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.       

A gift suggestion

One year from now, current high school seniors will be returning home for
the holidays as college freshmen.  I'm confident that their parents reading this will be proud and delighted to welcome them home, regardless of what college news comes in the mail in the next few
months. 

Parents, if you haven’t done
so already, why not tell your senior just that?  Tell your seniors that you'll be proud and happy to see them no matter which college they're returning home from one year from now. 

It’s the perfect gift to give a stressed senior this holiday season.    

Arrival times

Spend any time in an airport these days and you'll inevitably see lots of kids arriving home for the holidays from college.  They're pretty easy to spot.  They're wearing college sweatshirts, lugging duffel bags (that are probably full of dirty laundry) and they are usually being given a hero's welcome from their families.

Do you think any of those parents welcoming their kids home are thinking to themselves, "I'd be so much happier right now if he were coming home from an Ivy League school." 

I doubt it.

What’s really important?

A lot of parents suffer through the college process, anxious about whether or not their kids will gain acceptance to a prestigious college.  But it doesn't have to be that way.  Parents (and kids) can eliminate a lot of the anxiety associated with college admissions by just focusing on what's really important. 

Imagine making the trip to college with your daughter (or son) and helping her move into her new dorm room.  Imagine welcoming her home at Thanksgiving and hearing her talk over turkey about how much she loves college, and then rolling out the family red carpet again a few weeks later when your college student is finally home for the holidays. 

Imagine visiting her at "Family Weekend" and meeting all her new friends while you buy a sweatshirt that proudly identifies you as the parent of a college student.  Imagine receiving her phone calls and emails when she tells you how much she's learning, how much fun she's having, and how happy she is at college.  

Imagine following her progress during college, seeing for yourself how much she's maturing, watching her discover her passions and talents that will help her choose which path to take as a college graduate. 

Imagine that day four years later when you are in the audience watching her walk across the stage at graduation, the day she becomes a college graduate (and you become the parent of one).

Now, when you were imagining those things, did it matter whether or not the college was a famous one?

What happens in college is a lot more important than the name of the school where it happens.  

Starting from scratch

"We don't know anything." 

I hear that occasionally
from parents and students who have no idea where to start with college
planning.  Any family who
takes these five steps will be more informed and in control of their
student's college destiny.   If you've come to the realization that you should be doing
more, but aren't sure what exactly to do, this is where I'd start.

1.  Visit your high school counselor.  

If
you have a high school counselor (not everybody does these days), start
there.  And don't make excuses that your counselor doesn't know you or
has somehow failed you by not providing you with college information. 
Yes, part of a counselor's job is to lend college planning assistance
to students.  But it is not your counselor's job to take over the responsibility for your
college planning.  The most successful students take on this
responsibility and then advocate for themselves by seeking out their counselor for advice.

In particular, you want to get answers to the following questions. 

  • Am I taking a college prep curriculum?  If I'm not, what do I need
    to do to get on track to go to college?  Do I have any classes I need
    to make up, or courses I need to take that I haven't yet taken?
  • What standardized tests do I need to take for college and when
    should I take them?  (In particular, ask about the PSAT, SAT, ACT and
    SAT Subjects Tests).
  • What are some reasonable choices for colleges I could consider?

2. Check out the college planning calendars on the NACAC (National Association for College Admissions Counseling) website. The Princeton Review has lots of helpful college information
on their website, too. In particular, pay attention to what they have
to say about standardized tests, which ones to take, and when to take
them.

3.  Try to attend a college fair in your area. 

4.  Learn about the process of applying for financial aid.  I think the three best sources of information are:

5.  Pick five colleges that interest you, visit the admissions sections
of their websites, and research their admissions requirements.  They'll
tell you what classes you need to take, what standardized tests are
required, and what the deadlines are to apply for admission.  While
you're there, read about their process of applying for financial aid,
too.

These steps won't complete your college planning, but they'll get you started (and caught up).