Friday, September 7, 2012

How To Get Your Kid Into College with 5 Easy Steps (and a Valium prescription)

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: September. Ripening apples, cooling temperatures, longer nights. Homework and football games and getting out the fall wardrobe. And for parents of high school seniors, the start of a frenetic process that begins with English class essay writing and ends in May with the financial aid offers and the ceremonial Writing of the Deposit Check. It took you nine months to get the kid into the world, and it's going to take you another nine to get him into college.

Having had the experience once (oldest daughter safely shot off to Smith,) I am here, my fellow parents, to give you the benefit of my experience, as I prepare to do it all over again with The Boy. Here are some pointers to keep in mind.

1. Your child will come up with some lame-brained reasons for selecting colleges. The Boy has expressed interest in applying for colleges because: he saw pretty girls during the tour last spring; he read it was a great party school (a motivation near and dear to every parent's heart...); they have a good cross-country team; they have a flag football team (a sport he's never actually played, but he'd like to try it!); he loved the town; the campus is close enough to take the train to Boston/New York/Baltimore/Washington.

You'll note academic offerings do not appear anywhere on this list. Do not despair, parent, and above all don't tell the kid, "I'm not paying fifty grand a year so you can have a four-year Mardi Gras!" Cheer up! Chances are good he or she won't get in any of those universities, anyway. Which brings me to my second point:

2. Every school your child expresses and interest in will have a 9% acceptance rate. They all have a 9% acceptance rate nowadays. Since the Common App replaced the laborious typewritten applications our generation had to deal with, every institution of higher learning in the US gets approximately 57,000 applicants for an entering class of 1,200. Your kid will apply to school the way gamblers buy scratch-off lottery tickets. After the 10th, or 12th or 15th college, it all starts to blur. The first acceptance in the early spring will be from someplace neither of you remembers. 

Want to better those odds? It's too late to cram in four more AP courses, and if your student hasn't spent the last four summers fighting rug manufacturing child labor violations in Karachi (it looks really good on the resume,) there's only one way to boost his or her chances.

3. Do what it takes to ace those standardized tests. Did you know there are parents out there who get their kids classified as learning disabled so they have extra time to take the SATs? That students in elite public schools are popping Ritalin and Adderal to boost their performances? Are you going to let those cheaters outdo your child? 

Sure, you should get the prep book and have your student study it and take the practice exams. Take advantage of any free test prep the high school gives. If you can afford it, there are two-night classes and seven-week classes and private tutoring. 

But lets think more assertively here. Do you know anyone who works for the College Board? With the internet, it's easier to find people than ever! Get to know your selected College Board official. Casually drop by his house at odd hours. Express a keen interest in his pets - the ones that roam outside, within easy reach of any passing van on the road. With just a few heart-to-heart chats, you may find your student is guaranteed an increase of thirty, forty, or fifty points on his or her SAT score!

4. Your child may have a strong, healthy sense of self-worth. Squash it. The Boy didn't want to spend the time we (okay, I) had already scheduled for test prep. He wanted to go out for a ten mile run. "Which do you think is going to get you into the US Naval Academy," I asked, "high SAT scores, or making All-State in cross country?"

"Making All-State," he replied. 

He's good. But he's not that good. Chances are, neither is your child. So when your student tells you with shining eye and lilting voice that college is in the bag because he or she got the lead role in the musical/ broke 100 on the golf course/ was elected president of the debate team, gently but firmly point out they are living in a fool's paradise. (You may wish to adjust your phrasing according to how iron-plated your 17-year-old's ego is.)

And finally:

5. Remember you can give help, you can give advice, you can give guidance, but ultimately, getting into college is your child's job. I'll admit this is something I struggle with. When my daughter was in her senior year, I told some friends, "We're taking the SAT for the second time in November." 

She took me aside. "We are not taking the SAT, mom. I am." Ouch. But a fair point. So when The Boy interrupted me in the middle of my paean to Williams College and said, "Mom. I don't want to go to Williams. You want to go to Williams." I had to admit he was right. (It has such a great library. And an art museum!) Your kids' college search isn't a do-over for all the things you wish you had done thirty years ago, when you were a senior. 

And really, its better that way. I don't know about you, but I'm a wreck if I don't get to bed by eleven. And isn't it nice to be able to afford top-shelf booze instead of having to haunt $1 beer night at the Rongovian Embassy?

So there you are, my fellow parents. By all means, hop on the back blog and share your advice for the Great College Quest. My youngest is only in seventh grade, so I'll be doing at all over again five years from now...


  1. I am so chuckling over the inherent truth of all of this! Getting accepted in college these days --- at least for the schools you really want your Child to attend [or for most of those that your Child really wants to attend] --- is pretty much tantamount to locating the Holy Grail. [If the Boy decides he wants to apply to the US Naval Academy, I’ve already got the parent “to-do” list for the academies down pat. It’s a virtual minefield designed to make you realize you really should have started on it even before your signed the Child up on the preschool waiting list.]

  2. Wonderful blog! Your humor is simply delicious! This should be required reading for all parents with kids who are college-bound! Thelma Straw in Manhattan, Former Prep School Headmistress in Sewanee, Tenn.

  3. I have sixteen-year-old boy/girl twins. I'll take that Valium prescription now!

  4. This too shall pass is my advice. In the end, all that matters is they FINISH college, and hopefully with a degree that ends in a well-paying and satisfying career. The very worst thing a parent can do is to wait until the kid's senior year to remind them of college. They need to be aware that everything they do will either help them or hurt them in their future life as early as grade school, I think. Not in a hard line way, but they need to be aware of the affect of choices.

    My best advice to parents like you, Julia, having gone through this process three times: encourage your kids to have many different interests so they have a broader range of options, to read a lot, and to do as many different activities in high school as they can without sacrificing grades. Way too many kids want to major in fashion design-influenced by Project Runway-or criminal investigation. But the sciences are where the higher paying jobs are: engineering in any form has starting salaries in the 60's; nursing degrees ensure a job for one's entire adult life; biology majors get schools providing free tuition for doctorates, plus an annual stipend, and health insurance. But kids don't even know what their options are, or where their own talents lie, without a lot of experimentation and exploration.

    Best of luck to all parents going through this. I wish you the smallest number of grey hairs possible.

  5. Very amusing take on a very stressful year! I can say I am glad I don't have to do that ever again, and that I am the proud mother of two college graduates. Who took very different approaches to the application process. My mantra at the time? He needs to figure this out for himself, and I will be in the background for support. But I sure earned a new crop of gray hairs.

  6. So funny and wise Julia! Is that a picture of you and Ross with Robert Redford??

    We actually had fun with college visits--though it was stressful. And the best take-away I had was for everyone to remember that there are many good schools that each kid would be happy at and come out with a great education. So try not to stress out about one choice!

  7. I'm with Edith on the "he needs to figure this out for himself" mantra. I wanted my daughter to go to my alma mater, and very good--and very small--liberal arts college. She didn't. She chose a much bigger state school. She hated it. She dropped out the end of her first semester, got a job and an apartment. By the next fall the prospects of continuing to work in a plastic surgeon's office were dimming. She enrolled herself in community college. Worked, took classes. Two years later she transferred to a University of Texas campus as a junior. Kept working, got her degree, is now a real estate agent, which she LOVES. So go figure. They don't always do what you think they should, but that doesn't mean it won't work out just fine.

    So, chill, Mom. :-) (But keep up the Valium.)

  8. My oldest son decided he wanted to go into the Army rather than go to college. Boot camp changed his mind on that, and he transferred to the Army Reserves. Though I worked at a university, he refused to listen to anything I had to say. He did it the hardest way possible, but in his late 30s finally finished his bachelor's. Since he's in IT and got started long before the economy crashed, he makes more money than God, however.

    My youngest son went straight from undergraduate to a prestigious Ph.D. program with a full fellowship (and health insurance). Now, he's graduated and has a one-year visiting professor appointment. But there are almost no full-time, tenure-track jobs out there since the economic crash.

    Lesson? Sending kids to college involves clairvoyance, and most of us can't really see into the future.

  9. Ha, I love the Rongovian Embassy! Thanks for the memory.

  10. Joan, I tease about The Boy, but his top choices are, in fact USNA and USMA. Thankfully, he started talking about going Navy back in eighth grade (!) which means he's had four years to get the kind of grades/sports/leadership experience he needs. And it STILL took him all summer, working almost daily, to complete the applications and Congressional packets.

    One of the admissions officers he spoke with said the Academy application ITSELF is part of the test to see if a candidate is qualified. I believe it.

  11. Lucy, That picture is a little before my stint in college. I was in during the early 8os - I had some SERIOUSLY big hair.

    The guy in the pic does look a lot like my first college love, but I don't think Ken every wore collars that big (they look like they were designed to attain lift-off back in the 70s, don't they?)

  12. Julia:
    Our oldest daughter wanted to go to the Air Force Academy and we were smart enough to look at the application process before we had to actually complete it. The best bit of advice I can give you on service academy applications is to make absolutely certain you have every aspect covered [high enough SAT scores, community service, sports, physical fitness] before you submit the application. If the application lacks in even one of the areas, it generally gets shuffled off to another pile and it is almost impossible to get it back into the "consideration" pile.

    Also, don't fret if the Boy does not make the first cut. Lauren did not get selected in the first round for her class as the Academy was looking only for pilot-trainees. But there were not enough of them to fill the class [and Lauren’s eyesight kept her from being pilot-trainee eligible], so they went back to the pile of those who had all the necessary requirements, and she was selected. Her response when she got the letter? "Now I guess I have to cut my hair." [She had then, and now has again, hair that falls below her waist.] She did not want the Academy folks to cut it so we did the salon thing just before she left for Colorado Springs.]

  13. The Munchkin is already plotting about what scholarships she can apply for and she's only in Grade 10. I realize how lucky we are that she has an idea of where she wants to go and what she wants to study. She has a couple of friends who plan to get on X Factor and become famous after high school. (I wish I was kidding but I'm not!)

  14. I don't have children, so I found this highly illuminating. I have great empathy for my parental friends now!

    Given the 9% acceptance rate, everywhere, I'm just glad I went to Berkeley when I did. My friends and I talk about how we probably wouldn't get in if we applied now! Yeesh, it was hard enough back then...

  15. My oldest just started college this fall, and I just breathe a sigh of relief that she is there, attending classes, adjusting well (can't say the same for Mom....). My younger is a junior so we will have to gear up and do this all again very soon. Very different kid - very different process, I'm sure. Double valium probably needed!

    Things sure were different when I was that age!


  16. Oh Julia,
    You have my sympathies, I did an essay on how crazy it made me for an anthology: on this: I'm Going to College Not You (St Martins) by Kenyon dean Jennifer Delahunty, who collected these essays from the many crazy parents she knew.

    (You should see if they are doing an update!)

    I can tell you my son Spike was every interested in Catholic Schools and in schools with "spirt" and great football teams he could watch and bond over.

    He did not get into Notre Dame. And he wound up rejecting Boston College and the five other Catholic schools he got into.

    When he got into his non-denominational college, he took a religion class and immediately lost his interest in it, and in his junior year, I asked if he had ever gone to a sporting event at his school (which boasted excellent sports).

    Turns out he hadn't.

    For the most part, they really have no idea what they want and are just making it up to narrow the field.

    He was incredibly happy in college and moved to NYC with all his many college friends.

    It all works out.

  17. If they give you trouble during high school, talk about going to community college locally for a couple of years and then transferring... that will straighten them right up.
    and just a gentle reminder, not everyone needs college... have you had a plumbing emergency lately??? and they don't have to pay back college/med school loans...

  18. Ok so I live in FL and of course, the only 2 schools that "matter" here are UF and FSU. So I have a friend whose girls attend UF. Neither of them have more than 1 class-as-we-remember-class. They live in an apartment near campus and take classes on the computer. Huh??? I'm not paying a bazillion dollars a year for my kid to live in an apartment and take computer classes next to other kids that are doing the same. Lordy, even I'd be drinking during class! Recipe for disaster, anyone????

  19. Best money we spent was for a college admission advisor. She immediately established, in a way we couldn't have managed, that it was between her and him, and we should butt out.

    Last step was the essay. The advisor called and asked if I had helped him with the essay. I told her I didn't even know he'd written it. She said, "Well, he nailed it--had me in tears." That's what got him into his first (and only) choice school.

  20. Julia, I have to point out, gently, that your sigh of relief when they get into a good school may still result in that Valium later.
    They will graduate, be heading in a sensible direction and then reappear two years later to say they now want to go to drama school, music academy to become actor/singers.
    You will sigh and tear at your hair.
    We have been through this twice.
    We now have an unemployed actor and a musician/composer who is up for an Arizona Tony award. So who knows?

  21. Hysterical, Julia. It hits home for me, as with many other commenters, because my oldest (15)will be making this choice in the next couple of years. We talk a lot about not closing off any options (by poor grades, only taking PE courses, getting pregnant, whatever). She currently wants to major in Theater and Biology and become a Broadway star. Can there be any harder career to break into?!

  22. Oh how familiar it all sounds! My only child is three weeks into his freshman year at Xavier. It was every bit as hard as you make it sound, but it was kind of a precious experience, too. Like you, there was the choice that I loved and he didn't; there was another that he loved but his dad and I were sure would not yield four years of satisfaction; one we drove two states away to visit that got eliminated by the end of the first presentation...well, I could go on. Good luck to those out there going through it now. And remember to savor the moments!

  23. Not there yet but definitely headed that direction. Loved reading the comments. Thanks!

  24. How apropos. Enjoyed your take on it, Julia.

    My oldest decided on the junior college route. It took her three years, because classes are so tight. And many California (and Nevada) universities report that it will probably take a min. of 5 years to finish what used to take four. So she is now at university, and we've been told to expect the last two years to take three.

    I have two high school seniors this year! They're so far interested in the same university. We've already been in touch with admissions to make sure they're on the right track. So next year we'll have three in college at once.

    So much for my kitchen remodel...