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Holderness Welcomes New Director of College Counseling Kelsey Berry
Greg Kwasnik

From the rise of artificial intelligence chatbots to the Supreme Court's decision to end affirmative action, big changes are happening in the world of college admissions. Luckily, our new Director of College Counseling Kelsey Berry is here to put things into perspective for us.
If anyone is qualified to guide Holderness students in their college search, it’s Kelsey. An integral member of the Holderness community since 2012, she has served as a history teacher, history department chair, varsity head coach, dorm parent, advisor, and most recently the school’s Director of Teaching and Learning. When Kelsey stepped into her new role this fall, she replaced outgoing Director of College Counseling Bruce Barton, who led the College Counseling office for more than 20 years.

Here, Kelsey tells us how the College Counseling office is responding to a host of sweeping changes to the college admissions this year, and how Holderness prepares its students for a successful transition to college.

This is your first year as Director of College Counseling, and what a year it promises to be! There are a lot of changes to the landscape, from the rise of Artificial Intelligence to changes to affirmative action and legacy-based college admissions.

First, how are you thinking about the recent Supreme Court decision ending race-based admissions practices? 

First, I am humbled by the amount of support from peer counselors at other schools and our national organizations like NACAC [National Association for College Admissions Counseling] and ACCIS [Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools]. The listservs are full of useful resources and offer a platform for our team to quickly crowdsource answers to nuanced and complicated questions. For all of the changes, the college counseling team at Holderness is working to educate ourselves and collaborate with our colleagues on both sides of the college counseling desk. 

Responding to the Supreme Court decision is nuanced, and time will tell the impact. What we do have is some lived experience with the end of affirmative action practices as some public colleges and universities made this move years ago (for example New Hampshire and California). After this summer’s decision, most colleges and universities immediately issued statements about their commitment to recruiting diverse classes. Many have added supplemental questions that invite students to talk about their experiences with belonging, identity, and diverse perspectives. As always, we will work to support all Holderness students as they present themselves fully, in whatever way they choose, in their college admission applications. 

The climate after this decision has prompted some colleges to make statements about ending legacy-based admissions. We expect to see more of this; however, it is worth noting some schools ended legacy-based admissions prior to this summer. A major study from Opportunity Insights was released just after the Supreme Court decision this summer on the causal effects of admission to highly selective institutions. This study made headlines with connections being made to the affirmative action case. We are closely studying and inquiring about any impact the study will have on admissions practices, again, time will tell. 
Artificial Intelligence is also changing how students approach college essays. How are you navigating the shifting expectations around the essay?

Headlines last year proclaimed “The College Essay is Dead” in the wake of the use of AI to generate writing. For now, we disagree with this headline based on discussions with college admissions representatives. Our current policy requires students to generate original and authentic writing when responding to college application essay prompts and to avoid using any AI support. This is both so students represent themselves as authentically as possible, and because we know some schools are checking essays for it. However, we also know there are potential opportunities for students to brainstorm with the AI, or get feedback on their writing, and are thinking about how this might be beneficial for some students. 

There is a redesigned FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] coming out late this year, and college affordability is always a big issue for families. What are we doing to help students and parents plan for the financial realities of college? 

Yes, a redesigned FAFSA is coming out late this year, “sometime in December” but will it be December 1st or 31st? This is the question on the minds of financial aid officers at colleges and universities around the country. Inevitably, it will delay financial aid packages for students, especially in the Early Action and Early Decision Rounds. 

To provide more support for families in this process, and give the best tools to attain affordability in college, we have enhanced our partnership with SmartTrack, a college funding advising firm, to provide their full slate of advising services to Holderness families at zero cost. From general affordability questions, whether or not to apply for financial aid, or to how to fill out the FAFSA or file taxes, we are excited to be able to offer SmartTrack’s deep reservoirs of knowledge on financing college to our families. 

We have also noted the following trends from recent conversations with admission representatives about the late FAFSA release. Schools using the CSS profile (which will still open on time on Oct.1st) are appearing, in general, less concerned about the late release of the FAFSA as they have even more robust financial data from the CSS profile. Some schools have put some emphasis on other tools to provide more merit aid transparency with platforms like Raise Me, which we recently shared with the seniors. During financial aid pre-reads for athletic recruits, many financial aid offices are pointing families to their individualized net-price calculators. We advise students to always reach out to financial aid officers at each school with specific questions. 

What does the testing environment look like after test-optional policies grew during the pandemic? How is the College Counseling Office thinking about the new Digital SAT?

First, the increase in test-optional admissions paths for students has actually made the waters murkier for students to understand the relative importance of tests. The veracity of test-optional paths really depends on each school. I was just looking at a school with a student, where, for the 22-23 admissions cycle, only 9% of admitted students did not submit a test score. While another school high on many students’ lists had only 16% of students submit a test score. In short, studying and working towards a strong test score remains hugely beneficial to students, but it no longer carries the full weight it once did. 

In general, the timeline we suggest is for all 10th and 11th-grade students to take the PSAT in October, then we host an SAT and an ACT in April for juniors. After those tests, we advise juniors to pick a test they prefer to study for over the summer and take end-of-summer or October tests. For some students the timeline is different. Students do experience testing fatigue, so concentrating on the testing from the end of junior year to the start of senior year, with the summer as a realistic time to study is our general guidance. 

To prepare for the new Digital SAT we have started by getting ready to administer the digital PSAT on October 11th. We have had to do quite a bit of work to get student devices prepared to take this new test as students take it on their own devices. The digital SAT is shorter than the paper version, in part because it is adaptive using item-response theory. Translated: the rigor of the questions in the later sections will depend on student performance in prior sections. For some students, the shorter test will be a boon; for others, who may have test anxiety about the format or prefer paper, they may be more interested in the ACT. To prepare students for both, we are offering free practice tests on October 1st, in four different formats (digital PSAT, digital SAT, paper SAT, and a paper ACT) and again in February through two different test prep companies. 

 What are your goals for the College Counseling office in your first year?

Our college counseling office has long, and rightly, emphasized the importance of finding a fit for each student. My primary goal is to continue that emphasis with a slight shift, focusing on finding new communities for each student to continue to thrive. The plural is important here. We want each student to have a variety of options where they can grow that are also affordable for their families. We should break the narrative that there is one perfect school for every student out there. I think there is a dichotomy in how students should view acceptance and rejection. Getting accepted into a school is an affirmation of your hard work, curiosity, interests, and talents, but getting denied by a school may have little to do with you. In short, you can do everything “right” and it still might not lead to an acceptance because of that campus’ institutional priorities, the number of people who applied, etc. Rather than despair at this reality, I hope we can help students see it as freeing. 

Students’ feelings of agency, in a process they admittedly can’t fully control, and self-worth, is also a key goal for me in this work. In our first college meeting this year with seniors, I had students turn to a friend and recite the following lines from Bruce Barton, a bit like a pledge: “I could be happy at any number of places. No one college or admissions office holds the key to my future.” We don’t want their sense of worth to be tied to these decisions, but the ecosystem of college admissions is giving them lots of mixed messages on this front. We also practiced the following line, “I have lots of schools I am excited about,” for when people in the students’ lives inquire about the process, perhaps offering unsolicited advice and opinions. Sometimes well-intended comments and reflections about a person’s own college process (even if it was years ago) have an outsized influence on students, especially if it is from someone they love and respect. 

I also want to use my first few years in the office to think about how our current systems work, and what tools and tweaks we can add to best inform our students and craft a sane college process. 

In high schools across the country, student mental health has become a serious concern. According to the CDC, feelings of persistent sadness and hopelessness rose by 40 percent among adolescents in the 10 years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic. How does the College Counseling Office balance students’ psychological well-being with the very competitive college admissions process? How do you help students keep everything in perspective?

This is such an important question and connects to my goal to enhance student self-worth in this process. I do believe we are well-equipped at Holderness to support students, to notice and intervene when they are struggling with their mental health. We have a community of committed adults who interact with students in a variety of ways, to know them and to see them. The college office will continue to partner with parents and advisors, but also teachers and coaches to support students.

I am also thinking about the positive impacts on mental health of gratitude and service for our students. I am thrilled our service opportunities are growing under [math teach and Associate Director of College Counseling] Pam Mulachy’s leadership, and thinking about how to incorporate acts of gratitude into the college counseling curriculum.

Our vision statement charges us to “develop people the world needs most.” This is the level of perspective I hope we can help students bring to the college process. As they seek new communities to help them grow, we want to find programs, challenges, and opportunities for them to be active, contributing members of their communities. Students with a genuine commitment to community are not only desirable candidates in the college process but are also, perhaps, closer to the people the world needs most. 

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