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How To Get College Applications "Right"

So, you have a probably-college-bound high schooler. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess you're experiencing some anxiety about what happens next.

Whether this is your first college applicant or your eighth; whether they have a defined career path or are a blank slate; whether they're Straight A machines or whether their GPA looks like a rollercoaster track—whatever your specifics, you're probably worried about your child finding the right fit, the right path, the right school... and making the right moves to get Dreamdate U. to roll out the red carpet.

First: good news, bad news. As much as we love to pretend otherwise, there's no "right way" to get an education. There's no single perfect school for your kid, there's no single correct course of study for the career path they currently think they want, and there is no Secret Sauce for getting into Stanford (nor is Stanford a good idea for everyone!).

If anyone tells you they can "get your kid in" to Elite University while holding their hand out for a large chunk of your hard-earned change? Back away. This person is not your ally. College consultants, advisors and counselors seldom have any actual sway with admissions committees (I'll be honest, I've known of exceptions, but they're usually embedded in prep schools.) Most of us don't have a magic Rolodex and people at Oxford who owe us a favor.

There are some relatively predictive factors. If you're a diffident student with a 2.9 GPA, no standardized test scores, no burning extracurricular passions or extraordinary talents, and you're a so-so writer? Your odds of getting into Harvard are low. Not nonexsistent, but low. That said, you can have a 4.2 GPA, a supernatural ability to hack standardized tests, and the noblest Eagle Scout project of all time and it doesn't guarantee you anything. Maybe it should. But it doesn't.

When is the right time to start thinking about college options? It's different for everyone, but I'd say "let your student decide." Meaning, if you have a kid who's independently YouTubing conservation biology research opportunities at University of Michigan in eighth grade, you might want to start talking about the future (and reminding them that their interests might shift during high school). If your student is on a more... typical trajectory, the nitty-gritty answer is basically: the second semester of 11th grade. That's a great time to start talking about where they might want to go, access the Common Application and familiarize yourself with it, or go on a college scouting trip if that's financially available to you.

What's the right number of colleges to apply to? It depends, but for most people the answer isn't "one," and it isn't "40." Variables include your financial situation, your kid's interests, their grades, test scores and overall "who am I?" picture, their stamina and their level of awareness of what they want. I don't prescribe a specific number unless someone's specifically asking me to. In general, this is an organic decision based on your student's specifics. Be wary of folks who claim there is a "right" number. There's only the right number for your applicant.

What's the right amount of direct parental involvement? Again, that's individual. In my experience, more laissez-faire parents experience less conflict with their teens. Realistically, parents are often financial stakeholders, and at that level you definitely get to pick your battles. But as far as "helping with applications," I would ask your 11th grader the following question: "Do you want help? And if so, do you want my help or do you want a third party?" Then, to whatever extent you reasonably can, respect their answer.

How do I know they're writing the right personal statement? Susie Jane wants a business degree, and you're freaking out because she's writing her common app essay about the school play. You've got a prospective politics major, but "everyone" says you shouldn't write about politics in an app essay, so now what? Little Elphaba Marie should clearly be writing her essay about her community service project, which impressed the hell out of you, but she seems determined to waste her 650 words on why she loves Emily Dickinson and she just won't listen to reason and write an essay that highlights her biggest accomplishment. Your hair is officially falling out.

I have an unshakable belief that students can write a rockstar essay about slime mold, why bran muffins shouldn't exist, or why they hope to be a goat in their next life. As a parent, telling your kid what to write about is somewhat akin to trying to be their therapist: you don't have the objectivity and you're risking a backlash if they develop the idea that you don't think they can do this for themselves. So try to resist.

HOWEVER: if you know you have a kid who hides their light under a bushel and probably never told the college counselor about the time they climbed Mount Rainier and rescued three people from a crevasse because it doesn't sound academic? By all means, side-channel your kid's advisor and mention any buried treasure you suspect could be brought to light. Your student is equally unsure what the "right" essay for them is, and they're not old enough to see the big-picture metaphors of their own life yet. Stories are everything! We want to hear them.

Is it right for me to get involved if my student's college advisor seems to be steering things in a bad direction? Um, yeah!

There are incompetent people in all fields. But most of us do this because we care about it and have an affinity for it, not for the low-stress lifestyle—and we want this relationship to work, so please, yes, talk to us. If your student is red-flagging their college advisor, you definitely need to get to the bottom of it for everyone's sake. Caveat: I wish this went without saying but don't take it out on the help if you're frustrated with your child's progress or outcome. Fortunately this is rare in my experience but... if Junior didn't get into USC, we're as bummed as you are, especially if we believed it was a slam dunk. Refusing to pay your invoice because Columbia deferred Baby Girl from Early Decision to regular? That's karma you might not want, especially since the next move is writing Columbia a letter you'll need help wording. You want a clear conscience when the emotional tide recedes, so.. do unto others, is all.

What if they don't get in to the "right" college? THEY WILL—BY DEFINITION. My own dream-school was Yale. (If I could do it all again knowing what I know now, Yale wouldn't even be in my top five, so it's also worth remembering that a teen is a work in progress.) Yale was uninspired by my math grades, and I ended up at Mount Holyoke after (thankfully) managing to convince my budget-conscious father I wasn't a good fit for UCLA (I wasn't). Mount Holyoke was, in some ways, an uncomfortable fit for me, and I sometimes fantasized about transferring. But I sincerely cannot imagine having been anywhere else. The people I connected with there—in particular a poetry professor whose class I took on a whim—truly did make me who I am now. The universe put me where I needed to be, and, not to be woo about it, I sincerely believe that happens to most people. And anyway... if your student ends up matriculating into a school that's a tragic misfit for them and they just can't adapt? People do transfer, all the time.

Strategy tips for "getting it right" on the college application journey:

  1. Get Zen. I'm not claiming it's easy. But to the extent you can embrace a "what is meant for us will not pass us by" kind of detachment, you'll be a much happier parent with a much less stressed out senior. Your student will get rejections. If they've never experienced rejection before? This is a great time to start getting used to it, because it happens to everyone. Sometimes application decisions feel unfair (and sometimes they are).

  2. Get real. This is no time to be motivated by fear, and it's a great time for epic realism. Applying to college is currently a huge unknown for almost everyone. The kinds of outcomes that Gen X'ers could more or less depend on are not currently typical. Higher education is in a massive state of upheaval and we all have to roll with the punches. Don't try to shield your child from rejection, do encourage risk-taking and developing some calluses, and be prepared to flex. This process can be a stress hellhole or a wonderful self-discovery odyssey—and much of that is a matter of mindset. Be open minded, be open-hearted, be pragmatic. Try not to catastrophize or act like this is the highest stakes moment of your student's life. It isn't.

  3. Get on it—at the right time for YOU. No, it's not "too late" to engage a coach, counselor or advisor if your student is already halfway through 11th grade. It's the perfect time for many if not most. But there are exceptions, and we're here to get you over the finish line whether you've got a precocious rising ninth grader or a senior who suddenly decided to get his head into the game two weeks before a due date. Don't let other parents stress you out about timing. There's no single legitimate process for this.

  4. Get help. A huge part of why I do what I do is that I wish I'd had someone like me when I was applying to college. What I did have was parents who had not been through the process and were on fire to mastermind and control it for their firstborn kiddo. Adult me knows perfectly well they were trying to help, support and protect me. Me-at-the-time got one crystal clear message: we do not trust you. Being your child's sounding board is fabulous. Being over-invested in their process will almost always stifle creativity, cultivate anger, and stymie the process. Coaches and advisors are, admittedly, a luxury. So is a tax preparer, or a therapist—but most of us benefit from utilizing one at some point. If you can, strongly consider extricating yourself from the application process. It doesn't have to mean a four-year contract with a costly advisor. Lots of people offer targeted, tactical application help in real time without you having to sign up in 9th grade. (I know I do!) Talk to a couple of people, see if there's someone who fits your style and your budget. Anyone worth their salt will be able to offer you options that work.

  5. Get a grip. This process is full of emotional ups and downs, for students and parents alike. Emotional baggage around money makes itself felt. Resentments crop up. Controlling or defensive behaviors emerge. And sure—rejection hurts. Mama-bear instincts take over because your little cub is in tears over a rejection or freaking out because they got punted from early decision at their first choice school while their neighbor with seemingly less sexy credentials got a yes. In a few months, this high-stress process will be settled. Times when you failed to bite your tongue can come back to haunt you for decades.

If your student is ready to put the foot on the accelerator, hit me up!

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