Originally Posted: Aug 6, 2012
Last Updated: Apr 3, 2013
Carolyn Mulligan is the owner and principal of Insiders Network to College in Summit, NJ. She has seven years of experience as a college counselor. Carolyn holds a B.A. in English literature from Bucknell University and earned a certificate in college counseling through UCLA's online program. She is a member of IECA, HECA, NACAC, and NJACAC. She was proud to speak as a visiting faculty member at this year's IECA Summer Training Institute at Swarthmore College. Carolyn also has a specialized knowledge of learning disabilities and ADD/ADHD and maintains membership in the Morris County Children & Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (C.H.A.D.D.) and the New Jersey Learning Disabilities Association (N.J.L.D.A.).
Insights and advice
What inspired you to become a college counselor?
Two of my own three children are dyslexic and have attention deficit disorder, and so I worked with an IEC who specialized in knowing which colleges supported students with learning disabilities well. I ended up falling in love with the profession and all kinds of students, and I actually took over her practice upon her retirement seven years ago. It was a wonderful life decision for me.
What do you enjoy most about your position?
I love working with the students, especially those that are hardest to sort out or not as sure of themselves, and those may or may not have learning challenges. Then I feel as if we are really working together and I am providing individual guidance. I also love visiting schools. I consider myself to be a "student" of schools.
What is the biggest challenge you face in your position, and how do you tackle it?
One of the biggest challenges I face in my position is to get parents and students to look at schools that may not have the name recognition that they are used to. So many times a parent says to me, "But I have never heard of that school!" Potentially, the school may be a very good match for their student. I encourage them to visit the website, read all about the school, and take a chance on it because it is a good fit for their child. I then encourage them to visit the school. Often the parent is very happy that I asked them to take this "leap of faith" and trust my guidance and judgment.
What is the one piece of advice you would give to college counselors who are new to the profession?
A piece of advice I would give to new counselors would be two-fold: 1.) Visit schools as much as you can, even schools that are not on your "radar screen," and be open to learning as much as you can; and 2.) Read as much information as possible to keep up-to-date about what is going on in the world of college admissions.
What are some common misconceptions that students have going into the college admission process?
A common misconception is that admission staff do not want to hear directly from students. If you have a real concern or questions, pick up the phone and call them or send an e-mail and they will be happy to answer your questions.
In your experience, what makes a counselor succesful in his or her role as an editor of college application essays?
I love to help students brainstorm their college essays. I try to help them find a topic that will help them come alive, something that only they could write about, a small moment in time, and a snapshot that might make the reader want to meet them and get to know them better. I do have a background in writing, editing, and proofreading, so once we get some initial thoughts on paper, we can refine them. I always let my students know that writing an essay is a work in progress and they must go back and forth many times before they will be happy with the finished product.
What is your process for helping students narrow down the list of schools to which they will apply?
To me, the college list is the most important part of what I do with my students, and it arises very naturally out of an intense "Get-to-Know-You" session. Many of the questions actually could double as interview questions and are designed to help my students be introspective about who they are, what they are good at doing, and what makes them happy. That leads me to a good list which is larger at first and we then refine it down as the student and family research and visit schools on the list. Then we discuss pros and cons, and the list becomes more targeted until it is a solid list of eight to 10 schools—some "reaches," some "targets," and some "likelies," all of which the student would be happy to attend. It is most important, though, for the student and family to be engaged in the process for this to work.
In your opinion, what are some of the best ways that students can make themselves stand out beyond their applications?
First of all, one should fashion an application where the student "jumps off the page" quickly, using a memorable long and short essay and a nontraditional résumé. In the case of a student with learning disabilities, a strong personal statement outlining what the student's challenges are and the strategies they used to be successful in high school (only if one needs to explain discrepancies in standardized test scores or a strange dip in grades) is appropriate. In addition, students should, whenever possible, visit the schools, take official tours, attend information sessions, and interview on campus whenever possible. A follow-up handwritten note is always best and an e-mail is second best, in my estimation. If campus interviews are not conducted, students should try to have an interview with an alumnus at home, or meet up with an admission representative at their high school or at a local restaurant or coffee shop. They should attend open houses or other special programs on campus or nearby when they are offered. For example, Marist conducts a summer seminar in Fashion Merchandising. Any of these "special touches" will help you to put forth the best way for the admission staff to get to know you through the application process.
Finish this sentence: On my first day at work as a college counselor, I wish I had known...
...how rewarding this was going to be and just how enjoyable it is, because maybe I would have gone into this profession a lot sooner!
Favorite book: Time and Again by Jack Finney.
Favorite musician or band: The B52s, who began their career in Athens, Georgia, the home of the University of Georgia.
Favorite movie: Someone to Watch Over Me with Tom Berenger and Mimi Rogers.
Favorite quote: "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us."
Favorite place you've traveled to: Rome, Italy
Favorite meal: Any ethnic food: Mexican, Thai, Chinese, etc.
Favorite college memory: Being a resident assistant my junior year on a freshman hall at Bucknell—I could be a freshman twice!
Your personal motto: "Always wear a smile. It makes people wonder what you're up to!