Ask Collegewise: Is this really what college admissions has come to?

Duncan asks:

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I attend the parent nights at my daughter's high school,
and I listen to everyone talking about the competition for college.  All our friends keep bringing up the test preparation courses and private tutors and
college counselors they're using.  I can't help but ask, is this really what it's come
to?  My daughter is a good student but she's not at the top of her
class.  I'm wondering if I'm being naive in thinking that she will
still get into college."  

You're not being naive at all.  The vast majority of students who start college every year weren't at the top of their classes.  They didn't take expensive test prep courses, hire tutors, or have the guidance of a college counselor.  We've got over 2,000 colleges in this country and all but about a hundred of them accept pretty much everyone who applies. 

But too many kids and parents mistakenly believe that the more selective colleges are somehow better than the less selective ones.  So a lot of good kids who work hard believe that the only acceptable reward for their efforts is an admissions to one of those supposedly elite colleges.  That's why you're seeing the kind of behavior you've witnessed.  

I'm not against kids working hard and placing value on their educational futures–smart, mature kids should do that.  And I think that good tutors, test-preparation courses and college counselors can add value for some families.  But nobody's success or failure in life is determined by an admissions decision from a particular college.  A student's work ethic, desire to learn, her personal qualities and her willingness to extract the maximum value from her college experience are much more important than the name of the college she'll attend.

So, no, what you're seeing isn't necessarily what college admissions has come to be.  It's what the race for admission to the schools most likely to say "No" has come to be.  Kids and parents get to make the choice whether or not you want to participate in that race.  And I don't think it's a very healthy race to run.

Thanks for your question, Duncan.  If you've got a question of your own, email us at blog [at] collegewise [dot] com

For parents: Guidelines for emailing teachers

It should be a good thing that parents can communicate with teachers so quickly and easily over email.  But I'm not sure that the introduction of email has improved the relationship between those two parties. 

Email is actually a terrible communication tool.  All the subtle cues and tone that you can use when you speak with someone are almost impossible to convey over email.  Sometimes you sound angry or critical even when you don't mean to be.

Imagine your student comes home with a "D" on her chemistry exam.  She never told you she was struggling in chemistry and you're frustrated that she let it get to this point.  So you decide to send the teacher this email to request a meeting:

"Jenna just informed us that she received a "D" on her last exam.  We were shocked and very disappointed.  Jenna is an excellent student and she has never received anything but top grades.  We need to meet with you immediately to decide what can be done to rectify this situation." 

You're not necessarily assigning blame or being critical; you're just being a concerned parent.  But remove yourself from your parent role and imagine you're the teacher receiving that email. 

If a parent sent that to me, I'd be on the defensive.  It sounds like you're somehow blaming me for your kid's chemistry deficiencies.  I understand that Jenna is an excellent student.  But other kids did well on the exam–it's not like everybody got D's.  So clearly, Jenna has to assume some of the blame here.

Since email has become a preferred communication tool with parents and teachers, it's important to use it wisely.  Here are a few guidelines. 

1.  Use email as a tool to foster a relationship before you need something. 

If your student likes a class, drop the teacher an email and mention that "Jason just can't stop talking about how much he's enjoying your AP history class."  If a teacher stays after school to help your student, email the teacher and thank her.  Everyone likes to be acknowledged when they do a good job.  And as long as you're sincere, you'll have built some history together if you need to email for a less positive reason in the future.

2.  Be human, and be nice.

Just stating the facts can actually come off as cold and impersonal.  And negative emotions will be distorted and exaggerated in the mind of the reader.  So be a real person, and be nice.   

Imagine how a teacher would react differently in the above scenario if she received this email:

"Jenna just informed us of that she received a 'D' on her midterm.  My husband and I are both chemists so we're probably not as compassionate with our child as we should be when it comes to her struggles with the periodic table.  But we want to do the right thing and would appreciate any guidance you could give us on how we can help her.  Would it be possible to meet with you at your convenience?" 

That's a message written by a real–and nice–human being. 

3.  Don't forget to use email as a tool of thanks, too.

Here's where email can be a great communication tool.  Sending a quick, sincere thank-you note is easy and effective.  Look what you can accomplish in just four sentences:

"I just wanted to thank you for meeting with us last week.  Jenna came out of the meeting encouraged about her opportunity to improve her grade, and we felt so fortunate that she has a teacher who's willing to meet with panicked parents like us.  I can't tell you how much we appreciate it.  Thank you again, and have a great weekend."

I've written two other posts that might be helpful, too–one on how to write a good email message, and one about how to approach someone when you need help with a problem. 

Ask Collegewise: How should we choose a private counselor?

Debbie asks:

My daughter is about to start her senior year, and we’re considering hiring a college counselor to help her with her applications, essays, etc. What would your advice be on finding a good counselor for her (credentials, experience, etc)?  Any advice would be appreciated. Thank you.

Anyone can hang a shingle and call themselves a college counselor.  So it’s sometimes hard for families to know what questions to ask or how to even evaluate the counselors in your area.  Here are a few things to consider as you look for the right counselor.

1.  Before you hire someone, investigate the resources your school offers.

The vast majority of students applying to college do so without the assistance of a private counselor.  So before you go to the trouble of finding and hiring someone, you should investigate the college counseling options at your high school.  Students often aren’t aware of just how much help is available right there on campus.  And if you decide you need more help than your school can offer, you’ll have a better sense of exactly what services you want to pay for when you hire someone.

2.  Talk to friends and ask for referrals.

If you have friends whose kids have gone on to college, friends that you feel you have a lot in common with and whose opinions you can trust, ask them if they hired a counselor, and if so, how the experience was.  Of course, just like a referral to a hair stylist, lawyer, personal trainer or accountant, the fact that your friend had a great experience doesn’t guarantee that you will.  But it can be a great first step and will certainly make you feel more comfortable to have an enthusiastic recommendation in hand.

3.  Ask to schedule a free introductory meeting.

It’s important that the student gets a chance to meet the person he or she would be working with.  So most counselors will offer a free introductory meeting where you can all get to know each other.  Don’t necessarily expect to get free counseling at this meeting, but it’s the right time to ask all your questions, learn more about how they work, and assess the match for your student.

4.  During the meeting, ask questions that will reveal a counselor’s passion for the job.

Most great professionals exude a passion for their job, and college counseling is no different.  I think you want someone who’s got good energy and a real interest in the job.  Here are some questions that can reveal not just whether you’ve found the right person, but also just how much this counselor is enjoying what he or she is doing.

  • “What type of student do you really enjoy working with?”  A good counselor will have an answer that isn’t “I enjoy working with all students equally.”
  • “We want to make sure we have realistic expectations.  What would be some reasonable expectations for us if we were to work with you?” A good counselor will be confident and sure when he answers this question, and he’ll be able to describe some clear outcomes you can expect from your work together.
  • “How do you stay up-to-date with college information?”  All the great counselors we’ve met not only make the effort to keep learning as much as they can, but they also seem to love that part of the job.  You don’t want a counselor who’s checked out any more than you’d want a surgeon who doesn’t go to medical conferences anymore. You’re looking for someone who enthusiastically tells you about visiting colleges and reading blogs and attending conferences and subscribing to list serves and reading books, etc.
  • “Do you think we seem like a good fit for you and your program?” Good counselors wish families would ask us this question.  Anything less than a genuine, enthusiastic “Yes” means that either the counselor doesn’t believe you would work well together, or you have expectations that don’t match what the counselor can provide (or both).

5.  When in doubt, let your student pick.

The best college counselor for your student will probably be the one that he listens to and enjoys working with.  So if you’re trying to decide between a few reputable choices, ask your student her preference and let her participate in the choice.  Parents aren’t applying to college, and you’re not really the one working with the counselor, either.  Kids deserve to have their say in this decision about who will help them on their ride to college.

Got a question?  Send it to us at blog@collegewise.com.  If we choose your question, we’ll answer it here.

What to do if your student isn’t ready for college

Yesterday, I wrote a post for parents about signs that your student might not be ready for college. Today, I want to give some advice about what parents can do if you’ve made the difficult assessment that college just isn’t right for your student at this time.

1.  Don’t give up too early.

Let’s say a junior in high school is really struggling academically.  It would be entirely reasonable for her parents to make the assessment that she’s not ready for college and that she will instead attend a community college.  But while the college timeline dictates that kids apply to four-year colleges early in their senior year, students don’t decide where–or if–they’ll go until 6 months later at the end of the senior year. For some teenagers, that six months can bring them the maturity and perspective they didn’t have before.

For some families, it might make better sense to just take the college option off the table earlier.  But for others, you might consider moving forward with the application process and seeing if anything changes during the six months you’re waiting for decisions from schools.   Just because a student applies to college doesn’t mean you’re committed to sending her. But if a student doesn’t apply, that decision, at least for the coming academic year, is made.

2. Recognize that the college dream is never really gone.

Today’s students and parents have been conditioned to believe kids get one chance to apply to college–during their senior year in high school.  But that’s not the case.  A motivated student who’s ready can always apply to college.  And a student who isn’t interested in or ready for college at age 18 may feel very differently at age 21.    Yes, there are some life realities in play here (it gets harder to go to college as you get older and your life gets more complicated).  But lot of successful people waited to start college (or had to go back to finish).  The college dream doesn’t necessarily end immediately after high school.

3.  Investigate community colleges.

Community colleges allow students to do remedial work to make up classes they didn’t pass in high school.  And more importantly, most community colleges make transfer agreements with selected four-year schools.  Those agreements spell out which classes a student needs to take, and what grades she needs to earn, in order to guarantee (or virtually guarantee) admission to the four-year college as a junior transfer student.  And best of all, most four-year colleges won’t look at the high school work of a junior transfer.  So a student who’s ready to get serious about attending a four-year school can get a fresh academic start at a community college. 

4. Require that your high school graduate get a job.

If your student isn’t attending college or community college after high school, I would require him or her to get a full time job.   A student who wasn’t motivated to take the college process seriously isn’t likely to find that motivation if he can still live with Mom and Dad and not have to worry about paying rent.  A student who gets a full time job will at least be getting some job experience (never a bad thing).   And sometimes, life as a full-time worker can make college life look a lot more appealing.

We once worked with a transfer student who didn’t want to apply to college while he was in high school.  He spent the next two years after graduation working at Jiffy Lube, had gone back to community college and was now trying to transfer to UC Berkeley.  I remember the best line from his college essay:

I’ve swept floors.  I’ve cleaned bathrooms.  I’ve burned my hands on exhaust manifolds, worked 12-hour days, and still not had enough money to get my own car fixed.  I didn’t know in high school what life without a college degree looked like.  But I do now.

5.  Encourage your student to pursue an existing interest.

A student who isn’t going to college needs to get serious about finding something that interests him or her.  This is not the time to dawdle around the house or hang out with their friends all day.  If your daughter loves sports, encourage her to get a job at a sporting goods store, or to coach a club volleyball team, or to take sports managements classes at a community college.  If your son likes to travel.  Encourage him to live and work in another country for six months.  If she likes nature, have her volunteer to give tours in a national park.  If he likes drawing, get a job in an art shop, or an unpaid internship at graphic design studio.

Even if the motivation for college isn’t there, encourage your student to follow whatever motivation she does have.  Pursue the interest and it will eventually lead somewhere.

Bonus tip:  Recognize that kids today don’t necessarily have to go to college to be happy and successful.

We’re in the college business here, and I believe that a college education provides students with four years of growth, learning and fun that just can’t be measured or duplicated.  But the world has changed a lot in the last 30 years (and even more in the last ten).  Today, everyone has access to information.  A motivated person can learn whatever you want to learn, from how to fix cars to how to interpret classic works of literature.  College graduates don’t enjoy the same automatic benefits of preferred jobs and social status that they used to.  The world is slowly realizing that talent and intellect aren’t reserved for those with college degrees.  So, if college just doesn’t appear to be in your student’s future, don’t focus on what might have been.  Focus on what could still be, with or without a college degree.

For parents: is your student ready for college?

Every year at Collegewise, we work with some “C” students who go on to flourish in college (especially when they’re at the right colleges).  But while there are literally hundreds of schools that will happily
admit an average student, that doesn’t mean that every average student is ready for college.   It can be a hard fact for some parents to face, but assessing college readiness is an important step in deciding not just where, but also if, your student should attend college.

When we’re working with a student who might not be ready for college, here are five questions we ask parents to help them make their own assessment.

1.  Does your student want to go to college?

If you’re wondering if a student is ready to go to college, the first step is toask him if he wants to go.  A lot of students grow up with the expectation that they will go to college but are never actually asked if that’s something they want for themselves.  If your student tells you he doesn’t want to go, at least you know that the issue you’re facing is bigger than his unwillingness to research colleges or fill out
applications.  And with the real issue in the open, you can discuss his reluctance to attend.   

2. Are you doing everything college-related for your student?

It’s normal for some parents to feel like you care more about researching colleges or planning college visits than your student does.  But if your student is so disengaged in the process that you have to take over everything college-related, including filling out college applications, that’s a sign that you care much more about this than your student does.

I understand why a parent would take on that responsibility; you worry that your student will wake up 2-3 years from now and wish she’d chosen to be more serious about her college plans.  But college students need to be responsible for themselves–from waking up on time, to turning in assignments by the deadline, to reaching out and asking for help when they need it.  If you’re student isn’t willing to take on or at least share the responsibility associated with applying to college, that’s a sign that she might not be ready for the responsibility required to manage her life as a college student.

3.  Has your student needed to repeat core classes in order to graduate from high school?

One D in calculus (I came close, too) just means your student probably shouldn’t be a math major. But if a student isn’t able to pass (and needs to repeat) multiple core classes in high school in order to
graduate on time, you should consider whether that student is ready for the demands of college academics.  Yes, the right college can give a formerly average student the chance to succeed academically.  But when we see a student who’s had to repeat courses like English, lower level math, or introductory language courses, it’s time to asses whether those deficiencies are due to a lack of effort, or real academic deficiencies that need to be addressed before college.

4.  Has your student had disciplinary problems during high school?

Even good kids occasionally come home a little past curfew.  But for a student who has multiple suspensions from school, or a continuing problem with drugs or alcohol, or repeated infractions at home or at school, a parent needs to consider what’s going to happen to that student when he’s on a college campus with nobody to watch over him.  I’m not suggesting that any kid who’s had a rough patch should be penalized and prevented from attending college.  But as a parent paying for your kid’s college education, you’re making an investment in your son or daughter. Students who are college ready have demonstrated the appropriate maturity and a readiness for the independence of college life.  If your student hasn’t shown you those signs, you might consider delaying your investment.

5. Does it just not feel right to you?

Sometimes a parent just knows that college isn’t the right choice for their student at this time. That feeling might come from a combination of the above four factors, or it might just be parental gut instinct. If you have that gut feeling, refer back to #1.  Ask your student if he wants to go.  If he says, “Yes,” ask him to tell you more.  Make sure he’s not just giving you the answer he thinks you want to hear.  Parents know their own kids better than anyone, and it’s important for you to listen to your instincts before you send your kids to college.

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll share some steps parents can take if you decide your student just isn’t ready for college.

Should parents talk with your kids about college costs?

When I did one of our "Financial Aid and Scholarships" seminars for our Collegewise parents last weekend, I asked them to leave the kids at home.  I want parents to feel comfortable asking questions about financing their kids' educations without the added pressure of having the students in the room.  But that doesn't mean parents shouldn't talk with their kids about college costs.  

A lot of parents believe that they should shield their kids from the economic realities of attending college, that it's a student's job to get accepted and a parent's job to pay for it.  But I think that parents should have honest, open discussions with their kids about college costs.  High school kids should know what their family can afford to pay for college, and what colleges will be off the table if financial aid doesn't cover the rest.  Kids should know the efforts parents have made to save for college and the continued sacrifices you'll be making during the four years you have to write tuition checks.  Having that conversation now, however unpleasant it might be, is much better than having it later when a student has an offer of admission in hand but a family doesn't have the money to pay for it.   

High school students who understand the realities of college costs for their families are more likely to appreciate that a college education is a gift, no matter what school they end up attending.  And once those kids get to college, they'll understand the financial and emotional investment their parents are making.  They'll be more likely to drag themselves out of bed for that 8 a.m. psychology class.  They're more likely to appreciate all the opportunities for learning, growth and fun that are available to them during their college careers. 

So parents, consider having the college financing talk with your kids.  Invite them to participate in the discussion.  A student who's mature enough to attend college is mature enough to know what it's going to take for her family to pay for it. 

Warren Buffet’s advice for parents

I don't think being a billionaire necessarily qualifies anyone as an expert on parenting.  But I can't help but like Warren Buffet.  He still lives in the same stucco house in Omaha, NE he bought for $31,500 in 1958.  He announced in 2006 that he's giving away his fortune to charity (with 86% of it going to the Gates Foundation).  Every time I read or see an interview with him, he's likeable, self-effacing, modest, and seems like a guy who'd be fun to have a beer with. 

So for what it's worth, here's his take on how "parents can make a better human being."

Quotation

The power of unconditional love. I mean, there is no power on earth like unconditional love. And I think that if you offered that to your child, I mean, you’re 90 percent of the way home. There may be days when you don’t feel like it — it’s not uncritical love; that’s a different animal — but to know you can always come back, that is huge in life. That takes you a long, long way. And I would say that every parent out there that can extend that to their child at an early age, it’s going to make for a better human being.

The full interview is here.

College admissions advice for parents of 6th, 7th and 8th graders

We occasionally get calls from parents of 6th, 7th or 8th graders hoping to enroll their students in a college counseling program.  They’ve heard how difficult college admissions has become and they don’t want to make any mistakes.

But we don’t offer programs for students still in junior high school.  I think junior high is too early to start tying decisions to college admissions.  It’s too early to mold a 12 year-old’s love of computers into an activity that will help him get into college.  Parents shouldn’t panic that 13 year-old’s consistent B’s in math won’t be good enough for the Ivy League schools.  And it is much, much too early to begin any kind of preparation for the SAT because, well, that’s just crazy.

But it’s not too early for junior high students to develop habits that will help them be successful once they get to high school (which will help them get into college).  Here are five ways parents can help.

1.  Help your kids to be independent. 

You don’t want to raise a high school kid who depends on you to wake him up in the morning.  Kids need their parents, but when Mom or Dad makes all the decisions,  you raise a student that is too dependent on his parents and ultimately not well-prepared for college.  I’m not suggesting you need your 13-year-old to open and maintain a checking account, but you can have them get themselves up in the morning, organize their own school assignments, and maybe even assume some responsibilities for helping around the house.

2.  Encourage kids to approach their teachers with questions or concerns. 

If your junior high school student has questions or is struggling in a class, don’t contact the teacher for him to seek help.  Encourage your student to approach his teacher himself.  This is a good time for kids to start taking some responsibility for their own educations.  They need to learn how to advocate for themselves, and how to seek help when they need it.

3.  Encourage kids to follow their passions.

Colleges love students who are passionate about what they do, whether that’s doing scientific research or riding dirt bikes.  Teach your kids that interest is a good thing.  Don’t assign value to the interest based on how you think it will translate into an admission to college someday.  Kids who have the capacity to enjoy something tend to seek out that enjoyment even when their interests change.  That’s a good trait.  I don’t care if your student likes making jewelry, walking dogs in the neighborhood or just playing basketball with his friends.  As long as it isn’t covered by the criminal code, it’s probably an interest you want to encourage.

4.    Help kids find a love of learning.

When you ask a successful college applicant what her favorite class, subject or teacher is, she’s got an answer.  Grades are important, but they are not the only measure of a student’s academic potential.  A sincere interest in learning goes a long way with teachers and with colleges.  So if your student thrives in her math class and even joined the math club, tell her how wonderful it is that she loves math.  Encourage the enjoyment.  If your daughter is fascinated with birds, ask her how she might be able to learn more and decide together whether to buy some books, take a class, or maybe just do some birdwatching.  If your son raves about his history teacher, let him know how lucky he is and ask him to tell you more.  Don’t tie academic enjoyment to grades alone.  Curious learners are always appealing to colleges, and that intellectual love of learning is something you can foster in your kids.

5. Relax.

A lot of the information you hear about seemingly perfect kids being rejected from college is exaggerated.  There are over 2,000 colleges in the country and all but about 100 of them have plenty of room.  Nice kids who work hard (even if they aren’t “A” students) still get into plenty of colleges.  So let your kids be kids.  They don’t need to spend all their time maximizing strengths, fixing weaknesses and molding themselves into future college students.  Let them play and hang out with their friends and maybe even goof off a little.  When your kid is 12, 13 or 14, you’re not going to make a mistake that will keep your child out of college someday.  So relax, and encourage your kids to do the same.

When admissions offices educate

I love it when an admissions office takes steps to educate families, not about the school or the reasons why a student should attend, but about how to manage the process, reduce stress, and maybe even enjoy yourself a little. 

Admissions officers at MIT, University of Chicago, and the University of Richmond have blogs that don't just serve their own interests; they give away solid advice for free. 

No student applying to college should write a college essay without reading University of Virgina's Parke Muth's "Writing the Essay: Sound Advice from an Expert."

And today's post from The Choice Blog shares a great piece from Middlebury College's website entitled "Top Ten Things for Parents to Remember."

“Helicopter parent” is not a positive term

I had an interesting experience with "helicopter parents" last week.  I'd just finished doing a seminar at a high school and three mothers approached me with a question. The elected spokeswoman of the group proudly announced, "We're helicopter parents–and we have some questions about helping our kids find activities this summer." 

Parents who support your kids and want the best for them have every reason to be proud of their efforts.  Parenting isn't easy, especially during the teenage years. 

But if you identify yourself as a helicopter parent, you should know that the term is pejorative for a reason.  A helicopter parent hovers over your kid so closely that he doesn't learn to think and live on his own.  College administrators talk about helicopter parents who call professors and argue for grades to be changed, or who intervene in roommate squabbles.  Even employers are talking about parents who call on behalf of their (college graduate!) children to investigate job openings or to make sure their kids' resumes were received.  

There are times when we sit with a student at Collegewise and just know that she's going to be successful.  That feeling has a lot more to do with how she carries herself, her maturity, her self confidence and her work ethic than it does her grades or test scores.  But one thing this kids all have in common are parents who are supportive but know when to step back.

If you're a helicopter parent, you can be proud of your instincts to want everything for your kids, but you should consider different methods.  Become a proud former helicopter parent and then teach other hovering moms and dads how to follow your lead.