A friend and parent of a high school freshman recently wrote:
Q. I googled a college-related question a few days ago and by chance stumbled upon your Dr. StrangeCollege blog!
In the time it took me to find an answer to my question (partially from your blog and other online sources), I discovered that I am alarmingly overwhelmed by my complete and utter lack of preparedness. Clearly, I should start reading something about college, since L. is now in high school. I found it strangely comforting to think that I could go back and read your blog from the beginning. I feel calmer already!
Do you, in fact, have someplace that you recommend us poor, frightened, slightly nauseous newbie parents start learning about the whole process? Books? Websites?
A. I have a lifelong habit of looking to books when I have a question. Here are a couple I would recommend for an overview:
1. The College Solution, a Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price (2nd ed.), Lynn O’Shaugnessy.
O’Shaugnessy has a website with the same name as the book; she also blogs for CBS Money Watch. While her focus is financial, she writes succinctly and with a good deal of common sense about most college-related topics. It’s a good quick introduction.
What’s fascinating is the motivation behind a school’s decision on which applicants capture a price break and which don’t. I can’t delve into this topic without at least mentioning this fact: Private and public colleges and universities routinely employ in-house enrollment managers or hire consultants who devise ways for colleges to use their institutional cash as strategically as possible to assemble their freshman classes. Typically this means helping institutions leverage their own revenue to attract the kind of teenagers they covet. Enrollment management practices have turned financial aid from primarily a utilitarian way to help disadvantaged students into a powerful tool to attract high-achieving students and the wealthy.
2. Crazy U., One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College, Andrew Ferguson.
Ferguson is a journalist and magazine editor, but this is his story of the eighteen months from his son’s junior HS year through to leaving for college. He writes beautifully about the emotions involved (for parents and child), tells very funny stories (especially about the things parents say to each other), and digs deeply into areas you’ll probably want to know about, like college rankings, standardized testing, etc. This is what it looks like to parents today. You’ll laugh; you’ll cry. We made Mod Squad Pete read this one and it’s time for me to put it on M.S. Julie’s reading shelf.
It wasn’t until Christmas was upon us that I realized why he’d been so calm about writing his essays. He hadn’t been writing them.
“It won’t take long,” he said, after I pointed out that he hadn’t much time left. He had logic on his side, as he often did — inadvertently. It wouldn’t take him much time to get it done because there simply wasn’t much time to get it done. QED. By mid-January, when the last of the essays was sent off and all creation seemed to relax with a sudden release of held breath, a mother told me that she and her daughter had put in three solid months of work on the essays, “every day after school and weekends.”
“We did three months of work too,” I said, ” in twelve days.”
If/when you want to read more about things your son could be doing right now, you might look at Elizabeth Wissner-Gross’s two books. Her sons were both skilled and interested in a math/science track, so there’s an emphasis on STEM competitions, but there are plenty of gems in both books. I like these for cherry-picking tips related to a child’s specific interests:
What High Schools Don’t Tell You (and Other Parents Don’t Want You to Know), Create a Long-Term Plan for your 7th to 10th Grader for Getting into the Top Colleges
Keep in mind that grades are the currency by which opportunities are bought in today’s meritocracy. No matter how many after-school activities or advanced level courses your child has on his résumé, no most-competitive college or selective summer program will be impressed if your kid earns less-than-top grades.
What Colleges Don’t Tell You (and Other Parents Don’t Want You to Know), 272 Secrets for Getting Your Kid into the Top Schools
The important picture to keep in mind is that admissions officers read hundreds of applications, and sameness is detrimental.
This might be the time for a few readers of this blog to call me out as an obsessive. Accepted. Especially when I admit that these are merely the books one might read to get ready to read about the specifics of selection, application, essay-writing, and financial aid. Recommended reading for those topics still to come.
This is also probably a good time to reiterate a few beliefs I hold:
- What the kid brings to college in motivation, study habits, and acquisition of real-life skills will make much more of a difference than getting into a top-ranked college (especially when the rankings are based upon such ridiculous criteria as college administrators ranking each other).
- There is a college for every student — if college makes sense for the student. “Only 2% of institutions accept less than 25% of their applicants. Those 60 elite schools (out of 2,421) educate just 3% of the nation’s full-time undergrads who are attending four-year institutions.” That from Lynn O’Shaughnessy’s blog here.
- Start thinking about finances — and what your family thinks makes sense to pay for a BA or BS — now. Talk about it with your student when he or she is still building the long list of colleges, before winnowing that down to a short list.
Good luck, newbie parent, to you and your student!