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college counseling team at emma willard poses for a team photo

In the Spring edition of Signature magazine, we highlighted the the College Counseling office and how they support our students through one of life's biggest decisions.

Slow and steady wins the race. The early bird catches the worm. Good things come to those who wait. These are just some of the contradictory adages we hear about how to approach life. When it comes to applying for college, it can be just as confusing. 

Those of us who applied to college prior to 2000 may not remember all the necessary details required to complete a college application. There are SATs, ACTs, essays, writing supplements, interviews, school visits, and more. The process, with all of its components, can take up to two years. It is a rigorous and lengthy application process, arguably far more time-consuming and demanding than obtaining a full-time job. Getting into college can also be one of the most stressful rites of passage in life. Because of this, it requires committed college counselors who can inform and support their students. It calls for caring and empathetic people who can articulate both the pleasures and the pitfalls of the application process. Perhaps most importantly, it needs mentors who remind students that a college rejection—or acceptance, for that matter—doesn’t change who they are at their core.


college counselor advises student in an office with light walls and dark trim

Dr. Bennett advises Teresa Z. '23 on her college search process.


The members of the College Counseling team at Emma Willard School—Dr. Ashley L. Bennett, Abbey Massoud-Tastor, Xavier McKinzie, Elizabeth Ashline, and Anna Navarro—are so much more than college counselors to their students. 

“I’m constantly telling them, you are enough,” says Abbey Massoud-Tastor, known to her students as “Miss M-T.” 

“She’s not just my college counselor, she’s my friend,” says Stella L. ’23 of Abbey. 

Originally from Beijing, China, Stella met Miss M-T at the start of her ninth grade year. They developed a trust and friendship that lasted throughout the pandemic and well into her senior year when Stella learned she’d been accepted early to Yale. “Miss M-T and Dr. Bennett celebrated with me, but they also reminded me that I was already amazing before the acceptance.”

During the fall of 2020, Emma Willard transitioned from Advanced Placement™ (AP) courses to their own Advanced Studies program. While she was initially concerned she wouldn’t be as prepared for the AP exams, Stella soon discovered that her Advanced Studies courses allowed for more creativity within the classroom. It also decreased stress among the students because there was less pressure to cram for the exam. 

Supported by the findings in a June 2021 report by The Center for American Progress called “Closing Advanced Coursework Equity Gaps for All Students,” Emma’s move from AP courses to its own Advanced Studies curriculum helps close the equity gap for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) students. National data revealed that fewer BIPOC students were enrolled in AP courses than their white and Asian peers and experienced less success in passing the AP test even when they were enrolled.

Making the college application process more equitable was just one of Dr. Ashley Bennett’s priorities when she was hired as Emma Willard’s Director of College Counseling in June 2021. Dr. Bennett, who has a doctorate in ethical leadership from the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, wanted to address, and find solutions for, the disparity between students from mid-to-high socioeconomic backgrounds and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds. In the 2022-23 school year, students attending Emma Willard come from 36 countries, and 43% of the student body receives financial assistance. To help alleviate some of the financial stress for students and their families, the College Counseling team—in collaboration with the Advancement team and the Business Office—secured $1,000 debit cards for 19 Emma Willard students.

“We asked ourselves, ‘How can we make [the college application process] a barrier-free approach?’” In Dr. Bennett’s College Counseling “Fall 2022 Update” newsletter to parents and guardians, she explains that the 19 students were selected based on financial need and that these funds may be used in addition to the Common App and SAT/ACT fee waivers. “The generosity of our donors helped remove financial barriers for these students and we are grateful,” writes Dr. Bennett. She is also hopeful that the school may offer this opportunity to even more students down the road.

“College didn’t seem like a viable option for me, so I thought about becoming a police officer or a firefighter,” says Associate Director of College Counseling Xavier McKinzie, who joined Emma Willard in the summer of 2022. Xavier, a native of the Bronx, attended a high school where students had to pass through metal detectors on their way to class. Senior class morale and motivation were low, but it was Xavier’s college counselor who challenged him to think differently about his future. “She heard me, but thankfully she didn’t listen to me,” Xavier jokes. 

With her help and encouragement, Xavier applied for the Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP)—a scholarship program that serves economically disadvantaged students from New York State. He was admitted to Union College through the HEOP program and says he suffered imposter syndrome when he learned he was one of only 30 scholarship recipients, selected from a pool of 600 applicants. This life-changing experience informed Xavier’s decision to work with students year-round, and be the same kind of role model that his college counselor was for him. His personal experience also gave him the tools to empathize with students and help them create their own individual pathway to success. “I want them to know that, even on their worst day, I understand and I’m here to support them.”

According to Jeffrey Selingo, author of “The College-Admissions Process Is Completely Broken” (The Atlantic, March 2022), the application process can be an “enormous burden.” It’s now the norm for students to apply to as many as 15–20 colleges during their senior year. Students’ applications to college have increased more than 150% over the past 20 years. Even in the days of holistic admissions—a strategy to assess a student by more than just their test scores—students may still come up against colleges’ institutional priorities (IP), quantifiable strategies to meet the demands of a school’s specific demographic needs. IPs may impact a student’s chances of getting admitted to their top choice because of factors that have very little to do with their grades, extracurriculars, or test scores. “The greatest challenge,” says Xavier, “is when students focus only on the highly-rejective colleges and view acceptance to these schools as proof that they’re worth something.” 

The Emma Willard School College Counseling website features Frank Sachs’ quote, “College is a match to be made, not a prize to be won.” This mantra reminds students and their parents that an acceptance to, or rejection from, a particular college or university does not determine the outcome of their lives. Nor should it be an indication of their success or failure as a human being. Yes, a college acceptance is definitely worth celebrating—it is, after, all, one of life’s greatest rites of passage—however, the College Counseling team wants their students to know that it’s really all about understanding how to accept the highs and lows of life. Says Mairi C. ’23, “They emphasize that this is just one part of your life.” 


college counselor advises student in office with college banners behind on the wall

Abbey Massoud-Tastor looks on as Claire L. '23 assesses her options.

Linda I'Anson P’23 describes Emma Willard’s College Counseling Department as a “boutique experience.” She participated in nearly every Zoom call and seminar offered by the team, including one led by Emma Willard’s consultant and financial planner, Paul Martin, whose College Money Method website offers free FAFSA videos and other resources for families. Linda also utilized the Timeline By Grade Level on the College Counseling webpage, which breaks down the process, grade-by-grade. She found it to be especially helpful, and was relieved to know ahead of time what to expect and how to prepare for the journey ahead. 

Linda’s daughter, Dara, sought schools that offered studies in biomedical engineering and Chinese, which narrowed Dara’s pool of schools down to a more focused funnel. Even after doing extensive research on “out-of-the-box” colleges and universities, Linda says she was impressed by the fact that Abbey was able to answer every single one of her questions. “The College Counseling team does a fantastic job of finding unique schools to fit your child.”

Jane Attah P’23 agrees. “I didn’t know that college counseling was such a big part of the Emma Willard process. It gave me peace of mind.” Like Linda, Jane participated in College Counseling’s online webinars, attended open houses, and read Dr. Bennett’s newsletters informing parents and guardians of updates. “The team centers the health and wellbeing of the students above all else,” says Jane. This helps students like her daughter, Gabby P. ’23, maintain their focus (and perspective) throughout the process. Jane says that Gabby, who is interested in studying studio art and women’s and gender studies in college, learned how to be proactive and advocate for herself. When questions related to her college essays arose, Gabby emailed Dr. Bennett and asked her for feedback. Dr. Bennett’s guidance helped Gabby fine-tune her voice and her purpose. 

By implementing more equitable approaches to the college application process, and guiding students along the way, the Emma Willard College Counseling team is truly changing lives. They are not just the students’ counselors, they are also their trusted confidantes, friends, and the people with whom they can be silly and vulnerable. They remind students of their worth, their talents, and their intelligence—embodying what Jeffrey Selingo of The Atlantic proposes is essential: to create “a more meaningful experience” for students so that, when it’s over, they remember the love and support more than the stress and anxiety.

“We help our students unlock the parts of themselves they didn’t know exist,” says Abbey. “It is an honor and pleasure to help them navigate this part of their journey in life.”

This piece was written by Maeve Ryan for the Spring 2023 issue of Signature Magazine. Photography by Kaitlin Resler and Erin Covey.


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