As a freshman at the University of Virginia with goals of double-majoring in business and foreign affairs, Camille Larsen is no stranger to hard work and big dreams. Those dreams began with the oft-dreaded college prep and application process.
Having spent her teenage years in Loomis, Larsen dreamed of attending UC Berkeley, which seemed like a great option considering her academic record and range of personal interests. When she was denied acceptance, heartbreak followed. Luckily, she had applied to many other campuses in the University of California system and to private colleges across the country, so when the acceptance letter came from the the University of Virginia, Larsen says it was one of the happiest days of her life.
“Virginia is a way better fit for me,” says Larsen. “I think the experience of being so far away from home, I never thought that it would play such a huge role in my overall development and college experience, but it has.”
To figure out her college path, Larsen worked with Billy Downing, founder and CEO of ESM Prep, a college counseling and test preparation business based in Sacramento. “I owe a lot of my successes to Billy,” she says. “He was always there supporting me and mentoring me through school and all of that. I had to work really hard. The college application process is hard; thankfully I had a great mentor.”
With the May 1 deadline to commit to a college or university right around the corner, the month of April is full of campus open houses and students determining which school is a good fit. Downing is a proponent of a new way of thinking about this decision.
“We consider all these factors when considering schools — costs, majors, size, geography, Wi-Fi, how is the food — we think about all of these things, and yet one of the elements we discard is: ‘Will I be happy and thrive here as a person? Will I be happy in this community?’” Downing says.
A Shift for College Greatness
ESM Prep is a gangbuster business. The local company has gone from a small one-man show to an international enterprise, with expanding service offerings and a strong support team in the span of only the past five years.
Now Downing has published a book, College Greatness: A Family’s Guide to the Admissions Process, in which he suggests a total shift in the way parents and their students should select a university. No longer, he writes in the book, should families seek brand or prestige; the smarter and more sustainable approach is to match the institution that is the best fit for each individual student where he or she can become more successful and thrive personally.
“There is a tremendous miscommunication among the general population in terms of the way that we educate our kids, in terms of the way that we look at college, in terms of the way that we decide what values we want, or how we create value in college and beyond,” Downing says. “This old mantra, just get good grades in school and you’ll go to a good college, which will lead to a good job with good pay, which will lead to a good life, and that’s just not necessarily true anymore.”
The U.S. News & World Report reported on this trend in 2013, showing that “the number of college graduates working minimum wage jobs is nearly 71 percent higher than it was a decade ago.”
Downing recommends that parents today sit down with their kids as a family and have an honest conversation about where their student is academically, and what interests their student has.
“Big school, small school, passion about arts or math/science, a lot of times families, especially parents, try to translate their experience to their kid,” Downing says. “Instead, we need to be trying to find opportunities and experiences that engage kids and gets them excited about learning, that gets them excited about school, that gets them excited about their future.”
Downing and his mentors have helped more than 4,000 students across 15 countries, including 31 cities around the U.S., reach their goals of college admissions, with 94 percent of their students getting into their top three college choices.
Finding the Right Fit
Brian Hewitt, a counselor at Antelope High School by day and founder of College Prep Coaches, a college admissions advising company, helps local families navigate the college system through advising, counseling and coaching. Hewitt agrees that the game has changed for students in recent years and that it takes time to find the perfect fit.
“Getting to know a student is vital to choosing a school,” Hewitt says. “If families are going to make the investment, in time and money, we need to make sure they are uncovering every stone and looking at the college admission process from all angles.”
Downing says the right college fit is out there if families, parents and students are willing to work for it. “You can find the right fit college, but it’s like everything else in life, it’s directly related to the amount of effort you put in,” he says. “There is a way to find the right fit and to be happy and do well, but it takes time and it doesn’t just happen overnight.”