Ivy league prep for nursery schoolers?

If you're a parent who paid $19,000 to send your daughter to nursery school, and the school didn't teach what it promised it would teach, you have the right to be upset.  You may even have the right to demand your money back.

But if you file a lawsuit claiming that the nursery school has damaged your four year-old's chances of attending an Ivy League school one day, well, you have derailed.  Or your lawyer has derailed.  But somebody involved has most certainly de-RAILED.

Being invested in your student's education is a great thing.  Turning it into a life-and-death struggle where only an admission from an Ivy League school will suffice is not.  Perspective is important.  If you lose yours, you run the risk of ruining the process for yourself and for your student. 

Thanks to my college buddy, Jim, for the article. 

For parents: Five things to consider before you hire a tutor

When a student is struggling in a class, a lot of well-meaning parents throw a tutor at the problem.  A good tutor can be wonderful for a student who's struggling.  But if you want the investment of your money and your student's time to pay off, here are five questions to consider before you enlist tutorial help.

1.  Is your student getting at least a "B" in the course?

No student excels equally in every subject.  A kid who's trying his best in chemistry and getting a "B" should be proud of the effort he's making.  Hiring a tutor can send a message to your kid that his best isn't good enough and that only "A's" are acceptable.  Some over-achieving kids put that pressure on themselves and they're prepared to handle it.  Many others are not.

2.  Is the problem something that a tutor can fix?

Before you hire a tutor, try to diagnose the problem first to see if it's something a tutor can address.  If your student isn't paying attention in class, or just isn't studying for exams, those aren't problems that a tutor can fix. 

3.  Is it a comprehension problem, or a study skills problem?

A tutor can help a student who just can't seem to wrap her brain around trig.  But if the student's study skills are lacking, it's a problem that a math tutor might improve, but probably won't solve.  That would be like hiring a hitting coach for a player who's got a pulled muscle in her back–you're addressing the wrong issue.  I've written a couple posts about study skills here, here and here, and they recommend some resources that might help.

4. Has your student talked to his or her teacher?

The first step with any academic struggle (assuming you've considered #2), is for the student, not the parent, to approach the teacher and ask for advice.  Any teacher will appreciate a kid who comes to her and says,

"I studied like crazy for that last test and you saw how badly I did.  I really want to get better at this.  Can you give me some advice where I should focus?"

Most teachers will be willing to help a student who takes ownership of the problem like this and genuinely wants to improve. 

5. Does your student seem relieved by the idea of a tutor?

If your student seems relieved by the idea of a tutor, you know you're doing the right thing.  A tutor should be like an academic lifeline that a student is grateful to receive.  It should be a positive thing where your student feels, "I'm struggling, I can't seem to fix it myself, and my parents are getting someone to help me."

For senior parents: celebrate every admissions decision

AustinThis is Austin, one of our Collegewise seniors.  And that plate of goodness in front of him is full of cookies shaped like "A's" to celebrate his admission to the University of Arizona.

Whenever a Collegewise family shares good admissions news with us, our first question is always the same.

"What are you going to do to celebrate?"

I don't care if it's the first choice college that offered an acceptance or the safety school whose admission was hardly a surprise.  When a proverbial fat envelope arrives from any college, acknowledge the success.  Put the acceptance letter on the fridge.  Do a family high five with your student and tell him how proud you are.

I hate to see the pressure of college admissions ruin what should be an exciting time in the house.  The opportunity to go to college is one worth celebrating, and I can't tell you how much it means to kids to see their parents excited about the good news (even if they don't show the same excitement themselves).  So don't reserve your celebration for the acceptance from a dream school.

And if your student is particularly happy about an acceptance, kick your celebration up a notch.  Buy a cake or make cookies (in the school's colors, of course).  Cook his favorite dinner.  Or go out to her favorite restaurant.  Parents can really set the tone for just how important these acceptances are in your student's life, so make sure you use this well-deserved excuse to commemorate the occasion.

And thanks, Austin, for giving us permission to share your photo.

For senior parents: Just six more months…

Parents of seniors, just six months from now, you'll be moving your new college freshman into a dorm room, saying goodbye, and leaving him or her to start their college lives.  It will be sad, but it will also be one of the most exciting and rewarding days you'll ever have as a family.

How do you want to spend the next six months leading up to that day?

Do you want it to be a good memory?  Do you want your senior's last six months at home to be a time when you celebrated every college acceptance, even from the safety schools?  Do you want it to be a time when you reminded your student that you love them anyway even if a dream school said "No"?  Do you want to be the parent who excitedly planned a school visit, bought the "_____ University Mom" sweatshirt and proudly slapped the sticker on the back of the car window, even if the school wasn't your kid's first choice (or yours)?  And do you want to spend the next six months showing your student just how proud Mom and Dad are, and how excited you are for them in their upcoming journey to college?

Or will you allow colleges and their admissions decisions to dictate how you'll spend the next six months? 

Will you be attached to the belief that a "Yes" from a dream school is the only acceptable outcome?  If the dream schools' decisions aren't what you'd hoped, do you want to spend the time cursing the schools that said, "No," appealing for reconsideration, and mourning the loss?  Will you spend the time comparing your student's credentials to those of other students, worrying and wondering what else could have been done?  Do you want the next six months to be stressful and disappointing?

Don't let colleges make the decision for you.  All they can say is "Yes" or "No."  How your family spends your senior's last six months at home is entirely up to you.

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.