Six Ways a College Counselor Counsels Her Own Son about Admissions

I’ve been in the college admissions world for 19 years, both making admit decisions as an admissions officer and helping students and families navigate the process as a college counselor. This year I’m using everything I’ve learned to help my own son apply to college.

mom and son talking
This year I’m using everything I’ve learned as an admissions expert to help my own son. (Twnery20 @klovestorun)

Here’s how I’m approaching this:

1. I embrace the child I have.

One of the challenges of my profession is engaging with well-meaning parents who can’t let go of what their child could have done better or who they could have been, if only. If only they had applied themselves sooner. If only they had studied harder. If only they had emerged as more of a leader. They see their child’s wonderful qualities at home and can’t understand why they haven’t put them to better use out in the world.

Helping parents move forward from what could have been to what actually is taught me a valuable lesson about supporting my child and his accomplishments as they are rather than as I had hoped they would be.

2. We have already talked about money.

My son’s dad and I have a budget for college, and I’ve shared those numbers with him. He knows that where he goes to college will be as much about what we can afford as about where he is accepted. Some of the choices on his list will depend on merit or financial aid—or both. We haven’t ruled anything out, but he is informed about what is possible and what is not when it comes to the numbers.

3. We started early.

We’ve been talking about college pretty much since birth (I was an admissions officer at Penn at the time, so kind of tough to avoid). During a trip to the UK while he was in middle school, he joined me for visit days at University of Edinburgh and St. Andrews in Scotland. We planned to spend two weeks visiting schools when he was a sophomore but, well, COVID. Instead we swapped in virtual visits, trying to tackle at least one a month with a goal of identifying those he liked enough to visit once things start opening up.

Since that is starting to happen, we’ve planned two weeks of visits in June and July. He will be done with his standardized testing before the summer (barring additional test date cancellations), and he’ll work on his main application and essays well before school starts in the fall.

4. He is embracing those schools that will embrace him.

Some schools won’t be possible because his credentials don’t stack up as well in their admissions process, and we’ve had a few difficult conversations about schools that are out of reach. I keep the focus on what he has to offer, careful to highlight that not being competitive has everything to do with who else is applying and nothing to do with his ability to actually succeed at that institution. There are many, many schools that will welcome him with open arms. We’re focusing on them.

5. He is doing the work.

Please don’t mistake the royal “we” above as a sign that this is more my process than his. In fact, it is entirely his process, from where he applies to what he writes about to how he completes his applications. I will talk through ideas with him and review before he presses submit, but all of the work will be his. This might be the hardest part of the process to stick to, but it is everything.

6. He will finish early.

All his application work will be complete by end of summer, and all of his applications will be in by the schools’ early non-binding deadlines. No early decision for him because we need to compare financial aid packages; he will instead maximize his admissions and scholarship opportunities by hitting the early action and priority deadlines at the schools on his list. He won’t be adding any schools at the last minute, either just because or because the waiting makes him nervous.

Those are generally wasted applications, featuring rushed, often poorly written essays, and allowing no time to fully research an institution or show them appropriate attention. Because he started early and has a good, balanced list of colleges he knows he likes, he can focus on enjoying his senior year.

More to Read:

15 Biggest FAFSA and Financial Aid Mistakes to Avoid

About Elizabeth Heaton

Elizabeth Heaton is a college admissions expert and mom going through the college process with her son. A former regional director of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, she is currently a vice president at Bright Horizons College Coach, an organization founded in 1998 with the goal of providing excellent college admissions advising to as many people as possible. For the past 6 years, she has hosted a weekly podcast called Getting In: A College Coach Conversation.

Read more posts by Elizabeth

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