as they go through the different steps of the admissions process. Our goal is to assure that our clients end up at schools where they can be happy and successful and get everything they want out of their college experiences. What's your educational and professional background and how did that lead you to college admissions counseling?

BV: I have two degrees from Duke University - a B.A. in anthropology and an M.A. in history. After completing graduate school, I took a teaching job and discovered that I loved being in the classroom and working with kids.

Over the years, I had the opportunity to be a middle school and high school principal, director of admissions and financial aid, and director of college counseling in a couple of independent schools in the Washington, D.C. area. It was my positive experiences in admissions and college counseling that made the move to independent educational consulting a natural one for me. Many people fear that the college admissions game has become so high stakes that high school students (and their parents) are diving into it way too early. Do you think this is the case, and if so, what do you think created this situation?

BV: I do think that this is the case. It wasn't too long ago that students began the college admissions process during the second half of junior year; they understood that there was plenty of time to do everything (testing, college visiting, applications, essays) they needed to do to end up in a college where they could thrive.

I've seen a significant change in the last few years as increasing numbers of students are jumping into things during the first half of junior year or even earlier. While I could write a book about the many reasons for this change (from economic uncertainty to parental insecurity), I believe the underlying reason is the notion that getting into college is far more difficult than it actually is and that starting SAT tutoring in tenth grade is the way to develop an edge over the competition.

This misperception is fed by our collective focus on the fifteen or twenty most selective colleges in the country. And by 'our' I mean students, parents, the media and even some educational consultants. While it is true that admission to those schools is extraordinarily difficult, there are another 2,000 wonderful colleges that are happy to admit good, solid kids who don't have perfect SAT scores and haven't written the great American novel. We simply care too much about what happens at Harvard, Duke and Williams. On the other hand, some people say that it's never too early to think about your future. What do you think are the pluses and minuses of young people starting the college admissions process in their freshman and sophomore years of high school?

BV: While I agree that 'it's never too early to think about your future,' I believe it's the way you think about your future that's important. Certainly, all students entering high school should be thinking about earning good grades, taking the right courses and committing to extracurricular activities. And there's no question that many students whose families have not had access to higher education benefit from a college-oriented focus early in high school (and sometimes middle school).

But no one benefits when the four high school years become nothing more than a vehicle to get into a selective college. My greatest concern is that by encouraging kids to jump into the admissions race in ninth and tenth grades, we are extending the already long and demanding process of applying to college. The risk is burnout when senior year arrives. At the very time when students need to be most engaged with the admissions process, they may be too exhausted to give their best to applications and essays. Private college admissions counseling has been criticized for contributing to the educational access gap between high and low SES students. How do you respond to this issue and in what ways does your work help increase education access?

BV: Admissions consultants understand that they have an obligation to help bridge this gap in educational access; most do pro bono work through their own practices or community organizations that are dedicated to increasing access for traditionally underserved students. In fact, the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), the professional organization to which many consultants belong, encourages members to do charitable work and has, itself, contributed more than $250,000 in free programming to help parents and school-based counselors. In addition to admissions counseling, you give talks on education in the Washington, D.C. area. What other education topics are near and dear to your heart, and why?

BV: There are two issues that concern me. The first is the over-emphasis on standardized testing as a means of evaluating students and teachers. While testing does have its place, it tends to overlook some of the qualities that are essential to good learning and effective instruction. The teacher who inspires her students, the students who develop a love of learning or a passionate interest in a particular subject because of that teacher - how does testing measure those qualities?

The second issue is our increasing unwillingness to let teenagers be teenagers. As parents, too many of us spend too much time monitoring our kids' every movement, particularly when it comes to school. In many districts, technology has given parents the ability to check in real-time on their children's every step in school. With the click of a button, a father can find out that his daughter did not turn in today's physics homework assignment or aced a pop quiz in history. While this kind of information has its place and parents do need to know what's going on in their children's lives, I don't think high school students necessarily benefit when their parents hover. Developmentally, adolescents have a need to establish some distance between themselves and their parents; this is a healthy part of the transition to adulthood. They deserve and need a reasonable level of independence. Of course, we have to ask. What's the single most important thing that all prospective college students should know as they begin the admissions process?

BV: Over the years, I've discovered that, at some level, almost all kids fear that they are not going to get into any college - even straight A students are afraid that no school is going to want them. While I understand this is easy for me to say, I'd like all students to know that things will work out. As long as they do their school work, commit to their activities and interests and apply to a reasonable range of schools, they are bound to find themselves with good college opportunities. Finally, I'd like to give you the opportunity to share anything you'd like about the college admissions process and your work as a college admissions counselor.

BV: Life as a college admissions counselor is great. I work with terrific students and families and love helping them discover all of the fine options that are out there. What could be better than a job that helps kids make the transition from high school to college where they are all but guaranteed four wonderful years?

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