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

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.  

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

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,

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:


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.