Shadowy decision-makers, unclear futures and the Hogwarts sorting hat | Quantum Prep

Shadowy decision-makers, unclear futures and the Hogwarts sorting hat

Last Updated on August 28, 2022
Solomon Berman

As part of our continuing series designed to unveil and demystify the field of College Admission Consulting, Quantum Prep seeks out and interviews the best admissions consultants in and around the Boston area. This month we spoke with Robert Gilpin.

Robert Gilpin is the Principal of Gilpin and Associates Educational Consulting. With nearly 25 years as an independent education consultant and over 30 as a classroom educator at such prestigious institutions as Duke University, Sweet Briar College, Phillips Exeter Academy and Milton Academy, Gilpin is one of the most experienced Boston College Admissions Consultants Quantum Prep works with.

Earning a B.A. from Princeton University and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Duke University, Gilpin is an active, contributing member of the National Association of College Admissions Counselors and co-author of Time Out: Taking a Break from School to Travel, Work, Study in the U.S. and Abroad.

Bob, you have had a fairly illustrious teaching career. How did you find your way from teaching to college consulting?

I suspect that I found my way into college consulting in a rather circumlocutory fashion.

One fall in the late 80’s the then Dean of Admissions at Columbia was talking with a colleague of mine at Milton and me about a girl in my dorm. She was a solid applicant, were it not for her complete mental exhaustion. She needed recharging. That was my introduction to the concept of a gap year.

I was curious, then fascinated by this bizarre alternative to the lock-step educational progression of which I was a part. I took a sabbatical; I wrote a book; I began consulting. Then, I discovered that the gap was simply an integer in a long set of numbers; it couldn’t be dealt with in isolation. I had been doing some work for the college office; I had been to the summer institute that NEACAC ran. Now, all I needed to do was to learn more about colleges. Fifteen years later, I finally may be reaching Gladwell’s 10,000 hours. However, learning never stops; there are always more colleges, new SATs, and new and fascinating ways to go through high school.

Often times College Admission Consultants are referred to as College Coaches, some consultants have voiced a dislike for the term; what do you think?

I actually think that “College Coach” may be copyrighted somewhere. It’s an odd cognomen. Coaching for College might be more appropriate, but neither term avoids the pitfall of association with a profession whose participants are often distinguished by their emphases on discipline and winning at all costs

If we must have a nickname, I prefer adviser. We give advice. Sometimes, it’s heeded; sometimes ignored.

When would high school students benefit from working with a college admissions consultant?

Most adolescents can profit from advice from an adult…if it is crafted verrrry carefully. I am immodest enough to believe that I’m fairly good at both the substance and the delivery of such practical wisdom, almost as good as my wife, who is superb at it.

It is because of this conviction that I like having clients who engage me at the beginning of their high school careers. At that point, I see myself as a combination travel guide and accident insurance policy.

What wonders await the high school freshman? Well, not very many from his or her point of view, most likely; for the average high school student, the experience is tedious, occasionally daunting socially or intellectually or both. In short, it is not very pleasant, a passage exacerbated by the pain of hormonal change. That’s just where the travel guide steps in.

For me, it is here that the virtue of beginning my career with alternative education pays off. Did you know that there are at least eighteen different programs that take sophomores, juniors and occasionally seniors away from the tedium to a new and exciting place for at least a semester? And that’s just the beginning.

On another note, it is the unusual high school student who can navigate all four years without a bad course choice, a problem with a teacher or some other mishap. That’s where the insurance policy comes in. After three decades, I’m almost always able to find a solution to a problem.

Finally, it occurs to me that there is one other function that I serve for families: mediator. Almost every family needs one at some point, even if they don’t know it. So, I guess I do believe that most students can use an adviser, not often provided so well by high school staff. Furthermore, I also believe that if parents reflect, they can see the need to have another adult, one free of their agendas and emotional connections, to communicate with their children.

None of the above may seem to have anything to do with college; in fact, it has everything to do with college. The more I know about you, the more easily I can advise you about your college choices and your college applications. The clarity and sense of personal depth that comes from that knowledge helps me steer you toward good decisions, thoughtful college consideration and the essays that will define you best.

On your website there is a testimonial about you helping a student with a transfer, are transfers different than standard admissions consulting and if so how?

I work with several transfer students every year. The transfer process is quite different from the college admissions process.

Transfer applicants depend on two factors for their success: the length of time they have spent at their current university and the GPA they earned there. If they spent but one semester in college before trying to transfer, they are effectively jumped up high school graduates, applying with those same scores, with that same transcript, hopefully embroidered with a few college A’s.

That’s the conundrum that most potential transferees face: to earn a full year’s set of grades, thereby providing a clear answer to the question of their predictive success in college, or filing applications in the spring of their freshman year and so depending in large part on their high school record.

What is hard for most transfer applicants to understand is how meaningless all the other trappings of the college process have become. Unless they are successful college athletes, their extra-curricular lives have become irrelevant. Furthermore, transferring can’t be whimsical. That well-crafted college admissions essay now becomes a humdrum “why are you transferring” question. There better be a good reason. Breaking up with your boyfriend/girlfriend doesn’t suffice. So, transferring is different, and, as the pools of freshman applicants have become deeper and more richly stocked, transferring has become ever more difficult.

As a College Admissions Consultant, which student or situation do you consider your greatest success and why?

My greatest success comes when students tell me that they are happy where they have decided to go to college, that their gap year was a life-changing experience, or that they have graduated from college and want to thank me. One of the latter stands out in my memory.

She was an unhappy high school student, not particularly motivated, prone to trouble and seemingly destined to flunk out of her second high school. Meanwhile, she had spent three and a half years getting to the end of her junior year. From my perspective, going to college would be a liberating experience, if only we could find a college that would be willing to listen and evaluate her situation from her perspective.

Loren Pope’s book, Colleges That Change Lives, was fairly new at that point and not well known. But, Pope had written about Hiram College, in Hiram, Ohio, a small college with an unusual program. It turned out to be a perfect match. The troubled high school student became a shining star, unburdened by the straitjacket of rules she felt encumbered her in high school. We all have these stories; we are usually only bystanders in such accounts. But they sure feel good.

Any disappointments?

What is most disappointing to me, although I certainly understand it, is the persistent effect of prestige and rankings on the college process. Like me, my son is a college professor; unlike me, I suspect he will continue to teach at the college level. But, both our educations notwithstanding, we have worked at institutions ranked well below our alma maters in US News. Yet, we have challenged and been challenged by students again and again. Education is about the marriage of intellectual curiosity and learning. Sometimes, the former has to be nurtured, coaxed to life, as it were. Sometimes, the learner has to search for a mentor. But, both exist everywhere – if one is willing to search.

Does a student using a tutor or test prep service still need a college admissions consultant?

I see tutoring and test preparation as co-existent, sometimes overlapping but ultimately serving different needs.

Tutors focus more on specific academic needs, sometimes continuing to do so for the duration of their pupil’s time in that subject area.

In contrast, those who specialize in test preparation – and I do believe test preparation to be a learned skill – are likely to be critical to almost every college applicant with aspirations.

But, as a college admissions consultant, my role is to inform, advise and, with the support of the student and family, direct the strategic development of the student towards a healthy marriage of interest and opportunity.

So yes, while related as regards improving a student’s academic success, they are different disciplines.

Any college admissions advice for parents of high school students?

As I said above, I like to start working with students as they enter high school because I believe it allows them to use my skills and experience to their maximum advantage. In the beginning, I’m around more or less as insurance; you may not need me at all unless you really need me.

For example, a family engaged me this winter because they were so distressed by the difficulties of their older child’s college process that they wanted to be as prepared as possible for their younger child’s progress through high school.

She was in the eighth grade. As we talked, it seemed to me that she and her parents had a few choices right away, one of which would be to apply to a specialized boarding school, in this case Walnut Hill School for the Arts. That has turned out to be the path down which this young woman has decided to travel.

I believe that the family’s decision to be a good one, but what is most important here is having the information necessary to even consider such a decision.

Sometimes, my advice has more to do with the “insurance” part of my involvement with a family, i.e., dealing with a difficult academic situation at school, or navigating a disciplinary problem. Several boarding schools routinely recommend me to families whose children have been suspended or expelled. It is a category of problems that I have learned to deal with. Ultimately, of course, my job is to find the right college for my client. As I sometimes have to remind my clients, high school is meant to prepare them for college.

What about for students?

Applying to college is real life: the collision of aspirations, hard work, accidents of birth, luck – good and bad, with shadowy decision-makers and unclear futures, kind of like the sorting hat in Harry Potter’s world. Remember that the hat put its wearers somewhere, possibly surprising, but always inside Hogwarts. If you have done your best [which really means the best you can do under the circumstances of your life, not some abstract ideal life], then you can do one thing and one thing only: work with the decisions the process generates.

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