The college process has begun, and you have so many questions: what colleges to visit, are there extracurricular activities that stand out, what standardized tests should your child take and what level of involvement should you have? Here are a few rules of thumb for surviving the process.
Don’t Listen to People Who Have Got It All Figured Out
Inevitably, you will run into people who tell you that their children completed all their standardized testing in 10th grade, that you are too late in starting the process or that your child’s extracurricular activities are woefully lacking in leadership. While many of these people are well meaning, the upshot may be that you will panic, lose confidence or badger your child. Don’t look back; junior year is not too late to start and your child WILL get into college.
The More College Planning You and Your Child Do During Junior Year, the Better
While you need to keep a careful eye on stress levels, the more college planning you and your child can do during junior year, the less fraught the actual application season will be. However, the corollary is that it is virtually impossible to do everything you think might be needed; you probably won’t visit every school your child might be interested in, your child may not run for that leadership position you think she would be perfect for and your child’s standardized testing schedule might not be optimal. Do what you can and don’t beat yourself up if you miss a visit or a deadline – you’re not alone.
Try and Develop a College List
One of the most critical parts of the college process for most students is developing a list of potential colleges. Write down factors that you and your junior think are important in a college; this can include size, location, distance from home, religious orientation, and availability of merit or need-based aid. Then, select a group of colleges that meet your key parameters. Remember, your list should include safer options, what are called “match” schools and reaches. Don’t spend all your time on reach schools – they’re pretty easy to find. In my judgment, the most important part of the process is to find safer options that you and your child are comfortable with.
But How Do We Know What Are Safeties, Matches and Reaches?
Until you have standardized test scores in hand, it can often be difficult to determine which schools fall into which category. However, look at your child’s GPA and attempt to get a sense of where it falls in his high school. Try and access your high school’s Naviance, if available, which will often show you the average test scores and GPA of students who have applied to various schools. Make an appointment to speak with your child’s guidance counselor, who may have valuable insight. Make sure to include test optional schools (which can be found by going to www.fairtest.org) on your list, so that regardless of how your child performs on standardized testing, you will have some schools that are appropriate. Using these tools, you and your child can start to categorize colleges and plan some visits. Your list may not be perfect, it may change, but it will give you a start.
What About Extracurricular Activities, Community Service and Leadership?
If a child does nothing after school or during the summer, then that might be a red flag (for a variety of reasons, many of them having nothing to do with college planning). However, the majority of students have activities they devote time to, whether it be sports, school clubs, music lessons, babysitting younger brothers and sisters or a job. Don’t harangue your child about missed opportunities or about starting a club he is not interested in. Talk to your junior about what she enjoys, what level of involvement she has and whether she is interested in bumping it up. This needs to be a dialogue, not a lecture. Maybe there are reasons your child hasn’t run for a leadership role (i.e., the current president dislikes him). Maybe school opportunities are lacking and he needs to look outside the school community. There is no magic bullet or right answer here. Your child may not need sports or community service to get into the school of her choice. However, in general, colleges want active students who will contribute to the life of the school, both academically and from an extracurricular standpoint, and this coincides with what you want, which is a happy, healthy child with friends, interests and a certain amount of extracurricular involvement.
My Child and I Are Both Nervous About the Essay
The concept of writing a 600 or so word essay that defines your life is something that very few of us – adults and teenagers alike – would find comfortable. This is not an article about specific essay prompts and tactics. However, if at all possible, a common app essay should be started and even completed during the summer before senior year. Generally, students have more time to write during the summer, and it will make senior year much easier if the essay is in good shape. Brainstorm with your child, remind him of episodes in his life that you thought were compelling, funny or meaningful, but don’t write it for him.
These tips are just a start, but remember, your relationship with your child will extend far beyond this somewhat stressful period. Plan ahead and don’t let the college admissions process turn your dinner table into a war zone.