May Action Plan – By Grade

With AP exams, the SAT/ACT prep, and finals coming up, May is a busy month so the action plan is light. Juniors should be gearing up for essays in addition to finishing up testing!

Juniors:

  • Consider this process as you would a class from here on out! You’ll need to carve out time for it every week.  Starting early means you can be flexible—but this won’t be the case later this summer and once school starts.
  • Have you pinpointed two teachers to ask for letters of recommendation? Now is an excellent time to decide who to ask.
  • Some colleges have opened up their on-campus interviews. You should always prepare for interviews, even if a school states they are not evaluative. And optional should not be considered optional!
  • Open a Common App account. Accounts rollover year-to-year, so there’s no better time than now to open an account and familiarize yourself with the system.

Sophomores & Freshmen:

  • Firm up summer plans and a tutoring schedule if you plan to start prep for the SAT, ACT or Subject Tests.
  • Work on your resume!

Recommendation of the Month:

Someone recently reminded me of the power of Ted Talks. I was sent this list a while back. I can’t recommend highly enough taking some time to do a quick search on TED for talks in your areas of interests. They are fascinating, and, great fodder for essays.

 

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How to Really Get to Know the Colleges on Your List

Over the years, I have found that students who take “extra steps” consistently get into their top schools…and many more.

The students we work with who engage in extended research and outreach do extremely well in the college admissions process. Maybe it is because they know the schools they are applying to in ways other students do not; maybe it is because knowing schools well helps them craft smaller, more targeted college lists; or maybe it helps that they have gone above and beyond to get to know a school and see if that school is the best fit for them and vice versa.

Since I am no longer working in admissions, I can’t say for sure. But I can say with confidence that engaging in extended research and outreach can make a substantial difference, both in your applications and outcomes. It also has one other major benefit: it means you can walk away from this process knowing you did everything you could, you pulled out all of the stops, you did not rush the process. And when you walk away feeling proud of the process, in our experience, it makes it easier to accept the outcome, whatever it may be.

Consider the following for the schools on your list. Why? Because all of the above, and, many colleges use demonstrated interest as a factor in their admissions process. When two files are side-by-side, the applicant that has the most touch points with the school will likely be deemed more interested, and that might give them an advantage during file evaluation.

Ways to engage in extended research and outreach (aka network with colleges and get to know them really well):

– Don’t forget your regional reps! They usually read your file, so keep them in the loop throughout your admissions process, from the time you visit through while you are waiting for your decision. Send them an update after campus visits, or to say “nice to meet you” after those visits or college fairs. Keep them posted on new accomplishments or awards after you submit your application. They should be your go-to person in admissions throughput the application process.

– When you receive email from colleges, open it and click through. Many schools track whether you open their emails or not and if you click through. Open them!

– Reach out to faculty in your department of interest. Faculty members are busy and so not always the most accessible, but it can’t hurt to try. Your #1 reason for applying to any school should be academics. Reaching out to individuals in your intended major is a great way to learn more about what your academic life at school X might entail. You might also want to try reaching out to a specific research center or institute of interest. If you email faculty, copy their department or program coordinator. The emails of the individuals in these roles are often available online. If you are planning a trip to campus and it is a bit short notice, reaching out to the department or program coordinator will be your best bet for an on-campus meeting. Again, these interactions and the information gained from them could be helpful when it comes time to write your essays or interest letters (see below) and will certainly serve you well as a talking point in an interview. A quick email sample (but please, make it your own!):

Dear [name],

My name is [enter name] and I’m a [year] at [high school full name]. I will be visiting [college] on [date] and I want to learn more about the [enter program or major name] while on my visit. Would it be possible to meet with you or someone else within the department (or even a current student) while I am on campus that day? If not, anyone you can connect me with via email would be excellent.

Thank you so much,

[name]
[phone #]

*Don’t forget to send thank you emails to everyone that you speak with—even if by email only.

– Make peer and local connections. Do you have friends at the schools on your list? Talk to them about their experiences, meet up with them on your visit to campus (if possible), and use them as a resource to get to know more about the school (especially about aspects you can’t glean from the website or official tours).

You can also check (via an easy Google search) to see if the college/university has a local alumni group; if so, reach out to them and ask to be connected with someone for an informal informational interview—a great option if you do not know anyone at the school that is a current student. Use this meeting as an opportunity to learn more about the school, and to demonstrate your interest in attending. Some regional groups host events and attending one that interests you (for example, a talk by a professor), if you can get an invitation, could be a great learning experience—and an excellent addition to a supplemental essay or interest letter.

– Write an interest letter (email) after you apply. This letter should contain information you were not able to present in the required application materials (resume, essay, etc.). It is a beneficial way to show a school a little extra love and reiterate your interest. Citing the contacts you established above (if you haven’t already discussed them at length in previous materials), can work well in these letters. An interest letter should be sent after you apply, and can also include any relevant updates since the time you applied, such as awards, etc. Many schools allow you to upload additional information on your “portal page” after you apply, so this letter could be uploaded there; if not, you can email it to your regional rep and CC the general admissions email. Please note: some schools explicitly state they do not welcome additional materials. Do not send interest letters to these schools.

– Take advantage of virtual tours and local college fairs/college nights. Not everyone can get to campus, and even if you can, school’s virtual tours sometimes offer perspectives in-person tours do not. You can also tour colleges from the perspective of actual students by taking tours via CampusReel.org. If a school is attending a fair near you, and you know you won’t be able to get to campus in person, go meet your rep at the fair/college night.

 

 

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Starting the Common Application

You can now roll over your Common App account from year-to-year, so there’s no better time than now to open an account, get familiar with the system, and get some of your app work completed.

Create Your Account

There is no preparation required for this step, so you can create your account as early as you’d like. All you’ll need is some basic profile information—like your name, date of birth, address and phone number. And of course, you’ll need to provide a valid email address.

 Note: Your email address will become your username and the Common App’s primary method of sending you updates and reminders, so make sure that you provide an email address that you check on a regular basis (every day).

Gather Your General Application Information

While every school has a different list of college-specific requirements, the general application information (for the Common App) will remain constant for all schools on your list.

You’ll be asked to list your activities, entrance exam scores and exam dates, parent or legal guardian and sibling information, and for some schools your high school grades and courses. Get a head start and save yourself time by collecting this information before you fill out the application.

Specific Requirements

Just like every student is unique, so is every school. We know it sounds cliché, but it’s true. No two schools will have the exact same requirements—so work to understand these requirements early on.

How? The first thing you need to do is read the Application Instructions on each school’s website. Please take the time to read the application instructions in their entirety. On the Common App, you can also check out the Requirements Grid and download the Requirements Tracker worksheet.

Add Schools to Your Dashboard

The Common App presents you with the opportunity to search from more than 700 schools (private, public, large and small), find the ones that meet your needs, and then add them to your My Colleges list—a convenient place to track the work ahead of you.

Once you log in, simply click on the College Search tab to find schools based on their name, location, deadline, or distance from your home.

Note: If you add schools to your Dashboard before the Common App refreshes for the 2019-2020 application year, any data you fill out on the school-specific pages can and most likely will be erased. If you add schools to your Dashboard after the refresh takes place, your information will be saved for the duration of the 2019-2020 application season.

 

For Common App support, join our FB page, Conquer the Common App. Check out the files section to see what an app looks like filled out. Pay special attention to how you can maximize the impact of your Activities section—a section that many students don’t take too seriously!

 

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I might be a helicopter parent if…

  • I start a conversation with, “I am not one of those helicopter parents, but…”
  • I read my child’s emails and respond to them.
  • I fill out the visit form for my kid in the admission office lobby.
  • I unintentionally enter my email when I fill out my child’s application.
  • my question during the information session begins with, “My son would like to know if…”
  • my child is only considering universities at least 2000 miles away from me.
  • my child’s Common Application lists his birthdate as 10/21/1972.
  • I would like to see the residence hall I will be staying in.
  • I rub every statue on a college campus for “good luck,” even if it’s not a tradition to do so.
  • I have been banned from contributing to College Confidential.
  • I buy a sticker from every college tour “just in case!”
  • I consider changing my child’s name to something that sounds like the college’s founder.
  • I call colleges when my student is in sixth grade to ask advice on course schedules and extracurriculars.
  • I have accidentally signed my child’s name on a document at work because it’s become a habit.
  • I have any admission office’s phone number saved in my contacts.
  • I text my child a talking point during their interview.
  • I post on Facebook, “We submitted our college applications!”
  • my child’s college essay sounds like it was written by a 45-year-old.
  • I call the admission office pretending to be my child and get their login information for the portal to find out “my” decision.
  • I create a “more important title” for a volunteer group my daughter is on so it sounds better for college applications.
  • I hand out my business cards at the college fair on behalf of my son because he is too busy and couldn’t attend.
  • I am more concerned than my child is about that “dreaded” B-.
  • I hand-write thank you notes to admission officers in obvious dad language and sign it from my son even though no 17-year-old boy writes like that.
  • I ask for advance notice of the admission decisions to “mentally prepare” my child.
  • the phrase, “This is their decision!” is immediately followed by, “But I think they really want…”
  • my child receives an admission decision from a college he didn’t know he applied to.
  • the college counselor recognizes my number…on their cell phone…on Christmas morning.
  • colleges mistakenly address all mailing flyers to me, and not my child.
  • every sentence my child says in college counseling meetings starts with “well, my dad wants me to…”
  • I spend more time on Google Docs working on my child’s college essay than my child does.
  • I have an excel file listing all the people who might write recommendations on my child’s behalf.
  • I’ve directed my child into the extracurricular activities most preferred by elite colleges since they could walk.
  • I show up uninvited to meetings my student has scheduled with their college counselor.
  • I don’t allow my student to take any ownership of their college process.
  • I ask more questions on a campus tour than my student.
  • I compare college lists/decisions at cocktail parties with other parents.
  • I buy a college sweatshirt in my size.

Did you find yourself feeling a little uneasy as you read this list? Did some of these warning signs hit a bit too close to home?

Okay, so some of these are just for fun, but many aren’t a joke. Head to Forbes to read Brennan Barnard’s full article. In it, he provides some thoughtful commentary as well as an amazing reading list, which includes one of my favorites:

Give his article and Lythcott-Haim’s book a read if you have not already!

 

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Class of 2023 Waitlist Notification Dates and Stats

Admit rates and notification dates for the Class of 2019 (2023 if you are thinking college graduation year) are up on College Kickstart.

The landscape doesn’t look much different than last year, or the year before, or the year before. How the waitlist plays out depends a lot on yield. Yield in college admissions is the percent of students who choose to enroll in a particular college or university after having been offered admission. Some schools do a much better job of predicting yield than others. These schools have a high yield, and will not go very deep if onto the waitlist at all. The schools that have not done as good a job predicting yield will head to the waitlist to fill seats as needed.

Unfortunately, students can “hang” on the waitlist well into the summer, which drags out a process that for most should be finished on or around May 1. For all the waitlisted students out there, we feel your pain, but there are some things you can do to keep yourself busy. Check out our post on what to do if you are waitlisted. And give this one a read, too.

 

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The Right Way To Choose a College

Dr. Pope is a co-founder of Challenge Success and a senior lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. She is the author of “Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic and Miseducated Students.” This essay is adapted from “A ‘Fit’ Over Rankings: Why College Engagement Matters More than Selectivity,” a report published by Challenge Success in October.

Please read her important article!

Does the brand name of the college you attend actually matter? The best research on the question suggests that, for most students, it doesn’t.

Challenge Success, the research and advocacy group that I co-founded at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, conducted an extensive review of the academic literature on the subject. We found that a school’s selectivity (as typically measured by students’ SAT or ACT scores, high school GPA and class rank, and the school’s acceptance rate) is not a reliable predictor of outcomes, particularly when it comes to learning. As common sense would suggest, the students who study hard at college are the ones that end up learning the most, regardless of whether they attend an Ivy League school or a local community college. Similarly, the 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index, a study of over 30,000 graduates, found no correlation between college selectivity and future job satisfaction or well-being. The study showed that graduates were just as likely to score high (or low) on a scale measuring their “thriving” whether they attended community colleges, regional colleges or highly selective private and public universities.

Research does suggest that there is a modest financial gain from attending a highly selective school if students are the first in their families to attend college or come from underserved communities. But the difference in financial outcomes between the low-earning and high-earning graduates of top-ranked schools is greater than the difference between students from such highly selective schools and graduates of non-selective schools, including community colleges. As Greg Ip noted in The Wall Street Journal earlier this week, “The fact that smart, ambitious children who attend elite colleges also do well in life doesn’t mean the first caused the second.”

A study of over 30,000 graduates found no correlation between college selectivity and future job satisfaction or well-being. Would such findings have mattered to the parents involved in the college admissions scandal that has unfolded over the past two weeks? Probably not. In a society that is hyperfocused on achievement, credentials and status, it isn’t surprising that some parents are willing to sacrifice just about anything, including their integrity, to get their child into a top-ranked school. Unfortunately, many high school students also have a “cheat or be cheated” mentality when it comes to getting the grades and test scores that they believe they need for future success. More than 80% of students at high-achieving schools cheat in one way or another, according to surveys of over 145,000 students conducted in recent years by Challenge Success.

Today’s admissions scandal should serve as a wake-up call. As a society, we need to reexamine the purpose of college and the underlying issues that lead families to be so obsessed with status or brand that they jeopardize their own children’s healthy development and well-being. In surveys conducted by my group, three-quarters of high school juniors and seniors list planning for college as a top source of stress or worry in their life, well above relationships and family issues. More and more students are reporting severe sleep deprivation, anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide as they struggle to meet the unrealistically high expectations foisted upon them. The ultimate irony is that, even when these students do end up in selective colleges, many of them continue to struggle with mental and physical health issues, and often lack the independence, resilience and sense of purpose they need to graduate and enter the workforce.

What would a better approach look like? If the name of the school they attend doesn’t make a difference for most students in the long run, what does? It turns out that what students do at college seems to matter much more than where they go. The students who benefit most from college, including first-generation and traditionally underserved students, are those who are most engaged in academic life and their campus communities, taking full advantage of the college’s opportunities and resources. Numerous studies attest to the benefits of engaged learning, including better course grades and higher levels of subject-matter competence, curiosity and initiative.

Studies conducted in recent years by Gallup-Purdue also show a strong connection between certain forms of engagement in college and future job satisfaction and well-being. In particular, they found six key college experiences that correlated with how fulfilled employees feel at work and whether they thrive in life after college:

  • Taking a course with a professor who makes learning exciting
  • Working with professors who care about students personally
  • Finding a mentor who encourages students to pursue personal goals
  • Working on a project across several semesters
  • Participating in an internship that applies classroom learning
  • Being active in extracurricular activities

And yet, as important as these various forms of engagement seem to be, relatively few college graduates say that they experienced them. While more than 60% of graduates strongly agreed that at least one professor made them excited about learning, only 27% strongly felt that they were supported by professors who cared about them, and only 22% said the same about having a specific mentor who encouraged their goals and dreams. Just under a third strongly agreed that they had a meaningful internship or job or worked on a long-term project, while just a fifth were actively involved in extracurricular activities.

Given the research on what matters in college, the best advice for choosing the right one would seem to be finding a place where the student will be engaged, in class and out, by all that the college has to offer. The good news is that engaging experiences of this sort can happen at a wide variety of colleges, regardless of selectivity, size or location. And with over 4,500 accredited degree-granting colleges in the United States, students have plenty of options from which to choose.

Evaluate Colleges by their attributes
Parents can play an important role in the college search process, but they should always let the student—the one who will actually attend the school—lead the way. Here are some practical tips and conversation starters for students as they navigate the college admissions process.

Keep the ultimate purpose of college in mind.

The college years are short relative to the rest of your life. How do you want to spend your time while you are there? Are you hoping to learn new skills in a particular area? Meet role models, mentors and new friends? Be exposed to ideas, people and places you otherwise would not have access to? What kind of “return” do you want on your investment, in terms not only of future finances and career options but also of personal growth and future well-being and satisfaction?

It turns out that what students do at college seems to matter much more than where they go. For some students, the desired return on investment may be strictly monetary. If that is the case, you may want to consider preprofessional schools such as maritime academies, pharmaceutical schools or other schools with specialized business and entrepreneurship programs. These colleges rank highest in lists that measure value added to expected income, and many of them accept all or nearly all of their applicants. If your goal in attending college is simply to maximize your income, attending one of these less expensive programs at a lesser-known school may be worth considering.

Ask the right questions.

What are you most excited about learning, doing and experiencing in college? Consider academic factors such as access to cutting-edge researchers, ways to apply your learning through long-term projects or opportunities to be involved in graduate-level work, and which subject areas interest you most. Make sure that the offerings and core requirements at the colleges you are considering match these interests. What types of places or settings do you imagine you will most and least enjoy? Consider both location and geography. Do you want to be close to home or far away? Do you want to be in a big city or rural area? Do you want to experience cold weather or a sunny locale? How about a big campus or small? Dorm life or off-campus housing? What interests outside of class do you want to cultivate? Since students seem to thrive when they are more involved in campus activities, consider the range of activities offered at the college and where you see yourself fitting in, whether it is sports, arts, service activities, student leadership opportunities or the myriad clubs offered on most campuses.

Are there specific resources, supports or types of classes that would help you to be fully engaged? Check out mental health services, the support system for students with learning differences and community supports for first-generation students and students of color. What kind of advising and career counseling systems are offered? And don’t forget to look closely at financial aid and other scholarship opportunities.

Who do you want to hang out with and get to know? What social scene do you want? An active Greek system? A rah-rah sports scene? A mellow coffeehouse vibe? International students and study-abroad programs? Students who share your religious affiliation or values?

Do your research.

The internet can be your friend as you peruse different college websites, take virtual tours or visit nearby campuses to learn about the type of school you want. Look for schools that match the answers to the questions above. Sit in on a class or two if you can. Talk to current students or recent alumni. Don’t necessarily base your decision on your parents’ experiences or misconceptions, especially because colleges change and evolve over the years.

Enter college with an engagement mindset.

This is critical. Consider how you might make the most out of your time in college by investing in relationships, trying new things, studying hard, reaching out to adults and peers, building empathy and taking appropriate risks. Be sure you know how to balance a checkbook, do your own laundry and handle the inevitable setbacks and stresses that will occur.

Is an Elite College Worth It? Maybe Not

Challenge Success works with K-12 schools across the country to increase student well-being and engagement with learning. Our survey results show that almost half of students are just “doing school,” that is, playing the game in order to get ahead. That’s no way to prepare for a satisfying life of learning and work.

The message that we try to impart is clear: Parents and students must work on a different attitude toward the classroom long before they start thinking about which college to attend. It’s never too early to foster the skills needed for a healthy and meaningful college experience.

After a talk I recently gave in New York, a father approached me to say that, a year earlier, his daughter was choosing between an Ivy League school and a well-known regional college that was ranked much lower. He took her to visit both schools, and on the way home from the Ivy, she told him that she was going to turn it down. She liked the people and programs at the other school and thought she would be happier there.

He was furious, he told me, and didn’t speak to her during the entire ride home and most of the following week. Who turns down the Ivy League? “But boy was I wrong,” he said. “She is now a freshman at [the regional school] and has never been happier. I thought I knew what was best for her, but she was the smart one who knew where she would thrive.”

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April Action Plan – By Grade

Juniors:

  • If you are still planning to apply to a summer program and have not completed the application, please work on it now. Programs will fill up, so don’t wait to submit apps at the deadline.
  • Many colleges don’t proactively ask for online resources yet, but with a rise in the use of platforms like ZeeMee in college admissions, you may have an interest in creating a digital portfolio (LinkedIn, SoundCloud, personal website, and/or blog). You’ll also want a LinkedIn account up and running when you start college, so now is a good time to get it started.
  • Now is also a good time to do a social media audit. Connecting with colleges on social is a way to demonstrate interest, but only if your profile is squeaky clean. Before you tweet to any of your top schools or like them on FB, follow them on Instagram, etc., review all of your accounts.
  • If you plan to visit schools and interview, prepare. You should always prepare for interviews, even if a school states they are not evaluative.
  • Continue to prepare for standardized tests and think ahead to AP exams.
  • Update your resume.
Sophomores:
  • Have you thought about what major(s) you will mark on your application? You can only have a clearly defined “story” for your college apps once you know what major(s) you will be marking on them. This is a critical part of the process that should begin to think about now. Even if you don’t know an exact major right now, you should be able to articulate what excites you academically and be pursuing those interests through your coursework and outside of it via clubs and other activities. As you approach 11th grade (and through it), you want to begin to narrow your academic interests and hone in on one or two viable options for your apps.
    • Please note: marking undecided is always an option. However, you still need to talk about specific possible majors if undecided is what you choose. When you look at your resume, does a theme jump out at you?
  • Keeping working hard in your classes. Your academic transcript is the most important part of your college application. If you have room for improvement, colleges want to see you improve (upward trend!)!
  • Make a firm plan for preparing for standardized tests and think ahead to AP exams.
  • Also, firm up your summer plans. You should be doing something this summer, and, hopefully, something that helps you explore your academic interests.
  • Continue working on your resume.

Freshmen:

  • Keeping working hard in your classes. Your academic transcript is the most important part of your college application. If you have room for improvement, colleges want to see you improve (upward trend!).
  • Firm up your summer plans. You should be doing something this summer, and, hopefully, something that helps you explore your academic interests.
  • Think ahead to preparing for AP exams or subject tets if you plan to take them.
  • Continue working on your resume.

 

 

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Course Rigor is Not a Number

Repost from Dean J at UVA, one of the best straight-from-the-admissions-office blogs out there. I’ve always said, aim for all the cores all four years—English, Math, Science, Social Science, and World Language. She agrees! It can be tempting to want to drop language senior year to double up on science if that is your intended major in interest. I think in some cases it is fine, but that might not be a good option in the eyes of all admissions officers. Read her post below (and here):

I often mention the cyclical nature of admission work. There are certain phases that happen every year and certain issues that come up when we talk to families. I want to address the questions we get about rigor in the high school curriculum.

1. All of your core classes are important.

A lot of people focus on the core areas that correspond to their current academic interest. I’ve even had parents wave off certain subjects because their student isn’t interested in them or they don’t come “naturally” to them. I wish they’d stop this. High school is the time to get a broad foundation in several areas and college is the time to specialize. We are most concerned with a student’s work in four core areas (in alpha order, not order of importance): English, Math, Science, Social Science, and World Language.
At UVA, students don’t even declare a major until the end of the second year in the College of Arts and Sciences or the end of the first year in Engineering and Architecture. The Nursing and Kinesiology students are the only ones admitted directly into a program.

2. The number of APs doesn’t drive a decision.

Plenty of people want to know how many AP courses a student should take to be competitive in our process. We don’t approach applications this way. First of all, not everyone goes to a school with APs as an option. Second, some schools limit how many AP courses a student may take. Third, with the number of AP courses offered these days, you can rack up a lot of APs in just one subject. There could be students with big AP numbers who also haven’t take an advanced course in other core areas.

3. Doubling up in one subject at the expense of the core doesn’t “look good.”

There are some students who are so excited about a certain subject that they want to double or even triple up on courses in that area. I don’t think it’s smart to drop core subjects to load up classes in one area. Cover the core and use your electives to explore your interests.
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For Families: Ethical Parenting in the College Admissions Process

Parents and other primary caregivers shape their children’s moral development in myriad ways. They also often influence every phase of the college preparation, search, and admissions process.

In the following seven guideposts, Making Caring Common explores specifically how parents can guide their teens ethically, reduce excessive achievement pressure, and promote key ethical, social, and emotional capacities in teens in the college admissions process.

1. Keep the focus on your teen

Why? The college admissions process, a key rite of passage in adolescence, can be a wonderful opportunity for parents to get to know their teen in a deeper way—to understand what they are drawn to, hope for, fret about, and value in others and themselves. It is also a vital opportunity for parents to express and model the empathy in their relationship with their teen that supports their teen’s authenticity and is so crucial for teens to develop in their relationships.

Yet our hopes, anxieties, and needs in this process can cause us to misunderstand or subordinate our teen’s needs. We may, for example, tacitly pressure our teen to attend a college to live out our dreams, compensate for our shortcomings, or reproduce our own college experience. When parents compete with other parents or view their teen’s college choice as a public marker of their success as parents, they can both sideline their teens’ needs and flood their teen with fears of shaming them if their college options don’t broadcast success. “The most helpful change that parents and colleges could make in the admissions process,” a high school student told interviewers at the Education Conservancy, is to send the message that “you’re a perfectly good person—maybe even a better person—if you don’t go to one of the top ten colleges.”

During the college admissions process, parents also face their teen’s impending separation from them. The admissions process is often a rite of passage for teens and for parents, a time when parents’ role and center of gravity shifts in ways that can shake loose feelings that can undermine parents’ ability to act in their teens’ best interests. Some parents may cling to their teens more tightly than they should, anxiously asserting what remains of their control of their teens’ life and hampering their teens’ ability to think independently—the infamous “helicopter,” “bulldozer,” or “lawnmower” parents. Other parents, eager for their teen to move on, may prematurely back away.

How? It’s important for parents to undertake the often subtle, difficult work of disentangling their wishes from their teen’s wishes. Because we all have our blind spots, parents can often benefit a great deal from talking to those they respect and trust about the places where their own and their child’s views about colleges conflict, and about how to handle these conflicts.

Parents, too, can be alert to moments when they may be conflating their interests with their teen’s. It should be a red flag for us as parents if we find ourselves peppering admissions staff on college tours while our teen stands idly by, constantly assessing what our teen’s course and activity choices mean for their college applications, find ourselves consumed with poring over commercial college rankings, or feel our self-esteem plummet if a child is rejected at a particular college.

At the outset of the process, parents might ask their teen questions that enable them to better engage in the complex choreography of following and guiding their teen. In the whipped-up, frenzied atmosphere of the college admissions process, parents often need to pause and listen. We might ask our teens whether they feel stress in this process and what is causing it. We might ask whether the process is causing them to compromise their values or making them feel less like themselves, and we might invite feedback on our role: “What role would you like me to play in this process?” “Will you tell me if I’m involved in ways that are making this process harder for you?”

2. Follow your ethical GPS

Why? The college admissions process often tests both parents’ and teens’ ethical character. A small fraction of parents engage in outright unethical practices to give their children advantages: getting psychiatrists to falsely diagnose their teen as having learning differences so their child is granted more time on standardized tests, threatening to sue guidance counselors who write poor recommendations, buying college essays online, or writing anonymous letters to admissions offices that seek to sabotage the admissions chances of other students at their teen’s school. Far more commonly, parents may slip into more subtle forms of dishonesty—allowing their own thinking or voice to intrude in college essays, for example, or looking the other way when hired tutors are over-involved in applications, a trend that appears to be growing (Jaschik, 2017). There’s good reason to believe that many teens lie or at least exaggerate on their college applications, and parents may also either condone or half-consciously overlook these violations. According to several studies, a whopping 80 – 95% of high school students report some form of cheating in the last year, and many of these students view cheating as trivial or don’t see it as a problem at all (Challenge Success, 2012; O’Rourke,  Barnes, Deaton, Fulks, Ryan & Rettinger, 2010; Wangaard & Stephens, 2011). In a survey by the Josephson Institute of Ethics (2012), 57% of high-schoolers agreed that, “in the real world, successful people do what they have to do to win, even if others consider it cheating.” Some parents also give their children advantages without any consideration of equity or fairness in the college admissions process, such as paying private college counselors $40,000 a year (Berfield & Tergesen, 2007)—practices that also constantly fuel other parents’ anxiety that they are short-changing their own child. Some parents discourage their teen from sharing information and resources with their peers, fearing that their teens might end up competing with those peers for the same colleges.

There are many compelling reasons why parents shouldn’t let adults’ thinking and voices seep into college applications or allow teens to misrepresent themselves in other ways. Allowing these misrepresentations sends the message that ethical standards can be ignored if they’re inconvenient and that success doesn’t need to be earned. Adolescence is also a time when teens are both developing strong moral convictions and high ideals and are prone to deep cynicism. They can be razor-sharp alert to hypocrisy and often long for adults who are North Stars, who they can deeply respect and trust (Coles, 1986; Erikson,1968). When parents allow teens to misrepresent themselves, and especially when parents actively participate in that misrepresentation, they can stoke that cynicism and erode that trust. “I know kids,” says Denise Pope from Challenge Success at Stanford University, “who are absolutely mortified when their parents cheat the system. They’re embarrassed and ashamed” (Miller, 2013). Letting teens misrepresent themselves can also send the message to teens that there is something wrong with them: Why else, teens might ask themselves, would my parents write my essay or allow me to misrepresent myself? (Miller, 2013). Misrepresentations can be self-defeating in another sense: They can land teens in the wrong college. When parents or teens try to justify misrepresentations by claiming that “everyone is doing it” or “the system is corrupt,” they also create a very slippery ethical slope that can simply reinforce teens’ conformist tendencies and deprive them of a key lesson in moral leadership— that morality often means going against the herd.

How? Rather than dismissing misrepresentations as trivial or finding ways to overlook them, we as parents ought to be willing to ask ourselves hard, fundamental questions about who we want to be and what we want to model for our children. We can consider whether getting into a particular college is really more important than compromising our teen’s or our own integrity. We can consider with our teens the exceptional cases when dishonesty is warranted in the service of a higher principle—when it means, for example, protecting someone’s life or advancing a vital cause—and discuss whether misrepresenting oneself to get into a college one prefers really qualifies as one of these cases. We can remind ourselves and talk to teens about why authenticity and honesty are critical—especially in this era of “fake news”—and about the necessity of acting in ways that we want to be precedents for others. Just as important, we can explore with teens why they might feel pressured to cheat or misrepresent themselves—do they fear disappointing or shaming themselves or us?—and think through with teens what role we might play in alleviating that pressure.

3.  Use the admissions process as an opportunity for ethical education

Why? Far too often, the college admissions process is eye-opening for young people in all the wrong ways. It’s a powerful introduction to the values of adult society, and many young people are morally troubled, sometimes deeply so, by what they experience. Many students across a wide range of communities are acutely aware that the deck is stacked, that there are vast differences in students’ access to counselors, tutors, and other admissions resources, and that college is simply unaffordable for staggering numbers of families. Many students bridle at the unfairness of favoring certain students in admissions, such as donor and legacy students, full pay students, and athletes. Many also struggle with how much they can embellish their applications and “play the game” without compromising their own authenticity and integrity.

How? It’s clearly critical to create greater equity and fairness in the college admissions system. Talking about these ethical concerns is not a substitute for that. But these types of ethical questions and concerns provide powerful opportunities for helping students take multiple perspectives and develop more mature ethical understandings. Parents can engage their teens in thinking about why well-intentioned people create and participate in unfair systems and to consider the crucial question of how one participates ethically in systems that one may view as unethical in significant respects. Is it ever ok to cheat in a system that one views as cheating you? Parents and teens might explore the many inequities in this process. Why do they exist? What might be done to remedy them? How can one effect change? They might analyze from various vantage points—including from the perspective of college admissions staff or financial aid officers—the case for and against favoring athletes and children of donors and legacies. Students might be asked to imagine an admissions process that they view as fair and high-integrity and to consider who and what needs to change for this system to exist. All of these conversations, of course, need to be guided by key ethical principles, for example, honesty and fairness are important to strive for in all our interactions and honesty should only be compromised when it is outweighed by other ethical considerations, such as protecting others or oneself from serious harm. Parents might also speak directly with students about the reality that there is in, in fact, a certain “game to be played” in this process, but discuss with students both how to play this game—presenting themselves in ways that are likely to be attractive to college admissions offices—while also presenting themselves authentically. It’s a difficult skill that they are likely to need in various settings throughout life.

4. Be authentic

Why? Many parents fail to have authentic, honest conversations with their teens during the college admissions process, diminishing their role as trusted guides and mentors and eroding their capacity to support their teen in expressing themselves authentically. We have talked to many young people in middle- and upper-class communities who report that their parents, for example, say that getting into a highly selective college doesn’t matter in one sentence but then badger them about grades or SAT prep in the next. One parent we spoke to told us without a hint of irony: “My husband doesn’t care whether our daughter goes to a high-status college. It’s fine with him if she goes to Swarthmore (a highly competitive and high-status school).” Other students report that their parents play down high-status colleges only because at some level their parents know that they live in a neighborhood and attend schools that will do the muscling for them. “My parents don’t have to say anything about how important it is [that I go to a high-status college] and I’m still going to feel a lot of pressure in my community to go to one of those places,” a 17-year-old from a town outside Boston says. “The only reason they can tell themselves they’re not pressuring me is that there’s already huge pressure on me.” Still other students view their parents as showing their hand when they protest too loudly about other parents’ intense focus on selective colleges. As one high school student wrote in U.S. News and World Report: “My mom delights in anecdotes about the ridiculous activities of ‘psycho moms,’ her name for mothers who are overly anxious about where their children will attend college. This is how she assures herself that she is not as crackers as these women” (Karlin, 2005). Some parents themselves are aware of their hypocrisy: “We tell our children one day that we just want them to go to a college where they’ll be happy,” a Boston parent tells us, “and the next day we tell them they should go to the best college they can get in to.”

How? As parents, many of us need to reckon with these conflicting feelings and talk to others both about these feelings and about how to discuss them authentically with our teen. We also can try to understand what’s “in the water,” scanning the many school and community factors that may be influencing our teen’s college considerations so that we can talk to our teens in ways that acknowledge these realities. In addition, we can simply ask our teen to alert us if they think we’re sending mixed messages.

Finally, many parents may underestimate what a relief it would be to their teen and the extent to which it would support their teen’s maturity and secure their respect if they stopped dodging and spoke honestly, including at times sharing their own irrational feelings. For example, while it’s important for parents to try to manage their disappointment when their teen is rejected at a college, if parents are visibly disappointed in the presence of their teen, it might help teens a great deal if parents explained why. A parent might explain that they always wanted to attend that college or that they were too caught up in the status of that college and that they recognize that these are their issues to work out.

 

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Transparency in College Admissions: Optional Components of the College Application

I am going to keep this one short and sweet since a number of the posts in my “college transparency” series have been quite long. If you want to maximize your chances of acceptance, don’t consider any optional components of a college application optional. Here are some common optional components:

  • Essays
  • Interviews
  • Videos submissions
  • Letter of recommendation (any or extras)

Option to write an optional essay? Write it.

Option to Interview? Sign up (then prepare for it…more on that here and here).

Option to create and send a video introduction, for example, like U Chicago and Bowdoin offer? Do it.

Option to send an extra letter of recommendation, or to send one at all if optional (many schools require zero LORs, so if you can submit one as an option….)? Request one and have it sent.

Why submit optional materials? Because by doing so you are going above and beyond what other applicants will do to demonstrate who they are as well as their commitment to being accepted to the school to which you are applying. You are giving yourself the opportunity to let the admissions committee get to know more about you. And because there is more of “you” for them to evaluate, assuming the you that you present is in a good light, you increase your odds of winning over the admissions committee.

Also, for many AdComs, not submitting optional materials looks lazy. If I have applicant A and applicant B on the table, and all things are equal but A submits extra materials and B does not, there is a higher likelihood I am going with A. I like to see the extra hustle, and colleges do, too.

 

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