College Prep 101: Lesson 1

I have this darling aunt whom I absolutely adore, who entered the convent at the age of 17. She’s in her sixties now, sharper than a knitting needle, and living in an abbey in Wales. She told me once she wanted to learn how to use a computer. “So I take the plug,” she said eagerly, “and plug it into the wall. And then what?” Expecting me to explain the intricacies of computer usage in three simple steps is how a few of my friends are approaching the maze that is the college application process.

I’ve received a handful of email requests for bits of advice on what parents can do to get their precious ones into college. The tone is either confused or overwhelmed; at times naive, often frantic. They ask me several versions of the same question: “Can you help me help my kid get to college?” Having one happy and thriving college freshman and one graduating high school senior seems to have turned me into some sort of go-to person for anxious moms of soon-to-be college frosh.

Their panic is understandable, but like my endearing aunt’s question, there is no single, quick answer. But I really, really want to help them, so the process can be as fun and wisdom-generating as it is for me. The learning curve demanded of parents can be a steep one though. The college application process feels like a test that they suddenly need to cram for, and as with all exams, there is a time limit.

Cramming is never a good idea. Getting your kid into college isn’t some graded project, but it wouldn’t be fair to yourself or your kid to scrape by with a C. It also doesn’t imply that your child needs a Harvard acceptance to score an A+. You and your one of a kind offspring deserve an A+ and that takes research, preparation, and the right attitude.

An attitude check is vital. The right attitude will put you on the same page as your kid. If you’re not, he won’t want you in his study group. So do your homework, starting with an attitude adjustment.

1. Remind yourself that your dream school is not likely to be your child’s dream school.

What parent hasn’t lived vicariously through their children, even for a few brief moments? Generation gap notwithstanding teens are faced with opportunities, job prospects, and even college majors and specialty schools that didn’t exist when we were 18. Your child will want to apply to colleges that will best serve his career goals (and other very personal preferences and objectives), and not yours. So keep an open mind.

2. Beware the Branded Sweatshirt mentality! Be cognizant that while every parent dreams of sending a child to an Ivy, there are dozens of schools that might be a better fit for your child. Be wary of adhering to the belief that only brand name colleges and universities are the best.

This deserves a blog post all its own, but for now, ask yourself two questions: a) Why is it important to you that your child apply to Harvard/Princeton/Yale (or any of the top 10, best of the best universities)? b) If your child shows interest in a school with less brand recall, how would you feel?

Prestige-hunting in most aspects of life is just plain tacky. It’s no different when you’re college hunting. Among parents in my social circle, and even in the guidance office, prestige-hunting in the academic sense is discouraged, even for qualified and stellar seniors. Most times, the motives are parent-centric, rather than focusing on what’s best for the student. Today’s philosophy, very relevant to this generation of Millenials and the economic climate, is “look for the best fit”.

3. College is an investment, but it doesn’t have to be expensive.

There is a staggering amount of unclaimed scholarship money available to students that goes unutilized because no one has bothered to apply. There are grants and financial aid packages, available to anyone who takes the time to fill out the forms, and do the supplements required.

While touring colleges with my kids two years ago, the tour guide told us the story of one young woman who applied to every single scholarship competition she even remotely qualified for. She won over a hundred different packages, both big and small. With her scholarship winnings she managed to finance her entire freshman year, an amount totaling about $50,000.

Next up, some advice that any parent of teenagers might find useful, and timely. The name of the game is research, and the winners are likely to be parents who start playing the minute their kid starts high school.


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