Tuesday, November 3, 2015

College Admissions-A Few Tips


I know right now a whole group of parents are in the thick of guiding their teens through applications, testing, and tours with deadlines quickly approaching. A few of you with high schoolers have written to me for advice, so I'd thought I'd share some of what I have learned (having been through it twice so far.)

Here's the BEST ADVICE a college admissions expert said during her presentation to high school parents:

"College is a fit to be made, not a prize to be won."

She said, "Just keep repeating that."

It's so true, and it's not about what we want!  Of course the cost is a huge factor, but finding the right fit for them, regardless of any ideas we had while they were growing up, family pressure, or peer pressure makes the most sense.

Whether it's community college or Harvard, the college in the hometown, or the one across the continent, we must just think of what will work for the teen and his learning style, his major if he knows what they want to study, and the environment he will thrive in, and of course financially what works for the parents and the teen and go from there.  It's not a race or a competition or the means to impress the neighbors. Our children and their future should matter more than that.

This same great college admissions expert suggested this:

-Looking at one small, one medium, and one large school lets the student see what the benefits and drawbacks are for each.

-Try to tour when the school is in session so your student can get a feel for the school's "personality".

-Apply to a safety school (sure admission), a comfort school (most likely), and a stretch (might be pushing it) school.

-Be honest and upfront about expenses with our children, what the family can afford, how college will be paid for, and what the student will be contributing or responsible for.

A little PS on that one: I have a friend whose daughter really wanted to attend a school where the program was a great fit but it was out-of-state and very expensive.  Unfortunately it would require the student to graduate with major debt. She had her daughter ask older siblings and relatives for advice and every one of them said, "Don't be saddled with that debt-go to a school you can afford, work hard, and make the most of the opportunities they offer."  I thought the advice was so great but also that the mom urged her daughter to find out from other sources-to ask around, and find out firsthand from the experiences of recent graduates what really counts out there today in the working world. That way it's not all parents saying "Do this or do that" but peers weighing in also.

On testing:
Oh, it's such a game!  I can't stand that part of it, but it is what it is, and a few extra points on the ACT or SAT do make a difference with scholarships in tune to thousands of dollars.  I think it is important for the students to know that there is certain ways to take each test and some will learn this through a class and practice and others will pick it up through a brief rundown.  I know one student who was signed up for a series of expensive pay-by-the hour classes-after just one she told her mom, "I've got it, I figured it out, I know what I did wrong" and never took another session but raised her score the next time considerably. Others need more time to practice and review.  (My kids were never great about practicing on their own, so I just let that part of it go, but there are lots of practice tests they can take that are free.)

I am not an expert-I have had only two of my children so far go through this process, but I've learned so much.  It is easy to lose the broader view of the purpose of higher education.  There is such much debate going on politically also-the worth of a degree, the high cost, the pressure, etc.  So many opinions! I have learned to sweep that all by the wayside-my husband and I have our own opinions on each of those things, and our children know them (and we will learn and change as we go along with each child, I'm sure of that!), and try to keep all the ruckus out of it.  We must help our children do what is best for them in the context of our family and their future, and go from there.

A quick word on motivation:
I always heard that the entire college search and application process should be left entirely to the student.  I have learned myself, and with chats with friends, that this is not realistic for most teens. For sure, some will take that initiative and some will seek out the support if offered at the school. But others are caught up in surviving high school, trying to get good grades, working, participating in high commitment sports, or a host of other stressors. Teens are notorious for living in the moment, and avoiding the pressure of long deadlines and talk of the future. Be patient and be helpful (yes you are allowed to be helpful!) and remember that they have fears of the unknown, and are sometimes under incredible pressure, even if they don't seem to show it or don't talk about it.  The college process is SO different from what I experienced, and can be quite overwhelming and daunting.

If you have been through this process with a child, please feel free to add your thoughts/tips/advice, I'm sure there are much more experienced mothers out there than me!

23 comments :

  1. The rule in our house (and we've been through it twice, as well) is that all applications have to be completed by October 1st. This was the best thing we ever did. Even if it means a few weeks of high stress (for everyone) as things get completed, it then ensures a stress free fall with nothing hanging over the student's head as sports or musical rehearsals pick up, AP classes get more difficult, etc.

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  2. Such an apropos topic-my oldest is a senior-and boy, what a crazy ride this is! Fortunately, she is extremely organized, and on top of every deadline. Her school also offers a "College Apps" class, which has been so helpful as well. I love the quote about College being a fit rather than a prize. My father in law is a professor, and always says something similar-that the right college is like finding a pair of shoes that fit.

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  3. I agree that the college process is stressful for the students and the parents! The stress of the tests, the applications, the waiting for acceptance and then waiting for financial aid - the last thing to arrive! And if your child doesn't know what he wants to study, that adds another element of confusion.

    For the top tier colleges, there is no way to predict whether or not you will be accepted. However, they have a lot of money to give, so it may be worth applying. My opinion, after having 3 kids apply to (and currently attend) college and one starting to look - is that test scores matter at these schools. And, perhaps, the essay is second. (And if you look at the profile of the students at the top tier schools - amazing. I call these students "freaks of nature." I say that lovingly as I have a daughter who falls into this category.

    That said, my kids did not do much to prepare for the SAT and ACT. After taking the ACT, they took an ACT test prep course at their school - a session that mainly focused on tips for taking the test. Their scores improved 4 points or so. Those points are worth money. At many state schools and some private they have simple financial aid calculators based on test scores and GPA.

    Don't discount private schools. They often have a lot of money to offer which brings the tuition down to state level.

    I helped my kids stay on track with their applications - especially my son. I know some parents believe that kids should be independent enough to handle this on their own. But if I wanted to make sure my son was going to college, I made sure he met the major deadlines.

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    1. Thanks Jane for your wisdom! I forgot to add the tip about private schools and scholarships-so true!

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    2. We found the same about private schools. They offer so much that the cost really is manageable.

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  4. Thank you for your post! I will reference it often!!

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  5. Thank you for the post! It's all about the fit and seeing your child happy when they find it. Only they know what they are looking for!

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  6. My advice....don't rule out small, private colleges even if you feel the cost of tuition is out of range. Many of those schools will work much harder to find scholarships and grants for your child than will larger institutions. A couple of my children graduated from such a school and attended with less debt and concern than did my child who graduated from a state university.

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  7. I have to reiterate what others have said here, that in both cases (so far!), smaller private schools have ended up being a far better financial prospect than any large state school was for our kids. That said, I think it depends on which state you live in. Some states are great about grants, etc and setting reasonable tuition guidelines, whereas other states may as well just call their state schools "exclusive, private institutions".

    And, do not forget that most financial offices will work with you! We have come to them with offers from other schools and had those offers matched. Another way is to approach them in June or July right before Freshman year and ask if any scholarship/aid money has been freed up by other students who have changed schools at the last minute. So far, that has worked every time for us.

    Ask! The worst they can say is "no!". :)

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  8. I really appreciate this post and the comments. I have a sophomore and I can't believe how much talk there is already about GPA, when to start ACT practice/tutoring, etc...

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  9. Great topic!! Both of my kids attended a private Christian school K-12 (my son only did k-10) which, as anyone who sends their kids to p.s. knows is quite expensive! We told them that our contribution to their education was for those grades and that we would also contribute the cost of their last year of tuition to each year of college. My daughter chose the private college route, which with scholarships was about the same cost as state university, housing, etc. She was a great student and did excellent on her SAT/ACT. She did not pursue other scholarships, etc. and ended up with quite a bit of debt. (She did state univ. her sophomore year and back to private her junior year.) She did not graduate and while she would like to go back and finish, she has a lot of debt she would like to get on top of. Disappointing for us, and she now realizes what a mistake it was to go that route.
    My son, 5 years younger, had the privilge of watching all this and chose a different route. Our state offers Running Start which allows juniors and seniors in high school to attend community college for free, books included. In order to do this he had to enroll in the local public school which is why he wasn't at the private one through grade 12. My son finds school a bit more difficult than my daughter and really struggles at taking tests. I should state that both my children "knew" everything, lol and didn't always appreciate the advice of their parents!! That was to preface that my son chose not to take the SAT/ACT. He graduated with a transfer degree from the Comm. College and was accepted right away to the University, which by the way, is cheaper per year than the private school they attended! Because he had the transfer degree, SAT/ACT scores were not necessary. Again, he was not a great student, but did work really hard.
    Another bonus for my son was financial aid. He got none when he first applied, which we figured would be the case. But this year (financial aid is based on the previous years income) the company my husband worked for ran out of money, with many promised it would be coming in. After "volunteering" for 4 months, he left the job and was unemployed for another 2 mos. before finding another job. The University bent over backwards to redo his fafsa application (all within 2 weeks) and he was awarded grants, waivers and subsidized (as opposed to unsubsidized) loans. His year is paid for and he even declined some of it as he works full time and didn't think he'd need it.
    All this to say that there are so many ways to aquire an education so don't rule anything out and don't cause yourself undue stress. Unless you're into a specialty degree (Doctor, Lawyer, etc.), it really boils down to a piece of paper! Get to know your profs, do internships, network. You don't have to go to Harvard to get a great job offer! Be happy where you are!!!

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    1. Great advice, Holly. My friends and I were just talking about all the different options our kids have. We are so fortunate that my mother-in-law purchased the PACT (prepaid affordable college tuition) for our daughter when she was born. So, she bought college tuition at 1997 prices for Elizabeth to use now. It's pretty much the average of state schools now. It's been such a lifesaver for us as she has qualified for some merit scholarships and can use this money for her living expenses. My nephew has gone to college on several smaller scholarships. He's applied for everything he qualified for and has so many $500-$1000 scholarships that they've really added up and has helped my sister and her husband out so much.

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  10. Great post and great comments. We're in the thick of it over here with my oldest of 4. Thanks to everyone for sharing

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  11. I liked your last comment. We don't want to be helicopter parents and we've all heard the horror stories of kids whose parents do everything for them that they never learn to be independent. But that we can help! We just had parent/teacher conferences with my 3rd grader and she said that some students (ahem...including my son ;-P) struggle with self-monitoring, being able to work independently without constant reminders. She said some kids' brains don't develop this until age 25! They aren't lazy or dumb, they just need more structure and help to get it done. I definitely see this with two of my kids to different degrees, while my daughter in 6th grade is crazy independent--I never even glance at her schoolwork and her grades are great. The teacher's input was helpful to know that there wasn't something wrong with my child or my parenting, but there are things I can do to provide that structure so it is easier for him to be successful. The right kind of help.

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    1. I only have 2 children and my second, my son, ended up in seminary after one year. Anyway, I made them both attend our local community college for the first 2 years for my daughter and my son for one year. Being totally honest with the observation of my kids, I could see 12 years of small town Catholic school did not prepare them for the "culture" of a large college. They received an excellent education with personal attention and lived at home (structure) until, in my daughter's case, mature enough, to deal with the liberal drunks at most colleges. Sorry to be negative, just honest for my children's sakes.

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    2. Oh no, you are not being negative, you are being truthful and honest because the stuff we hear that goes on on college campuses can turn any mother's stomach (or most as I also hear of parents visiting and getting drunk WITH their kids at the local bars and frat parties which makes my jaw drop.) It's not an easy culture to raise good kids in. Thanks for your honesty.

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  12. Our oldest of 4 is senior so I really appreciated this post! Thanks to all for the advice!

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  13. Hi Sarah,

    Thank you for this post. How many colleges did you take your kids to visit, and at what age?

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  14. Junior year/senior year (mostly senior year), and about five? They both knew within moments on each campus whether it would be in the running or not. (These are all colleges in our state about 2-3 hours away.)

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  15. As a (fairly -'09) recent college grad I'd say to remind them that they need to consider the type of job they want and pick a practical major. It doesn't matter that much and I spent 1/2 of college fretting about my choice and the other 1/2 panicked about how to pay for it. I just described it to a friend today as 'panicking my way to a degree' I didn't stop to enjoy it and bask in the joy of being an adult without having to face intense responsibility every day.

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  16. Oh my word how stressful! In Australia University degrees are free upfront and simply paid off once completed when you are within the worforce. Each time tax is done repayments in small amounts are made at a certain amount depending on your earnings.

    Interesting to see another's experience with higher education.

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  17. our oldest {out of 6} is a senior and we have been applying and researching a TON lately. My daughter freezes when it comes time for tests its so weird because she is a GREAT student, but SAT's and ACT she just panicked not sure how to help her with that. So far she has applied to about 6 schools most private schools we have looked into have waived application fees {which add up quick!} so anyone who says free app fee she applies =)

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