If you have a teenager, chances are you spend a lot of time talking to other parents about college admissions.
The rumors, (he got in where?) the fear (she had a 5.23 GPA and got 12 rejections) and the sport (crew is the ticket to the Ivies) come up again and again. College admissions is a blood sport, and on the North Shore, too many parents are prepared to play to the death.
“Every year, I have several students come into my office and tell me, ‘I’m a disappointment to my family,’ ” says James Conroy, department head of the post-high school counseling office for New Trier Township High School. His basic message to parents: It’s your child’s process, not yours. But that’s a hard message for most parents to hear.
Andrew Ferguson, who wrote the best-selling “Crazy U,” about the college admissions process, notes, “Quite a few studies show that the vast majority of students get into one of their top three schools.” But he admits that as a parent going through the process with his son, it was hard to see how it would end well.
So how to reduce the paranoia?
Start with a little research
And no, cocktail party chatter doesn’t count. There are great resources that walk you through the process. A little knowledge does wonders to reduce fear of the unknown. Then the next time someone asks you about SAT subject tests, you can confidently talk about your son’s plan, versus panicking because you don’t know the SAT II from a Sea Doo.
Know that the system isn’t fair
If you expect fairness, you’ll be outraged every time you hear about an athlete with a 28 on her ACT who got into the school that rejected your slightly clumsy, but brighter (or at least better test-taking) child. “Admissions are not predictable at all,” admits Laura A. Robinson, associate director of admissions at Northwestern. “As it’s become more competitive, what you once thought you could count on, you can no longer count on.”
Resist resume stuffing
Knowing that the situation isn’t weighted in your child’s favor leads many parents to “help” a little too much. Encourage, but don’t push. “We can see through resume stuffing,” Robinson says. She recommends letting students follow their passions. They should “do the best they can and do what they love,” she says. “There’s no magic recipe.” And she notes that paid experiences, whether a leadership conference or mission trip, don’t really count.
Test for more than the score
Admissions committees need a common assessment of college readiness, says Matthew Pietrafetta, founder of Academic Approach. “Families from the North Shore see tests as just another source of stress,” he says. But he thinks they can be much more. For instance, he knows that a child with a low score on the English section of the ACT, isn’t proofreading his or her English papers well. Looking at it as a diagnostic can change the focus from just a number to a blueprint for what is necessary for college success.
Private help can help (but not as much as you think)
Many families turn to private college counselors to help navigate the process, but a few cautions are in order. First, know what you’re getting. No one can get an average student into an above-average school. You’re paying for advice and management, and any suggestion that the counselor has special “pull” should be regarded with suspicion. Also, as Conroy notes, anyone can hang out a shingle and be a “College Counselor.” There are no regulations or licensing requirements, so do your homework before you pay out a dime.
Laura Hine is an editor and writer based on the North Shore of Chicago. Her focus is on getting smart information about relationships, fun and food to other moms. For more of her writing, visit her website.