A Guide to College Applications

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The collegiate search-and-application process can take many months and trigger psychological highs and lows, but managing emotions and expectations induce successful outcomes for parents and children.

The formula endorsed by hundreds college counselors across the country is simple, but difficult to enact: Parents choosing to see that everything will work out decrease stress at home; children who don’t procrastinate keep parents at bay. Parents who embrace their child’s first major adult decision help themselves by admitting that the child’s choice is being made in a safe environment.

Nothing bad happens. At worst, an ambitious but unmotivated teen may learn life lessons.

Bruce Hunter, a 30-year college counselor from Sarasota, Florida, has helped thousands of independent-school students with their applications. He advises parents to “take a deep breath and have confidence in your son or daughter to negotiate the process while you lend support whenever it’s actually needed.”

Hunter, who runs national workshops and mentors hundreds of college counselors, advocates learning from mistakes and failures. The college-application process is ideal for putting this into practice because it is not life or death.

“Students grow and gain perspective and independence by stepping through this process and taking charge of their futures when they have the freedom and support to do so,” he says.

Life Lessons

  • The Teen’s Responsibilities
  • Adapted from Fiske Guide to Colleges, here are some responsibilities
    of college applicants:
  • Betray no tremors when parents offer opinions. Smile and nod.
  • Meet deadlines to reduce or negate parental nagging.
  • Show parents what you do (or have done) so they have no reason to nag.
  • Embrace that this is your decision, not your parents’, not your best friend’s, not your significant other’s.
  • Take charge of the process.
  • Avoid contrariness by researching all options.

If deadlines are missed, teens experience consequences. They don’t learn anything “when parents step in to save the day,” says Hunter, who endorses the bestselling The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey, his former colleague at Rowland Hall-St. Mark’s School in Salt Lake City.

Hunter likens the child to a bus driver and sometimes the bus doesn’t go; the parent has a map (not the map). This is not the parent’s college application or experience (or a vicarious reliving of either); it’s the child’s.

“The royal we isn’t going to work here,” Hunter says. “We’re taking the SAT … we’re working on college essays … we’re applying to these schools compromises students’ ability to take charge of the process. If they make mistakes, they recover, they move on. They mature much quicker than children whose parents jump in to rescue them.”

Letting go challenges parents who have managed their children’s lives. Acknowledging this, colleges accommodate stress that comes from abdicating control. Most events for prospective and incoming students have parental elements, from tours to question-and-answer sessions.

“We are so glad when parents are involved,” says Jesse Chambliss, a University of Tulsa admissions officer. “We want the family invested in this decision. We want to work with parents and answer all their questions, but we also want to address the students’ needs.

“We emphasize the student taking ownership while keeping the family involved. All families are coming from a different place. Just listening and being an advocate for them is what it’s all about.”

Chuck Flint, from Oklahoma City University’s admissions office, concurs.

“I engage the student when the parents are asking all the questions, but we want the parents to be comfortable, too,” he says. “We make it personal.”

Debunking Myths

A misperception of many parents is that only a dozen highly selective colleges are worthy for their children. That myth has been debunked for at least 25 years, according to many publications, Hunter and hundreds of American college counselors. The United States has a glut of first-rate professors with terminal degrees in their fields; they populate nearly every position at four-year schools.

Financial Aid

The biggest mistake when paying for college is not filing a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Too many assume they will not receive aid, and/or get intimidated by the process.

The FAFSA accounts for special circumstances and how many children are, will be or have been in college. U.S. citizenship is not a factor.

Every collegiate financial aid advisor has the same mantra: “Fill out the FAFSA. You will be surprised.” Expensive schools may become possible because many base financial outlays on students’ FAFSAs.

The FAFSA opens each year on Oct. 1. Go to fafsa.ed.gov.

For instance, the University of Oklahoma ranks No. 1 among public universities nationwide in the enrollment of freshman National Merit Scholars. There are 850 such students in OU’s National Honors Program, which has had winners of Rhodes, Fulbright, Goldwater, Truman and Marshall scholarships.

“We have a top-flight honors college that home in on small classes and the top professors on campus,” says Jeff Blahnik, executive director of OU’s office of admissions and recruitment. “Students are surrounded by excellent classmates, the 0.05 percent best in the nation. You get that Ivy League feel, but at a major research university.”

Blahnik adds that OU, during the tenure of President David Boren, has increased the number of endowed faculty members from 70-80 to more than 580, “so we have renowned experts in many fields.”

Oklahoma State University’s Honors College houses top professors and most classes are capped at 22 students, with many having 15 or fewer. Courses emphasize discussion-based critical thinking, oral and written communication, and synthesizing complex materials. In addition, Dean Keith Garbutt stresses the personal touches and nuances shared by OSU and honors colleges at many public universities.

“I’m clear when I talk to parents that you want to make the choice that’s the best fit for your child,” he says. “Part of that is the support given to the student. At OSU, honors students are part of a community where they’ll feel comfortable and succeed.”

Parents’ Responsibilities

Adapted from Fiske Guide to Colleges, here are some responsibilities
of parents of college applicants:

  • Relax. Breathe. Death will not occur.
  • Understand mistakes will occur. Smile, nod and calmly help when they do.
  • Resist taking control when deadlines loom.
  • Celebrate that this is your child’s decision, not yours.
  • Keep criticisms objective and neutral.
  • Encourage and embrace your child’s independence.
  • Have a frank conversation about collegiate costs.
  • Drop hints of your opinions, but back off quickly.

He cites his weekly Tea With Huxley at Stout Hall (Huxley is one of mascot Pistol Pete’s posse dogs), where students can stop by for something to sip or nosh. But the emphasis, Garbutt says, is on “listening to what they have to say so they can let us know if there’s a concern.”

Therefore, according to New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, where young people pursue their baccalaureate degrees is far less important than what they do as undergraduates. Bruni’s bestselling Where You Go Is Not Who You Will Be shows that competition is fierce, so employers, master’s and doctoral programs and schools of medicine, law, dentistry and veterinary medicine value college graduates’ track records, not their alma maters.

“[T]he nature of the student’s college experience – the work that he or she puts into it, the self-examination that’s undertaken, the resourcefulness that’s honed – matters more than the name of the institution attended,” Bruni writes.

An über college (as Hunter says) does not guarantee success. Plus, the term “exclusive” may not reflect a college’s quality.

An example: Fictional Tatooine College, with an outstanding reputation, wants to become exclusive (an acceptance rate below 10 percent). Achieving that status comes through saturation. Tatooine College, with 1,000 freshman slots, usually has 4,000 applications, a 25-percent acceptance rate, but mass mailing, social media and slick marketing increase applications to 12,000 without increasing freshman slots. As if by magic, Tatooine College can now boast an acceptance rate of 8.3 percent … without making itself better.

Finding the Right Fit

With this realization, applicants should find three to nine colleges fitting their needs, a challenge because of socioeconomic biases favoring exclusivity. Colleges That Change Lives by Loren Pope and Hilary Masell Oswald offers practical advice for finding schools that fit. (This multi-edition book has a useful website, ctcl.org.)

Other Options

Community colleges, such as Tulsa Community College or Oklahoma City Community College, can provide smart options for students who want to work and go to school part time, have difficulties deciding on a college, and/or would like to finish their general education requirements with lower tuition to reduce costs toward a four-year degree.

Others may be drawn to trades that do not require a four-year degree, so schools such as Tulsa Technology Center or Oklahoma City’s Francis Tuttle Technology Center provide yearlong programs toward becoming certified plumbers, electricians, mechanics and other well-paid professionals.

A gap year is an option as long as the teen is productive. “Traveling the world” or “finding myself” is not advised; having a steady job or diving into community service is recommended.

The process can start after the freshman year of high school, but should begin no later than January of the child’s junior year. Hunter, Bruni, Pope and Oswald stress a clean slate and acknowledging biases. For instance, a certain college may have appeal only because its basketball team makes Final Four appearances.

From there, the applicant should separate “must haves” from “would be nice ifs.” Using College Match by Steven Antonoff helps. Once an ideal type of college is delineated, in-depth research forms the student’s list. Fiske Guide to Colleges and College Board’s search engine, Big Future, provide valid suggestions.

An applicant should ensure every school is a winner; 3,500-plus American institutions offer bachelor’s degrees, so finding three to nine is realistic with research. College admissions offer no guarantees, so the student should be happy with any school on her or his list.

The applicant shouldn’t make choices based on hearsay. Plus, a graduate program at a college has no connection to those earning a bachelor’s degree from the same place. Graduating from Yale University has nothing to do with getting into Yale Law School.

Instead, teens should use criteria important to them and the realities of their grades, standardized test scores and extracurricular experiences. The “best fit” colleges are out there for each high school graduate, who easily has the means to find them.

Compiling the List of Colleges

A common point of contention for families in the collegiate application process is The List.

Parents, for intensely personal, generational reasons, may want the teen to consider only specific colleges and (gasp!) certainly not the football team’s archrival. The applicant, for intensely personal, generational reasons, may have entirely different views.

Objectivity should rule. Parents should avoid injecting bias into the process. The teen should turn an objective lens toward actual grades, standardized test scores and extracurricular activities, and be realistic with what schools fit her or his needs, expectations, desires and field of study.

Two invaluable sources keep it real. Big Future, the College Board’s collegiate search engine, lets an applicant customize limitless searches of a massive database. For instance, if a high school senior with an ACT of 30 and SAT scores of 700/700 wants to major in marine biology at small liberal-arts schools in warm climates, 10 options will appear. The applicant can save that search, tweak nearly two dozen criteria (maybe public universities are OK, she thinks) and up pop 31 more schools.

Then use Fiske Guide to Colleges, a neutral, well-researched assessment of more than 320 schools. Edward B. Fiske has an established reputation representing colleges straightforwardly and analytically. Each school is covered in 4-5 pages, with a summary box of admissions criteria.

An early draft of The List, ideally in January of the teen’s junior year, will vary with each student. It could be as small as 10 colleges or as large as 25. Regardless, it’s fluid at this point. From January through May, the teen needs to research all the schools and start to pare The List.

By August, The List should number at least three schools, but no more than nine. An axiom among most college counselors across the country is, “If students apply to 10 or more schools, they haven’t done their homework.” Plus, applying to a school “just to see if I’ll get in” wastes many people’s time. On the flip side, students should not apply to schools that they have no intentions of attending. Acceptances to those schools essentially deny slots to applicants who really want to go there.

Five to seven schools on The List is a good number. Because collegiate admissions have become highly competitive, a senior should only have, at most, two reach schools. The bulk of the applications should be to target schools coming closest to the child’s actual grades, standardized test scores and extracurricular activities. The student should apply to only two likely schools (the term safety is discouraged because nothing is guaranteed in collegiate admissions nowadays; plus, there’s a sense of entitlement in the usage).

Being honest with what is, not what is wished, will create a proper list … and lower frustration levels.

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