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). 

The backlash against over-parenting

Time Magazine recently ran a cover story about the dangers of over-parenting.  The author presents an argument that hovering less and allowing kids to find their own way actually produces happier kids…and happier parents.  And there is some pretty compelling evidence supporting the method of "letting them grow by letting go."

We've watched over 2500 families go through our Collegewise program, and I can tell you that the ones who enjoyed the process the most, and whose kids seemed to have the most success, allowed their kids to take the lead in the process.  Here's how that can look in the college admissions process:

Over-parenting

Letting go

Signing your kid up for volunteer hours at the hospital

Driving him to the karate class he asked to take

Emailing a teacher to demand a grade be changed

Encouraging your son to visit the teacher to ask for advice about how to improve his own work

“A little more tutoring and we may be able to get your SAT score up another 50 points”

“Two times is enough for the SAT and for tutoring.  Do your best—then we’ll kiss the SAT goodbye.”

“Let’s go visit Harvard this spring”

“Let’s look through this college guidebook and find some colleges you might like.”

Appealing a rejection from Stanford

Encouraging her to fall in love with a school that accepted her

“We might have connections that could help her get into Yale.”

“She’ll find the place that suits her best”

“We wish she’d gotten into an Ivy League school”

“We wish we could go back to college with her!”

Re-writing your student’s essays

Encouraging her to write what she wants to write

Filling out her applications for her

Offering to help organize the process together

“I wish she were as high achieving as our friends’ kids”

“Test scores don't measure her worth or our worth as parents"

Calling the dean and demanding an explanation for the rejection

Planning a visit to a school that said, “Yes.”

Hiring tutors for all her weakest subjects

Encouraging her to explore her favorite subjects

Asking colleges which activities are best

Asking your kids which activities they love the most

Focusing on brand-name schools

Understanding that going to college is important, but going to a famous college is not

“We’re proud of your GPA and test scores”

“We’re proud that you treat your sisters so well”

“Your SAT scores are still a little low”

“We love watching you play in the jazz band”

“My kid has over 100 hours of community service”

“My kid is a good kid”

Believing that name-brand colleges are the key to success and upward mobility

Understanding that what your child does in college matters far more than the name of the college

Envisioning a Princeton decal on the back of your car window

Proudly wearing the “(College) Dad” sweatshirt, whatever the school may be

What if parents are invited to college interviews?

What should you with your parents while you have your college interview?  Simple.  Leave them at home.  Or send them to dinner.  Or send them to Jupiter.  Interviewers are far more interested in what kids have to say about themselves (after all, it's the kids–not the parents–who will ultimately be attending college).  So we tell our Collegewise students not to bring their parents unless the interviewer explicitly asks you to do so (or if it's just an informative interview taking place at a college you haven't actually applied to yet). 

So, what if the interviewer does specifically ask you to bring your parents? 

We've started to see this happen occasionally at some schools, and our Collegewise parents (wisely) ask us if they should take the colleges up on the offer.  A college who asks parents to attend the interview is likely doing so not only to get to know even more about the applicant, but also to get a sense whether or not you have the support of your parents in applying to this particular school.  That's a good opportunity to show colleges that your family is engaged in a thoughtful college search together .  So for parents who are specifically invited to attend college interviews, here are a few tips. 

1. Relax.

Our first tip for parents is the same tip we give to students–relax.  Very few students (or parents) have single-handedly torpedoed the chances of admission with one less-than-stellar answer.  College interviews are usually a relaxed affair.  Kids should treat them as a legitimate opportunity to make a good impression, but they shouldn't worry about this like they do the SAT or the calculus final.  The same holds true for parents. So relax.  Smile.  Enjoy the experience. 

2.  Resist all urges to jump in and answer for your student.

Just because you were invited does not necessarily mean it's a good idea for a parent to jump in and answer questions directed at the student.  Believe us, we understand why you'd want to do so; part of a parent's job feels like you should be a publicist for your kids.  But budding in and answering for them just makes kids nervous and makes the interviewer wish she could hear more from the student.  We recommend you wait to answer questions until one is directed at you. 

3.  When asked to comment about your student, answer candidly.

You are allowed–encouraged, actually–to brag about your student when asked.  Be specific about which accomplishments made you the most proud.  Don't hold back when asked what his strengths are.  Let your pride show.  Just remember not to take over the interview with an answer that takes up the allotted time.     

4.  Consider how excited you would be for your student to attend this particular college.

Colleges know that while many students might apply to schools without outright approval from their parents, they won't get to attend unless Mom and Dad support the choice.  A parent who's invited to attend a college interview should expect to be asked how you see this school for your student, whether or not you think it would be a good match.  There's no need to lie.  In fact, if you have concerns about the fit, be honest.  Express your concerns, but let the interviewer know that you trust your student to make good decisions and that you'll support her choices (if that is actually the case).  An interviewer would be impressed by evidence that the student and parent have had some thoughtful dialog about the college even if they disagree. 

5.  If you're already butting heads about college choices, consider letting your student interview by him or herself.

The teenage years can be stressful on parent/teen relationships.  And the pressures of the college admission process can exacerbate this.  If you've found that the subject of college and how to get there seems to cause immediate conflict in your family, rest assured that it is entirely normal and like many of the trials and tribulations parents go through with teens, it won't last.  But if that's the case, a parent probably shouldn't attend the interview.  Agree to disagree, go to your neutral corners and let your student interview on her own.  That's better than risking a parent/teen flare up during a college interview.  

Just Breathe

I moderated a panel this week that featured admissions officers from Stanford and UCLA, as well as a high school counselor with 30 years experience helping kids get into college.  A parent asked what she should be doing with her kids in elementary and junior high school seeing that so many parents around her are shuttling their kids to private tutors, expensive lessons, and club teams.

The high school counselor jumped in first.  "Tell your kids to breathe." 

She went on to describe that elementary and junior high school are times when kids should be kids.  It's great for them to play on a club soccer team, or take piano lessons, or even take a summer school class if that's what makes them happy.  But not every nine-year-old is ready to pledge undying commitment to one activity.

And for the record, the panelists from UCLA and Stanford said they'd never seen any indication that successful applicants got there by starting their college journey in elementary school. 

So if your nine-year-old balks at piano lessons and would much rather build paper airplanes to have contests with the neighborhood kids to see whose can fly the farthest (that's what I did), that's fine.  It's normal. 

Everyone, just breathe. 

Just show up

Last night, we held our third and final Senior Parent Back to School Night at Collegewise.  In total, nearly 70 parents joined us over the span of those three nights to hear the updates on our work with their kids, to spend a little time with their Collegewise counselors, and to make sure they were informed participants on their student's journey to college.

Sure the Italian food probably helped lure them.  The fact that we promised them wine probably help lure them a lot.  But mostly, this was a group of parents who showed up because it was all about supporting the kids.  For these parents, it didn't matter that they were tired or that this was their third school or college-related event this week or that they were passing up time at home.  They gave up time to come to an evening of college information because they wanted to participate in their kids' college admissions process in a constructive way.

A lot of parents struggle to find the right ways to help their college applicants.  It's a difficult balancing act trying to let kids find their own way, yet also making sure you help enough without unintentionally taking over the process for them. 

But the most important thing a parent can do for their college applicant is to show up.  If the high school puts on a college information night, show up.  If there's a college fair in your city, show up.  When it's time to plan college visits, when your kids need a little cheerleading to boost their spirits, when they need to be reminded that they're still a good person even though their SAT scores didn't raise as much as they'd hoped, just show up. 

You don't necessarily have to handle the situation perfectly every time (as that's just not a reasonable expectation).  But just showing up is half the college admissions battle.

The more things change…

At one of our Collegewise Back to School Nights last week, we were discussing how much pressure kids (and parents) are feeling surrounding the college admissions process today.  A father asked this question.

"When I was in high school, I only applied to two colleges, and got in to both of them.  What's changed?"

It's a good question.  Why are colleges so hard to get into now?  What's caused all this change?

On the one hand, a lot has changed.  There are more kids are applying to college today than ever before (we're just finishing the post-baby boom, with over 3 million kids graduating from high school this year).  And unfortunately, a lot of them want to go to the same 40 schools, schools whose capacity for students hasn't changed much, if at all.  So the applicant pool is growing, but the number of spots at the most selective colleges has remained the same.  It's the law of supply and demand at work, and that's very different from the college admissions landscape of 20-30 years ago. 

But at the same time, not a lot has changed.

A student can still take the SAT just once and accept whatever score he
gets.  He can still apply to just two colleges, get in to both of them,
and go to one.  And he can do all this without perfect grades, perfect
test scores, or a legal proof that he invented photosynthesis. 

But he just can't do that if the two schools are Georgetown and
Northwestern.  Or Amherst and Williams.  Or Berkeley and UCLA.  Or
Stanford and Yale.  Or Swarthmore and Tufts.  Or Columbia and Cornell.  Or Boston College and Notre Dame.  Or Duke and Michigan.  Or any of the other schools that reject 60-90% of their applicants.   

The competition for admission has changed dramatically at the nation's most selective
colleges.  But there are over 2,000 other colleges from which to choose
and all but about 100 of them accept almost all of their applicants.

It's up to you.  You can buy into the thinking that a more selective college means a better education and the promise of a successful life beyond college (we'll disagree, but you can believe it).  Or you can spend more time finding the right college for you where you'll be happy and successful, one who will gladly take a kid who doesn't necessarily have straight A's, where your potential to contribute is worth as much or more to them than your grades and test scores are. 

Not everything has changed since Mom and Dad applied to college.