By John Spear ‘88

A version of this article was originally published in the Fall 2012 issue of Northwood School’s Reflections magazine.

In the 1950s the great journalist Edward R. Murrow launched a radio program called “This I Believe,” which featured compelling essays from celebrities, athletes, politicians and average citizens who distilled into a few minutes the guiding principles by which they lived. The show has been revived recently on public radio and inspired John Spear, Northwood’s Director of College Guidance, to describe his beliefs about the important work he does.

College Guidance is About Finding a Match, not Winning a Prize

“College is a match, not a reward.” That is the college counseling philosophy at Northwood School. With more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, high school students are daunted by their options and often do not know where to begin. The last two decades have seen the college admissions process become a stress-filled odyssey driven by media frenzy surrounding “Best Colleges” lists and the trend to make decisions earlier and earlier. Further, college tuition is skyrocketing — doubling every ten years — making the prospect of affording college more difficult than ever for middle-class and low-income families.

At Northwood School we offer hope amidst this madness. The foundation of our approach to college counseling is to know our students well, to understand the environment in which they will excel, and to help them find the schools at which they can thrive. For some students, that place might be world-renowned institutions like Williams, Harvard, Brown, Berkeley and M.I.T., schools that have recently offered our students admission. For others, it will be regionally-known institutions that may not be on many top-ten lists yet are perfect places for some of our students. Our reward is not the names of the colleges our seniors choose, but rather that they have chosen the right place – for them.

College Guidance is Adolescent Development

At the center of the college search and application process is the student: a developing person and an emerging adult. It is important to remember that truth in the midst of all of the deadlines, visits, drafts and anxiety. We believe that the college admissions process is an important stage of development for maturing young adults who are about to take a great leap of independence when they matriculate in college. For most teenagers, the college planning and application process requires never-before undertaken amounts of self-reflection, organization, planning, re-writing, risk-taking and general discomfort. For many students it is tempting to delay or attempt to altogether skip the whole endeavor, or to even get their moms to do it. College guidance staff guide, support, encourage, nudge, harangue and cheerlead the student through this important life stage.

Technological Innovations Improve College Guidance

If I need to get in touch with my students, I don’t send them an email, call their cell phones or leave a note in their mail box. They never check those places. If I send them a text or “tweet” them they’ll respond within minutes. It is true: every high school student arrives with an array of technologies “pre-installed:” laptop, tablet computer, smart phone, Twitter, Facebook are the basics. The Northwood College Guidance staff uses all of the latest technology to help students through the college search an application. We use Naviance’s web-based Family Connection, which allows students to manage the entire college application process: they can research colleges, compare their credentials to other Northwood applicants through the years, request teacher recommendations, keep track of tasks assigned by their counselors and sign up for campus college visits.

We send text messages to students, emails to parents (700 and 600 respectively during the fall admission season last year) and send Twitter updates to hundreds of followers. We use my blog ( to share scores of resources on everything from the essay and interview to making the most of a college visit.

College Guidance is More than Technology

Of course technology is not a substitute for good counseling, which at its foundation is knowing well the children we are advising. At any given time, Northwood’s college counselors are typically responsible for 10 students; as the director, my teaching load is reduced, so I advise about 25 students. High school guidance counselors in the United States have an average caseload of 500 students. I don’t know how they write their letters of recommendation, never mind find the time to get to know each of their students. Northwood’s small size allows us to know our students’ strengths, weaknesses, goals and family history. We spend time with students in our offices, of course, but that’s just the beginning. We take them out to lunch, we have them over to our homes for a snack or to watch the game. We accompany many of our students on college visits and introduce them to the college reps we have come to know over our careers. Our individual appointments with students are longer and more plentiful than at other schools. We offer advice on every essay, and we read every application before it is submitted. Of course we embrace the latest technology, but no software can replace the time and attention necessary to build the strong relationship that leads to the college match.

Parents Need to be (Thoroughly) Informed and (Appropriately) Involved

It must be hard to be the parent of a senior attending boarding school. The student has countless deadlines to meet, essays to write, recommendations to request and forms to collect. Calls to their faraway child to inquire about his progress, if answered at all, result in grunted responses and often end abruptly with hard feelings all around. Entrusting your child to a boarding school is hard enough. Entrusting your procrastination-prone, non-communicative, confused child to a boarding school just months before college applications are due is riddled with anxiety.

We alleviate our parents’ suffering by communicating often. Our communication has three themes: information about what all students are doing, what tasks your child has (or hasn’t) done, and what parents can do to help. Every month we send an email to parents that outlines the general goals for the month, with many links to more information about the topics in the email. Parents can also log in to Family Connection to see what tasks have been assigned to their child and monitor their progress. Dying to know if your child requested that recommendation or submitted that application? You can log in any time to check. Finally, we help direct parents’ energies toward things they can do to help. Of course we strongly discourage parents from doing what the student can do. Instead we suggest parents take the lead on things only they can do, such as the details associated with financial aid and paying for college. Parents are invaluable partners in this process, but they are just that: part of a process led by the future college student.

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            My colleagues and I get to guide students through an exciting time in their lives. We help young people grow and mature while they explore future possibilities and find a match for the next stage of their lives. We partner with parents and use all of the latest technologies as well as the tried-and-true techniques. In the end, we measure ourselves by the appropriateness of the match, not by how many cars leave campus with head-turning college stickers affixed to the back windows.

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