It Takes Two to Tackle College Entry

Tracey Wong Briggs

November, 12, 2003

Karin Kasdin fantasized that her son would do her proud in the college application process. Dan would make a good impression on admission officers with questions about degree programs and library resources. The college visits would be mini family vacations. Ultimately, she would drive off into the sunset, her car window graced with a sticker from his prestigious college.

As it turned out, Dan Weinstein fell asleep during his first college information session, tired and distracted after a breakup with his first serious girlfriend. His mother bickered with him on the college visits and nagged him through the entire process.

Kasdin does have a car sticker from Boston University, Dan’s first-choice school, where he is a senior. But she didn’t get it without enough hair-pulling to fill a book: Watsamatta U: A Get-a-Grip Guide to Staying Sane Through Your Child’s College Application Process.

“Kids are nervous. They’re not even finished with the junior prom, but they’re tossed into a college situation,” says Kasdin, a playwright and “recovering hyper parent” from Newtown, Pa.

The college admission process always has been a rite of passage for students and parents. With concerns about competitiveness and spiraling tuition, stress levels are higher than ever.

In college-bound communities, parents are stressed over whether their children will get into the “right” college. Who gets in where has become unpredictable, and parents have no control over it, says educational consultant Bill Rubin of Costa Mesa, Calif.

“In communities where significant amounts of parents didn’t go to college, they’re stressed in entirely different ways. They’re more stressed about what is college, why is it worth all this money, and how should we pay for it.”

How that concern translates to parental involvement is at once socio-economic, regional and highly individual. In the most re- cent National Association of College Admission Counseling survey of counselors, half of those who listed parental involvement as a pressing concern worried about over-involved parents, but half worried about parents who weren’t involved enough, says David Hawkins, the association’s director of public policy.

Mark Your Calendar
Admission deadlines vary widely depending on the college and type of admission, so students and parents must check deadlines with each individual college. It’s also important to note whether deadlines are “postmark” deadlines or “received by” deadlines. Colleges may have separate applications for scholarships or honors programs, says independent college consultant Bev Taylor of Roslyn Heights, N.Y.

Seniors who haven’t taken the SAT or ACT (or think they can improve their score) can still take the tests in December or January, Taylor says.

When late registration deadlines have passed, you also may be able to pay an extra walk-in or a standby fee.

The rule of thumb with financial aid is to submit your paperwork as soon as you can because some types of aid are first-come, first-served. Private scholarships have their own deadlines, as well.

Here are some major dates students and parents should keep in mind during the senior year:
Nov. 20: December ACT late registration deadline.
Dec. 6: SAT I and II testing date.
Dec. 13: December ACT test.
Dec. 22: January SAT I and II deadline.
Jan. 1: Regular application deadline for many highly selective schools. Application deadlines vary greatly from college to college, but those following a regular admission cycle often have deadlines in January and February, with notifications in April.
Jan. 1: First date you can submit FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (www.fafsa.ed.gov), used by the federal government to award Pell Grants and also used by many colleges as the base document for institutional need-based aid.
Jan. 2: February ACT deadline.
Jan. 24: SAT I and II testing.
Feb. 7: ACT testing date.
May 1: Students must notify colleges whether they will attend, and most schools require a deposit.

“From the research I’ve taken part in, a lot of parents who haven’t gone to college don’t know how to help,” he says.

So what’s a parent to do?

“Parents need to identify themselves as support. The student is the decision-maker,” says Judith Hingle, the admission association’s director of professional development.

Students really should own the decision, and parents who don’t trust their children to do it right send them a mixed message, says Marilee Jones, dean of admissions at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

From her vantage point at MIT, a school that accepted only 16% of its class of 2007 applicants, Jones sees the norm shifting. There always have been some highly involved parents, but “the norm now is for parents to manage their kids’ lives,” she says.

Baby-boomer moms who have been shuttling their kids from one supervised activity to another are comfortable driving the college application process, making the appointments, touring schools without their children, sitting in on interviews and, most egregiously, writing student essays, she says.

Parents need to pay attention to their language. If they find themselves saying “we are applying” and referring to “our application,” those are red flags that they’re stepping over the line.

Even if they didn’t go to college themselves, parents can help a lot by going to parent nights and getting good information, Hingle says.

News stories about the competitiveness of the most selective schools give people a distorted view of the whole process, she adds. “The attention tends to discourage people with less knowledge. They see it as impossible.”

Only about 100 of the nation’s 3,000 four-year colleges and universities can be considered highly competitive, but people don’t get the message that the vast majority of colleges still accept the vast majority of students who apply, she says. “Everybody equates college admissions with what’s happening with highly competitive colleges.”

Not every college costs a bundle
Parents who didn’t go to college also tend to overestimate the cost, she says. “They read about Ivy League prices and assume that applies to all colleges.” (Tuition and fees averaged $19,710 at four-year private colleges and universities this year, $4,694 at four-year public schools, and $1,905 at two-year publics, according to the College Board.)

Parents also need to keep in mind that the whole process comes at a difficult time for teens, Hingle says. “Many are getting driver’s licenses, and their social lives are becoming very different at that point. The end of high school is visible, and as eager as they are to move on, they are threatened by the massive changes that are coming on.”

Meanwhile, college and scholarship applications often ask students to toot their own horn. “We teach them to be fairly modest, and then we tell them to write an essay on what your good points are.” One way they deal with it, she says, is by procrastinating.

It may be ideal if students take the lead, but most parents do have to get the search started, says school psychologist Carol Freeman of Middletown, N.Y., author of Living With a Work in Progress II: A Parents’ Guide to Surviving High School.

“They (kids) don’t know what college is all about. As parents, our responsibility is to jump-start the process and be on top of them for deadlines. They need to do the work. But to expect that to come from inner motivation is a little unrealistic for most kids,” she says.

The paperwork can be daunting for all involved.

“If he didn’t have me, I don’t know where he’d be with the applications,” says Cynthia Saxton of Columbus, Ga., of her son Dexter Nathaniel, 17. Not only are there multiple essay questions, but you have to depend on so many other people — teachers and counselors and even peer recommendations, as well as transcripts, she says.

Paperwork vs. school work
Dexter knows he needs scholarship money to go to his top-choice college, but it’s a struggle to keep up with the paperwork along with his courses at Carver High School’s science magnet program and the local community college, plus fall baseball, the math team and the National Honor Society.

“It’s difficult staying organized and actually trying to enjoy my last year of high school,” he says. “I’m mostly concerned with doing the schoolwork I have now.”

Though at first he didn’t want his mom organizing all that college mail, Dexter relented.

“I hate to be a procrastinator and wait to the last minute,” he says. “With my mother here, I’m not allowed to be. When I look at the big picture, that’s not a bad thing. When it’s time to come to bed, and she’s wanting me to work on them, it’s irritating.”

Even as parents keep a watch on deadlines, it’s also important for them to reassure their kids they’re ready to move on, Freeman says. The kids who have excelled in high school and made lots of friends are often the most ready to move on, she says, but they’re often the most reluctant to leave it behind.

Issues such as cost and location may be points of conflict, but it may be a mistake to rule out applying to a dream school based on the price tag, she says. Sometimes the most expensive schools have the biggest endowments, so there may be more financial aid available.

By supporting students’ choices in the fall, parents also can stick in a few options of their own when deciding where to apply.

“When it comes time to make a decision in the spring, you can sit down and make pros and cons,” Freeman says. “If your child wants to go and you can’t afford it, you have to be honest. But none of these decisions have to made quickly; there’s time.”

Whatever financial parameters they may have, parents really do have to let kids make the decision themselves, because it’s the first step to being an adult, Kasdin says.

Though her son Dan says he always understood that his mother had his best interests at heart, Kasdin regrets having pushed him so hard. “I straightened myself out in the nick of time before I ruined my relationship with him.”

When it came time for her second son to look at colleges last year, they drove six hours to a school, and her son said he didn’t like it even before he got out of the car.

“We put the car in reverse before it was ever in park,” Kasdin says. “If that had been my first child, I would have had a hissy fit.”