Jill Ortman, Director of College Counseling: Dedicated to Helping Students Find the Right Fit

The college application process can be daunting, but guiding families through it is Jill Ortman's specialty.

The college application process can be daunting, but guiding families through it is Jill Ortman's specialty. She knows the pros and cons of attending a small liberal arts school versus a large university, and sheds light on the campus culture of schools near and far. For Ms. Ortman, Director of College Counseling, it's essential to match students with the best next step in their academic journey after graduation. We sat down with her to learn about Dwight's college counseling program and how Ms. Ortman embraces our School's commitment to personalized learning by working with each student to customize his or her path to a bright future beyond our walls.

Please describe your journey to becoming a college guidance counselor.

It wasn't a direct route! I earned a master's degree in German literature, and then went into the Peace Corps with my husband to Quito, Ecuador. Neither of us had ever studied Spanish, but we were adventuresome!

I was very active in my children's IB international school, Academia Cotopaxi, and I served on the school board. People would ask me for help because I knew a lot about schools and I helped many with college applications. College guidance comes naturally to me — it's something that I've always been interested in. After a few years, another member of the board opened a new school, Colegio Menor San Francisco de Quito, and hired me to be the college counselor.

This inspired me to pursue a degree in education, so I went to Boston University for a year and got a Master of Arts in English as a Second Language. I returned to Academia Cotopaxi to become a college guidance counselor and began doing some private counseling as well. Our children grew up in Quito before I moved back to the US eight years ago and then joined Dwight.

Please describe Dwight's College Guidance program and why it begins early in grade 9.

College guidance begins in grade 9, so that we can get an early jump on demystifying the entire process, especially for those parents who are navigating it for the first time. First, we hold an orientation for parents and students — we start by giving them an idea of what they can look forward to in the next four years. We want parents and students to be equipped to participate fully in every stage of planning and not feel surprised or overwhelmed during the later Upper School years when diving deeper into the process.

We want students to consider their grades beginning in ninth grade, as some don't realize that academic performance from this year is taken into account by colleges. We also encourage them to start thinking about activities and exploring community service, so that they can focus on a few activities that really spark their interests next year.

In tenth grade, we expect students to select one or two activities and to make good use of their time. We discuss how they're planning to spend their summer and if they happen to be around colleges, we suggest taking a look to begin getting a sense of what they like about particular schools.

By the end of grade 10, many families should also start thinking about preparing for standardized tests. Both ninth and tenth graders take the practice ACT, and eleventh graders take both the practice ACT and the PSAT. This allows students to make an informed decision about which test they want to take and they head into junior year knowing they have to take at least one by the end of the year.

Formal counseling begins in junior year. We hold a grade-wide parent and student meeting and assign individual counselors to families. Parents and students fill out questionnaires to provide us with a sense of their wants and expectations. With this information in hand, counselors meet with families and as the year progresses, many students start taking ownership of the process.

Discussions revolve around selecting schools to visit and assessing what they want and don't want: An urban or rural setting? Big? Small? Is pursuing their spark of genius at the college level a priority? Are fraternities and sororities of interest? We offer students a feel for what various colleges and universities offer programmatically, what campus life is like at different schools, and help them discover what's going to suit them best. We also begin discussing essay topics and encourage students to begin writing them over the summer. By the end of the year, we teach students how to use Naviance, our software for keeping track of applications.

During their senior year, students visit colleges on their own and meet college reps who come to Dwight. We discuss their final list of schools, applications, decisions regarding whether to apply for early decision, early action, etc. Counselors serve as student advocates throughout the process and work with families as students receive acceptances and make their final decisions.

How does Dwight's approach align with our School's commitment to personalized learning?

We go above and beyond parents' expectations to support and meet the needs of each child. For example, I will help review common app essays, supplements — whatever a student needs to feel confident when hitting "submit."

When it comes to choosing where to apply, I never discourage students. I encourage them to apply to groups of schools that will suit them and their qualifications, so that they have options because at the end of the day, students have to go where they are accepted. We make sure that each student ends up at the school where he or she belongs.

What do you like about being a college counselor in an IB School and at Dwight in particular?

I love being a college guidance counselor because I only do good things for the kids! I get to guide them through the process of selecting the next step in their academic journey, help ease the anxiety that often comes with this process, and I get to share in their successes. I find it very rewarding!

I like being a college guidance counselor at an IB school because colleges respect the IB tremendously. Admissions officers know how rigorous the program is. I also like the fact that the IB attracts so many interesting students ... and an amazing faculty as well!

What is your philosophy regarding alternative options after graduation such as taking a gap year?

Alternative options can be invaluable, but there has to be a plan in place. We have more and more students who want to take gap years, so we advise them to have an acceptance, make a deposit, and ask to defer for a year in advance, rather than going off on a gap year and having to face college applications later.

What's your personal spark of genius?

I'm very creative, and I get along well with teenagers. I'm like a mother for parents and a grandmother for students!

What is a little-known fact about you?

I speak fluent Spanish. After living in Ecuador for years, my vocabulary is excellent but the same cannot be said of my grammar!

In addition, my husband and I own a handicraft and antique business in Quito called La Bodega. When we first moved there, my husband, who has a master's in international business, and I began working with artisan co-ops. We decided to open our own storefront, which we still have to this day.

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