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Roadmap To College

Vacations are over, and school is back in session, and perhaps a state of anxiety has settled over you if you have a sophomore or junior in high school. It is no longer a matter

Vacations are over, and school is back in session, and perhaps a state of anxiety has settled over you if you have a sophomore or junior in high school. It is no longer a matter of talking about college in the future tense; the time to focus is now, and all signs are saying you need to be diligent. How can you best guide your child through this process and make it seamless and painless for both of you? Relax. The answers are quite simple.


● Start Searching Early: Again and again, every expert cites starting the college search early as a key success factor. Suzanne Norris, whose daughter Susannah will begin studying at George Washington University this fall, says that as happy as she was going through the process with help from counselors at her daughter’s high school, she would’ve started looking at schools a bit sooner. She recommends the summer before your child’s junior year as an ideal time to start, as visiting campuses early can get you motivated for the application process. Sarah Harberson, director of college counseling at the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, says that with all the technology available today, Good old fashioned college visits are sadly made less frequently. While virtual tours are amazing, you could miss out on a
couple things. Don’t underestimate that initial feeling from visiting the campus. Book an information session and perhaps an appointment with a professor in the field of your child’s interest as well to ensure you show “demonstrated interest for the school”. But don’t book your road trips just yet. Karen Miller, an independent college
counselor and tutor in Philadelphia, says that we are lucky to live where we do: surrounded by a wide variety of schools. You may want to leave the state for college, but why not visit Drexel to see if you might want to attend a school in the city? Or Villanova, if your child is considering a suburban campus setting? These local trips are great to do with your child as soon as he/she enters high school. Then, plan to visit your target schools that might be a few hours away during the summer before junior year.


● Know and Utilize Your Counselors: Encourage your child to get to know his/her high school’s college counselor as early as freshman year. Harberson recommends starting with informal conversations, allowing them to naturally build into a relationship over the next 2-3 years. This process allows counselors to get to know the student and his/her goals, help him/her select the right courses throughout high school and allow him/her to write a stronger, more honest letter of recommendation when the time comes. Counselors can also act as a liaison
between the family and the college during the application period. Harberson notes not to forget to encourage your child to find a mentor in one of his/her teachers during high school. Asking them for letters of recommendation out of the clear blue senior year won’t be beneficial to your child.


● Be Realistic: While the application process is pretty straightforward, there are some pitfalls, most of which can be avoided by really understanding your child. One of the most common mistakes is having unrealistic expectations. Know your child’s ability and be ready to make a choice that really matches his/her skills and capabilities. Since GPA is a key driver for acceptance into schools, setting your sights higher than what your high schooler has achieved thus far could be devastating to both of you down the road. The Wall Street Journal published an article in 2006, titled “Any College Will Do” citing the CEOs of many big companies at the time (Accenture, Walmart, Intel) had not gone to Ivy League schools and in some cases, quite the contrary. Since then, ongoing data confirms that big-ticket schools aren’t required for career success. “The biggest mistake I think parents can make is to make their child’s application’s process about themselves”, says Emily Feeney, the college counselor at Malvern Preparatory School in Malvern. “It’s your son or daughter going off to college, not you! And it’s sometimes hard for parents to separate what’s best for their child and what might have been best for them in college”. Along the same lines, don’t be blindsided by not understanding how important the level of coursework taken is starting as soon as they begin in high school.
That weighted GPA is a major factor that colleges and universities look for in their applicants. While it’s not wise to push your child far above their abilities, the simple fact is, if they can handle it, encourage them to take honors or AP classes right away. If they wait to take an honors class until 11th grade, their weighted GPA will be lower than needed for higher tier schools.


● Take The Right Test: Another common issue is not knowing which standardized test to take – The SAT or the ACT. Almost anyone who has attended college is familiar with the SAT, but it’s not the only game in town anymore. In fact, the ACT is outpacing the SAT test across the country. There is a very good chance your child will test significantly higher on one of the two tests and there’s a simple way to determine which: Visit ACT.org and collegeboard.com and download the diagnostic exams. Have your child try both, score, and see which one they respond better to. Since colleges look at these tests as equals, it’s certainly smarter to take the one they’ll probably score higher on. Another factor to consider is subject tests. Many high level colleges require or at least recommend taking 2-3 SAT subject tests. This is very important for college applicants to understand, because these tests are course-content driven. If they complete the subject they are testing in sophomore year, it is recommended that they take the
test the following summer while the content is still fresh in their minds.


● Have a plan B: We all want to be eternal optimists, but do not disregard the importance of choosing a “safety school”. Equal research needs to be given to one or two schools you are confident will accept your high schooler for two key reasons. First, many times there is scholarship money to be had with these schools. Second, nothing is for certain and your child might end up not getting into his/her top pick. Having a school already selected that he/she knows, likes, and will thrive in, will lessen the blow and start your child off on a more positive college career.


● Let them shine: What are colleges looking for today? Feeney says it’s still all about good old fashioned hard work.  There are so many great colleges in the U.S. and typically, they all want students who have challenged themselves academically, worked hard to get good grades, and will contribute to their college campus in some way -as a musician, student government leader, athlete, in community service, or some other part of college campus life.” she says. “The most elite colleges also are looking to enroll more first generation college students whose parents did not attend college and those from under represented socioeconomic backgrounds and geographic areas. I always tell students and parents “The good news about higher education in the U.S. is that there is a college out there for everyone if you are willing to have an open mind!” It’s also vital to let your child be in the driver’s seat during the college search. Harberson reminds parents, “Be there,- in the passenger’s seat. Allow your child to do some soul searching and come up with the right fit. This is the first step toward adulthood and maturity.”


● Respect the Essay: Once your student is actually filling out applications, do not overlook the importance of the essay. This window into the student’s life is a key differentiating factor. Harberson, who was formerly the dean of admissions for Franklin & Marshall college in Lancaster, has read thousands of admissions essays and advises some key strategies:
1. Make sure the student writes it. Even if it’s painful to watch them struggle, it has to be in his/her words.
2. Avoid “oversharing”. Certainly anything controversial or sensitive in nature needs to be avoided as well.
3. Avoid “under sharing” too, Colleges today are looking for unique qualities or character traits that define their applicants. A scrap from the fabric of daily life can be the exact thing that is woven into a well thought out essay.
4. Encourage applicants to budget their time, so they can take their time. It can take many drafts before everything feels just right.
5. Have an adult, parent, or teacher proofread.


● Ask for Help: Don’t be shy here; it’s too important. In addition to college counselors at school, ask your friends and family members who have children a year or two older than your child. Most will be more than happy to share tips and suggestions based on what they learned. Consider independent assistance from someone like Miller, or visit Amazon.com or the library to peruse the many books on the subject. Be sure to keep an organizer to keep track of important papers, dates, and correspondence. Most importantly, stay calm and enjoy the process. (that goes for both of you!) This journey can be a great bonding opportunity for parents and their young adults. The day you brought them home you knew this day was coming, so make the most of it.


Your Application Checklist – Ready, set, apply!


Here’s the quick list of your to-dos before applications are due.

● Visit at least a few schools the summer before Junior year
● Get applications and note deadlines
● Let your high school college counselor know which schools you’re applying to
● Request letters of recommendation
● Request your high school transcripts to send to colleges
● Spend time on your essay
● Request financial aid forms and note deadlines (usually mid-December or
● Pay application fees, sign, and send applications
● Confirm receipt of applications
● Wait patiently for responses
● Notify schools you will not be attending.

Content Director, Main Line Parent & Philadelphia Family. Email me at pamela@familyfocus.org