Pathways to College

Peter Warsaw, Academic Dean, and Mark Spencer, Director of College Advising, spoke to a standing-room-only crowd in the Garonzik Auditorium during Parents Weekend this fall.  Here is a summary of their presentation entitled “Pathways to College.”

Peter Warsaw opened the presentation with research by two acclaimed authors: Daniel Pink, who wrote Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us and Tony Wagner, who wrote Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. Pink’s groundbreaking research reveals that individuals achieve more and derive greater satisfaction in life when three elements of motivation are present: autonomy (the desire to direct our own lives), mastery (the desire to get better at something that matters), and purpose (the desire to contribute to a cause that is greater than ourselves). Peter stated that it is important to expose students to a variety of activities and then let them take the lead, “You show us what you are interested in and we will find ways to support it.” Tony Wagner’s work addresses how the forces of passion, play and purpose drive young innovators in today’s world. In keeping with this rationale, Peter and the Department Chairs have identified six qualities in the ideal Deerfield graduate: curiosity, creativity, productive collaboration/class discussion, disciplined work habits, grit/resilience, and initiative/independence. The goals in the classroom are to nurture creativity, spark imagination while teaching students to learn from failure and to persevere. By way of example, Peter cited the new format for Chemistry adopted this year with “guided inquiry learning” where students are self-paced and self-directed.

Mark Spencer’s background in college admissions for the past twenty years gives him a unique perspective on his new role at Deerfield. He believes that each student should begin the process by developing a clear “self-awareness” of his or her innate strengths. In building a strong college advising office, he sees an integrated system where there is a connection between freshman and sophomore year advising and that of junior and senior year college advising. In order to simplify and clarify the college process, a draft version of “Deerfield Academy College Advising Handbook” was distributed to all in attendance. The book includes a timeline of steps in each of the four years of high school. Mark emphasized the following:

Freshman Year: Be freshmen. We should be working with students to aid them with the transitional issues of attending a boarding school, not worrying too much about college. Freshman year is the time to develop appropriate foundational skills and disciplined study habits. Advisors can assist with academic planning questions and guide any student who may take SAT subject tests at the end of the year. “Freshman year does matter.”

Sophomore Year: Self-awareness is key. Deerfield may use an assessment tool, like Strength Finders 2.0, during sophomore year to help students understand who they are and identify their strengths. Students will take PSATs in the fall of sophomore year and should not feel pressure, as this test is intended for practice purposes. Some students will take SAT subject tests at the end of the year. Also, we will work towards being able to build a list of varying summer programs that are available for students to continue to, in real time, do some further self-discovery.

Junior Year: Parents will complete a questionnaire about their child before they attend a meeting with college advisors in January. Juniors will participate in a required course about the college admission/application process in January and will complete their Spring Information Form during the spring term. Individual one on one meetings between advisor and advisee begin. Spring break is a good time to think about doing some college visits. Standardized tests for juniors can include: PSAT, SAT, ACT, SAT subject tests and AP tests. It is a busy year.

Senior Year: With research and college visits completed during the summer, students will focus on completing standardized tests and finalizing college lists and essays with their advisor. The Common Application should be completed during the summer and students should put together an outline and draft or two of their college essay before they return to school in the fall. Mark encourages students to remember that a Deerfield education, with its emphasis of morals, character and community, is unique. Although each year many students apply to an early program, Mark encourages his advisees not to “play into peer pressure” and to explore all their options before they decide if early-decision is right for them.

Mark and Peter shared some standardized test prep information and general academic topics for further conversation with our children:

  • Deerfield offers students several options for free standardized test preparation/practice including: a class that meets twice a week during the academic day, online prep through Academic Approach, and ACT and SAT overviews offered on selected Saturday mornings during the year.
  • Parents should refer to the Deerfield website for updated policies on term and year-away programs.
  • Some Deerfield “Honors” classes are actually given after AP level courses; whereas, at most high schools “Honors” designation is pre-AP. Deerfield Administration is looking to revise how those courses are labeled.
  • Use summer to help students explore their interests. This is a wonderful time to try something new. Some children will specialize with sports camps and others may want to test out an area of possible interest. A goal of the advising office at Deerfield is to compile a database of summer programs.
  • Students may face “forks in the road”, where one course of study might improve college admission chances while another might make them a more successful student or worker later in life. For example, APs can be collected as admission chips, but are students giving up something else they might have loved? Deerfield’s pilot AP Cambridge Capstone course, Global H20, aligns these two roads, as it might lead to the pursuit of a passion and life skills students can use later, and it also bestows the AP credential. The College Board has indicated an intention to shift its AP exams—and eventually SAT IIs—from content- to skill-based assessments in the future.

In closing, Mark emphasized the goal for the college advising process for each student is “a match to be made”, not “a prize to be won.” Deerfield students are encouraged to remain authentic. Parents are encouraged to support, not bug, their children during this process. Mark said, “It is my job to bug them.”

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