Parenting for College: Three Things I’d do Differently

IMG_20130801_133049_051If you saw last week’s post, you already know we’ve just returned from an exhausting round of college tours with our son, who is a rising senior. In that post, I shared what we learned from the tours. This week, I’m focusing on what I’ll do differently between now and four years from now when we start this process again with our daughter.

Here’s where I’m coming from: My husband and I have been active in the education of our children from the time they started kindergarten. Between the two of us, we’ve held the office of PTA president, coached Odyssey of the Mind teams, built sets for school plays, started programs where we saw the need, written successful grants, volunteered behind the scenes, and, among many many many other things, once we even won the volunteer of the year award together.

But when we returned from the college tours I spent about three days asking myself this: How could I have spent literally thousands upon thousands of hours insuring that my child got the best education available to him, without spending more time thinking about, and preparing him for, the all-important crossroads he would reach when he finished secondary school?  How?

Well, the good news is that I think my son will probably get into a good school despite the fact that we could have done some things differently to give him more of an edge. But you always want your child to have the edge, right? That edge is important for scholarship applications. That edge might make the difference between getting into your top choice school and your second choice.

Since our son goes to boarding school, it is going to be hard for me to change anything about his application process, but here are some things we’ll do differently next time around:

1. Take your child on college tours during his junior year in high school, or even better, the summer before. You can always visit campuses again later, closer to the application deadline.

Here’s why: Our son really didn’t know much about any colleges. He knew he was on track to go to college, he knew what one or two campuses were like from summer camps and going to football games with grandparents. But he never got to see a college campus through the eyes of a college kid. You get this when you take campus tours. Before we went on the tours, college was a somewhat abstract idea. Now he has much more concrete ideas about what the college experience will be like. He is more excited about the opportunity than before. The bottom line: If we’d been able to get him more excited earlier, he’d have made more progress on the dreaded college applications by now!

2. Enable your child to pursue one of his or her passions.

Here’s why: It seems that schools are looking for students who take action. They want students who DO. A few years ago our son brought up starting a community garden on a large piece of property our church had just acquired. Instead of enabling him to move forward with this, we said something like, “The deer will probably eat the crops.” (I know… we get an F for that response! I mean, there are these things called fences…) Looking at the applications he’s trying to complete, something like “Starting a community garden” would have been a great thing to add. Even better, imagine the feeling of accomplishment he’d have had if he’d been successful in his attempts, or what he’d have learned if he failed. When our daughter comes up with a similar idea, we’ll help her figure out HOW to do it, instead of HOW NOT to.

3. Enroll your child in an SAT prep course.

Here’s why: We never bothered with this because our son’s math and critical reading scores were already strong. And who cares about the writing scores anyway? Oh, I’ll tell you who cares: the people who set up the guidelines for National Merit Scholarships. Last year, our son ended up being something like four points away from being named a National Merit Semifinalist. If you are a National Merit Semifinalist, you can list that on every college application, even if you don’t make it any further than that. And, it turns out, some colleges really DO care about those writing scores too…Anyway, if we could do it again, we’d enroll him in an SAT prep course, despite his strong scores. Top tier schools and scholarships at all schools are very competitive. Who knows? An extra hundred points can make a big difference. Sometimes, an extra four points can.IMG_20130808_152955_988

Okay, okay. A list of three things to do differently isn’t too bad, is it? And our soon-to-be-college-bound son is amazing! He’ll get in the school that is right for him! Still, what’s the good of making mistakes if you can’t learn from them? And once you learn something, you might as well share your knowledge.

We’ll be doing at least one more installment on this college admissions theme. Until then, for all of you other parents watching your children struggle with the college decision… good luck!

College: The Final Frontier.

IMG_20130810_151658_582A few months ago we started an Education of the Nerdy Chick Category because most Nerdy Chicks we know are interested in education, either their own, or that of their children. I’ve always been involved in my children’s educational journeys, and have just completed one of the final legs of my oldest child’s flight to independence: college tours.

So… I thought it might be valuable for some of you to learn from my experience.

During my son’s three week summer break (this is all he had because of a required internship), we planned to take one week to visit colleges in the southeast, where we live. And another week to fly to some colleges farther away. He, like most college-bound students, received a mind-boggling amount of recruitment mail last year. So we sat down with the giant stack of fliers and told him to pick out a few interesting schools from other parts of the country, and we’d talk about the logistics of getting him to those campuses.

That ended up being a very short conversation.  It pretty much started and ended with this declaration: “I want to be able to get in the car and drive home in under six hours.” On this point, he was completely unyielding. So, Ooooookaaaaaayyyyyyyy.  The college search just got a whole lot narrower. With location in mind, we started looking for schools in the southeast with good reputations for academics and undergraduate research. Together, we targeted five schools, went to five campuses, took five campus tours, heard five info sessions, and met with four biology professors and one biology department office manager.

HERE IS WHAT WE LEARNED:  IMG_20130801_133004_807

1.  Colleges/ Universities who stress academics are all looking for students with these traits:

  • Students who have taken the most strenuous courses their high schools have to offer
  • Students who are active in extracurricular activities
  • Students who are passionate about something and act on that passion (amorous passions not included)
  • Application Essays (Several mentioned that you should communicate what you can contribute to campus if you’re selected.)
  • Leadership positions

2. Test scores are important to many schools, but not all. Two of the schools we visited allowed students to opt out of sharing their scores. These schools said they did not want to rule out otherwise good candidates because of a few hours of testing. All schools said they’d chose students who were involved in extracurricular activities in high school with imperfect SAT scores over students with perfect SAT scores, but little else to recommend them. This was interesting to discover, but keep in mind that there are still many schools out there where SAT and/or ACT scores are a crucial admission element!

3. Call the school ahead of time and see if you can meet with a professor in the department of your child is most interested in. We did this at the first school we visited, and it was so helpful, that we called all of the rest of the schools and made the same request. More than anything, I think talking with professors got my son excited about the college experience.

4. Some campuses just don’t feel right. We were on one campus for all of ten minutes when my son insisted it was not for him. We made him stay for the tour anyway, but it didn’t change his mind. And actually, I accept that different places feel differently. I want him to pick a school where he feels comfortable.

5. Applying for Early Decision greatly increases your chances of getting in to the most selective of the schools we visited, but it is a binding commitment.

My son has decided to apply to four of the colleges we visited. His next step is to decide whether or not he feels strongly enough about one over the others to apply for early decision.

Now that I’ve been through this process once, what will I do differently when my younger child starts to look at colleges? Well, a lot! And you can learn from my mistakes. But since I can write a whole separate post about that, I’ll save it for next week!