No Free Swings at Bat: Mrs. Gerrity Breaks Down ‘College Prep’

This week Kennedy Catholic students will be attending their third in-house college fair of the school year. During their time at Kennedy, students will attend eight college fairs. With nearly 50 college admissions counselors per fair, that’s a lot of college representation and preparation.

It is a philosophy,” acknowledges Christine Gerrity, Kennedy Catholic’s Director of Guidance. “It is an attitude in the school. When I meet with freshmen and their parents at orientation, I like to stress that ‘college prep starts now.’ We just don’t start talking about college in junior year, it starts as a 9th grader.”

Mrs. Christine Gerrity, Director of Guidance at Kennedy Catholic High School, seated at desk

Mrs. Christine Gerrity, Director of Guidance at Kennedy Catholic High School

Mrs. Gerrity is in her third year at Kennedy Catholic, having joined the school from Good Counsel’s guidance department. Since then, she has increased the number of fairs held each year, and has boosted the number of college reps attending each one, considerably.

But still… do we really need to start this whole ‘college prep’ thing in 9th grade?

It may sound ridiculous,” Mrs. Gerrity conceded, “because 9th graders are busy being 9th graders. But it’s the little things: the little pieces in the Kennedy climate, the way we put the onus on our students to engage their teachers directly, start talking to adults, learn how to talk to adults, have an email relationship with their teacher – college is not going to snapchat you! – all that is very collegiate behavior.”

Although she doesn’t have freshmen filling out FAFSA forms, Mrs. Gerrity does believe that it is never too early for them to be proactive about building a strong high school transcript.

It is a complete fallacy to think that you can become an ‘A’ student in junior year and that it is going to matter,” Mrs. Gerrity warns. “The college admissions climate is so hyper-competitive – it has been on a trajectory straight up! We are seeing alarming numbers of applicants in huge pools, and the priorities in a landscape like that are GPAs and test scores. I hate to say it, but that’s what is going to keep you on the table in a heavy and aggressive admissions review. Your cumulative GPA is going to be born in early July after your junior year closes, and that number consists of freshman, sophomore and junior year grades. There really are not any free swings at bat any more for these students.”

This is why Kennedy Catholic students take a PSAT exam in 9th grade. They’ll take it again – “practice assessments,” Mrs. Gerrity calls them – in sophomore year, before taking the “real” PSAT in the beginning of junior year. All of this is a warm-up for the main event, the SAT, taken the following spring.

When we turn the corner for January of junior year, that’s when we have our College Information Night for parents, a really comprehensive presentation. Next, I start meeting with each and every junior individually, I start asking about where they are in the process,” she explained.

But we do a very good job of not over-serving the details. I know parents really want to get their hands around every little detail, but they don’t need to know how to take the engine apart until senior year. So I try to measure what I deliver, I ask them to hold my hand, ‘we’re going to get through it,’ and get the student to buy in.”

That student “buy-in” is essential because success requires that the student step up.

It’s the student’s voice that these counselors like to hear,” she said. “They are very impressed when the student makes the phone call, engages the adult and asks the tough questions.”

More and more, these tough questions are being asked at a local Starbucks or Panera Bread. Although colleges are conducting fewer interviews with candidates in recent years, many of them are being conducted at coffee shops near the students’ high school, and not on the college campus. Duke, the University of North Carolina, Providence, Yale, Georgetown and Notre Dame are among the colleges who have been favoring these local interviews.

One notion that Mrs. Gerrity is quick to disabuse is that all academics are anti-climactic after junior year.

We do not support our students weakening their transcripts for senior year. We encourage them to take advantage of any rigorous work that they can, to keep the trajectory going. The colleges are going to ask, ‘This is great, what you did in 9, 10 and 11, but let’s see what you are doing senior year,’ and they don’t want to see basket-weaving and bed-making after you have taken three APs in your junior year.”

This makes especially good sense at Kennedy, where electives in computer science, bio-technology and robotics programming are available to seniors – many of whom go on to pursue these subjects in college.

“A lot of engineering programs, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) are trending, pre-med, bio-medical, and the humanities is still huge,” Mrs. Gerrity ticked off the college majors most popular among Kennedy graduates in the past three years. “There has also been a big spike in nursing, we saw it start last year. The whole health sciences field, which exploded 4-5 years ago, is continuing to trend.”

That’s not to say there is any homogeneity among the college paths Kennedy students are taking. They are, quite literally, all over the map.

As demonstrated by where our students do end up going, the message is, ‘you can get there from here,’ Mrs. Gerrity points out. “You can get to an Ivy from here, you can get to a service academy (we do that every year), you can get to a fine arts school. We are starting to get some acceptances in California, we have an international acceptance, we are going west of the Mississippi more, we are going south more.”

Which brings us back to all these college fairs. Now, the typical college fair is held at some central location (the Westchester County Center in White Plains is a popular choice locally) and students from around the region all file into the same hub, making it a very convenient and efficient exercise for the college admissions counselors involved.

So why would as many as sixty of them flock to Somers three times a year just to see only Kennedy students?

When the college representatives realize the quality of the student they are coming to see, that’s why they are coming,” Mrs. Gerrity explained. “They know they are only seeing one school’s worth of students, but it’s worth their morning to see Kennedy students.”