Welcome to #AdmissionsPros! In this series, admissions advisors and educational consultants offer their advice and insight on the big picture of elementary, secondary, and graduate school admissions — from extracurriculars, to essays, to, (of course) standardized tests.
Diederik van Renesse is a long-time educator who has been helping New York and Connecticut-based families at Steinbrecher & Partners for over two decades. In addition to advising local and international day school, boarding school, and college applicants, Diederik specializes in helping students with special needs find appropriate support services and alternative programs that will maximize their strengths. He spoke with Noodle Pros about the particular challenges that students with learning differences might face in the college admissions process, and the best ways for these students to find their perfect fit schools.
Can you provide a little bit of background on your company and the services you provide?
Steinbrecher & Partners has been around since the late 70s. It was founded by Phyllis Stenbrecher, who was one of the grand dames in the business when there were just a handful of educational consultants. I joined her in 1994. We provide a broad array of services; I tend to do a lot of work involving prep schools and kids in crisis, where my colleague Rich Avitable works primarily with college-bound kids on the admissions process. Many of my students have learning differences or other issues such as anxiety, which can sometimes be debilitating. I find it very rewarding to match those kids up with colleges and to get them the academic and emotional support services that they need.
I also work with kids who have experienced drug or alcohol issues and really need a really good sober living environment; I help them make a list of colleges that offer those kinds of supports.
For your students in particular, how much parental involvement do you recommend throughout the college admissions process?
After our first meeting, we try to have the kids come in on their own as much as possible, and speak with the parents separately over the phone. That way we avoid putting a sense of outside parental pressure on the kids, and they don’t feel like we’re in cahoots with their families — because we’re not. Our goal is just to get them into the best possible colleges for their strengths and personalities. And if the students can come here and feel that it’s just the two of us working on their essays, looking at options and academic programs and support services, it lets them own the process. They can feel like, “that’s my kind of college;” “that’s where I want to go,” rather than someone else making the decision for them. And I think that makes a huge difference. Because ultimately, it’s the kid that has to go to the school and succeed and be happy wherever they’re going. And if the kid is not happy, they’re generally not going to succeed. You see a lot of young adults who are failing to launch; that’s because they didn’t necessarily go where they should have gone, and they don’t have that sense of independence. We want the kids to work with us independently, and to feel that it’s their process.
What is your perspective on standardized tests and test prep?
A lot of students from the population in which I usually work will be exempt from testing; we’ll often just pull IQ tests and go through various support services. But the flipside of that is that I also have a lot of very bright kids who are extremely anxious, and put very high pressure on themselves. They all expect to get the 1600 or the 36, and if they don’t produce those scores they feel like they are failures. So those are the students that we do sent to tutoring; because if we don’t, then they’ll never feel that they did as well as they could have done.
For the rest of my kids, though, we generally look at the score optional schools — because those also tend to be the more supportive schools. These are schools that simply say: “We want to help kids succeed, and test scores don’t tell us a whole lot. Send us an IQ test. Or send us a portfolio showing what the kid has done.” Or even better, “Send us couple of graded papers; a couple of history papers, a couple of English papers…” because that way the school can actually tell how that student works.
Do you ever advise students who are counting on their test scores to make up for lower GPAs?
We do sometimes encounter those cases, and my answer for decades has been that high test scores combined with low academic performance is a kiss of death. Students are better off having high performance and lower test scores; lower grades make it seem like the student just isn’t trying, especially when they’re able to do well on their exams. Unfortunately, that’s just how colleges interpret these things. We can’t control their interpretation. So that can be really difficult for students with executive function issues, where their brain is running at a high level but they just have a slow processing speed when it comes to certain tasks.
Is the college application process mostly the same for your students? Are there additional steps for students with learning differences to take?
Most of my students go through the typical admissions process, with the added layer of making contact with academic support services at their prospective colleges. We go in and meet with the heads of those departments, and bring all of the student’s tests and other information about the supports they were using in high school, and the types of supports they think they might need in college. Once we have that conversation with the support services people, they can go back to their admissions office and say, “Look, we know this student’s test scores aren’t where they should be, but based on their past evaluations, there are accommodations we can offer to make sure that the student is successful in our school. We think we can provide those supports, and that our school is the right place for this student.”
Your company lists “transfer advising” as one of your services, for students who are switching schools at some point in their four years. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Knock on wood, we don’t do a lot of that for our own kids — we generally find that our kids are well placed wherever they ultimately land, which is a point of pride for us. But we do receive phone calls every season from new families who are looking to transfer, where their student’s original school just isn’t working out, and we assist with that. I also work with a lot of kids who might be described as failure-to-launch students; they did a semester or two of college, but ultimately flunked out, and now they’re ready to find another school. A lot of these students need to fix up their academic records before they even can transfer. So we try to figure out what they can do before applying to schools, to demonstrate their ability to re-enroll in a four-year program. And that’s a process.
Do most of your students need to have had a neuropsychological evaluation or an IEP or 504 Plan to even be considered for the types of supports that colleges offer?
Students do need to get approval for their support services by sharing their IEPs or 504s and evaluations. But self-advocacy is what’s really important at the college level. A lot of schools will say that their supports are open to all of their students, even if they’ve never had accommodations before. So if a student is having a really tough time with a particular paper, for example, they can go to the writing center. It’s not limited to the kids who have IEPs or other kinds of classification. But to really get the best use out of these services, students should at least have some assessments that say they need accommodations, and that these accommodations should be carried out in all of their classes.
And it’s hard, because some 18-year-olds were in their resource rooms all throughout high school, and felt like they were walking around with a big neon sign saying “I’m different, I’m different.” And they can’t wait to shake that label and do things “on their own.” So when they get to college, they throw all of their potential support services out the door, or refuse to take advantage of them. And that’s the tough part. You can’t make a kid walk. That’s where the biggest frustration comes in for many of my parents; all of a sudden, they aren’t able to manage things for their student anymore. Their daughter is 18, and colleges will say that she has to do these things for herself.
What is your biggest piece of advice for nontraditional college applicants?
Believe in yourself. I think that for many of these kids, their confidence is so shaken, and they feel completely dependent on others, when they really don’t have to be. Owning their need is something that is very hard for a lot of kids to wrap their minds around. But they have to get to the point where they can say, “Yes I need help.” In a lot of cases, these students are the pluggers; they’re the hard workers; they’re the ones who are going to take five hours in the library every night instead of two hours — and they know they have to do it. So it’s really important they believe in themselves. That’s most meaningful to me.
Also, there is such a range of college options. And just because a student has learning differences doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be somewhere where they can be pushed and challenged by their professors. They just need to learn how to process their work, and how to tap into available resources. And if a student is really passionate about something, they should go after that passion and wrap their arms around it. You don’t need to be an English major or a math major if you think that English sucks and math is impossible; go after what you love.
Are you interested in working with Diederik van Renesse? You can reach out via the Steinbrecher & Partners website.