#AdmissionsPros: Finding Your Fit With Dr. Steven Mercer

Welcome to #AdmissionsPros! In this series, admissions advisors and educational consultants offer their advice and insight on the big picture of elementary, secondary, and graduate school admissions — from extracurriculars, to essays, to, (of course) standardized tests.

Dr. Steven Mercer of Mercer Educational Consulting has spent his whole career in the field of education. Drawing from what he knows about teaching, learning, administration, and admissions, Dr. Mercer guides prospective college students through every phase of the admissions process. He spoke with Noodle Pros about the importance of exploration and discovery in the school search, the key role parents should play, and his best advice for college applicants.

Tell us a little bit about your company and the services you provide.

Primarily, I provide college admissions counseling to high school students, guiding them from the early years of high school through the application process. I also provide admissions counseling to transfer students, and to adults who are changing paths and going back to college. I do a little bit of work in graduate school admissions as well.

What is your background, and how did you get into this work?

I’ve worked in education for my entire professional life, and I also have a deep background in admissions. I previously worked in the Admissions Office at the University of Southern California as the Senior Assistant Director for Undergraduate Admissions. While there, I made lots of admissions and scholarship decisions, and traveled the country recruiting students, so I got to know what it looks like inside an increasingly selective admissions office.

I also have experience from the high school side of things; I was the Director of College Counseling at a private high school in the Los Angeles region for many years. So I have a pretty good sense of what goes on in a high school, and of the questions that come up beyond “When is the deadline for applications” and those sorts of things.

Before working in admissions and counseling, I taught everything from preschool all the way up to graduate school — and lots in between. I was an elementary school teacher for years in progressive schools, held an educational role working in international development with college students in Costa Rica, and earned my doctorate in education from UCLA. And so I approach my work as a deeply committed educator, and this aspect of education is the most exciting to me. In American society today, I believe that there’s really no more profound and impactful rite of passage for most young people than going off to college.

Can you walk us through your general process of counseling a student?

I work with lots of different types of students. The majority are in high school, but even within that group there are a lot of variations. Some students are really strong in school; they’re taking rigorous classes, they’re ready to tackle their standardized tests, and they’re shooting for prestigious colleges. Others are struggling, or have dropped out of school for one of a variety of reasons, and need to kind of get back on the horse. And then there’s a lot of in-between. So I’m not a specialist in any one way, but, generally speaking, my curricula is divided into two phases.

Phase one is explorations. This could last a long time or a short time, depending on how far into high school the student is when we start working together. We work on getting to know what the student is interested in, and we make sure that extracurriculars reflect that interest. Again, I approach this first and foremost as an educator; I want high school to be a good educational experience for the student. But of course, I’m also a college admissions advisor. So we discuss extracurriculars to make sure that they’re healthy and authentic and interesting to the student, but also with a lens towards how they will reflect on the college applications. We ask, “How can you maximize what you’re doing in high school so that when you apply for college, your activities will communicate something compelling?”

Then in addition to exploring interests in phase one, we also explore preferences — including the family’s preferences. I think the family’s needs and expectations are important.

The exploration process, and discovering which colleges a student should aspire to, can take a long time to unfold. And for me, the process should be primarily constructed or directed by the students — I just facilitate their discovery. I’m very careful in that I’m not a career counselor, so I’m not doing a career assessment, and I’m not a therapist, so I’m not doing personality assessment. What I’m specifically focusing on is where a student might want to go to college. And all of the questions that come up around that.

One simple exercise I’ve developed is a web-based form that has nine lengthy descriptions of different colleges, but doesn’t list names of the schools or identifying characteristics like city or mascot. Students read the descriptions, and then sort the colleges by preference based only on what they’ve read. Once the schools are sorted, I reveal their names, and share other schools that are similar to the ones the student really liked. While this can help guide the search, it’s not really an exercise to figure out where to apply — it’s about teaching students to stop focusing on “the name.”

So that all happens in phase one. Phase two of my process is application mode. It’s where we roll up our sleeves and we get to work. There, I’m playing the role of project manager, guiding the timelines and task lists and breaking this big process down into lots of smaller pieces, so that we can make careful decisions along the way. We do a lot of work on essays, and generally make sure that applications are being presented properly.

Do you tend to work with students online or in person?

I like to meet in person, but these days, even if the student is in the greater Southern California area, where I’m based, we do a lot of work online. And that’s simply because it’s often easier for the student. It allows us to check-in and meet more frequently and with less hassle and sitting in traffic to get to our office. And technology now makes meeting online very easy and useful. Over time, I’ve digitized all of the documents and checklists and worksheets that I use on my end, so that students can have those up on their screens too, and be in the driver’s seat of our meetings.

Do parents normally sit in on your meetings? What is your perspective on parental involvement?

Parents are an important part of this process, but the student always needs to be at the center of the work that we do. The student is the one who should make the most decisions, take the most responsibility, and do the most work. That said, I still do personally want parents involved. Not that they should be writing essays or doing all of the work for the student, but I want them to be present, asking questions, clarifying tasks, and helping to move the calendar along.

I always start new programs with a parent phone call. Even if a student is the one who initially contacts me, I let them know that my first step would be to speak with a parent or guardian. And then after that conversation, I have a meeting with everybody — parents or guardians and the student all together. From that point forward, it becomes more individualized. Parental involved at the beginning stages after the first initial meeting is still helpful in my experience, because it lets me get a gauge of what parents are looking for, and it gets everybody on the same page. Then usually, parents start to naturally step back after a few meetings, and I encourage that.

Parents are walking a fine line between being supportive and just doing everything for their child. I think that parents should invite their child to collaborate with them, and to consider different things, but they shouldn’t demand or mandate anything. I think sometimes students feel that they’re bombarded and ambushed with questions and instructions about the college process — “Show me what you’ve done,” “Don’t do this,” “Do that,” and it can be very difficult for them. So a great technique for parents is to schedule a weekly time: 6pm on Monday nights, you talk about college. That way, the student doesn’t feel overwhelmed with questions every day.

Let’s talk about the essay. Are there any topics that you usually tell students to avoid?

I actually don’t go overboard on telling students what not to write. Of course there are some things that are just clearly offensive and crossing a line — anything that shows hatred of other people or other groups, or even just shows a lack of maturity. I think extreme points of view should usually be avoided. But I think that some people take it too far in telling students not to write about certain things, like athletics, or summer camp, or anything too personal. I’ve seen a lot of great essays about those things. Here’s what I know about the essay from an admissions point of view: it’s not the topic that’s most important, it’s what you say about it. 

What do you recommend in terms of test prep? How much should students be prioritizing test prep against all of the other things they need to do on their applications?

I’m a big believer in test prep. It’s a rare student who can walk in cold to a standardized exam and be just fine. Now there are different kinds of flavors of test prep — you can do it yourself, buy a book, go to a class, get a tutor, and I talk about the pros and cons of all of those different choices with my students. But for most students, I usually recommend individual tutoring. Classes are generally going to be taught to the middle, so you might already know the material that’s being covered, or you might be sprinting to catch up. And the curricula is often a bit dull and boring on top of that, so it can be hard to stay engaged. When you’re doing individual tutoring, lessons are focused and tailored to you. And I think that that serves most students well.

Last question: What is your biggest piece of advice for students who are applying to competitive institutions?

My biggest advice is really, check your perspective. The thing that seems to make this process great for some students and frustrating for others is really their attitude towards it. I say it over and over again: finding a college is about finding the right fit. If you approach this with a healthy attitude, and don’t get overly caught up in getting into a certain type of college, with a certain level of prestige, you will see that there are thousands of places where you can get a great education.

It’s like buying a pair of shoes; there are many different types shoes, and you get to choose which ones you want, but you shouldn’t choose shoes that are too big or too small — the style won’t matter if they don’t fit your feet.

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Are you interested in working with Dr. Steven Mercer? Reach out via the Mercer Educational Consulting website.

Are you an admissions specialist who would be interested in being featured in #AdmissionsPros? Reach out via our online form.

KC is a writer and educator for Noodle Pros, and is currently earning her MA in Educational Theatre and English at NYU's Steinhardt School. She is from a big family of gifted and 2E kids (and parents), and is passionate about creating inclusive learning environments for all children.