For parents with kids departing for college

Chris Alexander is a professor and dean at Davidson College. His recent Washington Post article, As drop-off looms, a professor’s note for new college parents, is one of the best I’ve read on the subject of parenting your college-age kid.

If you’re sending your son or daughter to college this fall, please read it. And if you’ve still got a few years to go, bookmark it and return to read it later. It’s difficult to not only be compassionate when you advise that parents back off, but also to give specific advice about the new kind of parenting your student will need while they’re in college. Alexander definitely pulls off both.

College applicants, have you chosen a backup plan?

According to business school professors Katherine Milkman and Jihae Shin (Wharton and University of Wisconsin, respectively), their research has shown that having a backup plan just increases the odds that you’ll need one. You’re more likely to achieve your dreams if you’re laser-focused on your goals rather than contemplating your fallback position.

That may be true for entrepreneurs, but it’s not an approach that I’d recommend for students applying to college.

Most students who apply to college should have at least one safety school, which I define as a school where you and your counselor agree that you are certain you will be admitted, that wouldn’t require you to take out staggering loans to attend, and that you actually would be happy to call your home for the next four years.

A safety school doesn’t necessarily have to feel like a backup plan. If the school you most want to attend is also a safety for you, do the jig and celebrate—you’re living the college applicant’s dream!

But for many students, those safety schools are backup plans. They aren’t as enticing as the other schools on their list, but if it came down to it, life would be good if they became a college freshman at their safety school next fall.

For other students, their safety school may be a community college. That’s a great option for lots of students, whether it’s to save money, to allow more time to feel academically and socially prepared for a four-year school, or even to enroll in a guaranteed transfer program with a school where they aren’t currently competitive for admission. If you’d like to consider one of these paths, here’s a past post with more advice.

Is community college the right choice for you?

Maybe you want your backup plan to be that you work, travel, or have another enriching experience for a year and then reapply. Maybe you’d learn a trade, or volunteer, or do a project that benefits you or others.

But whatever your backup plan is, please choose one. Verify with your counselor and your family that it will actually be an option.

I don’t care what your backup plan is, or whether or not it’s actually a fallback option for you (maybe your backup plan is one you’d be really excited to do). But if you enter the college admissions process without a backup plan and things don’t work out, you’re more likely to have that plan chosen for you by process of elimination. And the best backup plans are the ones that you choose for yourself.

The big FAFSA changes this year

Families who’ve been through the admissions and financial aid application processes with older kids probably remember the order of operations. No matter which colleges you applied to or when you submitted your applications, the earliest you could submit your FAFSA (the starting point to apply for all need-based aid for college) was January 1 of the student’s senior year. But that meant many students were submitting college applications the prior October-December with no sense of whether or not they were eligible for financial aid. The FAFSA also required that you use tax data from the current year. So unless you really had your tax act together enough to get them done months ahead of time, your FAFSA almost certainly wouldn’t be completed in January. And given that much of need-based financial aid is available on a first come, first served basis, the January 1 filing date created a lot of stress and just wasn’t very efficient.

This year, the FAFSA folks have made two significant changes.

1. The FAFSA can now be submitted as early as October 1, rather than the following January. So if you’re applying to college this fall, you may submit your FAFSA as early as Oct. 1, 2016.

2. For the 2017-18 academic year, families may use information from the 2015 tax year to complete the FAFSA. So instead of frantically completing your taxes next year and hoping to transfer that information to your FAFSA in time, you can now not only use last year’s tax returns, but you’ll also be able to use the IRS’s data retrieval tool, which allows you to transfer the necessary information into your FAFSA.

Those are mostly good changes. Now here’s what won’t change.

While virtually every college requires the FAFSA from applicants seeking aid, each individual school decides when that FAFSA is due (October 1, 2016 isn’t a deadline, it’s just the earliest that a FAFSA can be submitted), and schools may require other paperwork in addition to the FAFSA. The only way to make sure you’re submitting the right forms at the right times is to check the financial aid sections of each of your chosen colleges’ websites.

Counselors may be aware that there are several unanswered questions about these changes, like how they will affect Pell grants, what will happen with the Profile form, how this will affect counselors’ advising cycles now that you have to cover financial aid much earlier, etc. But for the purposes of this post, I want to focus on what families need to know rather than raise questions they aren’t empowered to influence.

So, college applicants (and their parents), visit the websites of the colleges that interest you. Check all the requirements and deadlines for both a complete application for admission and for financial aid. Decide who will be responsible for what (kids should fill out their own applications, but it’s common and accepted that parents often handle the financial aid paperwork).  That way, you won’t be missing anything, and you’ll give yourself a good start towards getting the aid you need to help pay for college.

Our new Common App guide is on the way!

Last year, we released our Collegewise Guide to the 2015-16 Common Application. It took applicants through every section of the Common App, line by line, sharing all of our admissions expertise to make sure they were presenting themselves in a compelling way. And for the first time since we began producing an annual guide back in 2011, it was free to students, parents, and counselors.

Our counselors have recently been getting two questions about the guide: Will we be releasing a new version this year, and will it also be free?

I’m happy to report that the answer to both of those questions is…yes!

Arun and his team have been working away on this year’s update to reflect the most recent changes to the Common Application. We’ll be releasing it to the general public in early September, but my blog readers will get your access in mid-August.

If you’d like to be notified when the new guide is available, you can check back here regularly, or just subscribe for updates—the box to do so is on the left.

How to prevent application mistakes

Author Dan Pink shares this tip to help you anticipate (and prevent) big mistakes when working on an important project—do a premortem.

While a postmortem is what a medical examiner does after a death to determine the cause, a premortem is anticipating the factors that could cause an important project to fail, then addressing those factors preemptively.

For families of seniors applying to college, here’s how I’d apply that technique to your application process.

Imagine your college application process is over and it can only be described as an abject failure. What would that look like? Here are a few examples:

  • The student procrastinated until there was no choice but to race to beat the deadlines.
  • The entire process was stressful.
  • The student failed to take responsibility for their application process.
  • The parent hijacked the process from the student.
  • Parents and kids argued constantly.
  • You didn’t seek out good advice and made mistakes because of it.
  • You missed deadlines.
  • You failed to apply for financial aid and can’t afford the colleges that accepted you.
  • You weren’t admitted to enough (or any) colleges.
  • You have regrets about the entire process and wish you could do it over again.

That would certainly be a failure of epic proportions. But thankfully, just about all of those things can be prevented with a premortem.

Have honest family conversations about college and the process of getting there. Parents, step back. Students, step up. Seek advice from people who know what they’re talking about, like your high school counselor, admissions officers, or a qualified private counselor. Commit to moving forward with your essays and applications so that procrastination doesn’t leave you sprinting to meet the deadlines.

On the other hand, if your imagined version of an epic application failure is “I didn’t get into an Ivy League schools,” you have a different problem entirely, but one that can also be addressed premortem.

No matter how strong your application, the odds are not in your favor of being admitted to any school that denies almost all of its applicants. I don’t mean this to be discouraging. It’s just math. Take your best shot if you believe you fit with one or more prestigious colleges. But you can only influence, not control, what any college decides about you. Focus your vision of failure on things you can control and change. Broaden your list, change your definition of success (and failure), and have the confidence in yourself to know that hard work and character always pay off no matter which colleges say yes.

Finally, if you’re reading this now (in July), make the most of what might be the single biggest advantage you have—time. A family who wakes up in December and realizes they’re headed for a failure can’t do a premortem. All they can do at that point is try to necessitate their process and get back on track. But you’re way out in front of this college application process. And you have every opportunity to get it right the first time.

Do the premortem now, and instead of doing a postmortem next spring to figure out what went wrong, you’ll almost certainly be celebrating your success.

College essay “Don’ts”?

I read an article last week offering college essay advice to students that included the tip, “Don’t write about a failure.” I understood the reasoning behind that advice, and it would probably hold true for some kids. But certainly not all.

A failure isn’t inherently shameful, and it’s not necessarily a scar on your high school record. What if you tried your best to make the hockey team, got cut, and found your love for cross country as a result? What if you auditioned for the school play, didn’t get chosen, and volunteered to run the lights? What if the prompt is asking you to describe a failure and what you learned from it?

A quick Google search of “college essay don’ts” came up with dozens of results, almost all of which I thought either have frequent exceptions or are just flat-out bad advice.

“Don’t write about religion, politics, drugs, or sex.”

What if you’ve spent your high school years volunteering with your church, working for a city councilperson’s campaign, volunteering at a drug rehab center, or working with an outreach group that teaches sex education workshops to junior high school students? Are you to pretend you didn’t do those things?

“Don’t try to be funny.”

What if you are funny? What if you’ve done open mic nights at comedy clubs, or perform with an improv group, or write a humor column for the school paper? Are you to hide that side of yourself?

“Don’t write a ‘woe is me’ essay.”

If you’re just manufacturing a supposed hardship in the hopes the admissions office will pity you, then this “don’t” is great advice. But what if you have suffered a challenge, a setback, or even worse, a real personal tragedy? Are you not supposed to write about it?

Some of the don’ts are true 100% of the time. Don’t plagiarize. Don’t rely only on spell-check to proofread your essay. Don’t reference how much you want to attend Boston University in an essay you’re sending to NYU.

But most college essay don’ts come with exceptions. The prompts are varied, no two colleges are alike, and applicants are complex individuals. That’s a lot of potential combinations that very few “don’ts” can apply to universally.

Colleges use the essays to get to know you in a way that they couldn’t from your application alone. The first step to finding a great response is to consider your honest answer to the question. Write it in a way that sounds like you, as if you were explaining it to your favorite teacher. Inject enough detail so that nobody else applying to college could write the same essay. And most importantly, produce something that you’re proud of, something that your friends and family would read and say, “This is so you.”

Do all those things, and you’ll almost certainly produce a great essay. Even if it violates a common college essay don’t.

Couldn’t have said it better

From the “What to Do in High School” section of MIT’s website:

Some students feel so much pressure to get into the ‘right’ college that they want to make sure they do everything ‘right’—even do the ‘right’ extracurricular activities. Fortunately, the only right answer is to do what’s right for you—not what you think is right for us. Choose your activities because they delight, intrigue and challenge you, not because you think they’ll look impressive on your application. Go out of your way to find projects, activities and experiences that stimulate your creativity and leadership, that connect you with peers and adults who bring out your best, that please you so much you don’t mind the work involved. Some students find room for many activities; others prefer to concentrate on just a few. Either way, the test for any extracurricular should be whether it makes you happy—whether it feels right for you.”

Just about every college I can think of would agree.

The expertise you’re looking for

If your family is in the fortunate position of using a professional to do your taxes, plan your retirement, or generally manage your money, you’re likely making smart financial decisions. But while some accountants and financial planners are also experts in college financial aid, not all of them are. And a smart strategy for saving or taxes might actually be a very bad one if you hope to qualify for financial aid.

For example, your advisor might recommend saving money in your child’s name as a smart financial planning strategy. But if you’ll later need financial aid to pay for college, that money will be assessed 20% as opposed to the 5.65% if you’d kept the money in a parent’s name. You’ll end up paying much more than you needed to.

I’m not talking about hiding your money to look less affluent or doing anything to avoid paying your fair share of college. Colleges are wise to all the ways families can try to get around the rules.

But if you found out that your mortgage bill would have been substantially lower if you had saved the down payment in a different account, wouldn’t you wish you’d done it? That’s what it feels like for some parents who put money in their child’s name, often with the intent of using that money to pay for college, who later apply for financial aid and find out the money they saved isn’t going to stretch nearly as far as they’d planned.

Retirement, investing, saving for college—it’s all part of your financial planning. And plenty of professionals can do it all. But don’t assume that yours can. Have a conversation with your accountant or advisor and find out if college financial aid is part of her expertise. A willingness to help fill out the forms does not make someone an expert. A deep knowledge of college savings vehicles like 529 plans, the FAFSA methodology to assess income and assets, the differences between various college loans, and the many terms that are unique to college financial aid—that’s the expertise you’re looking for.

Who should care most about college?

Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe tackles some reminders for parents of athletes while watching their kids’ games. Here’s his overarching message:

“The thing parents need to remember is that it’s about the kids. It’s not about the parents. In brief: Try not to care about the game(s) more than your child cares.”

That’s good advice for the college application process, too.

For some families, I know this will be difficult to do. You might worry that your student needs you to lead, that they’re too busy, or even just that the risk is too high that your 17-year-old will screw it up. I understand that. You wouldn’t want to wake up next fall and realize that your student is missing out on college options just because you didn’t take charge when it counted.

But I can tell you from watching thousands of families go through this process that when parents care about it more than their kids do, someone always pays a price. The stress on the parent, the student-parent tension, the college freshman who arrives on campus unprepared, or worse, preemptively disengaged because it never felt like their choice—someone will pay a penalty. And the outcome rarely feels worth the price.

If you’re a parent who wants to step back and just needs some help taking those steps, you can read my blog articles for parents here. I also have a chapter in my book entitled, “Adults Only: How Parents Can Help without Hurting.”

Dare to dream

Some students spend so much time worrying about getting into their chosen colleges that they don’t take the time to dream about what they would do once they actually get there. That’s like applying for a dream job and having no idea why you want to work there, or more importantly, what you hope to do, learn, and accomplish if you were to get the job.

Colleges aren’t just evaluating your qualifications. They’re evaluating your likelihood of becoming a successful, contributing member of the campus community. They want students who will appreciate and make use of the array of opportunities that are available to them. They want students whose dreams go beyond just getting in and include what they might do once they actually enroll. That’s why essay prompts and college interviewers ask questions about why you’re drawn to the school, how you’ll make use of the opportunities available, and why you think you’re a good fit. They want to know that you’re considering how you and your potential college will work together during your four-year investment of time and money.

Not all colleges expect you to have decided on your major, or to have a list of activities you want to pursue, or to have your chosen career in mind at age 17. But they’ll want to know that you’ve at least considered those things.

Maybe you don’t yet know whether you want to study communications or history, but you’re excited to take classes in both and see which is more appealing to you. Maybe you’re excited about getting out of your small town and meeting people from other areas of the country. Maybe you want to attend football games, spend Friday nights making music with other musicians, or dive into your interest in math. Maybe you want to study abroad and finally become fluent in Spanish, play intramural sports, or write for the campus newspaper. Or maybe you’re just excited to discover your talents and interests and plan to use college as the time to look for them.

There are no right or wrong answers. And you should probably have more than one reason. But as long as you’re sincere and the colleges you are applying to have the offerings to satisfy those things, you’ll be on the right track.

You might be reluctant to spend too much time dreaming about what you’d do if you actually got to go to one of your chosen schools, and I understand why you might not want to get your hopes up even more. But the only way to seriously consider big life decisions is to imagine yourself on the other side after the decision has been made.

So the next time you’re worrying about whether or not a college will say yes, why not channel that thinking into what you’d do if you actually got in?

Chances are, the more you think about what you’d like to do in college, the clearer it will become just how many colleges can give it to you, whether or not they’re prestigious. Daring to dream might just be the best way to make peace with the pressure.