Tom Kleese, Founder and College Planning Guru, OnCampus College Planning


Tom Kleese is the founder of OnCampus College Planning and a self-proclaimed "college planning guru." He has six years of experience in college planning. Tom holds a B.S. in art education from Bemidji State University and an M.A. and an M.F.A. in art from the University of Wisconsin--Madison.

Insights and advice

What inspired you to go into college planning?

I've been in education all my life, and this was a natural extension of my career in high school and then college teaching.

What do you enjoy most about your position?

I enjoy teaching families what does and doesn't matter about the college admission process and about colleges in general. To be able to make a complex process simpler for someone is a great reward.

What is the biggest challenge you face in your position, and how do you tackle it?

I can lay out a plan and get everyone motivated to take the next steps, but I can't force them to do the necessary work once the meeting is over and people get busy with their schedules. It's hard to keep people on track and moving forward.

What are your top goals for the students you work with?

I want them to be excited about college and to appreciate it for what it is: an incredibly powerful tool that helps young people become adults.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to counselors and consultants who are new to the profession?

Visit as many campuses as you can and ask as many questions of as many people as possible.

What are some common misconceptions that students have going into the college admission process?

Students generally don't understand that they need to take the initiative in researching schools and asking questions of admission personnel, professors, and other students. They think they should take a passive role, when the opposite is true.

Do you ever encounter situations in which students and their parents have different goals in mind? If so, what is your advice for helping them work together?

I work with families to be honest with one another, and to share their goals and expectations for the process and the result. If nothing else, I want them to admit that there are many viable options, and once we begin looking into other options, sometimes what seemed obvious is really just one pathway, not the only way.

What is your strategy for helping students find financial aid?

I assist in scholarship searches and help them prepare a plan for searching for and applying for scholarships.

In your experience, what makes a counselor successful in his or her role as an editor of college application essays?

You have to know the student well enough so you're not editing out his or her voice. It has to be authentic. My job is to remove any barriers to that personal voice coming through loud and clear.

What is your process for helping students narrow down the list of schools to which they will apply?

We go back to the beginning, to refresh our memory of what it is they need and want from a college experience, and we try to look at things in a new light through different measures, both objective and subjective.

In your opinion, what are some of the best ways students can make themselves stand out beyond their applications?

Be honest with the colleges to which you are applying, and demonstrate genuine interest.

Finish this sentence: On my first day at work as a college planner, I wish I had known...

It's not about what I didn't know; it's about what I'm learning now to become better.

What would you consider your biggest accomplishment or your proudest moment as a college planner?

I'm most proud of the times when I have been able to lead a family forward in the process, when they began with very different or incomplete views of colleges and the college admission process. To see them learn and grow as a family is rewarding and fits the belief that this should be a family process, not just the student picking a college.

Fun stuff

Favorite book: Staggerford by Jon Hassler

Favorite musician or band: Stevie Wonder

Favorite movie: Dead Poets Society

Favorite quote: "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." — W.B. Yeats

Favorite place you've visited: Manhattan

Favorite meal: Cheese, bread, and meat from the Farmers' Market in Madison, along with a bottle of wine, eaten on the Capitol lawn or at a local winery

Favorite college memory: Spending a very late night alone in the ceramics studio, throwing pots, listening to music, and then watching the sun come up afterwards

Five people you would invite to a dinner party: At my 40th birthday party, dinner guests included two Shakespearean actors, one TV/film veteran, several professors, a future pastor, and a convicted felon. That's as good as it gets.

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