Nicolas Dillman, the associate director of college counseling at Germantown Friends School, was once in the shoes of the kids he works with now. I chatted with Nick about cranberry sauce, the University of Toronto, and going through the college process in 2001.
Tell me about where you grew up.
I grew up just outside of New York City. I went to a large public high school; it was really ethnically diverse, a lot of my friends were immigrants or their parents were immigrants, it was a working class town … I really loved the town that I grew up in. It was a really good place to grow up.
What was the attitude towards college in your high school?
Not a lot of people there went to four-year colleges. Most students went right to work after [high school] or they went to two-year colleges, so it was actually kinda rare for me to go to a four-year college.
What kind of support did you get during your college process?
I didn’t have a lot of support. My parents did not go to college, but my dad’s family did and he was a little bit more informed, so really it was just the two of us on our own. My dad took me around to visit colleges, I started doing the application on my own, and when it came time to send things out, I got a pass from my counselor that said, “Hey, are you applying to college yet? Because we need to send your transcript out,” and that was really my “counseling experience.” There wasn’t really a lot from her — we were on our own, essentially.
Did you always know you wanted to go to college?
I did, because I had parents who told me, you know, this is what you’re doing. My dad… how do I put it? My dad’s a blue-collar guy, and I think he, deep down, always regretted that he didn’t go to college. He was someone who I think feels like he missed out on a lot of his potential. And I was good at school, so [my parents] were always like, “You are good at school. You are going to college.” So even though I didn’t have a lot of understanding about what college was, because I didn’t see it in my parents or my parents’ friends or my friends’ families, I still knew this is what you do: you finish high school, you go onto college and you will figure it out when you get there.
What were the things you were looking for in a school?
I wanted to be in a city, I wanted to be with a lot of people, I wanted to be in a place that was gonna accept me as a queer person very easily.
Did you have a dream school as a kid?
I guess you could say that the one I went to was my dream school. I went to Boston University for undergrad; I knew nothing about it until my cousin graduated from there. I went up to Boston for her graduation and I was kinda like, “This is the place.” In retrospect I wonder, like, was this the place, or was it just a place that I was enamored by as a high school student? But I ended up applying there, really liking it. I also really wanted to go to the University of Toronto, really badly, so I’d say that was more of a dream school, but I ended up not even applying there.
Where else did you apply?
Ooh, okay! I’m gonna see if I can do everywhere that I applied to. I applied to Boston University, NYU, GW, University of Richmond, Penn, Tufts, SUNY Albany, and SUNY Binghamton. There were eight. I got ‘em all. So many years later.
Is there anything you wish you’d done differently in your college process?
I wish I had applied to Toronto. I’ll be honest, it was 2001, so the September 11th attacks happened my senior year of high school. And I really wanted to go to Toronto. And even though when we look at a map, we know that Canada isn’t very far from here, it was a weird time to be a senior in high school and my parents were like, “We don’t want you leaving the country. We’d really feel more comfortable if you stayed in the United States.” It was a school I’d felt really connected to, really drawn to — I could see myself there. And I’m not saying I should have fought my parents on this, but I think maybe I should have had a conversation about it, said, “Why do you feel that way? Let’s talk about what actually is going on and process our feelings together.” But I was just like, “Fine, whatever,” and applied to schools in the US.
How was the college process different when you were applying to schools?
I was class of 2002 (I feel sick to my stomach saying this), 20 years ago. It was a different landscape. There was stress surrounding the process, there was this urge of “You must go to college” that added a little bit to it, but the admissions landscape was a little bit different. It didn’t feel as — for lack of a better word — cutthroat. It didn’t feel like, “What’s the strategy to get into this hyper selective school?” Some of that may have been because of the high school I went to, because not a big percentage of us were going to four-year colleges, like I said.
I’ll give you an example. I was told the deadlines were January 1. So we all applied by January 1. There wasn’t this, “You have to have it in by November 1st,” that would’ve felt insane. “November first? Why would I apply to college in November?”
What’d you write your common app essay about?
I wrote my common app essay about cranberry sauce. I chose the prompt that was like, “Name a time when you have faced a dilemma in your life”. And I love Thanksgiving, I’ve always loved Thanksgiving, but one thing that I hate is the first slice on a can of cranberry sauce, that very icky, slimy top of it.
One Thanksgiving, the cranberry sauce was sitting right in front of me, and everyone’s passing food around. Do I take that first slice, or do I pass it around to everybody else and potentially not get cranberry sauce or have someone be like, “Why are you not having cranberry sauce? It’s right in front of you.” So I wrote about it.
My counselor in high school, the one meeting I had with her to send out my applications, she read my essay and essentially said, “I hate this and I’m not sending it.” But I had an English teacher who I really got along with and who supported my writing and I trusted her feedback and criticism and she loved it … and she encouraged me to send it.
How did your college process influence how you work as a college counselor now?
I try to keep my personal story out of this process a lot … but it does guide my practice. I think about how inaccessible my counselor was. I think what got me to go for my Master’s in counseling in the first place was that I didn’t have the best experience with my counselor. So accessibility, thinking of myself as a guide in this process.
One thing I always tell students is that they have to send the essay they want to send. It is not up to me to determine what you’re saying to represent you — you’re the only one who can determine that. I can give advice until I’m blue in the face, but if a student says, “No, this is the essay I want to send,” I have to support that, because writing is very personal and it’s up to you to decide what’s going to represent you the best.