“It’s important to find the right schools...schools that are more generous, that are a good fit for your child, that they will do well at, because they love it there. They'll get more involved. They'll take initiative. They'll, you know, search out other opportunities.” ~ Kelly MacLean
(Transcript available below)
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Heidi Higgins: Hi there. I'm Heidi Higgins, and you are listening to K12 On Learning. College and career readiness is more than gaining acceptance into a university or workplace. Readiness means having the time to explore careers, ask questions, and develop the skills to be successful in this future environment. Parents need to know how to prepare their children.
Today it is my pleasure to introduce you to Kelly MacLean. Kelly is one of those guests that I wish I would have met many years ago as I was helping my children fill out college and job applications. Kelly is the president and founder of Kelly MacLean Achievement Center. A former college recruiter, Kelly repeatedly witnessed high school students making mistakes in their college search, often resulting in missed scholarships, lack of acceptance at their choice schools, or ultimately switching schools or majors. Kelly realized how overwhelming the process is and how costly even little mistakes can be. She's here today to share somelife lessons she's witnessed and hopefully save you a misstep in helping your child. Kelly MacLean, welcome to K12 On Learning.
Kelly MacLean: Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be here.
Heidi Higgins: Kelly, I'm really looking forward to our conversation because you are an expert in helping students find their fit when it comes to colleges and career readiness. Will you please share how you developed this expertise, how it all started for you?
Kelly MacLean: Absolutely. This business that I'm in actually started because I worked in college admissions. While working within college admissions, I was also coaching high school varsity soccer. So between seeing students in the college, seeing students in their high school, seeing my soccer players, I saw mistakes being made, not big-get-in-trouble mistakes, little tiny mistakes that cost students the opportunities they deserved. When I asked students, "Why did you do this? Why didn't you do that?" I got the same answer every time: "No one told me." I thought, there's got to be a better way. So I started helping my soccer players. Their families started referring me to other people. Within a year, I had a college admissions job to help families and their students navigate this entire process.
Heidi Higgins: Kelly, tell us, when should a family start to prepare for life after high school with their children?
Kelly MacLean: Preparation begins long before you would expect. Having students think about, having children think about, "What is the future? What does thatlook like?" everything from what type of work environment to what type of college. It's doing things like driving through schools on your vacation, visiting different locations so students can start to think about, "Would I like a more rural setting? Would I like a more urban setting? What's the right fit?" and just putting that information in front of them so they can really start thinking about it and internalizing it as part of their future.
Heidi Higgins: I like that. So start to look and think about it at an early age. What's an early age?
Kelly MacLean: Oh, I love when families tell me that at seventh grade they're visiting schools on their vacations, or when visiting family, they're stopping at local colleges and really just exposing their children to other things.
Heidi Higgins: How does a person go about deciding what they want to do in their life?
Kelly MacLean: This is definitely something that I love to speak about. I think our education system, while it's supposed to prepare students for college, academically it may be doing that, but realistically it's not. There's not enough focus on, why are you attending college? What's the purpose of college? The purpose is nothing more than to get you to the final destination of a career. It's like planninga vacation. When we plan vacations, we think about the destination first. Do I want to go to the beach, or do I want to go skiing? Then I plan how I will get there.
We don't treat college that way. Too often, students are taught to think about "What college do I want to attend?" without understanding what the purpose is: Where will college get them? I think for students to start thinking with the end in mind: What do I want to be? What does that look like? Unfortunately, taking four years of math, four years of science, four years of English, three years of history throughout high school, we're not really exposing them to many opportunities. So I think it's really important that families look for ways to expose their children to other opportunities. That could be through summer internships. It could be through just some self-searching, looking things up, our friend, Google, or it could be through a paid service, like what we offer students, to really help them between personality tests, interest inventories, and then diving deeper into careers, getting a better understanding so they can determine what is the best fit.
Heidi Higgins: Thank you, Kelly. What are some ways we can spend in high school that prepare us for our passion to develop and find and discover our passion?
Kelly MacLean: I think some outside ways, looking at potential internships, shadowing professionals in an area you think you might have an interest in, googling upcoming careers, hottest trends, things like that. But I think it takes a little bit more for a student to truly understand what it is they're looking at. So often they're looking at it through their lens, which has been very limited by high school.
I'll meet with a student who's very STEM oriented. He's looking at materials engineering. In the description, it mentions they write papers. They write reports. The student will say, "Well, I don't want to write reports. I hate that." Then when we explain, "Well, if you're the one who determined a particular material is going work better for a product because it's more rigid or more pliable or whatever the case is, could you write a report to let everyone else in the department know?" "Oh well, sure. I could do that." "Great. That's the type of report." "Oh, okay." I think they need that guidance to better understand because, again, we may think, "Oh, of course they know what they do," when in fact they may not, and they're just too limited. So the more exposure they have, like I said, internship, shadows, discussing it, the better. It's one of the things that I just see so many aha moments when we're doing that with students.
Heidi Higgins: What makes a college application stand out?
Kelly MacLean: Oh, I'll tell you what, that has been the trick in the past two years. Since COVID, it has changed. It used to be grades and test scores could really elevate a student. But what we're seeing now with test optional being used by many schools, that applicants are applying to more schools. "Oh, I might have a shot. I have good grades. I don't need the test score." So colleges are looking for even more. Now they're looking for signs of initiative. They're looking for students who have done something outside of the box. So initiative is not just joining all the clubs that they're able to because it was easy. Initiative is doing something on their own, things like contacting the local nursing home and arranging to go and play your saxophone there once a month on a Friday night, doing something out of the norm, creating something that doesn't currently exist to help someone else. There are so many opportunities if students really dig deep and think about it, but they're so focused on following the regimen of what's expected for a school that they often don't think outside the box. That's what colleges are looking for.
A student that I had, he's very tech savvy. He could fix just about everything. He was the person to go to when the fan on your computer won't turn off. He could just figure it out. We talked about, how can he make an impact and do something different? So he started a business where he would go into people's homes, and he'd connect their tech. He would get Siri talking to their Alexa, talking to their smart thermostat. He would help someone figure out why their watch wasn't connecting to their phone and just things that are frustrations, especially for older people who weren't brought up in this tech savvy world. So he would go in and make that process simple.
When you think about where those people might, quote, unquote, live on the internet to see that there's someone who can help them, it meant Facebook, and this student wasn't on Facebook. So creating a Facebook page and getting a presence, and of course getting some help from older relatives of his who could spread the word, who could share posts he was making on Facebook so that the demographic of his clients would see it. What a huge service. He helps families with so many things. You know what? Not only helping the parents or grandparents who are having these issues, but taking the burden off of their children to run to their house and fix these things. Great opportunity for him to really showcase how he could make an impact. Very simply it was something he already knew how to do.
Heidi Higgins: He mentioned this on his college application and that would have grabbed your attention.
Kelly MacLean: 100%, because it's something different. It's something unique. You don't see that every day. If you think about all of the other high school students you know, if they're not doing it, it's probably unique. If one or two of them are doing it, it's probably not. Because if one or two of the people you know are doing it, if you multiply that by all the different schools where you don't know anyone, there's a lot of students probably doing those other things.
Heidi Higgins: That's a great point to consider: What's unique? What would make you stand out? What can a parent do to start directing their child toward a career or an encouragement? Does that encouragement need to come from school? Where do they get their direction and where should they find it?
Kelly MacLean: I think it's super important for families in particular, while they're so well meaning and they want so much for their children, tonot define their children by a skill they've already demonstrated. So often we see students who are good in math, "You're good in math; be an engineer," but that's so limiting. There are so many other careers that'll utilize their math skills that they actually might have more interest in. So I think it's more important for parents to help develop their interest by exposing them to more, by allowing them to understand that, "You're great at math, but let's take a look at all of these other things that you might be good at which you actually might have more interest in."
I think for people to be satisfied in their careers, they need to feel they have a purpose for doing it. Definitely be interested in it. If they're interested enough, they're going to become very good at it, but they don't necessarily have to be the best at the beginning. They just have to be driven to succeed, and that drive is usually more focused around their interests or more driven by the amount of interest they have than their innate abilities. So to narrow somebody down to one ability they have and assume their career should match that, I think, is too limiting.
I had an Irish Catholic grandmother who truly believed cleanliness was next to godliness. So when we cleaned it was the white glove test, and the corners had to be as clean as the center. She made me a great cleaner. I mean, to this day if I'm going to wash floors, I'm on my hands and knees washing floors because that's the right way to do it. I'm a phenomenal cleaner, but I have no desire to make that my career just because I'm good at it.
I think too often we see ability in someone and we automatically want to channel that into, "Oh, how can you make money with that ability?" Like I said, our world is changing so quickly, and new careers are popping up daily. I think it's so much more important for a child to discover where their interests lie, and where their interests lie, often there's an intersection between, "Wow, I'm really interested in this, and I think I might be able to be good at it. These careers allow me to make money at it. Let's explore those." I think that's a great place for a student to really start thinking about: "What do I want my future to look like? What do I wantto do when I'm 27 years old? It's a Wednesday morning. I'm rolling out of bed. What's going to make me happy?"
Heidi Higgins: Wow, Kelly, I know a lot of adults who think those same thoughts: "What is it going to look like five years from now?" What an important thing to consider. Remind us what parents can do to help with this.
Kelly MacLean: I think there's a lot of different ways to get to where you want to go, but the most important thing is really encouraging that curiosity, for them to discover more, to learn more, to understand how things work. Too often we don't share with our children how things work in the real world. We don't discuss simple things, finance, budget, stocks, things like that, things that are going on in our world, technology, the changes that are happening, things we're hearing about because we just don't think they're ready, they're interested, they want to learn, whatever the case is. But I think that's really important to expose them to more along the way.
Heidi Higgins: Let's talk about something that you wrote about that I mentioned in your bio. It said that you realize that this is an overwhelming process. Are there any other pitfalls we need to be aware of?
Kelly MacLean: Well, if we go back to, "You're good at math; be an engineer," pushing a child into a career based solely on their talent could be a mistake without allowing them to eliminate other careers for a good reason that they determined they weren't a good fit for them. Focusing on what school without thinking aboutwhat the destination is because what if it doesn't have the right major. What if the major doesn't have the right opportunities for the child? Not thinking ahead financially: Is this school a good financial fit for the family? I've been in situations where families have called me and said, "Oh my gosh, my daughter got into her top choice, but it's $72,000 a year. You need to talk her out of it." "Well, how about if we find some scholarship money? But sometimes that's not always the case, so you need to be prepared. You need to know what you're looking at. Again, if you were planning a vacation for your family, you would be considering the budget, not just, "Oh, I want them to have their dream." I understand how important that is for a family.
The other thing is, too, the older kids get, as they're in their teens, often they're trying to stretch their wings and show their independence. So a parent's well-meaning advice is met with, "I've got this. Don't worry about it. I know what I want to do. We don't need to talk about this." Those words are often, "I'm terrified to talk about it because I don't have the answer." So it's a struggle sometimes for parents to really meet their child where they're at and not make it feel like more pressure on the kid to have to have an answer. Again, encouraging the curiosity, encouraging them to look at other things.
Heidi Higgins: Excellent advice. I've heard you mention that little details, even deadlines, are something really important and can be a huge mistake when we innocently have no idea. Can you give me an example like that?
Kelly MacLean: I'm so glad you circled back to that. So deadlines, early action deadline of November 1st or December 1st for a school is when you have to have your application in. Often you're late to the game. Early in the cycle, in August and September, admission officers are thinking, "Wow, we need to fill this class. We need to get this class in position. Fill those spaces." That's their job. That's the overarching message in every admission department: "We need to fill this class." So early in the process when there may be a couple hundred applications those first few weeks, they have time to look at those applications, to really dive deeper.
That week leading up to that deadline, they're getting thousands and thousands and thousands of applications. Now their position changes a little bit: "How do we get through all of these?" Often first look is grades and test scores, which for some students might be an issue. It also might be an issue if they already have that class three quarters of the way full with students who look just like you: same background, same demographic, same grade, same test scores. Now we're looking for something else to fill that class so that our community is a diverse community. Our community has different mindsets, different opinions, different backgrounds coming in adding to the value the school's going to provide every student. Their focus shifts over time. Being early makes you more unique.
Heidi Higgins: Something you mentioned to me before we got started was that a college is a business, so we need to think about it from the college point of view as well.
Kelly MacLean: One of the things people fail to realize is as a business, they're inviting an entire community to come together. They're building a mini-city. Just like any other city, you don't want a city just filled with engineers. You don't want a city filled just with men. So they're looking for all of the different personalities that can add to their community, that can bring something, that will participate in their community. So they're looking beyond just grades and test scores. They want to know that people will contribute. The biggest indicator that they'll contribute to this new community is based on what they contributed to in their old community. So they're looking for their participation in things beyond just sports or a particular, singular club. They're looking to see what else you've done, what type of leadership roles.
When colleges are considering whether your application helps you to stand out or is the right fit for the community, they're also looking at, are you likely to do well enough in school and be happy here that you'll stay for next semester? Because as a business, they're only collecting first semester tuition room and board up front. If you don't do well, if you weren't a good fit for the community and you're not happy, chances are you're not coming back in January. They're not getting a whole bunch of new people in in January. So their budget has to make sure that they're going to have enough kids coming back, enough kids who are happy, enough kids who fit in, enough kids who are doing well in school that parents are writing that check or they're getting that money for that second semester to meet all of the school's financial obligations because they still have to maintain all those same buildings. They still have the same professors to pay. So they can't run the risk of kids leaving because it wasn't the right fit academically and socially.
Heidi Higgins: You've made do some thinking here, Kelly, in that my family, for instance, has kind of a family school. Most of our children, I went there, my husband went there. We kind of want our kids to be there. But maybe we should consider, I'm embarrassed because this seems kind of silly now, the child's needs first. Believe it or not, that really wasn't the consideration. We just wanted to get them in the family school.
Kelly MacLean: I don't believe there's one right path for every child just as there's no one right career for every child. So the learning environments need to fit students. They need to make sure that they're growing, that they're learning, that they're inspired to learn. I think so often students don't see the power in knowledge. They are just doing it to get through it. I think that's a disservice to a student to not encourage that growth and that they see the benefit of learning and continuous curiosity.
Heidi Higgins: You mentioned the social piece. We know how important it is that a student be well rounded and fit into that environment that you're talking about. What kind of weight should we put on looking at the environment of a college and a child's future?
Kelly MacLean: Oh, I think the environment is critical. We are expecting children to move away from their home for four years and learn to adult while they're there. The best indicator, though, of how well they'll do or what that first job opportunity or getting into a grad school, med school and so forth are, is really what kind of fit the school was for them. The better the fit, the more it's their people, their environment, their social opportunities, the more they'll get involved, the more they will join clubs, the more they will find leadership opportunities.
Those are the things that employers and grad schools are looking for. They want to know that that's great that you got good grades, but how will you fit into this environment? Are you going to get along with others? Are you a good team player? Do we see signs of that? Because you belong to several different groups, you had some leadership roles in different groups, you participated in things that not everyone did, that's the best indication of how will you fit into the work environment, into grad school and so forth. So it's really critical because if they don't like where they're at, they're going to study, but then they're going to go back to their room. They're really not going to get involved, and that'll be an issue for them later.
Heidi Higgins: Kelly, you have taken your experience and have turned it into a business where you help individual families. What are some of the things that you focus on?
Kelly MacLean: I've run the Kelly MacLean Achievement Center for the past 11 years. We do everything from subject specific tutoring to keep grades up, ACT/SAT test prep. Even though test optional is bantered around quite a bit today, we're still seeing students who apply with a test score are getting a higher acceptance rate than those without. But a big focus of ours is on that career exploration, really encouraging students to find the right path for themselves. Then college selection, what will be the right fit to academically get them to that path, be the social right fit, and financially a good fit for the family? Then we also do help with the application process.
Heidi Higgins: That sounds like a fascinating field to help a lot of us. What's the benefit of a paid service like yours?
Kelly MacLean: We're going to let your child borrow our confidence in them. Just helping a student see it from someone else's perspective is a great thing. As a paid service, we're paid to get results.
Heidi Higgins: Kelly MacLean, thank you so much. I think you're the perfect person to address this topic. We appreciate you being on the podcast today.
Kelly MacLean: Thank you so much for inviting me on. I so appreciate it.
Heidi Higgins: Thank you for listening to K12 On Learning sponsored by Stride. To learn more about online public schools powered by Stride K12, Stride Career Prep programs that foster lifelong learning, or any of the private school or individual course offerings, please go to stridelearning.com or k12.com. Special thanks to Tree-K Studios for providing the music for us. Remember to subscribe to this podcast and feel free to leave us a good review. We hope you'll join us next time for K12 On Learning.
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