A tip for seniors on managing your parents during application season

Seniors, as you move into the throes of the college application process, here's something you can do to keep the stress levels in your household manageable–talk to your parents about what you're doing.

I'm a big proponent of parents staying "hands off" and letting their seniors take the lead during this time.  And it's normal for seniors to want to assert some independence and tell Mom and Dad to stay out of it.  In fact, that's appropriate given that the seniors, not their parents, are the ones who will actually be going to college next year.

But seniors, understand that stepping back, especially at the time that you're doing something as important as college applications, is a hard thing for a lot of parents to do.  They're worried that something could go wrong and that they'll have to live with college application guilt of not being involved enough when it counted.  That's why parents ask if you've written your essays yet, and if you've started your application to Duke, and if you've seen your teachers about getting letters of recommendation.

You can put your parents at ease by just spending a few minutes every couple of days and actually telling them what you're up to.  That means you need to do more than say, "Mom, stop asking me about this.  I'll get it done!"  Instead, give some detail. 

Update your parents on your progress.  Tell them when you meet with your counselor, when you submit your letters of recommendation, and when you've visiting your English teacher to have her look at your essay.  Show them the information you print out from colleges.  Tell them when the deadlines are, and when you plan to submit yours.  Let them in on what's left to be done, like sending test scores or requesting transcripts or scheduling an interview.  And if you need help organizing all that information, ask your parents to help–not to do it for you–but to help.

If you feel like your parents are standing over your shoulder during this time, and you think it would be a lot less stressful if they would just back off a little, do the opposite of what you're inclined to do.  Instead of telling them to leave you alone, take a few minutes every couple of days to tell them exactly what you're doing. 

Let them in on the process, and they'll be more likely to take themselves out of it. 

Another reason not to put too much stock in college rankings

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But the larger problem with ranking colleges is that it
is based on the premise that attending college is like an amusement park
ride: a passive experience where the student picks the most thrilling
ride he can handle, straps in, and holds on to his digital camera.
College is nothing like that.  When students go to college–any
college–they take classes.  Some of those classes are taught by
brilliant professors, some are taught by lousy professors, and some are
taught by graduate students.  What they get out of their education is a
function of the effort they put in.  It's possible to go to the
number-two ranked college and get a terrible education, just as it's
possible to go to number 180 and get a wonderful education."

Zac Bissonnette
Debt-Free U: How I paid for an outstanding education without loans, scholarships or mooching off my parents

More advice on letters of recommendation

There's some good advice on The Choice blog today courtesy of Martha Merrill, Dean of Admissions at Connecticut College, concerning teacher recommendations and how they are used during the admissions process.

Seniors (and their parents) should pay particular attention to this tip:

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Follow instructions.  Admission officers will likely read only the required number of recommendations. If you submit too many, you leave it to chance which ones will be read."

A lot of seniors are under the impression that the more information they can share with a college, the better.  So if a college asks for two letters of recommendation from academic sources, but your dad's business partner and your youth pastor have both offered to write recs for you, it's hard to resist just tacking on those additional two letters.  Four people saying nice things about you might seem better than two. 

But we always discourage our Collegewise students from submitting additional letters of recommendation unless the college invites you to do it.  A student who doesn't follow directions, who assumes that he or she deserves the right to submit additional materials while other applicants are following directions, just runs the risk that you'll annoy the admissions officer.

But Merrill makes an even better case.  If you submit additional recs, not only will the college likely not read all of them, but you won't get to decide which ones they read.  Why not maintain as much control over the process as you can?  Follow directions, choose your letter-writers carefully, and be confident that you're being represented as you want to be. 

Should you interview if it will have no bearing on the admissions decision?

There are really two types of interviews in college admissions.  The "evaluative" interview in which what you say can and will be used during the admissions process.  And the "informational" interview, which is your non-threatening chance to learn more about the school from someone who's an expert (like an admissions officer, a student, or an alum).  The admissions sections of colleges' websites usually tell you if interviews are offered and, if so, what kind they are.

So, is it in your best admissions interest to schedule informational interviews?

A lot of students (and just as often, their parents) are quick to
schedule an informational interview, especially when they're planning to visit
the college's campus.  It's hard not to think that making a good impression could still help in some small way.  And the idea of making a personal connection is pretty alluring in the college admissions process.

Still, I think a student should only do an informational interview if you:

1)  Are sincerely interested learning more about the school, and…

2)  Have questions you would like to get answered.

A lot of the informational interviews are very awkward for the interviewer.  Some students don't have any questions because it was actually their parents' idea to visit the school in the first place.  Or the student is already completely sold on the school and doesn't have any questions he needs answered.  So the interviewer has to sit there and try to fill the time.  It's like going on a date with someone and finding you have nothing to talk about.    

Think of informational interviews like a first meeting with a tutor.  A tutor can lecture you if you want her to, but it's much more effective to make the meeting collaborative.  Tell the interviewer what you know already about the school.  Then use the time to get a better mastery of this subject (the college).  What could you use help understanding?  What have you not been able to learn from the website, your counselor or the college guidebooks?  Be engaged and interested.

If you're not feeling engaged or interested, save both parties the time and don't schedule the interview.  And never do an interview just because you think you should.

You don’t need to be in AP classes to be challenged

Something happened recently that doesn't happen very often.  I disagreed with Jay Mathews.

His 9/26 column, "High School Barred Average Students from Taking AP" (the current link on the Washington Post doesn't work or I'd post it here), was about a high school that required students to have a 3.0 grade point average to take advanced placement courses.  Now, the fact that the school dropped the rule after Jay asked them about it is admittedly suspect.  But Jay's take seems to be that any kid who wants to challenge himself should be allowed into an AP course regardless of his GPA.  

And Jay's post today offers "two accounts from people who suffered because of the still widespread and wrongheaded view that only top students should be challenged."  

Here are my problems with that argument. 

1. I agree that access to education is important.  And any student who wants to be challenged should have a way to do it.  But a lot of high schools just can't accommodate every kid who wants to take an AP class.  If there's one AP US History course offered and 70 kids want to take it, you've got a problem.  Having a grade cut-off is a necessary evil in a lot of schools.

2.  Kids are under enough pressure to get into college today.  Opening up AP classes to more students will just encourage the kid who got a B or a C in trigonometry to take AP Calculus because "That's what colleges want."

3.  But most importantly, an AP class is absolutely not the only way for a kid to learn and challenge himself. 

A kid who wants to learn about US history can take a class at a local community college over the summer.

A kid who wants to learn calculus can learn from an MIT professor for free without ever leaving the house.  MIT's Opencourseware shares the actual MIT course materials, including lecture notes, problem sets, exams and occasionally video for almost all of their undergraduate courses.       

A kid who wants to read classic works of literature can buy them from a used bookstore on the cheap.  If you need help understanding them, hire a grad student to tutor you.  Or join a book club.  If you can't find a book club, you could join one online.

Of all the students I've known who were genuinely interested in a particular subject or idea, not one of them has ever abandoned the interest because he was shut out of an AP class.  There are plenty of other ways to learn and challenge yourself today.

Any college will do

There’s plenty of evidence to prove that what you do in college is more important than whether or not your college is prestigious.  Warren Buffet and the majority of the Fortune 500 CEOs are living proof.

From the Wall Street Journal article, “Any College Will Do: Nation’s Top Chief Executives Find Path to the Corner Office Usually Starts at State University”:

“I don’t care where someone went to school, and that never caused me to hire anyone or buy a business.

Warren Buffett
CEO of Berkshire Hathaway

Collegewise note:  Buffet started college at U-Penn’s Wharton School of business.  But he hated it and transferred to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  Go Huskers.

A message (and some encouragement) for over-involved parents

I've written a lot about how over-involved parents can actually hijack the college admissions process from their kids, a mistake that can hurt their students' chances of getting into college.  And one of our core beliefs at Collegewise is that kids need to step up and take ownership of their own college process. 

But today's entry on The Choice blog, "How Difficult Parents Look from the Counselor's Side of the Desk," actually made me feel bad for the moms and dads they were describing.  If I put myself in those parents' shoes, I'd be angry and maybe a little bit hurt that the counselors are venting about how awful I am.  So today, I'm really trying to see this from the parents' perspective. 

I can imagine how it must feel for these parents, parents who are trying their best to help their kids through something as important as college admissions, to be told that they're doing too much, that they're actually hurting their children, and that both counselors and colleges will resent them for it.

If you fit the description of an over-involved parent of a college-bound student, first of all, I think you deserve some acknowledgment that you're a good parent.  You're worried about your kid and you're doing everything you can to help your student through what has become an unnecessarily stressful and complicated process.  Lots of students who don't have supportive parents would welcome some parental over-involvement in their lives (as this student commented).  

But given that you just want this process to go well for your kids, here are a few reasons why I still encourage you to step back and let your student take charge.

1.  Once kids go to college, they'll need to take care of themselves, handle their own problems, and manage their lives. And you'll need to accept that no matter how much you may want to, you're not going to be there to take care of everything for them.  The college application process is the time when you should both be getting comfortable with those new roles, not staying put in your old ones.    

2.  Over-involved parents tend to produce passive or absent college applicants.  I know that sounds critical of your parenting, but when parents pick the colleges, the students don't have answers to the "Why are you applying here?" questions.  When parents fill out the applications and get too involved with the essays, the kids' voices disappear.  Colleges want students who are fully-engaged in determining their college futures.  When parents take charge, kids disengage.

3. As well-intentioned as your help is, a lot of kids will take it as a sign that you don't believe they're competent or mature enough to handle their college application process on their own.  I don't even think that most overly-involved parents actually believe that, but your teenager may not be able to make that distinction.   

Parenting a college applicant isn't easy.  And forcing yourself to be less involved is the opposite of the parental instinct for a lot of moms and dads.  Still, that's what your kids (and their future colleges), need you to do.  While you try to make the adjustment, maybe the rest of us can try to be a little less judgmental.    

The wrong way for colleges to use new media

I just got back from St. Louis and the annual conference of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC).  More
than any other topic, the sessions offered for admissions officers were
about reaching out to students using new media, social networking, Iphone apps, etc.  And there were dozens of exhibitors in attendance selling their services to help colleges take advantage of those mediums. 

I think new technologies offer huge opportunities for colleges to communicate with students quickly and cheaply, but more importantly, honestly.  Some colleges are using the technology but missing the opportunity.  Here's an example. 

Visit the admissions section of the Boston University website and you'll find this video, "Write an Essay That Stands Out."  It's 2 minutes and 20 seconds of polished, over–produced video with quick
cuts, background music, and ultimately not that much advice. It's the exact opposite of what they want kids to do with their essays, which is to be themselves without trying too hard.  

How much easier, cheaper, and more effective would it have been to have 2 or 3 members of their admissions staff just speak openly and honestly to students in that video?  They could have talked about some of their favorite essays they've read, and which stories are over–used and worn out.  They could have given some practical, encouraging advice to students.  And they could have used it as an opportunity to connect with students and show the real people behind the normally faceless admissions committee.

It's clear that new media is going to be a part of the college search and application process whether colleges want it to be or not.  I hope more colleges use it as an opportunity to be more personal rather than more commercial.  

How to prioritize activities on a college application

If you had the chance to have a ten-minute conversation with an admissions officer to explain everything you do that is important to you, what would you talk about?  How would you sum up the way you’ve spent your life in high school when you weren’t in class?

You probably wouldn’t start with, “One time, I went to a meeting of the Spanish Club.” 

It wouldn’t make sense to talk first about an activity that you didn’t care about or spend much time doing.  Instead, you’d probably begin by discussing your most important activities—the ones in which you spent significant time and energy.

But, you’d be surprised how many students list their activities in no particular order when filling out college applications. 

Listing an activity that meant little to you is like telling an admissions officer that the one week you attended a meeting of the “Ping Pong Club” was just as important to you as everything else you did in high school.

Share things that meant something to you, where you really dedicated time and energy.  List them in order of importance to you.  If something wasn't all that important to you, consider leaving it off.  An admissions officer is a human being–he or she can only retain a certain amount of information that you present.

And remember that the key is to share things that are important to you, even if they may not seem overly impressive to someone else.  I'm not saying you should be open about watching 6-hours of television a day.  But if you write a blog that shares critiques of your favorite reality television shows and you've got several hundred loyal readers, that's something important to you that you should probably share. 

College Essays should be about life’s smaller slices

It's good to see that the press still taps the well of admissions wisdom from the former dean of admissions at the University of Chicago, Ted O'Neil.

From US News and World Report's The Right Way to Pitch Yourself to Schools

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In truth, he says, what you write about "doesn't have to be a week in Africa. It can be you were a clerk at Safeway for the summer and that changed the way you view race relations or the environment." Adds Ted O'Neill, the former dean of admissions at the University of Chicago: "Turning points in their lives are kind of premature for kids of this age…We're looking for a thoughtful, earnest presentation that shows complicated interests and thinking…This can be achieved in stories reflecting on life's smaller slices—why you like helping your dad fix up old cars on the weekend, being the only boy in a family of seven girls, why you like to write birthday limericks."