Parents: Are you ready for your kids to go to college?

Whether you've got a senior waiting for college news or a junior just starting the college search, I think every parent should do two things:

1) Ask yourself if you are ready for your student to go to college.

2) Be honest about the answer.

This is a big transition for parents, too, one that's much easier for some parents than others. If you don't acknowledge that you're not ready, that pressure is going to manifest itself in unfortunate ways, like nitpicking your kids' college choices or trying to find reasons why your student shouldn't go to a school far away.

You're not a bad parent if you're struggling with the reality that your student is going to leave the house after eighteen years.  You have the right to struggle with this.  So if you are, just be honest.  It'll make it easier for people to know that you need a little support, too.

And students, if your parents are honest and tell you they're having a hard time with this whole college thing, be nice.  Don't necessarily change your college choices because of it, but go easy on Mom and/or Dad.  You'll understand someday when your own kids go to college.

Subtle ways to prepare middle schoolers for college

For middle schoolers, I put preparing for the SAT right up there with driving and voting–they'll do it someday, but it's much too early now.

Still, there are some productive measures parents can take with their middle schoolers to prepare them for college, and Jay Mathews offers up eight of them here today. 

And if you don't mind a few instances of advice-overlap, here's my July 2010 post with college admissions advice for 6th, 7th and 8th graders.

One college planning guarantee

I spoke at a middle school last night and a parent asked me about my preference between AP and IB programs.

I told her the truth–that the IB program is great for some kids, but that it's not a magic key that unlocks the doors of admission to selective colleges.  Intellectual kids who challenge themselves in honors and AP courses have the same opportunities that those in the IB programs do.  The important thing is to pick an academic program that fits the student.

I could tell it wasn't the answer she wanted when she retorted, 

"Students in IB programs are accepted to college at double the rate of students in other programs.  I've seen the data."

I don't know what data she's seen (it's probably from a local high school who's pitching the program to prospective parents).  But I do know two things:

1)  If that data really does exist, it says less about the IB program and more about the kids in it.  Kids who end up in an IB program in the first place are, not surprisingly, the type of students who are likely to go to college.

2)  Wanting to believe it doesn't make it so.

That mother is worried about picking the right high school for her son, and it would be so much easier if she could be assured that the IB program was going to give him all the advantages she wants for him.  It would put her at ease to have an IB guarantee. 

Like just about everything important in life, there are no guarantees in college admissions planning.  No college, high school, private counselor, tutor, test-prep course, academic program, activity, essay or alumni contact can promise to make specific college dreams come true.

But if you put smart kids in academic programs that excite them, encourage them to pursue activities they actually enjoy, and celebrate the process rather than just the outcome, you'll have happy, motivated kids with plenty college acceptances from which to choose.  Guaranteed.   

Why paying for college is like buying a gym membership

Paying for college isn't like paying for a car or a house. It's easy to research cars and houses to the point that you really do know exactly what you're getting.  Have a mechanic look over the car before you buy it.  Get the house inspected.  Read what Consumer Reports says about the car.  Research the schools in the house's neighborhood.  Sure, there can be unforeseen surprises.  But in most cases, you know what to expect once you buy it. 

Colleges can't be measured like that because there's a gigantic unknown in the equation–the student.

You can pay top dollar for a private college that offers small classes, personal attention from professors and the most supportive, encouraging environment you can find.  Still, your kid has to take advantage of all those opportunities for it to mean anything.  You can send your kid to the cheapest public school in your state that has huge classes, and professors who care more about their research than they do their teaching.  If your student commits to extracting the maximum value from her four years there, she'll probably get a great education.  

Choosing a college is a lot like buying a gym membership.  If you enroll in the nicest gym in town but don't utilizes all the classes and trainers (or if you just don't go at all), the guy who works out every day with old dumbbells in his garage will be in much better shape than you will be.   

I think colleges can and should be rigorously evaluated.  But they can't be measured or ranked.  You can't research your way to a college that guarantees future success.  The student is the X-factor in any college decision. 

So when you're trying to decide whether or not a particular college is worth the investment, don't forget to evaluate your student, too.

Avoid this common FAFSA mistake

Any class of 2011 senior who wants to apply for college financial aid should now be completing the FAFSA form, availalbe here.  But here's a common mistake you can easily avoid. 

"You" and "Your" refers to the student, not the parent, unless the form specifically says otherwise. 

The FAFSA is written with the assumption that the student–not the parent–will be the one completing it.  But that's often not what happens.  Many parents fill out the FAFSA for their kids, which is fine, as financial aid is the one part of the college application process where I think it can be a good thing for parents to jump in and help or just take over completely.

So parents, if you're completing the FAFSA for your student, remember that the form wants your student's information (name, birth date, social security number, etc.) until you get to the section that specifically requests parent information. 

Two great gifts parents can give teens

I've got two teen gift ideas for parents.  Both are free and neither will be socially or technologically passe six months from now.

Our system of education and the process of applying to college virtually guarantee that kids are feeling judged and evaluated all the time.  They're judged in school by how well they perform in their classes.  They're measured by tests like state assessments and APs and SAT/ACT exams.  They're evaluated by coaches and the people who make decisions about who plays the first violin, who gets the lead in the play and who is put in charge of the club fundraiser. From the moment kids enter high school, they can feel their entire existence in and out of class being measured and evaluated by the colleges (even if that's not the reality, kids certainly feel that way).

So parents, here are my two gift suggestions.

1)  Let them take breaks and be kids.

Evaluation and judgment aren't all bad for kids; successful people know that part of getting ahead is working hard and impressing the people in charge.  But kids still need to be teenagers and occasionally do things that are just for them, things that have absolutely no application to the college admissions process.  So let them regularly take breaks and be kids.  Let them have downtime that's just for them.  I don't care how goofy or unproductive the way they choose to spend that time might be.  Don't evaluate it.  Don't judge it.  As long as it isn't covered by the criminal code, just let them have it for themselves.   

2) Make home and family the one place where kids aren't constantly being measured.

There aren't a lot of places kids can go today where they're told they're great just the way they are.  Make home that place.  Make your family the one audience who isn't constantly measuring, judging and evaluating your kids.

You've still got to be a parent, set rules, and chastise your kid when he neglects to take out the garbage.  But if you tell him that all he has to do to make you proud is try his best, be nice to people and come home at the end of the day, he'll be more likely to do all three.

Parents, it’s OK not to share

Parents at a dinner party would probably never ask you about:

1)  How much money you make.

2)  What your house is worth.

3)  What you paid in taxes this year.

4)  Sensitive medical issues.

5) Personal family problems.

So, why would it be acceptable to compare your kids' test scores, college lists, and admissions outcomes?

The next time a fellow parent tries to turn their student's college application process into a status competition, feel free to just say, "We're really excited for our daughter and will support whatever decision she makes. 

Some things are OK not to share.

Why not hire a tutor for your student’s BEST subject?

I've often recommended to our Collegewise parents that rather than hire tutors for their kids' weakest subject, why not hire one for their strongest?   Working to maximize a natural strength is always more rewarding than grinding through a weakness is.  And kids who spend all their time working to fix their academic flaws don't have the chance to dive in to the subjects that fascinate them.  They'll never know how far they could have gone with what they loved.  

According to this article in the New Yorker, that strategy of catering to strengths seemed to work out OK for Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's parents: 


When he (Zuckerberg) was about eleven, his parents hired a computer tutor, a software developer named David Newman, who came to the house once a week to work with Mark.'He was a prodigy,' Newman told me. 'Sometimes it was tough to stay ahead of him.' (Newman lost track of Zuckerberg and was stunned when he learned during our interview that his former pupil had built Facebook.) Soon thereafter, Mark started taking a graduate computer course every Thursday night at nearby Mercy College. When his father dropped him off at the first class, the instructor looked at Edward and said, pointing to Mark, 'You can’t bring him to the classroom with you.' Edward told the instructor that his son was the student."

If your son or daughter resists the college search

Jay Mathews has a great way of helping parents relax.  He'll remind you that teens are going to do things like pick colleges based on how good looking the students are, and he'll make you feel OK that your son or daughter is doing the same.  And yet he somehow manages to say things like that and without sounding like he's belittling kids.

His piece today is for parents whose kids arent's as interested in thorougly evaluating colleges as Mom and Dad might want them to be. 

"I have collected enough stories about children dragging their feet on college applications to know that losing your temper rarely works. Patience is usually the best strategy. The junior who refuses to talk about college will have a different attitude when he is a senior and some of his friends have realized high school is not forever. Applications can be put together quickly. Some colleges still have spaces long after application deadlines — indeed, long after they have sent out acceptance letters." 


Thanksgiving…college style

If you're a high school student or the parent of one, Thanksgiving will be a lot different someday.

When kids are in high school and they see their families every day, Thanksgiving can seem like just another holiday.  But Turkey Day is a big deal for college kids.  It means heading home to fill up their tanks with family time.  They get a home-cooked meal and time with their siblings and the chance to regale everyone with their college stories about dorms, classes and friends.  They're thankful for their new lives at college and for the home lives that are always there for them.

Parents of college kids get to welcome them home and celebrate the family being together again.  They're reminded what it was like to have a full house before their college students moved out.  Sure, parents might get a little nostalgic for those pre-college days when the kids were still home.  But the truth is that while parents will be thankful to have everyone back together, they're also thankful to see for themselves that their kids have become happy college students who are also a little older and wiser.

And nobody ever begins a Thanksgiving toast with, "I'm thankful I/you attend an Ivy League school."  

If your family is about to enter or is in the throes of the college process, let Thanksgiving be the day that you don't think about the associated stresses.  Don't think about the SAT or the trigonometry grade that won't raise higher than a B.  Don't think about what's happening in the admissions offices and whether or not your essays could have been better.  Don't think about how disappointed you'll be if Duke says, "No." 

Instead, just think about what you're thankful for.  It'll remind you how little the SAT matters in the bigger scheme of things.  And imagine what Thanksgiving will be like one day no matter where you (or your kids) go to college.