What This College Counselor Wants All Parents to Know

Every year, it happens. Seemingly sane, thoughtful parents, come into my office agitated and angry.  I suspect it derives from the arrival of a Naviance college list that is generated on their student’s account.  The list is a collaborative effort between student and college counselor, a brainstorm, a rough draft (if you will) of what that student’s college list might eventually look like.  It’s a starting point, from which students can start to explore, visit schools, and make some decisions about where they might want to apply.

Advice from a college counselor to high school parents

The parents come in with a familiar introduction, “You are going to love working with us.  We are open-minded and understand Harvard might not be the right match.” 

But then it starts.  They see unknown institutions on the list or, even worse, institutions that have evolved significantly since they applied to school.  They have preconceived notions of these places and they have a vehement reaction. “What about Brown?  Why is MIT not on the list?”

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The rational conversations we’ve had in previous years, about letting the student forge her own path and taking away some of the strains and stresses of high school completely fly out the window.

“Well, we are going to be in California this summer, should we at least swing by the Stanford campus?”

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Now, I am all about exploring options.  Yes, if your child wants to, please take a tour at Stanford, or attend an information at MIT.  There might be something there that really resonates and, if so, the student should apply.  But why, as parents, are you pushing it if that’s not what your child is seeking?  Why do you feel your child’s worth is wrapped up in admit decisions from schools that accept less than 10% of their applicant pool?

Because it isn’t.  In fact, your student rocks.  She is the one who is holding her own in a rigorous biology course.  Unbelievable!  He’s the one spending weekends and nights in the robotics lab, contributing to his team’s national ranking.  So cool!  She’s the one devoting not one, not two but THREE hours a week to the peer tutoring program and the ninth grader she’s working with just got her first B on a physics exam.  Fantastic!!!

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This is how you should weigh your child’s success.  Is he intellectually curious?  Contributing to the community?  Does she have a work ethic beyond that of a typical teenager?  If so, good for that student, and congrats to you parents, you’ve raised an awesome student, and there are thousands of schools that would LOVE to have your child on their campus.  Heck, they might even throw a scholarship in there, too.

Though we rationally know this, as parents, we can’t seem to shake the notion that our child deserves more.  Or that it’s unfair if they are not admitted to their far-reaching schools, although we know, realistically, what those odds look like.

In some respects, it makes sense.  We love our children, we know they are amazing and we want what we perceive to be “the best” for them.  But if the scenarios above resonate with you, or if you are encouraging your child to add just one more Ivy League school to their list, just in case, take a good hard look in the mirror.  This is a sure indicator that you should consider more rationally how to approach the college search with your child.

I suggest that as parents, we revert back to our childhood days.  When I was in high school, my friends and I certainly did not hire private counselors to coordinate our college searches.  Yet, where I live now, it seems a natural step.

Isn’t the college process supposed to be introspective? A chance for our children to emerge into adulthood, take action, and start making some decisions?  If we constantly surround them with paid help, how can they learn to self-advocate and stand on their own two feet?

The notion that students can “market” themselves makes me shudder.  Our children aren’t products; they are human beings.   My 20+ years of experience working in college admissions and counseling has taught me that the students who are truly following their intellectual/athletic/extracurricular instincts (vs. trying to forge a path that will look favorable to colleges) are the head-turners at the most highly selective institutions, because they are genuinely compelling.

When I applied to college, I submitted six applications, and that was probably on the high-end of the average in those days.  Where I work, we firmly advise our students to apply to fewer than ten schools  But it’s often a battle helping parents (because the students understand the work involved at these highly selective institutions) to embrace the rationale behind this saner approach.  I am horrified to hear myriad stories about students who submit 15, 20, or more applications.  Not only does this endeavor get expensive (the visits, the testing and application fees, etc.), but, if the student is applying to a litany of colleges with additional writing requirements, it’s time consuming.

Given all that our students are balancing inside and outside the classroom nowadays, it’s hard to imagine that students are putting their best foot forward at so many institutions.  Likely, their responses become generic and less college-specific.  They certainly can’t invest time and energy into demonstrating interest (a factor that seems to be weighed more heavily nowadays at an increasing number of schools as a way to discern between so many applicants) at all of these places.  The result will likely be that your student is receiving more waitlist and denial decisions while simultaneously adding to the increase in applications/low acceptances at selective institutions.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could reverse this vicious cycle?

OK, I know you are thinking it.  What if your child happens to be the one to receive all acceptances?  The odds are low, but I suppose it could happen.  Great, I guess.  Except the student can only enroll at one institution.  So now your student has directly affected some other hopeful applicant’s opportunity.  And, again, applying to all of those schools and sorting through all of that acceptance information is time-consuming, often anxiety provoking, and I suspect there are more valuable things your student could be doing with this time.

Back in the day, most students considered local opportunities only.  While I love that students today are more open to exploring colleges out-of-state and even out of the country, I do encourage students to keep affordability in the back of their minds.   It’s not necessary to apply to more schools if there is a concern about financial aid.  Instead, students should be thoughtful.  Seriously consider state options – that certainly ensures the most bang for your buck.  Attending Canadian institutions can also be an affordable pathway.  Make sure to include colleges with merit based scholarships, as well.  And remember that if your financial need is high; many colleges will offer significant financial aid packages to assist your student.  Don’t rule out an institution just because of the price tag.  But, at the same time, avoid the urge to add every single college that funds students only with grants.  These college are typically highly selective – so keep that list small and intentional.

When I applied to college, it admittedly was easier to ascertain which colleges were “safety schools.”  The process has grown more nuanced, so sure bets are tougher to gauge, especially at schools with 30% or lower admittance rates.

Your student should be pursuing a balanced list of colleges, one that not only reflects a variety of compelling financial aid options if needed, but also institutions that have a varying degree of selectivity.  Students should fully research each school on their list – not just the “far reaching” ones. Keep a careful eye out for honors programs and special opportunities for talented students.  If your student is intrinsically motivated, s/he will flourish in these programs and the opportunities will abound (often with scholarship money attached. Whether or not a student has immediate financial need, it might create some financial wiggle room down the line in terms of graduate school or other professional opportunities.)

Bottom line, if your student stacks his college list with institutions that have low acceptance rates, he (and, let’s be honest, you) is likely to be disappointed.  Why put that kind of pressure on your kid? Keep it simple – your child should focus on a small group of those most highly selective schools, but spend an equal amount of time considering a variety of colleges that will fall over backwards for an engaged student like your son or daughter.  Because you know what – your kid really, truly is AWESOME.

If you simply take a deep breath and explore the many options out there, you will soon realize that the world IS your child’s oyster.  S/he DOES have control, and can make some meaningful choices without being daunted by the odds.

Related:

The Best Books for College Admissions 

Dear Mom of High School Junior

11 Reasons Why College Admissions is Harder Than You Expected

Ellen Rhodes Evans has been a college counselor at a private school in the Boston area for 16 years and, prior to that, she worked in college admissions. She is also the mother of three teenagers, one of whom applied to colleges this year. You can find her on Facebook at: Ellen Rhodes Evans.

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