Prep Talk Blog > February 2011

This blog post has been written by Patrick O’Brien, author of college success book Making College Count

college searchYour student wants to go to college, and you’d like to help in the college search process. Great! You should, and you have an important role to play. Here are nine strategies you can use to be a great resource for your student.

1. Start Early

Picking a school, getting in, and figuring out how to pay for it is a lengthy process. It should start, at the latest, at the beginning of your student’s junior year. If you are the parent of a senior, don’t panic. Just know that you need to get focused, because you have a lot of work to do.

2. Know the Language

Do you know what “early action” is? How about “early decision”? “Rolling admissions”? Why should you focus on “match,” not “fit?” What’s a FAFSA? A CSS PROFILE? To be a good resource, you need to be a knowledgeable resource. You need to understand the process to offer meaningful help to your student. Parents DO have a significant role to play in making sure their students successfully navigate the college selection and admissions process, but you can’t be a great resource if you don’t do some homework and become knowledgeable. 

3. Utilize Your Student’s Counselor

Your student’s counselor can be a huge help for both you and your child in this process. Make sure you use him. However, many counselors today have large caseloads (lots of students) and a broad range of responsibilities. They often do much more than college admissions work. Counselors are there to help, but your student and you must own the process.

4. Follow -- Don’t Lead

Be a part of the college selection team, but not the driver. Your student has to drive the process. This can be difficult for many parents, but it is very important for the student to feel that he made this decision. If not, when things don’t go exactly as scripted, the student will not “own” his decision to be at that school. Keep working at the idea of “following.” It may not be easy!

5. Ask -- Don’t Tell

If you overreach and attempt to be too dominant in your student’s college admissions process, your student will likely not truly partner with you in the effort. If you want to make a point, ask a question. Asking things like, “have you considered” or “help me understand” or “tell me more about that” will help you help your student think through important issues without feeling like you imposing your will on him. Listen to your student’s opinions before you voice yours.

6. Agree to Action Steps and Timelines

When you are discussing the college admissions process with your student, gain agreement on the key action steps to be taken and when they need to be completed. As just one example, your student should have drafts of his college essays completed at least two weeks before they are due. This will allow some time to optimize them and to have them edited and proofread by two people. If you mutually agree on the action steps, you’ll help your student own the process and stay on track. Remember, procrastination is the enemy. Anything you can do to prevent it will make a positive difference.

7. Make Sure Your Student Has a ‘Vertical’ List

While this may sound obvious, you want to make sure that your student applies to at least one school where he would be happy and has a very strong chance of admission. A “vertical” list of schools (a list of schools that varies in terms of difficulty of admissions) is critical for every student, regardless of his level of achievement in high school.

8.  Pick Your Spots

There are good and bad times to discuss choosing a college with your student. After a long day at school or on a Friday evening as he’s trying to head out to see friends would both qualify as bad times. Pick times when your college-bound student is well-rested, calm, and has some time to commit to the conversation. You can ignore this advice, but do so at your own risk. You don’t want the college search process to evolve into a confrontational situation between you and your student.

9.  Stay Calm

Many students find the college admissions process very stressful. All students will have stressful moments at times during the process. Choosing a college is one of the most challenging decisions your child has ever made. It is his first adult decision -- remember that. Your child wants to do it right, and wants your approval on his college choice. You need to be the voice of reason during times of stress. Know that picking a college, while complicated and confusing at times, turns out well for the large majority of students.

There’s a college for every student. There are several, actually. So enjoy the process and be a great resource along the way.

It’s no longer enough to just “go” to college; you need a winning game plan to graduate and create great career opportunities for your future. The proven Making College Count approach to college success can help! Learn more aboutMaking College Count here.

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This blog post has been written by Patrick O’Brien, author of college success book Making College Count

eyes.jpgIf you have the chance to work for a professor during your academic career, go for it. Professors are a great source of knowledge, professional contacts, and career help. And you’ll also learn a big lesson about test-taking.

Here’s how: Working for a professor, you will inevitably end up grading exams. Then you will learn a valuable lesson: Grading essay exams is boring and exhaustive work. Once you have graded a dozen or so essays, the thrill of participating in the education of America’s future leaders fades noticeably. Answers run together, eyes glaze over, coffee disappears.

What’s the moral of this story for you, the test-taker? Write for tired eyes. People with tired eyes and a big stack of bluebooks to grade tend to skim rather than read every single word. Therefore your goal as the test-taker is to make it easy for the grader to award you points. Remember, you start with a blank sheet of paper worth zero points. Only by showing what you know about the topic do you accumulate points. The more you show, the more you score.

Start with vocabulary. Use the terminology from the textbook, and especially from class lectures. Even when you are a bit uncertain about an answer, using the relevant terminology will help your score. Underlining keywords in your response makes them stand out. Equally important are lists. Both textbooks and professors tend to present material in sequential lists. Recreating a list of bullet points makes it easy for the grader to find the key content, give you points, and move on.

When in doubt, go for “quantity.” Write as much on a subject as you can if you’re not certain of the exact answer. The more facts and concepts you deliver, the more opportunities you give the grader to add points to your total. Think about the “extreme” -- even one or two relevant statements will be worth more than a blank page.

Make it easy for the grader to award you points. Remember those tired eyes.

It’s no longer enough to just “go” to college; you need a winning game plan to graduate and create great career opportunities for your future. The proven Making College Count approach to college success can help! Learn more aboutMaking College Count here.


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Provided by College Parents of America

College Parents of America (CPA) often finds itself in the position of defending parents and our behavior in support of our college-aged, or soon to be college-aged, children.

Let’s be honest, some small percentage of us may go over the edge and try to do too much in support of, or on behalf of, our kids. Examples of this behavior are filling out the college application itself or writing an application essay in the pre-college years, or calling a professor about a grade or e-mailing a residence hall advisor to settle a roommate dispute during the in-college years.

Unfortunately, that small percentage of parents who do engage in over-the-top and intrusive activities tend to get the lion’s share of attention from college officials and some members of the media.

I am convinced that most current and future college parents simply love their children and want to do whatever they can to support their children’s activities on the road to and through college. That’s why the mission of our organization is to empower you as parents to best support your children on that path, by helping you to understand, prepare for, protect and maximize your family’s college investment.

As I tell news organizations on a regular basis, it is important to note that, as a society, we have gained a near-universal consensus in support of the importance of parents being involved with and supportive of their children in the K-12 school years.

This involvement is encouraged because a wide body of research shows that the children of supportive parents are more likely to continue in school, to succeed in and finish high school, and to go on to college.

So with that as a given, it is unrealistic, in my view, to then ask parents to suddenly turn off that involvement at the college campus gates.

Let me know if you think that I am off-base, but I believe that, in general, today’s parents tend to:

have children later in life;
have fewer children than back in the day;
provide, or strive to provide, a “best of” support system for their kids, whether it be an academic tutor, a SAT/ACT coach, a bevy of ballet lessons or a commitment to a travel youth sports team.
As a result, we parents have developed a tremendous emotional – and monetary – investment in our children, and we are interested in and concerned about what is going with that investment.

And rightly so, as every autumn more than 2 million young people in this country are first-year students at an institution of higher education, and by the following fall more than a third of those students are no longer attending those institutions, either because it was specifically the wrong school or because they had experienced academic, physical or emotional problems to an extent that higher ed, in general, was no longer in the immediate realm of possibility.

High stakes indeed, so no wonder families want to “hover,” as “helicopter parents” are prone to do, around their children.

One final point: I am not happy that the term “helicopter parent” has seemed to take on such a negative connotation.

After all, we humans use helicopters to perform some important and essential jobs. Traffic reporters use choppers to help us keep an eye on local roads and to suggest alternate routes if our commute becomes clogged. Emergency personnel use helicopters to perform search and rescue operations, and those individuals certainly value the fact that these mechanical birds can hurtle into the sky on a moment’s notice, flying whenever and wherever it is necessary.

Analogous to the examples above, I think that parents can and should keep a watchful eye on their children, and that they can and should be there in case an emergency should arise. But as you well know, the young adult in your family will, in the end, make his or her choices when it comes to choice of major, choice of friends and choice of career.

Helicopter pilots, and the crews they carry on their missions, perform important and sometimes heroic tasks. So too do “helicopter parents” on your mission to best support your children on the path to and through college. We wish you happy and successful piloting!

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College admissions agreements and other fairy talesOnce upon a time, colleges and universities desperately wanted to be sure they admitted the right students for all the right reasons. They treated the students fairly, and respectfully gave them reasonable amounts of time to weigh their decisions.

Yeah, right.

The story should go more like this: Once upon a time, evil, manipulative wizard wannabes called “admission directors” realized that their jobs depended on the income generated from student tuition and the number of high-profile students they enrolled. These shrewd, crafty folks also recognized that they were much more likely to get the best students (roughly translated as wealthy and high-profile) if the students could be convinced to commit as early as possible to their institutions. This early commitment also allowed those schools to do better planning, which allowed them to please their kings -- I mean, college presidents -- with earlier projections of income and student profiles.

This process led to a kind of war where colleges and universities set earlier and earlier commitment dates (called deposit deadlines) by asking admitted students for money to secure a spot. They further hinted that without the deposit, that spot may just have to be given to some other deserving student. My intensive research into artifacts from the period, which I am entirely making up, indicates that approximately 64.789 percent of admitted students were, as a result, asked to commit to an institution at least three to four weeks before they had actually been admitted.

During this dark and evil time, a tiny light appeared. Well, to be more accurate, a dim light flickered. Most of these institutions reached an agreement that stated admitted students should have until May 1 of their senior year to make a decision on committing to an institution. This later deadline allowed students waiting on financial aid information (usually available by the start of April) or admissions decisions from really uptight institutions (a handful held decisions until April 1 – as if April Fools’ Day somehow created a positive impression) at least a few weeks to ponder options. At the same time, May, while late for many institutions, left a reasonable amount of time for schools to scramble to make sure they had enough professors, beds in dorms, and cheap logo-laden giveaway items for orientation.

Unfortunately, pretty much as soon as this glorious agreement was reached, the evil manipulative wizard wannabes started working their magic to find ways to bend, circumvent, or entirely break that agreement.

Many schools find perfectly reasonable justifications for dancing around this issue. They have limited beds on campus, are constrained on space, or have a very short supply of Beanie Babies bearing the school logo. As a result, colleges and universities go to all kinds of lengths to get you to commit much earlier than May 1, while still APPEARING to adhere to the agreement.


The result looks something like this: You receive a nice admissions letter congratulating you and encouraging you to deposit as soon as possible because “space is limited.” These often say that you CAN (could, might) wait until May 1, but THEN you PROBABLY will have the worst dorm room ever and a class schedule that requires waking up approximately three hours before you go to bed for classes that have absolutely nothing to do with your interests, major or requirements.

Some of the slightly less evil schools will mention that, although they want (insist, require) you to have your deposit in right away, that deposit is REFUNDABLE until May 1. Technically, that meets the stipulations of the agreement, but not the spirit. Others don’t even pretend to stick to the agreement.

There is a small glimmer of good news: You can fight back.

Most (but not all) schools will back down if you confront them with knowledge of the May 1 deadline agreement. If the school threatens to disadvantage you by having you come to the orientation scheduled at 3 am on July 4th just because you waited until the deadline, then let them know you are going to formally complain to NACAC, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, as well as your congressperson and, if you have access to him, Bono from U2. Be warned though, none of these tactics are likely to have a tremendous influence on the college admissions office, especially if they are not U2 fans.

The bottom line is that you SHOULD have until May 1 to make your decision. You SHOULD be able to take that time without being disadvantaged. You SHOULD have a reasonable expectation that admissions offices won’t resort to cheap, manipulative tactics in this process. Also, you SHOULD come to Mason. Send your deposit RIGHT NOW – space is limited.

Be seeing you.

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This blog post has been written by Patrick O’Brien, author of Making College Count

If choosing a college major isn’t tough enough, what about a minor? Minors are not available in all programs, but where they are offered, they open one more opportunity for you to differentiate your academic record from those of your classmates.

The greatest impact of a minor is that it allows you to demonstrate your interest and proficiency in more than one subject. If you’re a Computer Science major with an Ecology minor, you project a very different image than if you took only technical courses. The Ecology minor tells prospective employers that you can do much more than crunch code.

In addition, a college minor says something important about effort, one of the key winning characteristics that employers seek in potential employees. Making the effort to complete a minor, and especially to earn a solid GPA in that minor, sends the signal that you’re serious about your education and about achievement. Any employer would be impressed with the discipline required to succeed in both a major and a minor.

Selecting the right minor should incorporate several factors. First, pick one that you’re willing to work hard to master. Second, consider minors that will make you more valuable in the job market. And finally, creating a contrast between your major and minor is also desirable. If your major is British Lit, a minor in Education, Economics, or Physics suggest a more well-rounded background than a minor in American Lit.

You can also use a minor to make a non-technical major more valuable. For instance, if your major is Management, you will compete against other students in your major for jobs. If you have a minor in Computer Science, Physics, or another technical field, you will be much more attractive to firms in those specific fields. And once you’re on the job, you’ll require less training and should have a greater chance for success.

Minors may sound minor, but they’re not.

It’s no longer enough to just “go” to college; you need a winning game plan to graduate and create great career opportunities for your future. The proven Making College Count approach to college success can help! Learn more about Making College Count here.


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Do you think it's fair if college admissions professionals "google" you or look at your Facebook profile during the admissions process?
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