Susan McGuire has spent years reading college applications, both as an admissions counselor picking students-to-be and as an adviser helping them make the cut. Her first job after college was as Assistant Director of Admissions and Academic Advisor at her alma mater, Brown University. In her 20+-year career, she has also worked as a college counselor for veterans at the University of Pennsylvania, a college counselor at Rhode Island’s Moses Brown School, and Associate Director of Admissions and Financial Aid at the National Cathedral School, and has helped students across the U.S. and in Asia with the college admissions process.
But among the many she has read over the years, two applications still stick with McGuire, now Heathwood’s director of college counseling.
There was Carlos, the son of a single mother in Jersey City, N.J., who was short on Brown University-caliber grades but long on leadership. He had a spark, so McGuire pushed to give him a shot. He thrived on campus, and years later, he’d earn an MBA from the London School of Economics and run a non-profit in New Jersey.
And there was Fiona, the young woman she met in China, an outspoken advocate for feminist causes who bucked cultural norms by leveling challenges against her high school’s administration and starting an organization to advance her cause. She’s currently enrolled at Stanford University.
The point, McGuire says: High school isn’t just about checking boxes or crafting a flawless resume to get into college. It should be about honing skills and pursuing passions. And college isn’t an end; it should be a means to explore those passions further.
“I’m a firm believer that students need to approach high school as an opportunity, a time for academic and intellectual discovery, and that goes along with self-discovery,” McGuire said. “College isn’t just this thing you do after high school, but it’s this exciting next step in figuring out what your contribution to the world is going to be.”
That’s not to say grades aren’t important; they are, of course. But McGuire says the most successful applicants have more than that. They have a passion they’re pursuing — one they’ve explored over the summer, perhaps — and an eagerness to follow it into college. They have a broad perspective, and they can see their place in the world away from home.
“I’ve worked with a lot of different types of learners, coming from different kinds of educational experiences,” McGuire said. That’s honed her ability to help students with a wide range of talents and interests find the right college options and the right paths to get there.
Working at Heathwood gives McGuire ample opportunity to provide that kind of personalized support. For much of students’ junior and senior years, she works closely with each of them to identify strengths and goals, select colleges, develop essays and other application materials, apply for scholarships, and more. It’s a labor-intensive process, and one that can be stressful for students and their parents. But McGuire finds it rewarding to help students explore their options and hone the way they present themselves in essays and personal statements, and to help parents navigate the whole process as well. “The admissions landscape has changed so much since current parents went through it,” she said. “But Heathwood parents tend to be very eager to learn.”
Heathwood students, she says, are a pleasure to work with because “they’re just nice” and tend to have a healthy, balanced outlook on the admissions process. “You can approach high school as a stressful four-year scramble to make high grades, nab leasdership positions, and play sports for the sake of getting into a top-choice school,” she observed. “But colleges can see through that, believe me. Alternately, you can spend your time in high school focusing on becoming your best self, finding your gifts and honing your talents and letting the college admission process flow from there. That’s a much more sane approach, and likely a more producive one.”
That approach, combined with the high level of support McGuire’s office provides, can help Heathwood students stand out from the crowd even as colleges are seeing more applicants than ever, which explains in part why Heathwood students regularly gain admission to elite schools like Wake Forest, Washington and Lee, the University of Virginia, Tulane, and the Clemson and USChonors programs.
When applying to these elite schools, it can be hard for students to know exactly how to package themselves—what to say in their essays, which experiences to highlight in their personal statements, etc. That’s where McGuire is a particularly valuable resource. She’s seen from both sides of the table what works and what doesn’t. And after all these years, after reading countless applications, she remembers what stood out.