Advice to Families

How to Raise a Healthy and Balanced College Applicant

As parents walk the daily gauntlet of homework battles and college applications, they often wonder how to best encourage achievement without pushing their children over the edge.

Successful Support from the Start

Motivation is internal – despite tiger mothers – and does not necessarily develop on the high school timetable. No amount of parental nagging can turn around an uninspired student. The great news is that once a student finds an interest, no nagging is needed! Here are a few points to consider:

  • Your child wants to have his own dreams – and he should. Trying to control your child’s interests usually backfires and causes the student to withdraw, both from the activity and from you.
  • Don’t do too much for your child. You could be setting him on a path to “learned helplessness,” where he will not have confidence that he can accomplish anything by himself.
  • Focus on what your child does well, and use those skills to help him survive the more challenging subjects. Very few students are talented and interested in every subject, and none of us does our best in an environment where loved ones express nothing but disappointment.
  • Your child should set up his own study plan and create limits for social media/screen time. If he doesn’t follow the plan and you add anger and anxiety to the daily homework standoff, you create a power struggle that is exhausting and toxic for all. Remove yourself from the situation. Some students are late bloomers, and fighting will not make them mature any faster.
  • Don’t forget to see the bigger picture. If your child is extremely unmotivated across the board, not just with schoolwork, there may be a bigger problem, like depression. Federal statistics show that about 14% of youths aged 12 to 17 have experienced at least one major depressive episode in their lifetime and suicide is the third-leading cause of death between ages 10 and 24 (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).

Getting to College

Admissions officers favor students who are self-starting, take healthy risks, think independently, and show intellectual curiosity and creativity. What can you do to help your child?

  • Make learning come alive from an early age with multimedia and trips to educational and historical sites.
  • Discuss current events that are relevant to classroom lessons to encourage big-picture thinking. Students are more curious when what they are learning is relevant to the real world.
  • Have an honest conversation with your spouse and your child’s guidance counselor about your child’s ability and motivation. It is more important that he be a match for the college than it is that you have the enviable bumper sticker on the back of your car.
  • Sometimes children are not qualified to attend the same college you went to, and that’s OK: Getting out of college is more important than getting in. Only 40% of U.S. college students graduate from four-year college on time, and more than 20% wind up dropping out altogether (U.S. Department of Education). And many students – record numbers, in fact – struggle along the way with their emotional health (The Higher Education Research Institute).

Parents: Take the SAT/ACT Challenge!

We keep a box of tissues on the table where we tutor because, as a test prep tutor and college application consultant, we listen to high school juniors and seniors who are so overwhelmed by college pressure that they begin to cry. Not just girls. Not just Ivy League aspirants. High school students are always convinced that their parents don’t understand them. This time the students are right. We are certain that if parents were to walk a mile in their child’s moccasins they would gain some appreciation for the stress students feel, and reverse some of the tension at home. If parents would take an SAT and/or an ACT practice test they would feel some of the same anxiety, cringe at their results, and discover that the tests are hard. Instead of piling 25 pounds of test prep books on the desk, parents would commiserate with their child over missed problems.

Parents and students would become allies rather than adversaries as they face the college admission process. Support your child through this difficult process. Leave the prodding, nagging, and yelling to the tutors and college counselor. The independent college counselor will tell your child to work harder so you don’t have to. Why ruin your child’s last year at home? Parents can make decisions so that senior year is not so fraught with anxiety that family members begin to avoid each other. And, I hate it when my students cry.

What College Counselors & Test Prep Experts Know

Lesson Number 1: It’s not your grandparent’s Oldsmobile.

Things have completely changed in the last twenty years, and students and parents must revise their thoughts about how competitive college admission is. Many schools that were thought of as “party schools for less serious students” have turned 180 degrees into academically selective institutions. It is imperative to look at the selectivity of a college in light of its present statistics, and not as it was in the past. Every year things change and so by the summer, most college websites will have student profiles on their websites and you’ll get more of a sense of how selective admissions was this year at a particular school. The economy is having a great impact on college admissions as well, so it’s also not your older sibling’s Jeep either!

Lesson Number 2: It’s getting tougher to predict admissions in this hectic climate.

“The growing number of ghost applications — referred to as multiple, shotgun applications — forces colleges to set admission targets on shakier assumptions, becoming falsely more selective as well as creating huge wait lists as an insurance policy that they will fill their classes. Admissions at highly selective colleges now occur in three phases: early decision, in late fall and early winter; regular decision, in early spring; and, well, indecision, after May 1st.” Dan Lundquist, Dean of Admissions at Union College in the March 27, 2006 editorial section of The New York Times. Especially now that so many colleges accept the Common Application, students can easily apply to more schools simply by clicking the “send” button. In fact, The New York Times recently came out with an article about how a growing trend among high school seniors to apply to more than 20 colleges is throwing admissions offices into disarray.

We know, from speaking with a number of admissions representatives, that they are indeed baffled by how to handle the surge in applications. How do they know whom to accept when they don’t know who will accept them? So, they wait list. Placing a student on the wait list, by the way, is the school’s way of saying that he or she is a fully qualified, admissible candidate, but that they need to see how many others enroll before issuing an acceptance. Whereas students used to hear whether or not they were admitted by the middle of March, they now have to wait until April because there is so much debate going on at the admissions level. Note: visiting campuses can be helpful, especially at smaller schools where admission committees track demonstrated interest. It is also wise to interview where possible, and plan to attend local information sessions or meet the reps when they come to your high school.

Lesson Number 3: Ignore the rankings

Led by US News and World Report’s annual ranking issue, college rankings drive everyone into a frenzy. Students should match themselves with colleges, not with bumper stickers! A great book to read on this topic is College Unranked by Lloyd Thacker.

Lesson Number 4: Don’t underestimate the value of doing well in a challenging curriculum during your senior year!

While there are some exceptions, we have generally noted that more challenging curricula do help make a difference in admission, as long as a student maintains a decent GPA. Give careful consideration to senior classes and grades because colleges consider them when they evaluate your application. However, a competitive curriculum and a solid senior year do not automatically guarantee admission to a competitive school.

We have seen students succeed in AP and honors level courses and still get wait-listed or denied admission to their top choices. A normal reaction to this outcome is to wonder whether the student would have fared better in admission had he or she pursued less competitive classes and received all As. The student questions whether it was really worth all of the extra work. We have asked many, many admissions reps about this and they all say that it is generally better to take the more challenging classes: Bs in honors/AP courses are better than As in regular classes. Of course, As in honors and APs will help the most, and Cs in APs and honors will hurt. Even when students who successfully challenged themselves don’t get into their top schools, we believe that they will be better prepared for the rigors of college, no matter where they go. But more importantly, please remember that balance is key: it is not worth it for a student to challenge him or herself to the point where stress levels are unhealthy!

Lesson Number 5: There is more than one right college for everyone.

During the college search process, many students fall in love with a particular campus and ‘know’ that it is the right place for them. Please always remember that a student can receive a great education and have a memorable college experience at more than one institution. Much of the stress for today’s college applicants occurs because they have so many options available to them. If students were mandated to go to one college and had no choice, they would make the best of the experience! The number of choices is wonderful and stressful at the same time. So, if a student doesn’t get into his or her first choice or two, he or she can still have a terrific college experience.

Lesson Number 6: High SATs and ACTs do not guarantee college admission.

Princeton regularly denies admission to thousands of students with perfect SATs. It’s great to have good scores, but they are only one piece of the puzzle. Everyone focuses on test scores because they are so quantitative, but there are many other factors that go into a decision!

Lesson Number 7: There are many myths about SAT/ACT curves/test dates.

Many myths are circulated each year about certain test dates. For example, you may hear that the January SAT is easier and that March is more difficult. Why did this myth get started? Because traditionally the only students who were taking the January SAT were those seniors making a last attempt at the test. Of course, the test seemed easier – the students were one year older than they had been when they took their first test, and they had taken the test several times before the January test!

Those seniors told all of their friends that the test was easier. Those students who took the SAT for the first time in March remarked that the test was very difficult. Of course, it was – they had never taken the test before!

What is the truth?

  • Each section of the ACT is distributed on a curve (not curved as in the highest score gets a 36!) based on the national results.
  • Students who take the SAT without the Essay may have to complete one experimental section (20 minutes long), which does not count in their results but which does set the scoring curve for the future students who take those experimental questions for real. Therefore, students are not compared with the students sitting next to them.
  • Sections vary in difficulty depending upon the test date; however, there is no way to predict which tests will have, say, an easier English or Writing section. Any difference in difficulty level is normalized by the curve so that a 600 on an easier test is equivalent to a 600 on a more difficult test. In other words, on a difficult SAT section, a student could get a question wrong and still receive an 800. On an easier section, a student could get one wrong and receive a 780.

Lesson Number 8: PSAT and ASPIRE/preACT result percentiles may be helpful.

Students are supposedly compared with their national and state peers when they take the PSAT and the ASPIRE or the soon to be launched preACT, although not all school districts offer this test to students). Many students have had only one third of the math they need when they take the PSAT during their sophomore year, so it is helpful to look at how other sophomores are faring. National percentiles on the ASPIRE are usually a bit higher than those on the PSAT because typically only those planning to attend college take the PSAT, while all students are required to take the ASPIRE in states where the ACT is a graduation requirement. This difference skews the national percentages higher on the ASPIRE than on the PSAT. The ASPIRE also gives students their results as compared with other students at their school.

Lesson Number 9: The bark can be bigger than the bite!

As you begin to attend information session after information session at various colleges, you will undoubtedly be bombarded with SAT and ACT averages, GPA averages, AP averages, acceptance rates, etc. Sometimes, the bark is much worse than the bite! Admission officers often describe high standards, then admit a wider range of students. So, please, do not be scared to apply to a school that is a bit of a reach!

SAT vs. ACT: How to Decide Which is Best for Your College-Bound Student

We like to think about the SAT and the ACT as representative of the states from which they come. The SAT is written in New Jersey, where people keep their guards up just in case someone tries to take advantage. The ACT comes from Iowa, where people are overly nice to everyone. There are students who naturally see through any SAT; there are very hard-working students who know the academic material but who find tricky questions difficult.

Each test has pluses and minuses.

  • Timing: the SAT has more time per question. Most students can finish the SAT sections in the allotted time, while many students struggle with timing on the ACT – the reading section in particular.
  • Straightforward vs. tricky questions: the SAT is notoriously trickier, with double negatives and paired questions dealing with evidence in the text. ACT questions are asked the same way a teacher would present the material on a test in school.
  • Science section: only the ACT has a science section, but there are ACT-science type questions on the verbal sections of the SAT. Students in an IB program have good experience with charts and graphs and that familiarity helps. Over 90% of the science questions do not test content (think: which system does the liver belong to?), but rather a student’s ability to interpret data and reason logically.

How does a student know which test he or she will do best on?

There are sample tests available at www.collegeboard.com and www.act.org. By taking one of each, students will be able to compare scores and see which test they feel more comfortable with. Online diagnostic tests are not as helpful because a computer will not distinguish between a careless error and lack of knowledge. During the summers, we offer Diagnostic ACT Testing with written evaluations where our test prep experts compare a student’s PSAT results to the practice ACT results and write up recommendations based on those results.

There are several advantages to focusing on one test: less overall time, money, and effort expended for test prep and tests; lower stress on students already completing demanding IB or French Baccalaureate curricula; and increased confidence in students taking a test that is aligned with the way the student thinks naturally. International guidance counselors frequently suggest that students whose first language is not English would do better with the SAT, but in our experience, that has not necessarily been the case.

Seven Parenting Tips to Empower Your High School Junior

 In mid-December, high school juniors will receive their PSAT’s results from their guidance counselors. For many, these scores officially kick off the college search process. Given that junior year is an academically challenging year, this added intensity increases the stress and anxiety of students and their parents. We hope this advice about how to parent a high school junior will help maintain sanity in your house.

  1. In general, it’s best to let your student drive the discussion about his or her stress, grades, scores, and colleges. If parents harp on these things, they will only increase the student’s pressure.
  2. Support your child on a macro scale. Rather than asking your student if he or she has studied for the SAT/ACT, written the paper due in two days, or started studying for a Spanish exam, address the bigger picture. Does the student create a study strategy of when to study for what? Does the student study more effectively out of the house – at a library or even a local Starbucks? Help them to organize themselves but do not get involved in the actual tasks. Staying with the big picture will foster independence while focusing on the details will produce more anxiety for you as a parent and for your child as well.
  3. Take an SAT or an ACT yourself so that you understand how difficult they are, and so you can empathize with your child. Students are terribly afraid to let their parents down. Taking a test allows you to see the world from the same position as your child and sets you up as allies. If this request makes you anxious, think about how your child feels.
  4. Let your student know that it’s ok to trip up on an exam or an assignment – even junior year. Students are not robots! They are human. The key is to learn from the experience and to develop resiliency.
  5. Throw away passwords! Do not spend too much time on PowerSchool or other online grading assessments. Rather, encourage your student to be aware of his or her grades. Similarly, Naviance can be a great tool, but spending too much time analyzing the statistics will increase anxiety!
  6. Encourage students to enjoy the process of learning! They are learning some very exciting things in high school. Reading inspiring novels for class, learning about the Great Depression in history, acquiring a foreign language, and fostering analytical skills in science and math will all serve students well in their lives. Intellectual curiosity is what colleges are genuinely seeking, so encourage learning over grades!
  7. Visit colleges so that students will see how their hard work will lead to an exciting future! At the same time, it’s important to focus on the value of your student’s entire college list, not just the most selective colleges. If your student is in a position to apply to more selective schools that are fine, but the goal is to feel good about all choices. Sometimes a student will thrive as a bigger fish in a smaller pond or at the top of a class in a college that is not quite as selective…students have to find their comfort zone.