This summer I had the opportunity to sit down with an old friend of my husband who is a bit of a college admissions guru. Admittedly it scares me a little that we are old enough to have friends who are leaders in their fields. But that’s exactly what Pam Ambler is. Her deep knowledge of college admissions and the thoughtfulness she puts into her work are incredibly impressive. Pam has experience on both sides of the coin, as a college admissions officer at a selective university and a college counselor at a prestigious Atlanta private school. I was delighted when she agreed to sit down with me and answer some questions about how to select a high school with college admissions in mind and how to set your student up for success in the college admissions scramble.
SchoolUp: We have a lot of choice in Wake Co. What should someone in school search mode look for? Even more specifically, what would a good high school be doing to help students succeed and get into a college of their choice?
For me, the answer is about so much more than academics. On a micro level, parents and students can determine what resources their student needs to thrive. On a macro level, I believe the best high schools encourage students to be curious – and to seek (and confidently create) solutions. Preeminent high schools helps students see the connections between what they are learning and why it matters. In turn, a great student would explore curiosities beyond those bounds. It’s that culture of curiosity that leads to students who stand out and have the most success in the college admissions process.
When schools cultivate opportunities for cross-pollination of ideas, students become lifelong learners. (And, it’s hard to locate a college brochure that doesn’t emphasize an institution’s desire to attract curious, lifelong learners!) Depending on a student’s disposition, curiosity can be piqued in a number of different ways. Some students might delight in connecting traditional learning to current events while others might find the real world application of project-based learning or tinkering.
I’d also look at the college counseling staff. Most strong college counselors have experience on the other side working as college admissions counselors, so they understand what selective universities are looking for and how to guide students to the school that is right for them.
On a side note, parents often know to ask about high level courses like AP classes, but they don’t think to follow up by asking what percentage of students score a 4 or 5 on the AP exam and even more importantly, do all students have access to those courses? Make sure you know what is available at each school and how your student might access those opportunities. Informed parents should know that colleges use school profiles to evaluate students within the context of the resources available to them. These profiles decode a high school’s curricular offerings and are found on a school’s website.
SchoolUp: Parents always ask me about SAT scores and college acceptances, in your opinion what data is best to evaluate a high school?
A list of college acceptances leaves out context for where students choose to apply and why. A family might evaluate a high school’s academics by the number of national merit finalists each year but they’d be doing themselves a disservice if they missed an opportunity to evaluate the community and culture of the school as well. Does the school’s mission fit your parenting style and goals?
Make sure you first think through what is most important to you before you figure out what you are looking for. If you are looking for top academics and how academically motivated your student’s peers are you would look at different data than if you are looking for a school that embraces and encourages creativity and the arts. Perhaps the range of performances a school offers annually interests that parent. If you are looking at varsity sports, you may want to look at the pipeline from middle school or the level at which a school’s teams compete. I encourage people to look at a school’s calendar to see what type of opportunities are going to be available.
I believe that looking into what a school celebrates is a great way of learning the school’s values to see if they match your values. Maybe a school has a moral of the month or a friend of the week, perhaps they have a big ideas festival or a leadership forum. Learning what a school honors can be a great way to decipher what is most important to that community.
SchoolUp: What do college admissions think about IB programs versus AP classes?
Readers evaluate applicants based on the context of what is available to them at their school. Parents may want to evaluate a school based on which program would be most interesting to a student, but college admissions readers really do evaluate students based on what is available. Admission readers have a territory and they visit those schools and their counselors in order to understand the curriculum that is available to the students. Readers get to know these schools and pull high school profiles, since it’s impossible to visit all the schools in their territory, and use them to assess what a school offers, therefore putting an applicant in the context of the school. The most selective schools would look for scholars who achieved success at the highest level of courses available and also pursued curiosities beyond what a school’s curriculum made available to them.
SchoolUp: What is your advice for parents who want to help their student get into a competitive college?
First keep in mind, colleges and universities are recruiting a well rounded class; each individual student need not be well rounded. Students with unique interests or stories are oftentimes the easiest to admit. While it may benefit 9th grade students to explore activities widely, it’s important that students (and parents) know that this advice isn’t stagnant. By that, I mean that there should be a shift from “wide” to “deep.” My advice is that high school students actively explore opportunities to figure out their interests. Then, actively pursue what interests them.
In 6 words. Following your interests makes you interesting.
Research shows that children stop asking as many questions once they start going to school. Yet, kids who are curious and kids who wonder tend to find their interests, and those are the students who become interesting applicants. To the extent you are able, parents should embrace THEIR KIDS’ questions as curiosity. College admissions counselors like kids who stand out, it’s a lot like being an innovator, try something new and different. There are strong parallels between innovators and students who stand out. Colleges pay attention to kids who stand out or have been the first to do something.
SchoolUp: What advice do you have for students on ways they can set themselves apart?
“Go wide, then dive deep.” Consider exploring clubs, activities and books widely during your first two or three semesters of high school. By junior year, dive deeply into those interests: give yourself permission to pursue uncommon curiosities. By way of example, I recently read about a 16-year-old who has helped reunite people with their long-lost heirlooms, one storage locker at a time. Essentially, this teen’s interest in yard sales and metal detectors gave way to his acquisition of storage lockers. He then decided to actively pursue the previous owners so that he could reunite them with their belongings. Couple that story with strong grades and a challenging course load, and this student will have amazing college options. It all starts with an authentic interest.
Too many students suffer from burnout because they chase the quest to be well rounded. It makes for a much more interesting application if you are “pointy” and it gives your college admissions readers a powerful soundbite. It’s easier to advocate for that student because they can see exactly what he/she would bring to their campus.
SchoolUp: Many of my clients have students preparing for interviews in private schools, and some have students interviewing to be selected for high school career academies. Any advice for a student in one of these scenarios?
Be yourself! In order to be yourself, you’ll want to be proud of who you are. I recommend reflecting on a few basic questions about your interests – and using the words “for example” more often than not.
Parents can prep kids by asking them questions about what they are interested in. Dig deeper when they answer by responding with “tell me more about that.” This will help them make those connections between what they love and the real world. Help them take a common answer like “video games” and go a little deeper with the “why.” There is no right or wrong when it comes to our interests, we just need to learn how to communicate about them better.
Food for Thought
At the end of our talk Pam and I both got talking about the value of being new to a school. Personally, we each had the experience of switching schools or moving at key times in our lives. Pam spoke deeply about the value of being uncomfortable and being new in an already established environment and what that experience offers our kids. I think sometimes parents like the simplicity of selecting a school that goes K-12 but being uncomfortable and having those moments of newness in which we are tested gives us the confidence to figure out who we are. It’s a time when a student is pushed to figure out who they are and what they value, and maybe more importantly, how to communicate that to others. It’s an experience both Pam and I value and want for our children.
Resources from Pam:
- My favorite Admission Blog
- A great parenting Blog (with a college admission twist)
- Another college admission and testing blog: Applerouth
- Interesting podcast about the rankings
Books from Pam:
- David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell
- How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out) by Cal Newport
- How to Raise an Adult — Julie Lythcott-Haims
Pam Ambler’s career in higher education began in 2006 when she joined the Office of Undergraduate Admission at Emory University. While at Emory, Pam was the recipient of the Enrollment Services Exemplary Service Award (2007-08). Ambler began pursuit of a Masters degree and switched sides of the college admission desk in 2012; in 2014, she was named Mercer’s Outstanding Graduate Student in School Counseling. A nationally certified counselor and a licensed professional counselor, Pam is an active member of professional organizations serving college admission professionals (SACAC, NACAC and ACCIS) as well as mental health counselors (NBCC and ACA). She has spoken at regional and national conferences on topics ranging from navigating selective admission to the enneagram’s application to the college search process. Ambler served on the Board of Directors for the Southern ACAC from 2016-2019 and was recently named SACAC’s recipient of the William Starling Award for Mentorship (2021). As Associate Director of College Counseling at Pace Academy in Atlanta GA, Pam works with students to identify the college(s) that best aligns with their social, financial, and academic priorities.