Prep Talk Blog > February 2011

 
It’s hard to find good role models for parent behavior in the college admissions process.
 
Of course, like most of my generation, my role models come only from the most trusted and reliable sources: television and movies. Unfortunately, nearly every movie or TV show approaching the admissions process has one of two plots:
 
1)      Student realizes he or she won’t get into some Ivy League school, nearly always Harvard or Yale and on rare occasions Princeton.  As a result, student goes to great lengths (often involving illegal activity) to obtain admission while parents remain entirely clueless. Hilarity ensues.
2)      Parent only wants child to attend some particular school, either a) the Ivy League school the parent attended (same choices as above) or b) the local school to “save money.” Parent is overbearing and downright mean, but student overcomes this dominance to -- you guessed it -- attend the Ivy League school (again, same limited choices as above).
 
After careful scrutiny of these in-depth, thoughtful, and well-researched portrayals of the college admissions process, I have come to the inevitable conclusion that parents must be clueless, mean, or both. Further, they must forcefully focus on getting their children enrolled in one of only three possible schools.
 
Lovely.
 
As a result, I was surprised, even downright elated, while watching one of this fall’s episodes of NBC’s “Parenthood.” One of the young people on the show (the one who was great in Scott Pilgrim Saves the World) is facing tough college decisions. Her mother (who all of us older folk know is really Lorelei Gilmore) gets involved. Shockingly, mom isn’t an idiot. Even more surprising: She doesn’t push her into applying to a particular school. Instead, they have this normal, rational discussion about the importance of the daughter finding a college that’s a good fit for her interests and talents. ASTOUNDING!!
 
The reality is that choosing a college is a huge, complicated, stressful decision for the whole family, and most parents will be very involved. The trick is to find a way to make that involvement positive.
 
The Right Way for Parents to Get Involved in College Admissions
 
Here are a few key suggestions for parents:
 
Start with the knowledge that there is no one perfect school. Better yet, bear in mind that there are LOTS of great schools. There are something like 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S., and a LOT of them will be great for your son or daughter. Focusing on just one school while there are so many choices is just nutty.
 
Next, this is a great chance to teach your kids decision making, and that starts with a discussion of your family’s values. I’m not talking morality here (unless that comes into your college choice). What I mean is, you need to discuss how your family makes major decisions that have career, personal, and financial implications. 
 
While I hate comparing college decisions to a car purchase, that’s a nice safe process for this purpose. When you buy a car, you have to decide what things are worth to you. Odds are you’re willing to take on some level of debt to have the style, comfort, space, etc. that you want. You may be more economical, or you may just have your heart set on a particular look. I’m amazed at parents I’ve met who will spend a fortune going into debt up to their eyeballs on a luxury car, and then tell me they absolutely are pushing their sons or daughters to pick schools just on price and will unequivocally accept no debt for college. Priorities much?
 
Once you have discussed how your family weighs major decisions, encourage your child to share his or her thoughts about what’s important in picking a school. This is a great time to have a really frank discussion about money -- how much debt might make sense for your family, and how much can your son or daughter reasonably expect to pay back? How do graduate school considerations factor? 
 
This is also the start of letting this process truly belong to the student. While you need to be involved and engaged, the reality is that MOST students report that they are satisfied with their choices of schools, and even that they were admitted to their top choices (despite all the media hype about how many students get denied). In other words, letting your kid own this decision has a lot lower probability of disaster than you might think from reading their Facebook updates.
 
Students being in charge is particularly important in the admissions, scholarship and financial aid processes. Despite how complex they are, you will find admissions offices MUCH more receptive to inquiries and requests from college applicants than from parents. While I often question this bias, the reality is that when parents call and write instead of the student, it can have a reverse effect, giving the impression that the applicant isn’t interested enough to be the advocate.
 
Shameless Plug: Speaking of owning the process, the Washington Postrecently interviewed me about Mason’s video essays in our application process, a way we permit Mason applicants to personalize the admissions process. You can check out more of the videos here. They happen, for the most part, to go on and on about what a spectacular place Mason is!
 
While you probably won’t be able to take most of the stress out of the college search process, at least you can make it a lot less awful for you as a family. What’s most amazing to me is the transition happening in applicant attitudes. For most of my career, we could safely assume that students were heading to college to get AWAY from their parents, and that any involvement in the process was entirely forced on the part of the parent. While those of my generation consider this bizarre, it appears that most applicants today genuinely WANT their parents involved. They carry that involvement straight into college by texting, Tweeting, and Facebooking their parents minute-by-minute updates on their daily activities. This may require the media to take a whole new approach to parents in the college admissions process. 
 
Perhaps, just maybe, “Parenthood” has started a massive new trend in which families portrayed in movies or TV shows will reasonably look at a few schools NOT in the Ivy League. Yeah, and maybe “Jersey Shore” will become educational programming. 
 
Be seeing you.

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