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Early Engagement: Embarking on Your College Search Journey

Early Engagement: Embarking on Your College Search Journey

Chris Miller P ’28 never intended to become a college counselor. While an undergrad at Oberlin, he interned in the Admission Office and quickly found that he thoroughly enjoyed interviewing applicants and answering questions from prospective students. He loved it so much, in fact, that upon graduation—at the age of 22—he launched his career as an admission officer at Dickinson College. 

“Before and during college, I taught, tutored, and worked at camps, so I assumed teaching was my future. I figured I would do the admission thing for a few years and then figure out a back door into schools and transition to the classroom.”

Director of College Counseling Chris Miller talking with two students outside

Instead of using his Oberlin English degree to teach Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and African-American drama, literature, and film as he expected, Chris is now in his twentieth year on the other side of the desk—providing college admission guidance and coaching to high schoolers, and doing so as Director of College Counseling at SSFS since 2018. Along the way, he’s added a Master’s in Education from the University of Pennsylvania. “I’ve always had a passion for writing, and I really enjoy giving feedback about how to construct a great personal statement."

Candice Ashton, Assoc. Dir. of CC and Chris Miller, Dir. of College Counseling help students with essays

 

4 SSFS students and Dir. of CC Chris Miller working together during essay workshop

Chris and Associate Director of College Counseling Candice Ashton working with students during a recent college essay workshop

 

He’s loving his unintentional career . . . and he’s winning awards for it. Earlier this year, Chris was selected by Colleges That Change Lives—a non-profit dedicated to the advancement and support of a student-centered college search process—as one of their 2023 Counselors That Change Lives. With the honor, Chris has been recognized as a “college access professional committed to helping students frame their search beyond ratings and rankings to find a college that will cultivate a lifelong love of learning.”

Chris with his award from Colleges That Change Lives, naming him one of its 2023 Counselors That Change Lives

Chris with his award from Colleges That Change Lives, naming him one of its 2023 Counselors That Change Lives

Especially post-pandemic, the complexity of the college application process is widely known. Here, we take the opportunity to glean advice, especially for students navigating the first half of high school, from an expert who has been working in college admission and college counseling since 1997. 

 

 

 


1. Explore Extracurriculars

#1

Colleges love to see students who are pursuing their passion and embracing leadership. Whether it's arts, sports, clubs, or community service (SSFS has students covered here, requiring 100 hours over the four years of Upper School), encourage your child to explore a variety of extracurricular activities during their freshman and sophomore years. Chris cautions against involvement motivated by padding a resume, however. “It’s not just about listing what a student was a part of, but how they contributed within that activity—that’s what leadership actually means. You often hear admissions say, ‘It’s about depth, not breadth.’  As part of our college counseling process at SSFS, we encourage students to think about what they like enough to share with others. Then, we help them break it down into small, sequential steps that might not initially feel like leadership to the student. It’s about taking something you love and directing it so someone else might get something out of it, too.”

"Leadership is about taking something you love and directing it so someone else might get something out of it, too.”

2. Foster Strong Relationships with Faculty and Staff

#2

Building strong connections with teachers makes for a richer educational experience, and it can also bolster college applications. At SSFS, we intentionally focus on creating spaces of belonging for each student, much of which happens in relationship with the caring adults on campus. Encourage your child to contribute to these relationships by actively participating in class, asking questions, seeking help when needed, and being willing to connect with teachers beyond specific coursework. A strong teacher recommendation can significantly enhance a student’s college application.

SSFS college counselors play an important role in knowing each student individually and using that knowledge to provide individualized guidance. Chris explains, “We make time to go to plays and sporting events as well as chaperone trips and attend class presentations. We ask teachers and advisors about students, and we get to know them directly, too. There are lots of opportunities for conversation and questioning throughout junior and senior years that help us tease out a student’s personality. I want each student to feel comfortable talking to me, so I commit to being as open with them as I ask them to be—there’s power in mutuality.”
 


3. Develop Excellent Study Habits

#3

Time management and study skills are crucial for success in high school and beyond. Support your child in developing effective study habits early on, such as setting aside dedicated study time, staying organized, and seeking help when needed. Here, too, your child’s SSFS grade-level advisor is an excellent resource for maintaining a strong home-school connection. If you have questions about extra support related to study skills, learn more about the learning support we offer as one aspect of our multi-faceted academic program. “Success in anything—class work, athletics, service projects, careers, and even the college application process—is built on collaboration, asking questions, and diligence. At SSFS, we take a supportive team approach to developing good students.”


4. Create a Balanced Course Schedule

#4

High school students should challenge themselves academically while maintaining a balanced course load. Encourage your child to take the most challenging courses available when appropriate, but not to the detriment of their well-being . . . or their grades. This nuanced balance is something that SSFS faculty, advisors, and college counselors strategically collaborate on each year. Chris explains, “Starting in the second half of 10th Grade, we begin talking to advisors and collaborating on course schedules for 11th Grade to ensure that each student is taking the courses that will set themselves up for the strongest college candidacy.”


5. Attend College Workshops and Seminars

#5

When you have access to events designed to guide families through the college search and application process—including the important topic of financial planning for college—attend them! Throughout all grades of the Upper School, SSFS regularly hosts and notifies families of excellent opportunities to gain valuable insights and tips. And, both Chris and Candice Ashton, Associate Director of College Counseling, welcome questions from families, even before the student’s formal pairing with a college counselor during their junior year. Chris reflects, “Over and over, parents express gratitude for the different programs we host and info we provide because it meant a lot to their child—they take what they learned wherever they go.”


6. Visit Colleges

#6

Nothing can replace the instinctive feeling a student gets when they visit a college campus in person. “It’s important to get a feel for the place,” Chris says. “Visiting colleges provides invaluable insight into what the student is looking for.” Plan informal campus visits during family vacations or consider college road trips, especially during 9th and 10th Grades when the pressure to make decisions is low. Chris and Candice regularly visit schools nationwide to enhance their strategic advising. “We love visiting our alumni on their college campuses and hearing them reflect on the results of the process!” Chris shares.


7. Foster Independence and Self-Advocacy

#7

As your child progresses through high school, encourage them to take ownership of their academic and extracurricular pursuits, which will be required of them in college and beyond. Chris says, “When I talk to colleges about the kind of student they will get from SSFS, I highlight how our students aren’t afraid to advocate—they advocate for themselves, but they also advocate for others—which I believe is just as important. Our motto is Let Your Lives Speak, and our students have found their voice. SSFS students want to live in community, have a sense of purpose, and find ways to contribute to the world. They care about the success of others as much as their own. These are all distinguishing qualities admission officers look for when selecting applicants from a sea of strong grades and test scores.”


The college search and application process may seem daunting, but with these expert tips, your freshman or sophomore can set themselves up for success. And, Sandy Spring Friends School families can exhale, knowing that Chris and the College Counseling Department are ready to provide warm, personalized, and strategic guidance throughout a student-centered college process. “I want students and parents to know that my investment is about far more than moving you along in the process. My goal is for them to see me as a partner in the unmitigated success of the child.”

SSFS students want to live in community, have a sense of purpose, and find ways to contribute to the world. They care about t

How does this “Counselor Who Changes Lives” measure his success? Chris reflects, “When you encourage a kid to rise up to be more than they thought they were, that’s when you really feel like you’ve changed a life.”

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