College Guidance Blog
Our College Guidance team offers periodic suggestions and tips for navigating the college selection process, a journey that is both challenging and exciting. To reach our College Guidance Staff, please use the contacts below:
By Timothy Gibson, Director of College Guidance and Student Life
May 1st is the National Decision Day for most colleges and universities. Seniors have been admitted to a variety of schools and have selected a home for the next four years. The college search process, though enjoyable, can be quite stressful as students and families navigate difficult admission decisions and financial aid and scholarship awards, while preparing for AP exams and senior activities. As a college counselor, it is my hope that each student's final choice feels like their first choice, as they have been thoughtful and intentional throughout the process. Once the deposit has been paid, many families wonder what happens next. To help you as you plan for your child's transition to college, I offer the following suggestions:
- Celebrate! You made it through relatively unscathed, and your child is going to college. Whether your child is staying close to home or going cross-country, this is a huge milestone that should be recognized. Buy a t-shirt and a car sticker. Tell your friends and family. If your child has selected a school that may be unfamiliar to those around you, share the many wonderful programs that exist and why it is such a good fit.
- Remind your child that high school still matters. Though they are all signed up for college, they still need to finish high school. Colleges require final transcripts, and a major drop in grades is a huge red flag. For students taking AP classes, doing well on the exams can mean college credit, and it also serves as a reflection of the work done in class and the efficacy of our teachers. Remind your child to please take these tests seriously and do their best!
- Remember that every school uses a different process to communicate with incoming students. Just because you haven't heard about housing doesn't mean that there is an issue. If you are concerned about missing anything, have your student reach out to his admission counselor. Please note that the student should make the contact, as this will prepare her to tackle any future concerns.
- Some students experience buyer's remorse over the summer as their friends come back from summer programs at different schools, or go to an early orientation and rave about everything that exists on the campus that your student did not select. This is perfectly normal, especially for students whose schools do not offer summer orientation. There's no need to change course.
- Create a list of things that your child should know. There are many routine tasks that your child may not know how to do. Make sure your child knows how to do laundry, refill prescriptions, check the oil in the car, and change a tire.
- Talk about money. Some students have no sense of what things cost. If you expect your child to manage her own money, sit down with her to help outline a budget. If you intend to give him fixed amount of money per month, help him determine how to make the money last.
The end of high school serves as the transition to adulthood for seniors. This is both a wonderful and scary time for many families. At times, graduates feel as though they are ready to take on the world. While this is true for some students, others are terrified at the idea of moving away from home. Both are ok, and your student may vacillate between these two extremes prior to leaving for school. As parents, you may have some of the same feelings. Enjoy the summer with your child. Figure out house rules and learn to negotiate with your young adult.
As posters are taken off of bedroom walls and high school trophies are moved off of the shelves, you will begin to realize that things are going to change forever. The young child who was afraid to let go of your hand on the first day of kindergarten is now moving into a new home. Laugh, cry, and hug often. As you drive away after moving into the residence hall, be proud of who he or she has become. You have done everything that you can to prepare your child to successful; it is now their turn.
By Beverly Brooks, Associate Director of College Guidance
This time of year is a tough one, especially in college admission. Our Upper School Director, Tom Morris, often refers to this period as the “winter swoon” of the school year. Not only is it challenging to gain momentum in a classroom with holiday breaks and the dreary weather, but also, little of the messaging our seniors receive right now is particularly happy and bright. Deferrals are a regular feature of the winter—the dreaded “not NO, but not yet.” Colleges ask a lot of families at this time of year, but provide little in return. The FAFSA is available January 1, which serves as a looming and frequent reminder to parents that they haven’t yet done their taxes. It is an invasive and yet necessary process, but rather unsatisfying, even upon its completion. Unless your income is below the poverty line or in excess of $1M, it is highly unlikely that the FAFSA spits out a number that you can actually pay for college.
So how do you combat this terrible time, when your child thinks that the light at the end of the tunnel is still a train? I have some tips (and non-senior parents, these go for you as well!):
- Be your child’s biggest cheerleader. A young woman sat in my office around this time last year while she broke down, repeating “What if everything I’ve done isn’t enough?” I’ll be honest, I teared up myself—a rarity for me! Your child will find out if everything they’ve done is enough from the colleges; they don’t need that reinforcement from their family. Instead, this is the time to build your student up. Remind them that this process isn’t the sum of their worth as a student or as a person, and that it has everything to do with them and nothing to do with them. But they will be significantly more prepared to deal with what is coming (positive or otherwise) if they have unconditional support in their corner. Feeling the worry and pressure yourself? Call your college guidance counselor!! We would much rather you share that doubt and concern with us instead of with your child.
- Have a friend or a distant relative who just so happens to know someone who knows someone? Now’s the time to get chummy. We always want our students to feel as though they have done everything they can; we call it “leaving it all on the dance floor.” You want to feel that way as well, that you’ve left no stone (or uncle’s girlfriend’s chiropractor) unturned. If you happen to know someone, it is always worth reaching out and mentioning how much your child loves the college with whom this person is associated. It may feel a bit disingenuous (and let’s be candid—it kind of is), but if that person could make a difference for your student, won’t you feel better at least asking? You can even just ask for an additional contact person from your connection, since “college X is your kid’s number one choice.” The more people supporting your child’s application on the “other side of the desk,” the better. It’s always easier to deal with decisions that come down the pike knowing that you’ve exhausted all of your resources as well. Your caution? Don’t do this for more than one school. If your connection is going to use their capital, they want to know it will be returned in kind with the enrollment of your student.
- Go for that second (or third) visit. Your child will start to get fitful, refreshing online portals and checking the mailbox incessantly. Visiting a college or two again not only gets them on campus when it is at its most dreary and cold (a must for students considering Northern schools—they need to know what they’re signing up for!), it also makes your senior feel as though they are doing something. If you are looking for something your child can do to feel productive during the waiting game, this is it! It also shows an additional level of commitment to your child’s schools if they consider demonstrated interest—always a plus.
- Take the college conversations off of the table. Let’s be honest—even if a senior has been accepted, there are few college decisions that can be made without financial aid information. To continue to bring up college and their admission decisions when nothing productive can come from the conversation is not just futile; it will make your student significantly less interested in chatting or being at home. They already have to brace themselves at holidays and on vacation, at church, and in their everyday lives when friends, family, and strangers ask them where they’re attending and they still have no answer; you want to be their respite, not something else to escape. I know I have mentioned this in an earlier post, but I think it’s worth reiterating. Give your kid a break and talk about the final minutes of the Super Bowl, impending Proma (Prom drama. Trademark pending), and anything other than where they’ll be attending this fall. Your student will thank you, I PROMISE.
This time of year will pass rather slowly, but it passes. Be sure to complete your FAFSA, especially if your child will even possibly attend a school in Tennessee (it doubles as the application for the HOPE scholarship). Keep an eye out for receptions in town or last-minute visits by colleges to high schools—even the smallest amount of demonstrated interest can’t hurt and might help! As always, be sure to use your college guidance office as a resource. We are here to help everyone involved. We know that your child walking across that stage in May has as much to do with their accomplishments as it does with your sacrifices, commitment, and love. The winter swoon is almost over. Stay strong—and warm!
By Beverly Brooks, Associate Director of College Guidance
Essay writing season: it is the time of year when seniors begin wishing they had a terrible ailment, or a deceased relative, or something that would make them stand out. I have had students say aloud in my office, “If only I had a brain tumor, this would be so much easier!” I politely tell those students that those with brain tumors would probably happily hand theirs over, but that is beside the point. There are a few major issues when it comes to essay writing:
- Seniors try to write what they think colleges want to hear (a recipe for disaster)
- Seniors think their essay needs to cover their entire life story
- Students think the essay has to be sad or serious in order to be the most impactful
- Seniors, even the most high-achieving, likely haven’t been forced to be articulately introspective since middle school, so their emotional vocabulary and ability to be self-reflective (not self-centered—some are great at that) halted then
To the first, I think I speak for all current and former admissions officers when I say that reading the essays that students think colleges want to hear is possibly the most painful part of the reading process. You would think it’s recalculating GPAs, but no—there is nothing more monotonous than reading forty essays a day about how someone made (or didn’t make) the big catch in the big game and what it has meant for their life. Everyone has gone on a mission trip to Mexico (yes, the bus always breaks down) or a band trip to Florida. An essay about a journey through high school that conveniently regurgitates one’s resume is also excruciating. As I told our upper school parents last week, I used to travel the state of Georgia when I worked in admissions; every third essay was about football, God, or football and God. For many of our students, the essay will be the only way to infuse personality and dimension into their application. This is the chance to be remarkable!
As to the second point, essays should be no shorter than 300 words and no longer than 650 words. Shorter than 300, it appears as though the student doesn’t care; anything longer than 650, and I can all but guarantee the counselor won’t know how the essay ends because they will stop reading. Students should not try to cram their entire life story into two pages, because they wouldn’t be able to do it justice in 200 pages. Choose one story, one feeling, one attribute, and make that that essay.
Sad essays are the worst. Reading days are tough enough (admissions officers are people-people; sitting alone for 12+ hours a day looking at a computer is already agonizing); the addition of a gloomy essay does not make a counselor excited about a student. If someone has gone through something profound, I think that’s worth addressing. But unless the grandmother about whom the student is writing also raised that student, there is little reason to bring her up. I always encourage students to consider being witty or funny. In a stack of 100 applications, I would argue that there is maybe 1-2 funny essays; think of how much those students end up standing out! My favorite essay, which I remember after six years, was witty, the appropriate length, and about nothing in particular (the Seinfeld of essays). No one needs to be depressing in an essay unless they want to be remembered as the “sad kid” during committee.
My last point is to encourage students to think about what they want an admissions representative to know about them that isn’t accurately reflected already in their application. Maybe it’s that they’re a wonderful older brother, or incredibly funny, or will be the first in their family to attend college. I ask students to describe themselves in three words and then ask their friends and family to do the same—are there words that surprise them, or ones that pop up every time? Can they find a story that exemplifies that one characteristic? Each student at St. George’s takes the Myers-Briggs assessment, and I often encourage the seniors to look back at their results and see if it triggers something within them. My most frequent advice to seniors? Your essay will not come to you immediately, and you will not be able to write it overnight. Students are often used to churning something out the night before and turning it in, regardless of the quality—this is not how the college essay should be approached. Students (and their wonderful parents) will ultimately be very pleased with the final product when they feel like a student has given their application their all (we in Team College Guidance call it “leaving it all on the dance floor”); when they have done that, the process feels much more in their control. We often say that this process has everything to do with the student and absolutely nothing to do with the student. It is much easier to let go knowing that whatever happens, the student has put their best foot forward—and the essay is the lace of the shoe.
By Beverly Brooks, Associate Director of College Guidance
As the school year begins, it seems as though everything is moving at a breakneck pace — especially when it comes to college applications and admissions. I would imagine one could contribute a significant amount of this frenetic energy to the fact that this process always feels new, even when it is your second or third (or fourth!) child. My goal is always to put as much of the application process as I can “on the bottom shelf”— that is, to do what I can to make information accessible. I want this process to be fun and transformative, which is a challenge when many families feel as though it causes nothing but tense family dinners and nightmares about the “small envelope.”
Throughout the year, I will be providing a “road map” for this journey, one that will be relevant regardless of which grade your child is currently enrolled. To start, I always like to provide the basics, so that you feel as though you have a foundation for where you and your child are headed over the next several months and years. As your student begins the college process, I would encourage you to consider “fit” as your primary focus. At St. George’s, we define fit three ways: academic, social, and financial. However you choose to prioritize those three distinctions is up to you, but it is important to think about what your student hopes to get out of their time in college. If they want to play a sport, they will need to focus on connecting with the coach (and the team) early on, especially if they will be competitive at the Division I level. That part of the search process can and should start as early as freshman year. Perhaps your child is fascinated by going pre-med; for that student, I would encourage touching base with a professor during a visit, or sitting in on a class. Ask about what research opportunities are available for undergraduates; no budding scientist wants to spend four years cleaning beakers, and that can often be the case at Research I institutions where the majority of the funding and focus is on graduate students.
For many families, that third distinction is the most crucial to the process — and rightly so. I remember sitting with a senior and his parents a few years ago when the dad asked his son if he knew any eighteen year-olds with a $50,000/year job. When the son replied in the negative, dad said, “Well, you’re about to be one.” I thought that was so profound, and I encourage all of our parents to approach the conversation about paying for college that way. There is a financial investment from both the college (if you are receiving scholarship or funding in any way) and the family, and talking early, often, and openly about what you expect from the “return on investment” from your child is an excellent place to start what can often be the most stressful part of the college process.
The last piece that I want to address is how to have the most successful college search for you and your student. We always use the “car” analogy — student is in the driver’s seat, family in the passenger seat, college counselors in the back. We are all helping the car stay on course, but the student is ultimately in control. That said, we want to make sure that none of us end up in the trunk.
Know that whether your child is talking to you about the college process or not, they are absolutely thinking about it. I know it can get frustrating at times when it is all you want to talk about — and your child would like to discuss anything but. That is often because they hear about it day in and day out at school. When I was an eleventh grade advisor at St. George’s, I asked my advisory what they wanted to discuss throughout the year; I received a very curt, “No college, thanks.” The next year, I moved up to the twelfth grade and the response to the question this time was, “College all of the time, please.” Sometimes it may seem like your child is entirely disengaged from the college process; more often than not, it is less about disengagement and more about exhaustion. Keep that in mind when approaching family conversations about their future. I tend to recommend letting the child choose one night a week that is dedicated to “college conversations.” Let them drive the discussion, and then back off for the rest of the week. You will stay in the loop, and they will stay sane. Everyone wins! If your student has a college counselor or twelfth grade counselor/advisor, this can often be a great person to help give you the inside scoop when you aren’t always getting the full story from your student.
Contrary to popular belief, the college search and admission process really is a fun one. You will learn so much about your child — and even more about yourself. There is an interesting transition that I love to watch as families struggle through moving from having a “confidant” relationship with their child, to an “advisor” relationship, and then finally to a “consultant” relationship. This is not meant to induce sadness, but rather to make sure you are aware of the tensions that will exist throughout this process. The great part involves watching the child begin to establish an adult relationship with you, which is something for which no one ever prepares them. It can be a bumpy ride at times — but this process is nothing if not transformative.
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