As we move through summer, the high school Class of 2019 is gearing up for college application season. The college application process is often daunting for students and their parents alike. For students, the process is understandably stressful and nerve-wracking. This is probably the biggest life milestone they have faced up to this point in their young lives. They’ve worked hard to get to here — cramming their schedules with AP/IB/Honors classes and extracurriculars, and the college application process often feels like judgment day for all their efforts and accomplishments.
The competition for admissions to top colleges has also increased substantially over the years. Top university are seeing record numbers of applicants. As a result, acceptance rates are lowering every year. The bar for applicants has also risen. Strong academics and high test scores are no longer golden tickets into Ivy League universities. Top colleges are looking for extraordinary applicants, and students are feeling that pressure.
As parents, you want the best for your child. College application time will be stressful for you as you try to balance helping your child and giving them space to own the process. Having connected with countless students and counselors about what has and has not worked, I wanted to share some thoughts for parents looking for tips on how to survive and ultimately best support your child during application season.
For parents whose kids are aiming for top ranked schools, this is a big one. And it is also the hardest one to internalize. If you’re reading this, chances are, you care deeply about your child, their achievements, and their education opportunities. They’ve probably worked extremely hard throughout their high school career to be a standout. They may be the top of their class. They may have amazing test scores. And they may excel in sports, music, clubs, and competitions. You are proud of them, and you should be. However, here’s the hard truth to swallow: no one is guaranteed a spot at an Ivy League college no matter how outstanding their academic stats are.
At the most selective tier of colleges, students are competing against tens of thousands of applicants. Many of these applicants will have impressive stats and national rankings in math, or chemistry, or writing, or music, or sports, etc. Students can optimize their chances through hard work, accomplishments, and compiling that into the best version of their college application. But at the end of the day, there are a myriad of factors that go into an admissions decision, and you can’t control them all.
This also trickles down to the rest of the field. Take the top 20 or top 50 ranked schools. The college admissions game has changed drastically even in the past 20 years, and the level of competition has risen across the board. As such, it’s important to understand the realities of the field and set the right expectations.
That is not to say don’t be hopeful or optimistic. Nor is it intended to discourage students from striving for top schools. Just know that no one is a shoe-in to a top school, and remember that admissions decisions are not the sole measure of your child’s value or their ability to succeed in the future.
Choosing a College
Believe it or not, your children actually do appreciate your wisdom and life experience. Choosing a college is a huge decision, and your child will need your help, from where to apply to committing to a university after acceptance.
This is where your insights can be immensely helpful. Help your child be mindful when putting together their list of colleges to apply to.
Sit down with your child and talk about what they value in their undergraduate experience. Provide suggestions on lifestyle factors they may want to consider such as location, urban versus suburban or rural campus, class size, etc.
Plan trips to visit the colleges, and try to see as many of their top choices as possible. This will help give them a sense of what life will be like as a student there.
Listen to them. This is where they’ll be spending the next four years of their life, and they’ve likely done their own research. Provide suggestions, but make sure to listen to their preferences and values.
Last but not least, make sure they are applying to enough match and safety schools to balance their reaches. Matches are colleges where an applicant has a good chance of acceptance. Safeties are colleges where an applicant has a high chance of acceptance. In my opinion, because of the level of competition from all over the world and the high caliber of applicants, Ivy League colleges should be considered a reach for everyone short of extraordinary, world class achievements like an Olympic gold medal. Again, setting the right expectations is key to a successful–and let’s be honest–sane application process.
Staying on Track
At least 50% of the college application battle comes down to time management. The college application process is a marathon juggling act where students are balancing many moving parts from standardized testing schedules to college deadlines to interview schedules on top of their usual classes and extracurriculars. The best thing you can do here is to help them get organized early and manage deadlines as a family.
Find a good college checklist and timeline. Print it out and tack it on to your fridge. Talk about it as a family and work together to stay on track.
By starting early and spacing out the work, your child can focus on the quality of each section of their application instead of scrambling for deadlines. A checklist can also highlight months where you can step in and help. You may need to step in before Junior year summer to manage deadlines for signing up for the SATs for summer or fall. Or you may need to carve more time out of your schedule to help proofread essays in September.
If you’re looking for a college checklist, here is a month-by-month breakdown with commentary from Ivy League interviewers and alums from Get Into Ivy that might help.
Optimizing Their Time
There are two common misconceptions that I want to cover today. The first is around standardized tests. Standardized test score are important. Along with other stats, they give college a baseline lens with which to look at applicants. That said, they provide only a baseline. Being within the range of standardized test scores for a college (especially for an Ivy League college) is important, and you should encourage your child to retake the test as needed to get within that range.
However, once an applicant is within the median-75% range, extra points do not benefit their application. For example, if your child has a 1520 SAT score, another 50–80 points will not impact the admissions decision. Don’t invest more time in studying for or retaking the SATs if this is the case. Their time will be more impactful spent on essays or the extracurricular section. Parents, you can help your child here by making sure they’re prioritizing their time the right way.
The second misconception is around the importance of academic stats versus extracurricular activities. I want to reiterate that GPAs and test scores are crucial parts of an application. Not being within a school’s range of scores or GPA does reduce an applicant’s chance of admission. However, GPA and scores alone will not get an applicant into a top college. Students’ extracurriculars are what sets their applications apart. The time they spend running a fundraiser for a non-profit, recruiting more club members, building an audience for their blog–these are the activities that cultivate your child’s passions in life and strengthens their college applications to top schools.
Paying for College
This is a big one. College is expensive. And most families can’t afford to pay out of pocket. You’re not alone, nor is this an insurmountable barrier to a good college education. College application help isn’t limited to the application itself. There are a few things you can do here to help your child’s college dreams.
Many universities offer financial aid to students based on their family income. Private universities tend to have larger institutional grants to cover financial needs of their students. Help your child research colleges’ financial aid policies early. Many top colleges like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and MIT offer generous aid based on total cost of attendance–costs considered include tuition, room and board, books, and living expenses.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is used by federal/state governments and colleges to determine eligibility for financial aid. Work with your child to file the FAFSA. This may be a situation where the early bird does get the worm. An Edvisors.com study found that filing early has advantages. Students who filed for aid in the first 3 months received more than double the grant money compared to those who filed later.
If you’re in a situation where institutional and governmental aid will likely still leave a gap, work out a plan with your child early. Teach them about financial planning. Help them calculate estimates for out of pocket cost per year. Spend time researching student loans and make sure they understand how loans work. Do some math around expected salary out of college and how long it’ll take to pay the loans off. This will help your family develop a plan early and understand the trade-offs and costs for different colleges.
There are many outside scholarships that can help fill financial gaps. Corporations, regional groups, and service clubs offer a wide spectrum of scholarships. These scholarships can be based on merit, ethnicity, service record, etc. and range from a few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars. While managing college applications along with classes and extracurriculars is already a lot to handle, taking the time to apply to outside scholarships is worth the time. A few hours spent on putting together scholarship applications can leads to tens of thousands of dollars in aid. Work with your child and encourage them to apply to scholarships. Here are a couple of our favorites: Coca Cola Scholars Program, Burger King Scholars. You can find more scholarships here.
This is another big ticket item. College applications generally call for a stressful, hectic, and emotionally-charged year. During this time, it’s important to maintain morale and support your child emotionally. It will not only help them be more productive and effective at school and at their applications, but it will also help them maintain a healthy relationship with you.
Take the time to celebrate small wins. Whether it’s finishing an application or getting into a safety school, you should take a minute to celebrate. Even if it’s a toast during family dinner or a quick high-five, celebrating wins will make application season less painful. When it comes to admissions decisions, remember that your child’s safety school may be someone else’s match or reach school. That means your child got into a school where others didn’t. It is an accomplishment, and it’s one that deserves some recognition.
Don’t Talk About College Applications All the Time
Your child will be anxious about their applications, and you will be too. That’s natural. That said, there is still life outside of college applications. And again, admissions decisions are by no means the only indicators for future success. Schedule time to review your checklist and deadlines to stay on track, but outside of that, take your child’s lead. If they want to talk, let them ask you questions, solicit advice, or vent. Otherwise, take their mind off of it and talk about other things. It’ll help everyone to maintain normalcy during the process. Chances are, your child is thinking about it plenty on their own.
College Application Decision Day(s)
You’re likely just as nervous and invested in college admissions decisions as your child. But this is their day. Ask them if they’d like for you to be present when they check college decisions but don’t pressure them. Some students may want their support system around them when they refresh that decision page. Others may prefer to deal with the moment alone. Respect their feelings, and remember it’s not a reflection of how close they feel to you.
Dealing with Rejection
Regardless of your child’s merit and stats, likely not every decision will come out their way. Let me reiterate that college admissions decisions are NOT a reflection of a person’s value or the only indicator of future success. Many people graduating from lower ranked school go on to extremely successful careers and fulfilling lives. That said, receiving that rejection letter will still hurt, especially if it came from a top choice school.
It’s OK to grieve — let your child know you’re there to support them, and listen. If they want to talk, let them vent and express their disappointment. Remind them that the college experience is what they make it and focus on other schools they are excited about. If they want space, give it to them. People grieve in different ways, and the loss of a dream will be a major blow that takes time to recover from. The bottom line is, they’re likely already taking this hard and feeling disappointed in themselves. They need you to support them through this so they can pick themselves back up.
The college application process is an exciting and stressful time for students and parents alike. I hope the above suggestions can help you minimize the stress and uncertainty in the process.
Good luck, Class of 2019. We’re all rooting for you!