Why good parenting includes a taper period

Every good marathon training program, from those meant for amateurs to those for Olympic-level elites, includes a gradual “taper period” 2-3 weeks before the big race.  During a taper period, runners do something counterintuitive—they run less and rest more.  The running reality is that three weeks before a race, you’ve already made whatever fitness gains you were going to make from your intensive training program.  Resting those final 2-3 weeks actually makes you stronger than had you continued at the same intensity.

That’s a lot like how parents should approach preparing your kids to go to college.

For parents, raising kids and preparing them to go out into the world is a lot like going through a marathon training program.  For about the first 16 years, you’re in the intensive part of the training program where you do everything for your kids.  You read to them when they’re little and a few years later help them with their homework. You have parent-teacher conferences, sign them up for soccer teams, drive them to karate class, and assume all the associated responsibilities that come with raising kids.   

But as your kids approach the college years, you’ve got to taper off. 

For kids to be successful once they get to college, they need to have experience dealing with things on their own, solving their own problems, and finding their own way.  And the only way for them to get the chance to do that is for parents to taper by stepping back and letting kids start learning how to do those things on their own.  

You’re not going to make your kids more prepared by continuing to do everything for them any more than a marathoner would be more prepared by training hard right up until race day.  The taper is crucial. 

Don’t find volunteer opportunities for your kids and sign them up.  Taper off and let them find and secure their own opportunities. 

Don’t fire off an email to the English teacher when you find out your son is struggling.  Encourage him to advocate for himself, letting him visit the teacher to ask for some guidance. 

Don’t choose the colleges, fill out the applications and take over the process for your kids.  Doing everything for them was the intensive part of the program.  Now it’s time to taper and cheer from the sidelines, offering guidance when asked. 

That’s the art of the parenting taper period.  And every happy, confident, successful college applicant I’ve ever known who went on to flourish in college benefited from a similar program.

Ask Collegewise: Should I write my college essay about a hardship?

Jason asks,


I’ve heard that colleges want to know if you’ve experienced any hardships, and I’m thinking about writing my essay about my parents’ divorce.  Is that a good idea?  Or is that too common?”

It's a good question, Jason.  I don't know the circumstances of your parents' divorce so it's hard for me to say if that's the right topic for you.  But here are a few things any student should know when you're considering writing about a hardship.

1.  Don't write about a hardship just because you think it will give you an advantage.

A lot of students think that a hardship gives you some kind of automatic admissions advantage.  And unfortunately, that means way, way too many essays are submitted about hardships that weren’t actually all that hard.  I don’t want to sound cold here, but “When my grandmother died, it taught me to appreciate life more,” is pretty cliché in the world of college essays.  If you’ve faced something difficult, something that affected you deeply, especially something that impacted your education in some way, colleges will want to know about it.  But for students who haven’t, don’t manufacture hardship.  Instead, tell a different story.

2.  Remember that the college essay has to be about you.

You don’t need to write an essay about divorce to convince admissions officers that a divorce is difficult for a student.  Your college essays have to be about you.  They have to help admissions officers get to know you better in ways that they never could have known from the rest of the application.

One of our Collegewise students wrote her essay about her parents’ divorce.  But only two sentences of the essay had to do with the divorce.  The rest of the essay was about a major change in the student’s life when she went to live with her father.  She didn’t want to change schools because she was afraid of losing credits and falling behind.  So she got up at 5 a.m. every day, took a train and two buses for two hours to get to school, then repeated that at the end of the day.  And surprisingly, she got the best GPA of her life because she spent all that time on the trains and buses studying.  So while the divorce was part of the essay, the story was all about her.

3.    Maintain your perspective.

It’s important to be thankful for what you have and to remember that lots of other people aren’t so lucky.  I mention this because when a student writes an essay about switching schools when her father changed jobs, and that essay treats having to say goodbye to her friends as if it were a devastating tragedy, it paints that student as being a little immature.  Saying goodbye to friends is painful.  But if your dad still has a job, and that job is going to pay for you to go to college, and everyone in your family is still healthy, you’re a lot better off than a lot of other students.  It doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to really miss your friends, but you’ve got to be able to differentiate disappointment from real hardship. 

4.    Use all the parts of the application.

You might not need to write an entire essay to explain a hardship.  A lot of colleges have a section on the application that allows you to share anything that didn’t fit in the other spaces, or to describe any circumstances that affected your education.  If a student writes:

“In February of my junior year, I broke my leg in a soccer game and had to keep my leg in traction for six weeks.  I had my younger brother bring me all of my assignments from school, and my teachers let me do take home exams so I wouldn’t fall behind…”

How much more really needs to be said?  An admissions officer knows the important facts.  If there was a slight dip in your grades second semester of your junior year, colleges can now put that situation in context.  You don’t need an entire essay to explain it to them.

5.  Try the best friend litmus test.

Great college essays are the kinds that when your best friend reads them, he or she says, “This is totally you.”  You only get limited space on the application to share what you want to share about yourself.  So don’t waste it trying to wedge in a hardship just because you think that’s a good strategy.  Pick a topic that actually means something to you, something that you’d be excited to share, that hasn’t been described in detail elsewhere on the application, and that would pass the best friend litmus test.  If the story that fits the criteria is a hardship, go ahead and share it.  But if not, be thankful that you’ve had a pretty good life, and share another story about it.

Thanks for your question, Jason.  If you've got a question of your own, email us at blog [at] collegewise [dot] com.  If we pick yours, we'll answer it here on our blog.

And you can find even more advice in our video, “How to Write Great College Essays.”  It’s $12.99 and available as a streaming download.

For colleges: Tell students what you won’t be to them

With over 2,000 colleges in the country, it’s just as hard for a lot of them to stand out as it is for the students trying to get accepted.   So why do so many colleges still rattle off generalities like, “We have small classes—in fact, our student/faculty ratio is 11:1.”  That’s just like a student writing an essay about how being involved in student government taught her to work with people.  There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s not going to make an applicant—or a college—stand out. 

If you work in admissions and want to get students’ attention at high schools during your travel season this fall, consider this—try telling students what you AREN’T.

What would happen if a college rep stood up in front of a group of students and said,

“We’re one of the largest schools in the country.  If you’re looking for a peaceful, slow-paced college, a place where you have dinner at your professors' homes on a regular basis and your academic advisor only works with 20 kids a year, we’re probably not for you.”


“We don’t have a football team.  We don’t have fraternities or sororities.  If you’re looking for what most people would call the classic college experience, you’re not going to find it here.” 

Yes, you’ll lose the future interest of some of the students in the room.  But those lost leads were never going to enroll anyway.  The kids most likely to apply, to eventually enroll, and to love being on campus will be drawn to you.

And aren’t those the students you want anyway?

Five things sophomores should do this year

Now that you've left the freshman ranks, here are five things sophomores should do this year. 

1. Take the PSAT or the PLAN.

The PSAT and PLAN are the practice tests of the SAT and ACT respectively.  Your school decides which one to offer, usually in October.  And since the results of whichever one you take this year will never be used for admissions purposes, it’s a great chance to get some experience with standardized tests without feeling too much pressure.

2.    Don’t you dare worry about the results of the PSAT or PLAN.

Remember how I just said the PSAT and PLAN are both practice tests?  That means you shouldn’t worry about the results.  They don’t count for anything.  That might seem obvious, but a lot of sophomores (and even more parents of sophomores) see the results, immediately go to the testing equivalent of DEFCON 1, and rush to intensive test prep.  It’s not uncommon for smart sophomores to underperform on these tests (and your scores are compared with those of the juniors, so it’s normal to be technically below average).  You can address test prep later.  But for now, you should be focusing on other things like…

3. Practice being a good student.

Obviously, you want to work as hard as you can to get good grades.  But being a good student means more than just having a high GPA.  Practice participating in class discussions.  Raise your hand and ask questions.  If you need extra help, visit your teacher (don’t let your parents approach the teacher for you).  And those students who get A’s without seeming to try very hard?  Learn how to do what they do.  Here's  one past post, and another, that can help.

4.    Find activities you really enjoy.

Colleges don’t care which activities you do (or how many of them you do).  What they care about is that you find activities you love, then work hard enough to make an impact while doing them.  So don’t get involved in anything just because you’ve heard that it will “look good to colleges.”  Instead, find activities you really enjoy.  Whether it’s sports, clubs, journalism, a part-time job, community service, karate, taking art classes after school or anything else that’s productive and not covered by the criminal code, if you love it and work hard at it, chances are that colleges will appreciate your efforts.

5. Remember to relax and have fun, too.

The most successful people in the universe still make time to relax and have fun.  That’s how they recharge their batteries and refill their creative juices (two clichés in one sentence has to be a record, but I’m going for effect here).  It’s fine to occasionally sacrifice fun and even some sleep in the name of working hard and committing to your goals.  But you won’t find a college that expects you to totally abandon relaxation and fun throughout high school.  In fact, some very selective colleges even have essay questions that ask you what you do for fun.  So work hard, but be a kid, relax, and occasionally goof off, too.

Just answer the damn question

Just once, I'd love to hear a corporate spokesperson just answer the damn question.  College applicants make this mistake sometimes, too.  So here's a corporate example you don't want to follow when writing your essays, completing your applications or doing your interviews.  

This is Target's vice president of communications on the Today Show talking about the launch of their new line that caused Target's website to crash this week (apologies for the ad at the beginning).

The question was whether Target anticipated this kind of response. But instead of answering it, Target congratulates themselves for having so much buzz ahead of time. They obviously didn't anticipate the demand or they (hopefully) would have been better prepared. 

What would be wrong with admitting that?  Target's spokesperson could have said something like,

"We knew there would be a lot of interest.  But honestly, we never expected this.  It was embarrassing for us to do such a good job getting the buzz going and then be unprepared when it worked so well.  But we've learned our lesson now.  If we're going to sell these items in our stores, we need to be ready to handle just how many people seem to want them.  We blew it this time. But we won't make that mistake again."

Things didn't get much better when she was asked if more stock was on its way.

So, does Target know when the stock will be replenished or not?  What about the viewers who want to buy this stuff?  Is the best Target can do really to ask customers to keep coming back over and over again to check and see if the stock is back?  It's frustrating to hear a company hem and haw like this.  You had a chance to give people some helpful information and instead you gave them spin.  Just answer the damn question.

Whether you're applying to college or running a business, it's never a good idea to duck a fair and reasonable question.  When you instead just spin your answer to make yourself look good, nobody's going to listen to you. 

But you have an advantage when applying to college that not every company or politician enjoys; nobody is out to get you.  Colleges aren't trying to catch you looking stupid or guilty.  Some of their questions might make you worry that an honest answer will hurt your chances of getting in.  But colleges don't expect you to be perfect.  They just want to know if you're mature enough to acknowledge your mistakes or failures and learn from them.  People who know how to do that are much more likely to be successful during and after college.

College yesterday, and today

I’m heading to Austin today to hang out with two old college buddies.  Today, one’s a financial officer for our alma mater’s business school.  The other is a heart surgeon and the subject of a past blog entry.

But to me, they’ll always be my college buddies, the same guys who crammed into a 1991 Mazda 323 with me and three other friends (it’s not easy to fit five guys into a ’91 Mazda 323) and drove 2 hours to San Diego to see The Eagles reunion tour in 1994.  That's the sort of thing you do in college.  The cars (and the bands) may change, but the activities stay the same from collegiate generation to generation.

You don’t need to go to an Ivy League school to be successful…or to meet and keep great college friends. 

Don’t worry about the wrong things at your college interviews

Too many students worry about the wrong things at their college interviews. 

Your college interview is not about giving perfect answers.  It’s not about whether you’re dressed like a Wall Street professional.  It’s not about selling yourself, highlighting your most impressive accomplishments or explaining away what you think are your deficiencies.

Your college interview is all about whether or not you can have a relaxed, comfortable, mature conversation with an adult.  Most kids can as long as they’re not worrying about the wrong things.

Introducing the net-price calculator

Soon, it might get a lot easier for families to estimate exactly how much each college will cost–including the financial aid package you may (or may not) receive.  The federal government has mandated that by October 29, colleges and universities must post to their websites a new tool called the "Net Price Calculator."  You input the information financial aid forms ask for (like income and savings).  Then the net price calculator estimates your financial aid eligibility, subtracts that from the sticker price of the college, and tells you how much they estimate you will need to pay next year to send your student to that school.

There's some debate about just how helpful this is going to be, and it's described well in this article on The Choice blog.  And colleges are going to need to use plain-English, non-financial aid-y language to explain to people exactly what this calculator does and doesn’t mean.  In fact, colleges, here's my suggested language.

Use our net-price calculator
How are you supposed to know how much a college you’re applying to will actually cost if financial aid awards aren’t given until your acceptance letter arrives?  This net cost calculator might help.  It’s designed to help you estimate how much it would cost for you to enroll next year with us (you reapply for financial aid each year that you’re in college, so the calculator is only estimating next year’s costs).  It asks you the same types of questions you’ll later be asked on financial aid forms and estimates the amount of need-based financial aid you’ll qualify for based on the information you give us.  The difference between the cost and your aid is the net cost, and the calculator even does that math for you. 

Please don’t take the result as a promise (or a denial) of future financial aid.  We’ll need to ask you for a lot more detailed information when you fill out your official financial aid forms in January, and the result then might be different than what our calculator tells you now.  But we think that giving you a well-calculated estimate is better than giving you no information at all.  So be as accurate as you can when you’re inputting the numbers.  Then talk over the results with your parents and your counselor.  We’re hoping this calculator can help you make more informed decisions about where to apply.  And if you have any questions, please call our financial aid office—we’d be happy to explain anything that’s confusing. 

Product Highlight: How to make your Common Application a lot less common

CommonAppGuideImage Last week, we released “How to Make your 2011-12 Common Application a Lot Less Common:  The Collegewise Guide to the Common Application.”  Today, I thought I’d share a little more about the piece, how and why we created it, and offer up some suggested uses for students, parents and counselors. 

What was the big idea?

We knew the Common App guide was something that we needed ourselves at Collegewise.  Every year, our counselors sit down individually with our students to walk them through the Common Application.  Spending that hour with each of them helps our students get it right the first time and lets us share our advice that’s come from years of helping students and, for many of our counselors, from reading Common Applications as admissions officers.

But some of our counselors have more experience with the Common Application than others.  How could we make sure we all had access to their perspective?  How could we best train new counselors who needed to learn the Collegewise approach to the Common App?  And what about those students whose schedules limit the number of meetings they can have with us?  How could we distill all our best advice and put it into one easily accessible place where any Collegewise student or counselor could access it?  We knew our Common App guide could address all of these issues.  And we knew if it helped us, it would probably help other students and counselors outside of Collegewise, too.

The process

After the 2011-12 Common Application was released in July, we held two 2-hour trainings at our office in Irvine for our counselors and assistant counselors.  Allison walked us through every line of the Common Application and addressed all the common questions our students tend to have.  Arun then shared all of his insights he’s gained after spending years reading Common Applications as an admissions officer, and then from later helping students on this side of the desk as a college counselor.  He’d created a sample Common App to really show all of us—visually—the noticeable difference it can make for a reader when a student follows our Collegewise advice.  And as the elder statesman at Collegewise, I chimed in with extra tidbits about the Collegewise way of doing this, and how our students could use more of our advice to make their Common Applications stand out.  I had my laptop with me to write down all of our thoughts and suggestions, and at the end of the training, I got to work organizing all of that information.

Getting the right permissions

While Arun reviewed my write up and added his own suggestions and revisions, I contacted the research department at the Common Application, told them about our idea and what we were trying to make, and asked for permission to use screenshots of our sample Common App in the piece.  Once I got authorization from the Common App folks, I got to work inserting the screenshots and formatting the piece. 

Our finished work

It took nearly two months for us to finish the piece, much longer than we expected.  But in the end, we were really happy with the result.  We’ve produced thousands of pages of material for our programs since 1999, and we think this is the best, most comprehensive thing we’ve ever made.

How we’re using it

We’ve shared our Common App guide with all of our counselors in our four offices.  Now everyone has access to the same Collegewise insight, and they can share it with our students.    Every family in our Collegewise program also gets an access code to download a free version.  So for students who’d prefer not to add another meeting to the schedule, or those who’d rather spend their meetings with us talking about other things, they can use the guide at home and complete the application on their own for us to review.  We’re also using it in our new online counseling programs to minimize the number of hours a family needs to buy to actually meet with us online (students can do the app on their own and use our meeting time to review it).  And in the future, we’ll update the guide each year to reflect any changes to the Common Application.  And we’ll use the feedback we’ve gotten from students and counselors to make our new version even better.

How you can use it 

Here are a few ways students, parents and counselors could use it.


  • If you’ve already finished your Common App, use our guide to do a line by line review before you submit.  Take our suggestions and revise your app as you see fit.
  • If you haven’t started your Common App, complete each section with our help.  We think your app will be stronger, and you’ll actually spend less time on the application by just getting it right the first time.
  • Maybe you’re struggling with just one particular section?  Our guide can probably help. 


  • Some parents take the role of the college application manager and reviewer in the house.  If that’s you, use our guide to review your student’s Common Application.  Better yet, pass it along to them and let your student use it from the start. 

High school counselors

  • Even if you’ve never read a Common Application before, you can be a virtual expert in just an hour if you read our guide. 
  • Do your students come to you with questions about the Common App?  Keep a copy of our guide on your desk to use whenever you need a second opinion.
  • Read our guide and then do a Common App workshop for your staff or your students.
  • Encourage your fellow counselors to buy their own copy of the guide, or have your school buy a 30-copy license so each member of your counseling and teaching staff can have their own copy.

Private counselors

  • Our guide will teach you exactly what to look for when reviewing each of your students' Common Applications.
  • Buy one or more 30-copy licenses and share our guide with all your students for them to use at home while they complete their applications.   
  • Do you have partners, counselors or interns who work with students?  Read our guide and then train them yourself.  Or buy a 30-copy site license to distribute our guide to them. 

The finished product
We’re proud of this product.  We worked hard on it.  The high school counselors and admissions officers we’ve shared it with have given us great feedback.  And the general public is buying it.  We’re selling 5-10 of them a day, and we expect those numbers are going to increase as we get deeper into application season and thousands of students who haven’t yet started their applications get down to business. 

Where to get it
Our Common App guide is 62 pages, sold as a downloadable PDF for $12.99, or $99 for a 30-copy license.  You can buy your own copy here, or view a free preview version here:

Download PreviewCollegewiseGuideToThe2011-12CommonApplication 

On teenage resiliency

On 9/11/2001, I was scheduled to speak at a National Charity League meeting that night.  It was hard to imagine anyone being in the mood to talk about the minutia of how to get into college on that terrible day.  Something about it just felt wrong.

But those kids forged ahead at the meeting.  They conducted their usual business, turned it over to me, and then asked just as many questions as they always ask.  They were just as interested and engaged as they always are.  The parents and I were the shaken ones.  These kids were ready to get down to business.

What they were doing was actually pretty admirable and mature.  There wasn’t anything wrong with a student thinking about college on 9/11.  The reality was that they still needed to go become whatever it was they were going to become.  Their goals for the future had become even more important, not less.  

Teenagers are remarkably resilient, especially with all-things-college-admissions (applications to NYU actually increased that same fall of 2001).  It’s one of the benefits of being seventeen with your whole life in front of you.  For students reading this, I know you might be sure that there is only one college on the planet where you could ever see yourself going.  And all the talk about APs and SAT scores and how hard it is to get into college today probably makes you feel like the stakes are incredibly high.  Just remember that you’re going to be fine. Not everybody gets into his or her first choice school.  But every year, those kids bounce back fast.  It’s hard not to as long as you’ve got other colleges to pick from.

And parents, remember that your kids might be even more resilient than you are when it comes to college matters.  Don’t take that away from them.  Don’t let your own college anxieties spill out and ruin the process for your family.  Don’t make it all about whether or not Cornell says yes.  Make it about raising a happy, nice kid who’s excited about her college future at whatever school is lucky enough to get her.