Helping High School Students Find the Best College Match

Lanita Foley is a college admissions expert and founder of Where Success Blooms. A former Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Stanford University (her alma mater, and mine) and Associate Director of College Counseling at Phillips Academy, Lanita knows college admission from "both sides of the desk."


I was honored to connect with Lanita last year, when she began participating in my viral social media #40DaysofJoy campaign. Along with a small group of Joy Champions, we made an effort to perform one item off the 40 Ways to Find Joy in Your Everyday Life list each day for 40 straight days. We also had a great time supporting each other in tapping into positivity, gratitude, and connection.

Of the experience, Lanita said, "I started recognizing more of our common humanity, being more open and kind to people I meet along life's journey. It reminded me of Amelia Earhart's words: 'No kind action ever stops with itself. One kind action leads to another. A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up to make new trees.'"

A few weeks ago, I asked to talk to Lanita about her work with Where Success Blooms, which I find very intriguing. She's about emphasizing the importance of finding the right college fit, engaging the whole student, and finding a place where a student can thrive.

"Watching high school students and their parents endure the high degree of competitiveness and stress that accompanies college applications was like watching people suffer through a medieval torture chamber," Lanita said. "I knew there was a more mindful, compassionate, and holistic way to help guide them."

Approaching that process with candor, humor, and compassion, Lanita guides her students in connecting authentically with who they are as young adults and who they wish to be. She then helps them discover their best college fit based on this knowledge. She said, "The college admissions process is not 'one size fits all.' Sadly, we as a culture treat it that way. It feels almost criminal that most students have no idea about the wide range of options available to them."

For example, Lanita says, the majority of colleges in the U.S. accept 66 percent of students who apply. But the most selective schools only admit between five to six percent. Lanita finds it helps families when she represents that data visually. After the Boston Marathon bombing, officials temporarily set up a memorial site in a square nearby, filling it with yellow tulips for as far as the eye could see. "There in the midst of all that yellow, was a single red tulip. I took a picture and I use that photo to explain to students and families that a great majority of applicants who apply to selective schools have perfect scores, perfect grades, and tons of community service. Yet how does one stand out like that single red tulip in an increasing crowd of applicants? You approach the process differently, that's how."

Lanita became interested in her line of work due to her family background as well as her personal college admissions experience. Coming from a very large extended family that migrated West from the deep South, she became a natural connector of people across cultures, ages, and communities. As the daughter of an elementary school principal, education was always one of the highest priorities in her family, second only to spirituality. Being smart and working hard were both encouraged.

As a high school senior, when it came time for her to select a college, Lanita found herself struggling to figure out which one would be the best fit. It took an honest and irreverent Trustee from the Class of '55 to assure her that at Stanford, she could be authentically herself. "No other adult in my life at that time appeared to focus upon who I was inside and who I wanted to be. He really seemed to take into account all of my needs -- academically, personally, and emotionally." He inspired Lanita to want to provide the same care and attention to others.

I asked Lanita what scared her most about leaving her career at a top-ranked school in order to strike out on her own. She replied that she had to stop defining success by traditional standards -- a nice title, a prestigious institution, a certain number of years in tenure -- and begin defining success in terms of living and helping others to live authentically. "I love developing deep relationships with students and families over time and watching them succeed. When I show up and am present with whoever is in front of me, I am truly alive in that moment."

To other aspiring entrepreneurs, Lanita offers this advice: "Ask for help. Keep asking. Network. Be persistent. Seek mentors. Focus on your competitive advantage. Recognize the importance of your inner game: it is a direct reflection of your business. Develop systems. Think twice about going out on your own if a high level of uncertainty troubles you. Focus on one or two goals you wish to obtain within a concrete period of time."

As far as advice for college applicants, well, Lanita has that, too. Here it goes:

• Start early.
• Recognize there are over 3,330 schools in the US. Consider and visit a wide range of them.
• Ask lots of questions to understand your own needs.
• Don't be afraid to ask your parents to seek additional help outside of school.
• Review school websites and social media often.
• Visit the schools you think you want to attend both before and after you are admitted.

And don't forget to breathe!

Photo credit: Gavin London