When Mary Beth Fry joined the Heathwood faculty this summer as Director of College Counseling, she brought with her more than 20 years of experience helping independent school students through the college application process. After 11 years at Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh, she spent 12 years at Savannah Country Day School before coming to Heathwood. She is particularly noted for her writing, and has led workshops on writing the Counselor Recommendation at regional SACAC conferences. She earned her undergraduate degree in English from Manhattanville College and her M.A. from the prestigious Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College.
Here she talks about the “happy accident” that led her into college counseling, what drew her to Heathwood, and what she loves about her job.
College counseling is such a specialized career—how did you land there?
It was sort of fluky. I began my career in New York, working in children’s publishing, then moved home to Pittsburgh and taught upper school English at Shady Side Academy. The Director of College Counseling there lost his Associate Director and approached me about stepping into that role because he had noticed that my advisory letters about students were good. Writing strong recommendations for individual students is really important in college counseling, and he said if I could do that, he could teach me the rest. As a teacher, I had been fascinated with the college application process, so I thought college counseling could be a good fit for me. At first, I taught part-time and worked in the counseling office part-time, and then I moved into college counseling full-time. It was a happy, happy accident, and I am now in my 22nd year of it.
What’s kept you in college counseling for so long?
Above all, it’s the students, and the relationship I’m able to have with them. I like talking to kids, and I love watching the way their minds work. This job allows me to work with them in that last iteration of their high school selves, as they’re beginning to try on their adult identities. So the conversations I have with them are often much different from the conversations one might have with them as a teacher. There’s a real give-and-take. They appreciate being treated as adults and knowing that they can ask for help—and that doing so is not a sign of weakness.
What students can discover about themselves through the college application process, if they’re open to it, can lay a very strong foundation for their college experience.
After long stints at two other excellent independent schools, what drew you to the directorship of college counseling at Heathwood?
Largely the fact that it’s an Episcopal school. I liked the idea of a parochial school that has a strong sense of mission, and stays true to that mission and welcomes everyone. So many independent schools are so driven by the bottom line these days that they act counter to their mission. Heathwood has a strong sense of morality—students know where they stand, and everyone is equally valuable. That was really important to me.
How does your office support Heathwood students through the college application process?
Most students aren’t thinking too much about college until Junior or Senior year. But we’re thinking about it on their behalf pretty much the moment they start 9th grade. We offer programming for Freshmen to help them identify their interests and help them identify and overcome weaknesses. And we look at their curriculum, and do testing to see where they are academically, so we can best set each of them up for success in the 10th and 11th grades, which are the meaty years for the college application process.
What we want to do as a strong college preparatory school is have students challenge themselves as much as is reasonable for them. When colleges are evaluating students for admission, the strength of the curriculum and the rigor of the courses they’ve chosen can be as important as their GPA. So a big part of my job is helping students get on the academic track they need to be on to go where they want to go.
When students are in 10th grade, we ask them to do a fair amount of reflection on the goals they’ve set for themselves, and the progress they’ve made on those goals. We also ask them to focus on doing well academically so that they’re prepared to jump into advanced courses in their Junior year.
So for our 9th and 10th graders, we’re not so much college focused as student focused. But by Junior year, we have students set up on Naviance, our college admissions platform, which allows them to find resources and explore colleges, and which serves as a document management system once they start the application process. In the first semester of their Junior year, each student has an individual exploratory meeting with me, and each is assigned a college outside of South Carolina and required to do extensive research on that school. That helps them not only learn about all the tools that are available to help them explore colleges but also to learn more about themselves as applicants: what do and don’t they like about the schools they’re exploring? How does that help them shape their priorities?
And then, of course, in Senior year, we’re working very closely with each student as they go through the application process. We help them narrow down a list of schools they’ll be applying to, we work with them on assembling their applications, and I get to know each of them well enough to write a strong, personalized counselor letter for each of them. Part of my job is to help students put together a list of schools that has balance to it. A good college counselor can help students figure out what schools they really have a shot at. Empirical data doesn’t tell the whole story.
What’s different about the college application process at Heathwood from the experience at other schools?
Public schools can’t be focused that much on the needs and interests of each student. And that individual attention matters, both when it comes to helping students find colleges that truly are a good fit for them and when it comes to the recommendations counselors write for students. At Heathwood, I can really get to know each student. And the recommendation that carries the most weight is the one from the college counselor. So it’s a big advantage for our students that I’m in a position to know them well.
There’s really no other school like Heathwood in Columbia. But we are like every other good independent school in the country in that we are focused on every student. We want them to have an outstanding education, to enjoy their experience, and to find the right path for themselves. It’s always nice for a school to be able to brag about the impressive colleges their students are admitted to, but what I most care about is that students land at schools that are right for them.
The college application process can be so stressful for parents and students alike. What advice do you have to help people get through it?
First, it’s important to recognize that much of the anxiety that the college admission process generates is engendered by the colleges with their eyes on the rankings, and also fabricated by organizations that make money on the college process. And while it’s very natural to be anxious about the admissions process, our goal in the college counseling office is to address precisely the things that tend to be most anxiety-inducing. We can help at every step along the way, with whatever things each student or family most needs help with.
It’s also important to recognize that Heathwood students are very well prepared for college, and that there are many, many good schools out there that are interested in our students.
That being said, any time a parent or student has questions or concerns, they should call me.
And since the better I know each student, the more I can help them through the process, one of the best pieces of advice I can give parents is to encourage your children to come talk to me. Students often have a tendency to feel like they don’t want to impose on a teacher or counselor’s time. But getting to know them is a big part of my job and one of my favorite things about my job. So I really do want to get to know them!