What’s your story?

I was meeting with a Collegewise family once when the student revealed that his now bald father had an afro back in college.

The dad held his hands six inches from his head and said, "It was out to here."  

As the student sat there giggling, I told the father how hard that was for me to imagine.  And he had the perfect reply with an exaggerated, relaxed college tone.

"Hey, it was the seventies, man." 

Every respectable adult I’ve ever met who’s been to college has a story to tell, a story from a time when they weren’t always so smart, perfect and grown up.  That’s part of college.  Kids get to make their mistakes and be who they are (afros and all) with impunity, knowing that as long as they manage to learn something in their classes along the way, they’re pretty much going to be OK.    

Parents, when you feel the stress of your kids' college process getting to you, think back to your college days and what you were like back then, how you spent your time, and what path you took to become the responsible adult that you are today.  I'm hoping if you do this, it will remind you that you have good kids who will enjoy the opportunity to create their own stories at whatever colleges are lucky enough to get them. 

Thoughts for parents about college costs

One of the difficult parts about researching colleges is that kids have to apply without parents knowing what it is actually going to cost.  You know the listed price (tuition, room and board, etc.), but you don't know how much financial aid you receive until you are actually admitted to the school.  So how can parents assign any kind of financial guidelines to the kids' college search?

If your kids are starting to talk about colleges and you're starting to worry about the costs, here are three basic guidelines to keep in mind.

1. Don’t necessarily eliminate a college based on the cost.

Every financial aid talk I've heard emphasizes how much money is actually available for college.  And the amount of aid you can receive isn't dependent only on how much money you have (or don't have).  The academic strength of the student, her match with the school, and the college's desire to have her on campus can also influence a financial aid award. So while I wouldn't recommend applying to a list of schools that are all out of your price range, don't necessarily limit your list to colleges you're sure you can pay for. 

2. Talk with your kids about the cost of college.

I don't think parents should feel obligated to hide the economic realities of college from their kids.  It won't hurt kids to know how much money is being invested in their education; a student who knows how much his parents are sacrificing to send him to college is more likely to get up for that 8 a.m. calculus class every day during his freshman year.  Don't forget that while parents may be paying the tuition, student loans are taken out in the student's name.  And it will be the student–not the parent–who takes that on-campus job as part of a work study financial aid award.  That’s why college financing is often a family decision whether you want it to be or not. 

3.  Consider picking a financial safety school.

Consider encouraging your student to apply to at least one school where you're sure the student
can get in, you're sure he'd want to attend, and you're sure
you could pay for it even if you got no financial aid.   

Choosing test prep

It’s easy for students (and the parents paying the bill) to get paralyzed by the options available to them to prepare for the SAT or ACT. You have books, online courses, weekend seminars, long classes and private tutoring, to name a few. And the price tags range from free to more than the cost of many teens’ used cars. It amounts to a lot of pressure.

No matter what your testing goals, time or budget, here’s some advice about making your test prep choice.

1. Beware of prep peer pressure.
Like most things in high school, the fact that everybody else is doing something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should, too.

About 25 percent of our Collegewise students don’t do any test preparation, and it’s not because they’re all great test takers. A B student who applies to colleges loaded with kids just like him will find that his average test scores are good enough. You’re not going to Berkeley, USC, NYU, Duke or Boston College without high test scores; but if you’ve found colleges you like and your scores are already higher than those of their admitted students, what’s the sense in doing test prep?

Before you decide to prepare for the SAT or ACT, research the colleges that you’re considering and find out what the average score is for students they accept. Take your list to your counselor and ask for her opinion about how your current scores (PSAT, PLAN or a practice test) stack up.

If you and your counselor decide you’ve found some appropriate colleges and you would benefit from higher test scores, do some test prep. But don’t do it just because everybody else is doing it.

2. You get out what you put in.
This is one of those times when a cliché is actually true— no matter how reputable and expensive the test preparation, you’ll get out of it what you put into it. That’s true for any kind of self-improvement you pay for. You could hire the best personal trainer in town who worked all your friends into Olympic shape, but if you don’t do the workouts (and eliminate regular servings of your beloved French fries), you’re not going to get the desired results. Like fitness, good test scores can’t just be purchased. The effort has to be there.

3. Spend wisely.
There are many low-cost preparation options, from shorter courses to books, that have all the same information taught in an expensive class. The biggest difference is if your parents buy 25 hours of private tutoring, you’ll be forced to spend 25 hours preparing for it. Books and shorter courses are far more lenient on the reluctant prepper. Some kids will study for standardized tests even when they aren’t forced to, but a lot won’t.

If you do decide to take a class or work with a tutor, ask for recommendations from friends who’ve already prepared.

4. Don’t go overboard.
The amount of time a lot of students spend studying for the SAT and ACT exams is often totally disproportionate to the tests’ importance. If you’re spending more time doing test prep than you are doing homework, running with the cross country team or spending time with your family—stop; it’s time to do less.

Test scores are important at lots of colleges. But they’re never important enough to sacrifice time that could be spent getting better grades, playing better basketball or painting better pictures.

Test preparation needs to fit into the rest of your schoolwork and your life. Choose your time of year to prep wisely and apply some good time management when you do. If you feel pressured to ignore other important areas of your life, sacrifice the test prep first.
Efforts to turn average test takers into great test takers usually don’t work and make those kids feel badly about themselves. Put in some appropriate time and work hard to improve your scores. Even if you’re not happy with your results, be happy with your effort. Then move on to other things you enjoy.

If there were one method that turned every kid into a standardized test-taking world champion, everyone would already be choosing that option. So pick the one that fits your schedule, budget and comfort zone.

Excerpted from my book: If the U Fits: Expert Advice on Finding the Right College and Getting Accepted

Meant to be?

Parents, imagine your son came to you one day and said this:

"Someday, I want to marry a blond lawyer who's really good looking.  So for now, I need to work hard in school so she'll think I'm smart.  I'll play soccer because I think women like athletes, do community service so I can show her I'm a humanitarian, and I'll keep thinking about things blond lawyers like so I can try to do them.  I know it won't be easy, but I'm sure that this future blond lawyer is my soul mate.  That's the goal I've set for myself."

After you got over the shock that your teenager is already planning a marriage to someone he hasn't met, you'd probably ask him why it has to be a good-looking blond lawyer (and why he's so sure that all good-looking, blond female lawyers want the same thing in a husband).  You'd probably tell him that it doesn't make sense to do all those things just to try to win someone over.  You'd tell him not to make decisions based on what he thinks a supposed future wife would want, that he should just be himself and wait to find someone he loves who will love him back for who he really is. 

Now, substitute "I want to marry a blond lawyer" with "I want to go to an Ivy League school."

Why should a parent's response be any different?

Don’t rely on “who you know”

Chuck Norris
once cut me off in traffic.  Seriously.  He was polite and waived a
sign of apology.  And we all know that if Chuck Norris cuts you off,
you'd better thank your lucky stars it wasn't the other way around.  

Still, I'm not about to tell you that I know Chuck Norris.  Never actually met him.  The cut-off was the beginning and the end of our time together. So if you need someone to take
care of some messy business, I won't say, "Want me to text Chuck?" 

In my experience, someone who has real connections with people of influence doesn't feel the need to talk about it.  I
like to believe that hard work and success brings these people enough pride
that they don't feel compelled to remind me who they know.

So I'm always skeptical when someone voluntarily tells me, "I've got connections." 

In over 15 years working with high school students, I have met only
one kid who I am absolutely sure was admitted to the college of his choice
because of a connection.  His father called me in the fall and said,

"Kevin, I'm going to be honest with you.  My son knows where he
wants to go to school, and I know he's going to get in because I'm
giving them a building.  But I want to make sure he writes a good
college essay so he doesn't look like a privileged jerk."

I loved his honesty. 

But every other time a parent has told someone here at Collegewise that they "know someone" who can reportedly "get their student in," it never seems to pan out.  So the student and the parent with the reported connection end up feeling disappointed, frustrated and sometimes even a little misled.  

The reality is that the people making decisions in colleges' admissions offices aren't beholden to many others.  You might know an influential alum who sits on the board, or a professor in the sociology department, or a friend who's the head of alumni interviewing, but deans of admission don't answer to those people.  So the only way a connection can change the course of an admissions decision is if the school's vital interests are potentially at stake (don't want to reject the kid whose dad is paying 20 million dollars for the new science research center). 

I worry about the lesson it teaches kids when parents feel the need to pull connections on their kids' behalf.  It sends the message that an admission to one particular college is the measure of success, one worth taking the college admissions equivalent of a wild swing.  Won't those kids feel even worse about themselves if the connection doesn't result in an admission?

I wish that parents with reported connections would just tell their kids,

"I know someone at College X who might be willing to tell you more about the school. We could have lunch with him and log some father-daughter time if you'd like, maybe hear some of his college stories?  Of course, if I set it up, you have to pay for my sandwich.  That's the cost of doing business with Dad."  

Keep it fun.  Don't ratchet up the pressure. Don't make promises on behalf of your connection.  It's better not to rely on who you know.

By the way, I'm sure Chuck wasn't running late that day.  As I understand it, if Chuck
Norris is running late, time knows to slow down. 

On giving more to your kids than you had…

The unpublished law of parenting is that you should want your kids to have more than you had.  It's a good law, one that makes parents work hard and sacrifice for the betterment of their children.

But this law causes a lot of problems when it comes to kids applying to college today.

A generation ago, just sending your student to college, any college, meant you'd probably given your kid more than you'd had.  In doing so, you'd virtually guaranteed your children a path towards better career opportunities and upward mobility that would never have existed without a college education.  

So, what's "more" than that?

For many of today's parents, the act of simply going to college doesn't feel special.  You did it, and a lot more people are going to college today than were doing so when you applied.   

So in the hope of wanting more for your kids, parents start to think about "good" colleges for their kids, "better" colleges, famous colleges with the allure of prestige.  Those schools seem like the next step, the most secure pathway to a happy and successful life.  But it's often a misguided goal, and one that can ruin the college admissions process for your family.

Working and saving to send your kids to college is entirely in a parent's control.  But molding your student into one that will supposedly be appealing to selective colleges is not in your control.  The fact that many of those colleges accept only 10-15 of every 100 students who apply is also not in your control.  Even the most well-intentioned parents can't influence the admissions decisions that colleges make. 

So parents worry.  Some get over-involved.  Some pick activities for their kids and write their kids' college essay.  The college admissions process becomes something loaded with fear and frustration for the entire family.  Parents take on the pressure of feeling that if your kids aren't accepted by the more selective colleges, you've somehow failed to give them more.   

But there's a key distinction here that many parents could benefit from knowing.  There is still an ocean of difference between life with a college degree and life without one.  But there is no guaranteed difference between a life with a degree from a famous school and life with a less famous school's degree. 

Famous colleges are not the "more" you're looking for.  It's not something you can just give your kids, and even if you could, it doesn't necessarily offer the outcome you're hoping for.  If you want to give your kids more than you had, change their experience of applying to college into one with more excitement and opportunity than you enjoyed in yours.  

Celebrate with your kids just how many colleges (over 2000) there are from which to choose.  Let your past enjoyment of your own college experience be contagious.  Be a supportive spectator, one who doesn't take over the process for your student, but one who knows how to encourage and cheerlead along the way.  Help your student make the most of the opportunity to select colleges that are a good fit, not just those that are close or cheap or happen to say, "Yes."   

You won't just be giving them the opportunity to attend any college.  You'll be given them the opportunity to choose from a wide variety of schools, and the chance to do so with a supportive and knowledgeable parent by their side.  You'll be embracing a goal that you can influence, one that will make you and your kids happier. 

And most importantly, you'll be still be abiding by the law of parenting and giving your kids more than you had.

On the art of the complaint…

Seth Godin posted an interesting take yesterday about how to voice a complaint. It's a good technique with lots of applications for students and parents going through the college planning years. 

The message here is not to complain more often.  I think the college admissions process needs less complaining, not more.  

But sometimes you do have a legitimate complaint.  Maybe your counselor didn't send your transcripts or the college never told you that they hadn't received your test scores?  Maybe your SAT scores didn't go up after the prep class, or you feel like you're not getting a fair chance to be the starting catcher on the baseball team?  Whatever the complaint, why not approach it in a way that invites respect and collaboration. 

You have a better chance of getting someone to try to be helpful.  And you'll be putting yourself and the person to whom you're complaining on the same team.

Good common sense

This article in The New York Times college admissions blog written today by the Dean of Admissions at Connecticut College made my day.

First, it's great advice.  Every parent of a college-applying senior should read it.  And parents are more likely to listen when the advice comes from one of the admissions deans herself. 

But it also made me happy because it's similar to the advice I gave to our Collegewise senior parents in a newsletter I wrote for them earlier this week. It feels good when I get it right.

I have no reason to be smug here.  The Dean of Admissions at Connecticut College is (obviously) intimately familiar with college admissions and how the pressures surrounding the process can affect kids and parents.  And the advice she–and I–gave is not part of a proprietary set of strategies known only by reported experts; it's just an example of good common sense and perspective applied to college admissions.  A lot of counselors and admissions officers who work with kids and parents, who see what happens when families lose their college admissions perspective, would likely give the same advice.

Still, it's nice to be in good company.  

So when in doubt, listen to people in the know, and use good college admissions common sense.

 

Five New Year’s resolutions for parents

"This is the year I'm going to do it." 

We've all got conviction in the New Year.  So parents, why not capitalize on the annually-renewed sense of self-improvement that comes with the New Year and make some resolutions that will help you not just survive, but actually enjoy your student's ride to college? 

Here are my top five college admissions-related resolution suggestions for parents.

1. Put college admissions in perspective. Your student's college future deserves to be taken seriously.  But if you're panicked because your son scored 1900 on the SAT and "that's just not good enough for Princeton," you've lost sight of the big picture.  Going to college is important.  Going to a famous college is not.  Don't make the acceptance into one particular school the end-goal.  Instead, celebrate your student's opportunity to attend college–any college.  Recognize it as just one step in what will be a lifetime process of education, growth and life experience.   And while you're at it, pat yourself on the back for raising a good kid who's college bound.     

2. Spend more time celebrating your student's strengths than you do trying to fix weaknesses.  The pressure surrounding college admissions often breeds far too much focus on kids' weaknesses.  "Her test scores are low."  "Her GPA isn't high enough."  "She doesn't have enough leadership."  Focusing too much on weaknesses just hurts kids' self-confidence.  Don't forget to celebrate strengths, victories and other achievements that are worthy of parental pride.  Is she great at her job at the daycare?  Is he well-respected by his peers at the church youth group?  When she didn't get the lead in the school play, did she cheerfully offer to run the lights instead?  You know your kid is a good kid–so take the time to acknowledge the reasons why.  And remember that a GPA, test score or decision from a particular college do not measure your student's worth (or your worth as a parent). 

3. Don't run with the wrong crowd.  Some parents seem intent on turning the college admissions process into a status competition.  These are not the parents you want at your next dinner party.  They talk about how many hours of community service their kid has done and how expensive the SAT tutor is that they're housing in the guest room this summer.  They ruin the ride to college for everybody and, sadly, they don't ever seem to find any joy in this process, even when the most desirable schools say "yes."  So don't join in.  Associate with other parents who care more that their kids end up happy in college than they do about whether or not those schools are Ivy League schools.  They're more fun to be around at dinner parties anyway.

4. Encourage your student to take responsibility for her own college process.  Being a supportive parent is something you should be proud of.  But you should resist the urge to do things for your student that she can do herself.  College-bound kids need to develop their own initiative and independence if they want to get in and be successful at college.  Let your kids approach teachers when they're struggling in class.  Let your kids talk to college representatives at college fairs.  Let your kids fill out their own college applications and write their college essays.  Parents can be supportive partners, but you shouldn't take over the process. 

5. Enjoy this time as much as possible.   The worst part of the frenzy surrounding the college admissions process
is that it ruins what should be an exciting time for both parents and
students. You're only going to go through this process once with each kid.  So enjoy it.  Resolve to find the joy in it.  A positive attitude won't make things like the SAT go away, but it will help you revel in the parts that should be fun, like visiting colleges, discovering new schools that fit your student well, and watching kids make the transition from home room to dorm room.  

Happy New Year…

How to work with your high school counselor

First, two disclaimers: 

1) I am not a high school counselor, and I'm not related to one.

2 The vast majority of the students admitted to college every year do so without the aid of a private counselor like us.  This is not a post arguing that you need outside help to get into college. In fact, I'm actually arguing the opposite.

I often hear students and parents say that they don't feel well-supported by their high school counselors.

"My high school counselor doesn't even know me."

"The counselors don't tell us anything."

"My counselor doesn't know about college admissions."    

I don't think that's fair to most counselors.

In a lot of those cases, I think there's an unusual dichotomy at work–those parents and students have unrealistic expectations about what their counselor should be doing for them, yet at the same time, they are under utilizing what could be a great resource in their counselor.

What a shame.

If you want a good relationship with your high school counselor that will translate into college admissions support, here are five things parents and students can do.

1.  Develop realistic expectations about how much your counselor can help you.

Most high school counselors don't have the luxury of spending all day, every day, advising college-bound students.  They meet with the kid who's failing geometry and might not graduate, talk with the student who has an eating disorder, get involved when a teacher suspects a student is being abused, mediate parent-teacher conflicts, counsel the student with emotional problems, talk to the police when a student brings a knife on campus–you see where I'm going with this. 

Somewhere in between all of those things, they have to keep up with the constantly-changing landscape of college admissions and try to disseminate that information to students and parents.

If you attend a very expensive private school that has paid "college advisors" on staff who work with a small band of 25-40 students each, then you have every reason to expect that your assigned advisor should walk you through every step of the college process, help you with your college essays, review your applications, etc.  But if you're at a school, even a private school, where counselors work with 100 or 300 or even 800 students each, you need to adjust your expectations.  I'm not saying you shouldn't rely on your counselor for assistance, but you'll need to take some responsibility for driving the process forward. 

2.  Students should initiate regular college planning meetings with your counselor.

If you know you want to go to college, ask your counselor if you can schedule a meeting to discuss your plans.  You don't need to make this a weekly habit–once or twice a semester can be enough for many students.  Talk about the classes you're taking, the tests you'll need to take, and what some reasonable college choices might be.  And don't wait until your senior year to do it.  Starting early will also help you establish a relationship with your counselor so she can get to know you and give you even better advice.

3.  Attend your school's college-related events.

I can't tell you how many times I've been invited by good high schools to speak to students and parents about college admissions and had an audience of 30 from a student population of several hundred.  I hear the same thing from counselors when they do college planning evenings for families.  I often wonder how many of those students and parents who don't attend will later claim that the school didn't help them at all.

I know that high school students' schedules, and by extension their parents' schedules, are stretched thin these days.  But if your school does 1 or 3 or even 5 college-related events in a year, isn't it worth it to go?  Even if you only learned one or two good pieces of information at each (you'll likely learn much more than that), it would still be worth it if you really want to go to college and would like some guidance to help you get there.

4. Read what the counselors write for you.

I've met counselors who spend a great deal of time adding college information to the school's website where any student or parent can access it. Some schools even print this information up into bound packets and distribute them to students and parents.  A lot of that information goes unread.

College admissions is complicated; your high school counselor can eliminate some confusion for you, but she can't make it simple because it's not a simple process.  It might be intimidating to face all the information counselors cull together for you, but trust me, it's a lot easier than having to first locate all of that information yourself. 

5.   Give your counselor the opportunity to do a good job for you.

Are their some bad high school counselors?  I'm sure there are (just like there are some bad doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc).  But the vast majority of counselors I've met are good people who want to do what they can to see kids succeed.  Following the advice I've given you above will help give your counselor the opportunity to do that for you.