meet a college admissions advisor

KaraWe’re bringing back our popular series, Meet an Admissions Counselor, where we introduce students and families to a different member of the College Coach admissions team. Drop in to see what we’re reading, where we went to school, and our strategies for beginning the college essay. As you work with us to find an educational consultant who best fits your needs or the needs of your child, we will help you consider the personality and working styles that will bring out the best in you or your student. Today we introduce Kara Courtois.

Where are you from?
Long Island, New York

Where did you go to school?
University of Notre Dame for my BA and University of Portland for my MAT

What did you study?
I studied history and medieval studies, but I really pursued a hodgepodge of liberal arts courses with a lot of philosophy and sociology type courses mixed in. I landed on history because it offered me the most flexibility to take all of the courses that interested me (because there were a ton that interested me!) and still allowed me to graduate on time.

Where did you work?
I was a Senior Admissions Counselor at Barnard College (of Columbia University). Prior to that, I was a high school teacher, campus minister and cross-country coach.

What are you reading right now for fun?
I just finished reading an interesting book entitled A Year of Living Danishly, and I just started reading Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty because it was recommended by a few different friends.

You have a free weekend and carte blanche to go anywhere and do anything. What do you do?

Depending on the weather, my family and I will definitely head outdoors for hiking or biking in the cooler months, or a few hours exploring a local bay or ocean beach most times of the year. If my kids were not included in this equation, my husband and I would probably go biking, stand-up paddle boarding, or kayaking, and then try out a restaurant we’ve never been to before.

What was your favorite thing about college?
I loved making friends from all over the world in college and trying a new sport that I fell in love with: crew.

What about your college experience was different from what you expected?

I’m not sure I realized that my life would change as much as it did from just four years in college. I started college hoping to make good friends and learn a lot from classes, but the experiences I had traveling throughout the U.S. with my new friends and teammates on the crew team, studying abroad, and volunteering in so many different parts of the world helped broaden my world view beyond anything I could have imagined. Having attended public schools my whole childhood, I also gained a much better understanding of my faith and spirituality that I never expected.

What’s your philosophy on college admission?
I believe that the universe speaks at some point in the process for most students if they’re willing to listen. I have seen many times where students think they want one thing early on in the process, only to discover as they grow through junior and senior years that they want an entirely different experience. It takes a lot of patience, but I enjoy traveling that journey of discovery with students when they’re willing to wrestle with the questions that help them get to their final destination.

What aspect of the college admissions process do you most enjoy working on?
I most enjoy helping students discover colleges that are their “best fits” and then brainstorming essay topics.

What is the most common mistake you see from students that can easily be fixed?
I think many students have tunnel vision on a certain subset of schools that they’ve heard are great colleges and can then lose out on seeing other schools that might also be good fits for them, or even better fits to help them achieve their end goals.

How do you encourage students to look beyond the schools they know to find hidden gems?
I encourage a lot of research and note-taking as students get on websites. Campus visits are ideal, but I don’t think a student has to see every campus before they apply if they have a general sense of what size and proximity to home will work for them.

What in your mind makes a good college essay?
A good college essay makes you feel like you’ve got the student in the room telling you their story. It doesn’t sound forced or clichéd. It helps a reader hear a student’s genuine voice from the vantage point of focusing on one particular topic or moment that shows a reader (rather than tells the reader) who that student is today as a result of life experience.

What would you say to your high school self if you could coach her through the process?
Great question! I would ask:

  1. “Do you tend to feel more comfortable in smaller classes where you get to know the teacher and students, or have you experienced or would like to experience larger size classes of 50+ students that is more of a lecture style? If so, where do you learn best?”
  1. “What type of learner do you see yourself as? Are you someone who likes to participate in discussions and write papers, or someone who prefers to memorize facts and takes a lot of multiple choice tests?”
  1. “What do you expect out of the social setting at college? How or where do you typically make friends? What activities are currently most important to you, and do your future colleges have similar activities?”

My favorite question to ask students stems from my time as a track athlete in high school.

  1. “Are you a ‘front of the pack’ runner or do you perform better when you start out in the middle or at the back and like to catch up?” I equate that image with how a student may learn best because some students really do their best when they are “top of the class,” while others like to be challenged in every way.

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Written by Kara Courtois
Kara Courtois is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Kara holds degrees from University of Notre Dame and University of Portland; she completed her graduate coursework at Teachers College, Columbia University and Steinhardt School of Education. Prior to joining College Coach, Kara was a senior admissions officer at Barnard College.