Jess Krzeminski recently began her career as a counselor at Options for College. She holds a B.A. in English from Carleton College and an M.A. in humanities and social thought from New York University's John W. Draper Interdisciplinary Program.
Insights and Advice
Tell us a little about Options for College.
Options for College was founded by Keith Berman in 2005. We counsel students through the application process, beginning as early as eighth grade with our Plus Service. We use a curriculum called "The Way There," which outlines 10 sessions that take the student through the three phases of the college application process: collection, selection, and application.
We are a fun group of people who help students be who they are on their best days so that they can live in the realm of hopes and dreams. Working at OFC is always an adventure.
What are your biggest goals for the students who choose to work with Options for College?
I hope that after working with me, my students not only know what college is and have gotten into their first choices, but also know how to make the most of college when they get there. My biggest goal, though, for each of my students is that they start to realize their potential and learn how to take advantage of their natural abilities. If my students leave my office with a new appreciation for themselves, their effort, their activities, and if they exhibit a willingness to continue learning and doing, I feel like I have helped them.
What inspired you to become a college counselor?
I have always enjoyed working one-on-one with students. During high school I participated in youth development programs that allowed me to work with fifth graders in my school district. I anticipated with great excitement my monthly opportunity to go into the classroom and lead a discussion. This was my first indicator that I immensely enjoyed working and volunteering in an educational setting.
As an undergraduate student at Carleton, I applied for and received the job of writing assistant in the school's Academic Support Center. This allowed me to tutor writers in a one-on-one capacity. I took true joy in helping every writer pick through his or her existing evidence to tease out his or her thesis--every time a student had an "Aha!" moment and was excited to continue writing his or her paper, and proud to turn it in to the professor, I felt as though I made a positive difference.
As I was pursuing my M.A. in humanities and social thought at NYU, and was looking toward the necessary next step of applying for jobs, I could not picture myself doing anything but teaching or counseling. I realized that working with students has been my lifelong interest. When I was offered my job at Options for College, I was so happy to have the opportunity to continue working in a one-on-one capacity.
What do you enjoy most about your position?
I love working with my students. It is thrilling to work with high school students because they usually have no idea how cool they are. It is amazing to watch students realize their individuality and start to craft their identity from a position of confidence. Knowing I have helped that transition is my favorite part of this job. No one needs to "start over" in college. The person a student is in high school is more than worthy of attention and it is that person that colleges admit and hope to have on their campus.
What is one piece of advice you would give to college counselors who are new to the profession?
Try to remember that when a parent seems to be ignoring your counsel or is acting argumentative, they are not doing so to annoy you or be detrimental to your curriculum, but are rather trying to navigate the scary process of letting their child grow up and leave home. Be patient, answer questions, and put yourself in the parents' shoes before reacting.
What are some common misconceptions that students have going into the college admission process?
The most common misconception I have encountered is that parents and students alike think a college is looking for a specific set of criteria, and that the student must mold him or herself to fit those criteria. Often when I ask a student why he or she is in a particular club, I have heard countless times, "I am doing that activity because it looks good for college."
While each college certainly has some standards that need to be met, usually concerning GPA and SAT or ACT scores, admission counselors are not reading through a student's application and checking off boxes. In the very short amount of time allotted to each of the thousands of applications, admission officers are looking for individuals who are not only excellent students, but who truly love what they do and can demonstrate that on the many pieces of paper received by the admission office. Extracurriculars are not about "looking good" to please an audience.
What is your advice to students and parents whose collegiate goals differ from one another?
Students, try to remember that your parents have many years of experience and wisdom to draw upon. They have also watched you grow up, and, as you jump from your sport to your music lesson to your SAT tutor, your parents are bystanders who often have great insight into how those activities have been shaping you since you were little.
Parents, it is your child, so my advice can only go so far. However, I would say to keep an open mind as much as possible. It is scary to let your child leave home, but your student is trying to spread his or her wings. Perhaps a compromise simply involves at least visiting that school in California that he or she keeps talking about.
Most important, try to validate each other by listening to and acknowledging one another's opinions, even if you continue to fundamentally disagree.
Have you seen students successfully use social media as a tool in the college admission process? How do you advise students to edit their online presence?
I am certainly guilty of hanging out on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, but I would not recommend this course of action to any high school student. I have not seen these kinds of social media used successfully as a tool in the college admission process. Facebook is a lot of fun, but it is a time-suck and that time could be used for better pursuits. Students, in those two hours you spend on Facebook, you could instead be reading a book--at OFC we recommend reading one fiction and one non-fiction book a month. If you are using Facebook to create a group, make a blog or website instead. Post your art to Flickr, and post your writing on Figment.com or TeenInk.com. YouTube can be useful, but only if you are uploading your original, scripted, and edited films, which you could also be submitting to film contests. Social media is just that--it's social. It really does not have a place in the application process.
What is your process for helping students narrow down the list of schools to which they will apply?
During session three, which is the first step in our application phase, I ask students a series of questions to begin to narrow their list of colleges down to twelve schools. This is also partially based on the median scores and GPAs provided by the college, which helps determine if a school is a safety, realistic, or a reach for that particular student. After the student has visited colleges on and off our initial list, we continue to narrow down the choices and target the specific schools that student will apply to. We then develop specific application strategies for each school.
What can/should a college counselor do to help students prepare for the SAT/ACT?
If needed, recommend an SAT tutor. A counselor should let students know that there is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking outside help--most kids do it. More importantly, however, a counselor should explain why the test is important and emphasize that it does help measure a student's readiness for college. Explain to the parents and student that it is not an arbitrary test meant to make an application process harder. Many people think the SAT is not that important, or that it is important but has no real bearing on a student's college readiness. This is false. Take it seriously. The study habits that a student graduates high school with are often an indicator of how that student will study for the rest of his or her academic career. A counselor should also stand firm on the necessity of SAT Subject tests, especially and absolutely if the student wants to apply to selective colleges.
Describe what are, in your opinion, a few of the cornerstones of a successful college application essay.
Anecdotes, adjectives, and an outline are the cornerstones of a successful college application essay. It is important that a student not wax poetic or sit down and write an essay that is purely stream of consciousness. Students should pick five or 10 minutes of their life and describe every detail of it and why it was important or changed their perspective. Make an outline. Follow the outline. Use descriptive words and paint a scene. No matter the situation, students should not submit the very first thing they write and expect it to be considered a masterpiece that will open the door to every college. There are a few very rare cases where the first draft is a masterpiece, but this never happens without an outline and a second reader/editor who can provide the student with a fresh perspective.
What are, in your opinion, some of the best ways that students can make themselves stand out beyond their applications?
A student should take some of the work he or she has already done and get it out there for the world to see. A student cannot claim to be a writer, for example, unless someone can read his or her writing. Put existing poems, short stories, and even school essays on Figment.com or TeenInk.com and explore the many, many competitions endorsed by Imagine Magazine. If a student is an artist, he or she should consider asking the local coffee shop if they would hang his or her work on their wall. Submit artwork to competitions. If you are an athlete, participate in a non-school-sponsored tournament and raise money for your favorite cause. Be creative! The best thing students can do is to take advantage of their existing talents and work.
What would you consider your biggest accomplishment or your proudest moment in your career as a college counselor so far?
One of my students recently aced an interview at a selective college, moving it from her realistic/reach category into the safety zone. The senior admission officer told my student's parents that she was precisely the type of student the school was looking for and that she was looking forward to reading the application and hopefully having the student on campus in the fall. I could not have been more proud of her or more thrilled with the curriculum we have at Options for College, which involves interview preparation and, in my opinion, gives our students an edge.
Favorite book(s): What Maisie Knew by Henry James, The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, Daniel Deronda by George Eliot, and Mansfield Park by Jane Austen.
Favorite hero/heroine of fiction: Isabelle Archer from Henry James's A Portrait of a Lady. She makes so many wrong decisions, traps herself in a loveless marriage, and feels beholden to society's expectations, but I think she fights back in the only way available to her--she refuses to perpetuate her husband's lineage. Read the book, I promise those weren't spoilers.
Favorite movie: It's a close call between The Notebook and The Devil Wears Prada.
Favorite TV show: Grey's Anatomy
Favorite quote: "It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time." From The Velveteen Rabbit.
Favorite place you've traveled to: Paris, France
Favorite meal: Spaghetti with lots of red sauce, no meat, with sautéed vegetables mixed in.
Your alter ego: Batman? Not Catwoman.
Favorite college memory: Throughout college, I choreographed primarily hip hop dances for both the general student dance group, Ebony II, and my hip hop group Whoa! Hip Hop Dance Company. My favorite memory is performing my last dance for Ebony II. I stepped out of my traditional style and choreographed what several people described as "organized chaos"--a blend of hip hop, modern, and jazz, with some Jess-flavored moves thrown in. After the performance I received e-mails from my two favorite English professors congratulating me on what they called an inspired dance, rife with metaphor and imagery. I shortly thereafter received the Toni Award in the Arts, which is awarded to a student who is passionate about her art and shares that passion with others. Both moments stay with me; I could not have asked for a better culmination of my dance career at Carleton.
Five people you would invite to a dinner party: Henry James, Elinor Wylie, George Egerton, Elizabeth Freeman, and Lee Edelman.
Your personal motto: "Ask St. Anthony." That might sound funny, but he is the patron saint of lost causes, being lost, and lost objects. I certainly need help with the second two categories.
One piece of advice you would give to your 18-year-old self, knowing what you know now: Have fun. Be nice to yourself. You have earned your place in college and you will figure it out from there. Continue to pursue your passions and do not let anyone take away your confidence. As long as you continue to be yourself, life will unfold roughly according to your plan.