Counselor Preps for College Admissions Season

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College admissions deadlines are months away, but that doesn't mean the pressure isn't on for school counselors like Stephanie Gentile of Cincinnati. Gentile and her colleagues lead students through the labyrinth of college applications.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Okay, we're still a day or two away from August, the time when many people will be returning to school. But for high school seniors, this year's high school seniors, it is never too early to start getting ready to apply for college. As overwhelming as the process is for students, it can be just as daunting for the high school counselors helping them.

NPR's Larry Abramson has this profile of one counselor in Cincinnati, Ohio.

LARRY ABRAMSON: When Steffanie Gentile sits down with students, she nearly always leads off with the same question.

Ms. STEFFANIE GENTILE (Counselor, Clark Montessori High School): What are you most worried about through this whole process?

ABRAMSON: She almost always gets the same answer.

Unidentified Woman: (Student, Clark Montessori High School): Getting enough scholarships and enough money.

Ms. GENTILE: Are you hearing that from your mom?

Unidentified Woman #1: Yeah. Scholarship, scholarship, scholarship.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GENTILE: Money. I'll just put the dollar sign here. You worry about money.

ABRAMSON: Clark Montessori High School is a Cincinnati public school but it follows a Montessori program so these kids expect the intense one-on-one attention they're getting from Gentile. The school is half-black, half-white and has good test scores. Most kids have to take time off of summer jobs to come in on this warm July day. Gentile's job is to calm their fears, yet at the same time, she has to get them all revved up because the college application calendar is brutal.

Ms. GENTILE: Now, you didn't take the ACT, correct? You thinking about doing that?

LEROY(ph) (Student, Clark Montessori High School): No.

Ms. GENTILE: Why not?

ABRAMSON: Gentile is clearly worried about Leroy. His test scores need improvement but he doesn't want to take any more tests. He slumps in his chair, wearing a white T-shirt and a bright Cincinnati Reds cap.

Ms. GENTILE: Remember how I talked to you about how to maximize each part of the college process? For testing, there are two tests. We take both of them. I can get your fee waiver if that's an issue. If that's something you're worried about. Are you deciding it because of that?

LEROY: I don't know.

Ms. GENTILE: You hate to take tests?

LEROY: Yeah.

Ms. GENTILE: I'm right there with you.

ABRAMSON: Applying to schools will demand a lot, and some of these students don't have much flex left in their schedule. When you listen to the to-do lists they face, well, it just makes you glad you're not a senior again.

Ms. GENTILE: You said you were working about 24 hours a week.

Mr. NEAL MCNULTY(ph) (Student, Clark Montessori High School): Yeah. Right now, it's been like six days a week, so.

ABRAMSON: Eighteen-year-old Neal McNulty sits down at the Formica table that's now covered with college guides and financial aid forms. Gentile is worried that McNulty is already working too many hours. He'll need to cut back when school starts.

Ms. GENTILE: But if it was 24 (unintelligible).

Mr. MCNULTY: It will probably be 24 again.

Ms. GENTILE: But is that too much? I guess what I'm thinking is, is there anyway you can, just for the fall, can you - what sports are you playing in the fall?

ABRAMSON: McNulty sounds weary but he refuses to give up on his two summer jobs or the three sports he loves. At home, he has five brothers and a sister. He does not expect much financial help from his parents.

Mr. MCNULTY: I pay for everything.

Ms. GENTILE: I know.

Mr. MCNULTY: My dad doesn't help me pay for nothing, so my mom doesn't help me pay for anything. I should say (unintelligible) anything. If I cut back on anything, then it will be another thing that I won't have, so.

Ms. GENTILE: I know, I know.

ABRAMSON: Gentile tells me later cases like Neal's sometimes bring her to tears. She knows she can find a school that will accept him and probably get him some money. The question is how much money, will he like it there, will he finish school. Gentile knows the outlook will improve if she can explain things like the low grades he got in his first two years.

Mr. MCNULTY: My freshman/sophomore year, like, I was, I've been going through a lot of family problems and stuff like that, so.

Ms. GENTILE: Right. Because when they see this, they're going to want an explanation. You know that's exactly my job to explain why a drop down, and I know, you're right. We did talk about that. But look at what you're doing here is my whole point, you know? Did you see that, the last two semesters?

ABRAMSON: Neal McNulty's story is especially emotional, but Gentile says he shares a lot with the 90 or so other kids who will come through her office.

Ms. GENTILE: It often, throughout the year, feels unfair to me. And I think it's because some of these kids, they've made tremendous progress and they've grown so much but they're still lagging behind some of these other kids that can apply and get all this money and, you know, go here or go there.

I'm a little worried about the test scores for you.

ABRAMSON: For most of these kids it's just a matter of making half empty glass half full. One girl may not have what it takes to get into the programs that she likes. But Gentile tells her about one student who couldn't get into her first choice, Howard University.

Ms. GENTILE: But they said that if she would go to a community college for just one semester and if she had at least a 2.5 GPA, college level 2.5 GPA, she would be accepted into Howard. Now you cannot get into Howard with a high school 2.5 GPA. You know, if you can't get in anywhere you want at the beginning that does not mean it's over and done with. That's what I want you to go away with this from, okay?

Unidentified Woman #2 (Student, Clark Montessori High School): Yeah.

ABRAMSON: The student leaves with a list of things to do. Gentile's list includes 60 more students who still need to see her.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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