As a parent, it’s easy to convince yourself that it has all led up to this – every parenting decision you have made to date has somehow molded your child to be ready to leave the nest and go to college. It’s all too tempting to think that where they go to college is not just a judgment on them, but also a reflection on you. Parents who have kids as young as kindergarteners attempt to picture the road for their children – a road that ends with college and a road that we as parents are responsible for paving. That’s a fairly big burden to carry.
So, no wonder that when one actually gets to be in sight of the college admissions process that we as parents place a lot of pressure on both ourselves and our child. It’s an inherently stressful journey due to its intrinsic uncertainty combined with the weighty importance we place on the outcome. Naturally, this stress is elevated when one goes through the process with your first child.
Having just finished this first journey, my wife, son, and I have learned a lot – some from the great advice we received from others, some from the mistakes we made, and some just serendipitously. A lot has changed since we went to college about 30 years ago, and we were surprised how much we didn’t know. We learned lessons both philosophical and practical, however the former were critical to actuate the latter.
I naturally recognize that every child is different, and everyone’s parenting style (and background and experience) is different, but hopefully many of these lessons will resonate for most. It’s important to note that if your child is a potential Division I athlete or an outstanding artist/musician/thespian, there are very specific elements to that journey that would differ significantly from ours.
THE NATURE OF COLLEGE ADMISSIONS
The first thing you notice as a parent is how every school seems much more competitive and selective than it was a generation ago. This isn’t a mirage – it’s fundamentally due to a change in supply and demand. Although the supply of college enrollment slots has only grown minimally over the last few decades (only a handful of new universities have launched, and there has been generally modest enrollment growth from existing schools), the demand has skyrocketed. This is largely the result of the overall growth in the U.S. population, the percentage of U.S. high school students applying to college, and the growth of international students attending U.S. colleges(1). In addition, the Internet and the Common Application specifically have made it easier to apply to many more schools (I applied to five colleges whereas my son applied to 12). Because of the Common App and the relatively ease to communicate with prospective students in this digital age, colleges are more aggressive than ever in marketing to students. This allows them to reach potential students on a much broader scale than ever before. By increasing the number of applicants, they effectively lower their acceptance rates and become more “selective.”
The inevitable result from all of these factors is a lower acceptance rate across the board. Comparing acceptance rates from just 10 years ago, one sees dramatic declines at most schools. Here are a few examples at historically very “selective” institutions – showing 2006 vs. 2016 (2):
- Stanford University (10% vs. 4.7%)
- University of Chicago (38% vs. 7%)
- University of Southern California (22% vs. 15%)
- Vanderbilt University (33% vs. 13%)
- Northwestern University (31% vs. 13%)
With a larger pool of students from which to draw and a lower acceptance rate, the requirements for admission get more rigid, including higher GPAs and standardized test scores. Also, as most schools report that a significantly higher number of students than those who get accepted would thrive at their institution, they are seemingly choosing between applicants who, on paper, may seem very similar. Ergo, from an applicant’s or parent’s point of view, there appears to be a lot of randomness in the system. Additionally, you quickly learn that some of the traditional “thumb on the scale” factors such as having an alumnus parent don’t hold the weight that they used to.
So, that’s the bad news. But there is good news as well. Because almost every school is more “selective” than it used to be, the caliber of the students has improved in all of these schools. Colleges that in the past may have been our “safety school” (or the one where our less accomplished high school peers attended) have suddenly become places that are both more selective with students who are quite accomplished.
There is an upside to all of this digital age marketing – students and parents can be exposed to many more schools that they might not have considered (or even heard of) in years past. Generally, more information is a good thing. Going through this process, one appreciates how many amazing schools are out there across the country (plus of course internationally if that can be considered). As a parent, you know a lot less than you think you did about hundreds of colleges. No doubt there are so many great schools (and some incredibly selective) that you probably never would have thought to consider based solely on your personal experience. The first lesson as a parent going through this process is recognizing what you don’t know.
Therefore, the biggest problem is not the uncertainty about getting into a great school but rather the awesome task of narrowing down the list of great schools.
NARROWING THE LIST
The biggest lesson that we learned is to first let go of the traditional construct of how we view schools – that every school is somehow on one long linear scale with the best at the top and some school no one has heard of at the bottom. The nature of the “product” of delivering a higher education is so complex and rich that it eschews attempts to measure it on a linear scale. Not that people haven’t tried. There are tons of college rankings – the most well known being from U.S. News and World Report. It’s naïve to think that parents won’t check these rankings, but it’s important to keep in mind that they are inherently both flawed and easily manipulated. For more detail on how these college rankings work and why they are so problematic, search for Frank Bruni’s articles in the New York Times. He lays out very thoughtful arguments that demonstrate the shortcoming of college rankings and presents evidence that our children’s success in life is more correlated to what they do with their college experience rather than the pedigree of institution that they attend.
With this frame of mind, we can change the conversation from what is the “best school that our child can get into” to what is the “best school for our child.” But if all things were equal, wouldn’t you want your child to go to the school with the best reputation (assuming you can even measure that)? Of course, but never are all things equal. It’s really about trying to divine the best fit for that student, which is enough of a challenge already. Your own biases or your long-held impression of a school’s “brand” could make it harder to find that best fit.
It’s also important to recognize that as little you know about colleges, your student knows even less. Sure, they’ve heard of Stanford, some of the Ivy League schools, and probably the big football schools around the country, but their lens through which they view colleges is mostly shaped by what you tell them. If you denigrate a school because it’s where your not-so-bright friend in high school went thirty years ago, they’ll never be able to view that place objectively. This is why in our children’s high school, they avoid the term “safety school.” There are schools where the student is “likely” to gain admission and schools that are “reaches,” but these are less loaded terms. So, it’s important to keep in mind that you have a ton of influence as to how your child will view a school and how excited they will or will not be at the prospect of attending it.
One of the hardest – and perhaps most counter-intuitive – lessons is to largely block out everybody else’s opinions of individual schools. Just as you recognize biases in yourself, recognize that everyone else has their own. The views of grandparents are likely out of date, out of context and not objective related to their grandchild who clearly could just waltz into any college they wish. Even friends – some of whom have gone through the college admissions process with their children – likely have strong biases based on either what was a good fit for their own child or something related to their own experience. Don’t ask anyone who went to UCLA what he thinks of USC, or anyone who went to the University of Michigan what she thinks of the University of Wisconsin. The main exception to this rule is that you absolutely gain valuable insights from current students (or their parents) at a particular school you’re researching.
Besides making some assumptions on certain characteristics of good fit schools (size, location, etc.), the target list is narrowed by learning where my child has some shot of getting accepted. Many high schools use a tool like Naviance as both a college application management system as well as a research tool. If schools keep the data, a student can compare his/her grades and SAT/ACT scores to students from their same school who in the past got accepted or rejected from any given college. Although Naviance is a great tool if used well, it can force a parent through the five stages of grief:
- Denial – “There’s no way you need this GPA to get into that school!”
- Anger – “The whole system is crazy!”
- Bargaining – “Well, maybe if my child can play sports, or maybe they’ll just interview really well, and they can get into that school.”
- Depression – “My child is never going to get into a great college”
- Acceptance – “I understand that there are so many more great schools out there than I had thought of, and my child will get accepted to one which is a great fit.”
It is important to keep in mind that even this kind of data leaves out many factors that are additionally important in predicting whether or not a student gets accepted into any college. This is where your counselor comes in to help guide the student to create a balanced list of schools – ones that are a “reach,” ones that are “likely”, and ones in the middle. However, we have found that there is “arbitrage” in the system – based on what high school your student attends, for any given college they may have a relative advantage or disadvantage versus the applicant pool at large. This can be based on the high school’s particular grading system and rigor (and how certain colleges view that) or it can be based on relationships built up between high school counselors and college admissions officers.
It would be very difficult (and near impossible for your child) to get a good sense of a school without visiting it. Clearly the need to travel (spending money and time) may limit how many schools you can visit, but I can easily say that this was the most fun part of the college search process (for me). It’s absolutely fascinating to see how schools sell themselves, what sparks your child’s interest, and learning what they really care about and what they don’t. You’ll likely be surprised, as there were schools that my wife and I found incredibly impressive, but our son didn’t. It’s hard to remember that it’s not about us! In any case, start every visit with an open mind.
Naturally you have to start with some filter to narrow down the list of schools to potentially visit – size of school, section of country, rural vs. suburban vs. urban, sports-focused, religious/secular, etc. We got great advice that if your family is traveling for a vacation, just make a visit to a local college (even if that particular school won’t likely be a target) as it gives you and your student context as to what a school with certain characteristics (size, location, etc.) looks like – remember, they have no idea! This will inform your child in helping determine the features they like (or don’t like) about schools. Some of the most informative tours we went on were ones that our son hated, because it really helped us all focus on what was important to him.
The biggest challenge with visiting schools is remembering everything you saw, heard and felt – frankly after a bunch of visits, the experiences start to blend together and you start misattributing observations. Although it would be difficult (and probably awkward) to take notes while on a tour, we always got together as a family right after our visit (often by sitting in one of the school eateries) and having our student write down notes of everything we heard, observations, etc. Keep those notes in a single notebook or other place where they can be retrieved later (and will come in handy for the student to reference specific things they learned when they complete their application). Some students also like to take pictures to jog their memories.
For some of our visits, we brought along our younger child who frankly was less than enthused to go on all of these tours. If this can’t be avoided, it worked for us to give the sibling a job. We made a game of it. The night before we were to go on a college tour, each family member “bet” on one word which would be repeated most often by the tour guide (e.g., “community,” “relationships,” “challenge,” “safety,” etc.) and then the younger sibling would just keep a little score sheet tabulating the frequency of each word. It get them busy and put a little humor into the process as well.
Lastly, don’t rely solely on what you hear in the information session and tour. They’re of course valuable, but you have to recognize that they are part of the school’s marketing – and some schools just market better than others. Besides feedback from current students (or their parents) that you know, try to spend some time checking out the feel of the campus and watching the student interaction – your child may be able to pick up on whether he/she could see themselves there. (This is more difficult if you visit when students aren’t in session, which sometimes you must do given everyone’s schedule). One specific tip we were given is to recommend that your child go up to a couple of random students on the campus, introduce themselves saying they are a prospective student, and ask them two questions: (a) what’s your favorite thing about this school? and (b) what’s your least favorite thing about this school? Some high school kids may be too shy to do this, but college students are generally happy to talk to them. In this very short conversation, the student will gain some very valuable insights. If the school offers the ability for a student to sit in on a class, encourage them to sign up for that. It will help them both sense the “vibe” of the students as well give them a glimpse as to what college classes feel like.
THE APPLICATION PROCESS
Despite the existence of the Common App, this process is a lot of work and is generally no fun for the student. But there are some things we learned which could mitigate the stress involved.
First, long before college application time, make sure your child has a resume. They should have this anyway as they may apply for summer jobs or internships, but we found that the resume was a great “cheat sheet” to remind him what to include in college apps – both when they have to fill out the activities/extracurricular section but also as ideas for what to include in essays.
But probably the most important thing we learned was to have your student start early. They will likely be resistant to this idea, but saving all of the work for the first semester of senior year can be very stressful. The Common App (and the University of California) essay prompts are published well in advance, so it’s possible for the student to start drafting some essays over the summer. (It may be obvious to say that a student should just copy all essay prompts into a single Word document so that it can be edited and sections can be reused for similar essays, and then when completely done copied into the online application form). Obviously the student should leverage their guidance counselor and any resources offered by their school to help guide them through the application, but having a couple of essays completed before senior year starts puts them in a much better position.
Also some schools put greater weight than others on “demonstrated interest” (visiting the school, contacting the admissions office, even clicking on links in e-mails they send, etc.). They do this because one of their biggest challenges is managing “yield” (the percentage of students who accept an offer). Your child should leverage the advice of their college counselor to see how he/she can best demonstrate interest. In general, a counselor is often a better “task master” than the parents for the entire application process, but at the same time a good college counselor should be one who reduces the stress inherent in the process (for both student and parent), not add to it.
There’s of course all of the other aspects of the college application process, including taking the SAT or ACT, getting teacher (or other) recommendations, and going on an interview (at colleges where they are offered). Think of all of this when planning ahead and trying to avoid as much of a crunch time during the senior fall. If you think your student would do reasonably well in an interview, have them sign up for those. We’ve heard conflicting advice on whether interviews make a difference, but it probably can’t hurt, and to practice interviewing is just a good skill to have regardless. They should just remember to be themselves, use the essays they have written and their resume as something they review before the interview, and make sure they have a few questions prepared to ask the interviewer.
If at all possible, encourage your child to apply early to as many schools as possible (to the degree it is permitted, e.g. you can’t apply Early Decision or Restrictive Early Action to multiple schools) – there is really no downside other than making sure the work is done, and there is only upside in both potentially boosting chances of acceptance and hearing back from schools earlier. In any case, pretend that the application deadlines are actually a week earlier than published. It’s always good to leave a little buffer just in case there is any problem with the submission, including any technical issues and making sure all other materials are in.
TALKING ABOUT COLLEGE
Naturally, many of your friends have children also applying to college, so many others you know are going through the same process, each with a likely different philosophical view and level of stress. And your kids are different people. This makes it awkward to have conversations with friends and family about colleges. Kids feel this same awkwardness in talking to each other. It’s hard to separate conversations about college with the feeling that someone in their mind is comparing students against one another – all related to this common notion of putting schools on a “better/worse” continuum rather than thinking about fit. Of course you can’t avoid most conversations, but you can avoid exacerbating the awkwardness by using social media – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Snapchat posts about where your child got into school should probably be left until the school year is close to over.
Of course, even within your own family it’s hard not to turn every conversation into something about college, because it seems to always hang over you. Besides potentially increasing stress levels, disproportionate dialog may also make siblings feel a little left out. So, although it’s absolutely necessary to have many open and serious conversations with your child to figure out the best college fit, it’s also important to set aside some times to not talk about the process (maybe over dinners, etc.).
Most importantly, be patient and forgiving – with your child and between spouses. Periodically remind your child (and yourself) that they will get into a great school that is a smart fit for them. Remind them that getting accepted or rejected is not the same as succeeding or failing, and that what’s most important is how they take advantage of their college experience. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most kids are very happy with their ultimate choice of school and happy with their experience there. But even in the case where they are not, it’s not forever – they can change course and transfer later. In any case, despite what you may have thought when the kids were in kindergarten, you haven’t actually reached the “end” anyway – your parenting continues and hopefully will for many years!
(1) According to the Institute of International Education, there were about 427,000 international undergraduates at U.S. colleges and universities in 2015-2016, up 79% from over a decade ago.
(2) Source: Menlo School