The following post was written by a friend and colleague whose son recently went through the college admissions process. I asked her to share her insights into the experience, and she was generous enough to write this post. So for all you parents of smart B students who would rather be playing World of Warcraft than writing their college essays, know that there is hope. Spoiler alert: the writer’s son got into college, no one had a nervous breakdown, everyone is still on speaking terms and, perhaps most importantly, no one will have to go into permanent debt to fund his education.
Do you remember your own college search? Perhaps like me, your 17-year-old self probably got very little guidance from your parents. Did you take the SAT once or twice? I took it once. Did you get test prep? I didn’t. I was pretty passive about the whole thing. However, let me ask a question that is even more revealing of the difference in generations… Did you use a typewriter to do your applications? Even if your 17-year-old self would have appreciated the convenience of the online Common App, I bet he or she would look at the high school senior standing in your living room and be totally aghast at all the sturm und drang.
Of course, you could go all 1986 and let your own child follow in your footsteps – although finding a typewriter could be tough. But you know, and I know, that you cannot. Tuition is higher, competition is fiercer, and if your child picks the wrong school and ends up transferring, that could cost you another year’s worth of tuition.
I don’t claim to have all the answers, but now that I have been through this ordeal, I can tell you what I have learned.
According to self-help books, mistakes are opportunities to learn and grow; but in the college process mistakes will cost you, and these costs are colossally higher than they were in 1986. Below are some mistakes I avoided, and a few that I ran into head first.
Rule #1: When it comes to test prep, timing is of the essence.
Is your child an A student? Well, mine was not. Overall, he was a solid B student: weak in English and History, strong in Math and Science. So I knew that test prep was in our future. Luckily, I am a teacher, and I know wonderful people that I could consult.
Probably the most important decision is between the ACT or the SAT. The clock is ticking my friends – you must choose and you must choose wisely. Prepping for both tests at the same time, and choosing between them is a waste of your child’s time and nerves. Choose the test that works to your child’s strengths, and choose early. It was clear from the start that the ACT was the right test from my son, and once he chose it, we never looked back.
If you know that your child does not do well on standardized tests, you must start prepping on the early side, but not too early. Burnout is real. My son began with a baseline test the summer before junior year. I used a company called Bespoke, which offers a mock-testing service using previously administered tests. Do NOT sign up for the real test – your child will probably not be happy with the score, and you do not want it recorded officially. We got the baseline in August before he started junior year. I was prepared for his Verbal scores to be weak (although maybe not nearly that low), and for the Math to be close to acceptable – and the baseline confirmed it. I immediately hired a tutor who specialized in the ACT Verbal. The tutor was expensive, but I was prepared to pay the big (but not obscene) bucks to make a difference. However, for the Math I just got a graduate student from a local university to give him a little push for $20 an hour.
A word about tutors: it is more important that the tutor click with your child than have an Ivy League pedigree. And sure enough, my son clicked with both of these tutors. Although he was a bit grumpy when I began scheduling these sessions, I was thrilled to see him come home in a good mood from having worked one-on-one with smart people who cared. The Verbal tutor not only helped him understand the exam (he gained 10 points in English), but more importantly taught him to be a stronger writer, which is so essential to making the jump from high school to college work. I am forever grateful to her for patching up the gaps in his education. As for the graduate student, he was an amazing role model – particularly for my son, who had been educated mainly among female teachers. He genuinely cared about my son, helped him improve his score and cheered him on.
And now a caveat to those of you with A students – not that I wish you anything but the best. But I want to warn you about one other thing that has changed since 1986, and that thing is grade inflation. I am a teacher, so you are getting the inside scoop. Rubrics, class participation points, extra credit, and group presentations all allow students to get inflated grades. If your child has a low A, I would just assume it is a 1980’s B and take the necessary precautions. Better to know in advance that they will need prepping than be caught by surprise. Like I said before: timing is everything.
Extra Time: the great divide between the rich and poor
This was a hard one for both my son and me. My son felt it was a stigma. As for me, I have been conflicted. To some degree, I always felt that my son’s processing problems stemmed more from a society where video games were glamorized and books were not. Believe me, we had epic battles over gaming, and I know that the hours he spent gaming rather than reading took a toll.
On the other hand, as a teacher, I saw how the wealthy got every advantage for their children – anxiety, processing problems, ADD, ADHD, basically whatever they could get a shrink to sign off on would get their child extra time. I also became astounded as more and more of my A students were given accommodations. My advice – if you think your child would profit from more time, and if you can afford the testing – do it and do it as early as you can. You have no idea how many kids are getting accommodations. Why not yours?
Rule #2: Never assume your kid knows their way around a college website.
I assumed my brooding son could not wait to get away from me, run away to college and be a computer science major. So, when I enthusiastically tried to get him to research colleges, I was astounded at how little research actually got done. After questioning him a bit, I realized that it was not laziness but an inability to adequately navigate a website. Let me repeat that – a future CS major who codes in three languages could not find the information he needed on a website. Most teenagers will click once on a website, and if they do not find the information they need will easily give up. I had to show him where to click to find the CS department, what classes were required for the major, where to find the class catalog, and what test scores were needed to qualify as a candidate. Do not assume that your child knows how to compare colleges or even what they should be looking for. Also, do not assume your over-worked school counselor has the time to help your child create an adequate list either. If you do not guide them, there will not be a coherent list of reaches, targets, and safeties.
Rule #3: College visits make it come alive.
Yes. Colleges like when you visit them – make sure you sign that guest list! It shows you are serious and they really do check. But these visits also help adolescents envision themselves there – especially one like my son who seemed to have no enthusiasm for the process, as well as a nagging suspicion that it would be just another annoying four years like high school. These visits also had a strange magic to them, and really helped hone his list. For example, my son visited both Boston University and Northeastern – which many people see as interchangeable on a college list. Yet he detested BU and loved Northeastern. Sometimes they have a visceral reaction to a place, and you must trust their instincts. No offense BU – it’s not you. It’s my son. Ok?
Rule #4: Kicking their butt to think about college is fine, but sometimes they want a mom.
I have to admit: my son’s passivity drove me insane. In fact, at one point he told me he was going to pick a college according to which one had the coolest mascot – just to taunt me. I pushed and pushed and talked about nothing else, and it started to drive a wedge between us. So, no matter how crazy it gets, don’t forget to be their mom and ask about other things – even something as plebian as their favorite tv shows. It makes them feel loved, and tells them that they are more to you than a college candidate.
Rule #5: It is ok if they do not get their dream school. Really! It will be ok.
Looking back at my 17-year-old self and her college process (if you could call it a process), it seemed so easy. Yes, I got into a great school. But I’ll be honest with you: today my alma mater is considered a near-Ivy, but back in the ‘80s it was not prestigious at all. In fact, my 17-year old self would probably not be admitted according to today’s criteria, and even if I were lucky enough to get in, I would not have gotten a scholarship. If I were admitted to that particular institution of higher learning today, my middle-class family would go bankrupt paying full boat – even adjusted for inflation.
Should I feel sorry for my child that his process is so much more competitive? It is what it is. But this stressful, complicated process has also allowed me to watch my young son turn into a man. Mainly because the process is made up of teachable moments constructed for the long game – not for the test next week, but for the next four years. I had to force him to think about his future, be willing to work for it, and understand the financial implications that go hand-in-hand with his decisions.
During one college visit, I witnessed this abrupt growth in maturity very acutely. After the Computer Science department gave their spiel, I suddenly saw him shake off the yoke of passivity and take the initiative. Without saying a word, he walked over to a professor, shook his hand and asked pointed questions about the program. From my vantage point on the other side of the room, I could see the professor smiling at him while my son spoke earnestly – he actually seemed charmed by my morose son! My eyes welled up with tears – big sloppy tears. What a change from the rising junior who initially pouted about ACT prep.
Now he will be attending this very same university where I watched him morph from a duckling to a swan. However, it was far from his first choice. In fact, he was terribly disappointed to be denied by his reach school – a reach school that ten years ago he could have easily qualified for. But of all his acceptances, this private university offered him the best scholarship – in fact, it would be cheaper than going to a prestigious public university from out of state. Although I would have done anything to make my son’s dream school a reality, I had to stop and count my blessings. We were paying half the full tuition, my son would get small classes and close relationships with his professors, and the school is very much an up-and-comer (just like my alma mater was all those years ago). In fact, when I think about that swan-like moment with the CS professor, I realize just what an excellent omen it was. Next thing you know, we bought him the school’s t-shirt and little by little he started to envision himself there. So, despite this nerve wracking process, sometimes it just all works out in the end.
And chances are it’ll work out just fine for you too.