College Counseling: The Not-So-Secret Life of Ms. Main

Caroline Hardy, Co-Editor-In-Chief

       Sitting in her comfortably cozy office with ivy growing wildly just outside and a well-worn patterned rug on the floor, College Counselor Nora Main seems at home. As she talks about her favorite parts of her office (the windows) and her favoriterestaurants (Ngon in downtown St. Paul), and her favorite lunch item (the cold Brussels sprouts and oatmeal cookies) Main easily brings a sense of humanity to the commonly perceived scary and distant process of college selection.  

         From her always full candy jar, commitment to knowing each student personally, and the 15 years she spent as a college admissions officer at Macalester College, Main works to ensure “that each time [students] come into my office and by the time that they leave my office, they think that Ms. Main is on my side.”

         At any given time working with up to a sixth of the student body and constantly having meetings with students and families, Main’s first secret to success is one that rarely, if ever, leaves her hand: her tea mug.  Throughout the day, two different kinds of tea call her silver mug home. She explains, “I don’t need a lot of caffeine, I need a little bit of caffeine. So, it’s the English breakfast tea… I strive to achieve two mug fulls. Then, I graduate to the calm chamomile tea.” Laughing, Main explains that at times, she feels that she is “evolving into an old Asian lady who drinks hot water all the time.”

         Even with almost constant meetings generally from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day, Main makes sure that she is always up to date with what a student is thinking and feeling about their selection process, as a way to both make sure that they address pressing items, but also to honor their time. She explains that “before every meeting, I will have previewed [their file], just to make sure that I am caught up and have previewed my calendar notes and ensure that I am prepared in so far that I know that they will be ready for the meeting too.”

         By preparing, Main will be able to do the work that she feels is really important. “So listening,” she explains, and “trying to reassure the student that the process requires evaluation, self and external evaluation, but I’m neutral in that. I’m not actually evaluating you. I’m just here as a sounding board and as a mechanism of support.”

         “Whether we checked off all of the things on the to-do list that day or really didn’t talk about college at all during our meeting or whether we only talked about college, whatever the conversation looks like,” Main is there for all of it. And at times, this might include her coveted candy jar, always full of chocolate candy thanks to her strong belief that “chocolate is important.”

         This year’s candy selection features a rotating selection of Kit Kats and milk chocolate Hershey’s nuggets. While Twix made periodic appearances last year, Main found that she “ate too many of the Twix bars, so this year, no. No more Twix bars. I’m sorry people who love the Twix bar. You probably didn’t see as many of them in the candy bar because I would eat them.” Instead, chocolates in residence in the jar must be ones that “I don’t really love in my heart,” explains Main. But, other options abound in the college counseling suite, as Director of College Counseling Sara Kyle keeps a stash of fruity candy in her next-door office.  

         In addition to keeping her candy dish full, Main loves the “cyclical nature of her job,” in addition to the relationships she gets to form with admissions officers. Having been on “both sides of the desk,” Main explains the differences between the college and high school side of admissions to be “aggregate vs individual. In an admissions office, ultimately, it increasingly comes to be about aggregate work, enrollment management. It is a luxury being on the high school side to work with individuals throughout the process.” 

         And, admissions officers have fun too. Officers will “share stories about being on the road. It’s like ‘this is day 16 on the road and I haven’t done laundry in 17 days! And my luggage is still stuck in some random city, etc. etc.’ It’s important professionally, but it’s also a lot of fun on a personal level to make those relationships together,” explains Main.

         In addition to her comforting humanity during school hours, Main works to find a balance between her work and personal life. Between committing to shut her computer by 8:30 each night and working to make her way through the weekly issue of the New Yorker, Main also loves to travel. “I’m really into Canada right now. Montreal is beautiful, Toronto is beautiful, I think my next destination is British Columbia,” she explains.

         One privilege that she particularly enjoys about being in admissions is traveling to college campuses and “picturing students going to the college. It’s amazing. You walk on to campus and you are like “Oh! This is the perfect place for this student. Just imagining, oh, I can’t wait to go and tell this student about this place.”

         And even though upon questioning if she strictly observed the one dessert per person rule on oatmeal raisin cookie days, Main carefully answers, “Senator, I will not confirm nor deny my sincere devotion to cookies, singular or plural,” Main takes the truly important parts of her job to heart.

         Main’s ultimate goal with students is to facilitate an environment “where we want students to feel like they are partners in this crazy journey with us,” because “each and every student is important. And they are special, and that they have unique and important gifts to give the world.”