As a college consultant,  I am often surprised to learn that most families shoulder the stressful, confusing college process in isolation from an obvious, free, rich resource to which they have access: other families. This “go it alone” modus operandi may stem from:  a lack of connection with other families in the teen’s high school; an attempt to protect family privacy by taking a “close-to-the-vest” approach; a secretive strategy rooted in competitive, “zero-sum-game” assumptions; or simply a lack of understanding about how helpful other families can be as a resource. Let me discuss each of these causes in turn.

1. Lack of connection. There are many reasons your family could feel disconnected from other families in your student’s high school. You could be newcomers from a different town, state or country. Your teen may be attending a regional public or private high school in a different town; current classmates are not the neighborhood kids with whom your son or daughter grew up. If your family is comprised of two working parents or a single parent, with long commutes or heavy travel, there may have been no time for involvement with parent-teacher organizations or your kid’s extracurricular activities over the years. Maybe you have a shy temperament and are not outgoing with other parents. Or maybe you see your teen’s high school as his or her world, and you do not feel it is appropriate for you to become overly involved. Perhaps your independent–or rebellious–adolescent does not make you feel welcome.

All these reasons are understandable, but I  encourage you to reach out to other parents as much as your situation allows, as early in your student’s high school career as possible. You will probably find that other parents in the same life stage as yourself can be a source of rich, satisfying friendship for you, which may last even after your adolescent has gone to college. We all need friends, to share rites of passage and all the ups and downs of life.

Having parental cohorts in your teen’s class can keep you “in the know” about so many things: teachers to avoid for Spanish or Pre-Calculus next year; parties to forbid your son to attend because the parents are away and alcohol will definitely be present; or “mean girl” dynamics that may be stressing out your daughter but she cannot tell you about it. I am not talking about interfering in your teen’s life; I am referring to doing the “face time” with parents in your high school community to keep you informed about the world in which your adolescent is growing up. And being connected with parents will help keep you on top of the college application process as well.

2. Keeping “close-to-the-vest.” I understand why families do this. Sometimes it is appropriate, especially in the winter of senior year, when college acceptance stress can be so contagious and you want to protect your child by donning “blinders” to “run one’s own race.” If you have cultivated genuine friendships throughout the high school years, however, you can reach out to at least a few other families for mutual sharing of information and support. This approach is different than blabbing about your child’s applications and play-by-play results to every parent you meet. So keep a low profile if you desire, but try not to isolate yourself and your child from families you consider real friends.

3. Secretive competition. This is utter nonsense. As a college applicant, is your child a competitor? Yes, in a broad sense. If your child wants to get into, say, Columbia University, he or she is competing with some 25,000 applicants from all over the globe, hoping to be one of the lucky ten percent admitted. But your kid is not competing with everyone in your high school.

Ah, you say, but there are ten high-performing students in my kid’s class who have announced that they will apply Early Decision to Columbia this fall (some even wearing T-shirts from their campus visit). Columbia cannot possibly take all ten, so my kid is actually competing directly with his classmates, head to head. True enough. But let’s break that down a little. Your guidance department does not like to be overwhelmed with “ED” applications, and they do not want their credibility tarnished with Ivy admissions committees by sending them unqualified “ED” applicants. Guidance counselors from rigorous independent high schools might actually redirect unqualified Columbia “ED” applicants to institutions more appropriate for their credentials. In our hypothetical story, let’s say a few applicants decide, for whatever reason, to apply somewhere else Early Decision instead.

Let us say that by the time the November First deadline rolls around, there are only five Columbia “ED” applicants left. So, is your child competing directly with those kids mano-a-mano? Yes and no. This is not The Hunger Games.  It is certainly not personal, even though it might sometimes feel that way. Keeping your application strategy “secret,” as though a bona fide “back door” truly existed, will produce an ulcer…  but not necessarily a fat letter from Columbia.

In our hypothetical story, perhaps one of these five applicants has such perfect academic credentials that there is no way your teenager could be preferred on a pure merit basis. All your child can do is achieve to the best of his or her own ability. It gets more complicated if one of the five is a legacy, an underrepresented minority, a “development admit,” a boy, or a champion athlete. These are factors which may or may not enter the picture at any given institution, and over which an individual applicant has no control. These factors certainly cannot be changed by showing a secretive, coy, petty, jaded, cut-throat attitude. No matter what you may personally feel about institutional admissions policies, explicit or inferred, I suggest modeling good sportsmanship for your teen in the college process. PS, if your child does not get into his or her “ED” dream school, do not lose heart: there are over 2600 four year higher education institutions in the US.

4. Lack of understanding of how families can help each other in the college process. Ninety-nine percent of the time, your student is not competing directly “against” his or her best friend (if you choose to view it that way). So you have nothing to lose, and certainly much to give and gain, by collaborating with other parents who are going through the process or have already successfully navigated it with an older child. Networking with other parents can dial down the stress, if you connect with parents who have wise, balanced perspectives, rather than misguided, overly wired parents who infect you with their own high-strung anxiety. 

Consider the following ways in which you can help, or be helped by, another parent in the college process:

• Give or solicit feedback on campus visits, or even travel to a college together

• Become a “connector” between a family who is interested in a given college and another family you know whose child has attended that college

• Become a “connector” between a family whose child is interested in a given career field and a parent you know in that field (or a family whose older child is pursuing that field)

• Exchange information on college resources (local tutors, college consultants, financial aid workshops, books and websites)

Making such supportive networking gestures is more likely to help your child than it is to somehow put your child at a (perceived) competitive disadvantage.  It will also help another young person find his or her way, and whoever said we were put on earth to help only our own children? Even though I get paid for what I do, I consider my college guidance work  “paying it forward” in gratitude to adults who helped me when I was an adolescent; I am a believer in the old adage that “every man is every child’s father.”

Modeling a collaborative attitude is a precious gift to offer your child as he or she goes forth into a world that can easily be perceived as dog-eat-dog. No wonder The Hunger Games film resonated for our teens; they certainly want to succeed, but they also want to retain noble, compassionate qualities. The character Peeta, “struggling with how to maintain his identity…his purity of self,” makes a declaration that I believe rings true for idealistic adolescents: “I keep wishing I could think of a way…. to show… they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games.”

Networking with other parents in the college process is just one more way of demonstrating that being supportive of others is a way to achieve in life, while still retaining one’s caring ideals.

Soon after families of high school seniors send in the enrollment deposit for the chosen college, a packet will appear in the mail with information on freshman housing and questionnaires that need to be returned with indication of preferences.  Most information can also be accessed earlier on the college website, either publicly or through an “accepted student” portal. Your student should also get the scoop from the college’s Facebook admitted student page. After the May 1 enrollment deadline, residential options are often chosen on a first come, first serve basis, so it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the alternatives as early as possible.

What housing choices does a freshman have at your chosen college, and how does one go about deciding? What are the relevant factors your teen should be considering?

1. Location. Consider the location of each dorm option on the campus, and how that location may impact your freshman’s daily life (i.e., getting to and from classes, need for a shuttle bus, proximity to the library and dining hall, safety at night). Most colleges offer freshman dorms in the same proximity (often built around a courtyard, lawn or  “quad”), creating spontaneous social opportunities for the new students to get to know each other.

2. Physical Features. The housing website will actually show dorm floor plans, so take a look. Does your student want a single, double or even a triple? A double is usually the most popular option, since most freshmen prefer to have a “buddy” to help them get oriented, even if they don’t end up being best friends with their roommate long term. Some residence halls use a “suite” concept, which is nice, because it allows a freshman to interact daily with more students, offering great “bonding” opportunities. What are the sizes of the rooms? Is there a common room, or lounge, on every floor? What furnishing is included in each room?

Age of the building is also a consideration. Older dorms may lack modern amenities, such as air conditioning. On the other hand, sometimes older residence halls may offer architectural character, larger rooms and closet space, or even a sink in the room.

3. Residential Colleges and Academic-Themed Housing. The original concept of a residential college is a division of a university that places academic activity in a community setting of students and faculty, usually at a residence with shared meals, the college having a degree of autonomy and a relationship with the overall university. Prominent models for residential colleges are the colleges of the University of Oxford and University of Cambridge in the UK and the institutions based on them in the US, including Harvard,  Yale,  PrincetonU PennRice , Wash U in St. LouisU Miami, U Michigan,  U VirginiaMiddlebury, and Northwestern. For a full list, see CollegiateWay.org.

However, the term residential college is also used to describe a variety of other models, including housing with an academic or special interest theme, with some shared educational programming. For example, Bucknell University offers freshman housing with the following themes: Arts, Environmental, Global, Humanities, Languages & Culture, Social Justice, and Society & Technology. Freshmen choose a theme and pick a freshman seminar related to that theme. The students in that themed residence hall share activities and even go on trips together to promote bonding. Many colleges also offer shared housing for honors program students. For a list, see InsideCollege.com.

4. Lifestyle Housing. Most colleges today attempt to be sensitive to the different backgrounds, lifestyles, and value systems of their students by offering specialized housing options. Most schools offer a “wellness” or “substance-free” dorm. This approach not only gives substance-free students the freedom to live and study without the disruption caused by partying, but it allows them to connect with  students who share their preferences. Students who choose a healthy, substance-free lifestyle do not have to feel like they are a minority among college students; they will be able to see, right from the beginning, that there are many young people on campus who share their values.

Along the same lines, some colleges offer “quiet” dorms or at least “quiet” floors. What a concept! I wish they had thought of this when I was in college. For a list of colleges providing substance-free or quiet dorms, see InsideCollege.com.

Co-ed dorms, of course, are by far the norm. In fact, Catholic University‘s recent return to same-sex dorms has been met with predictable media backlash.  Many colleges offer gender-neutral housing, which means a student can room with a person of the opposite sex. Gender-neutral restrooms are also common. However, for privacy’s sake, many colleges do offer same-sex floors. Brown University, for example, offers same-sex floors within its co-ed dorms, with educational programming designed to help residents explore women’s and men’s issues through events focused on gender.

If your student has a physical disability that requires special consideration beyond the standard accommodations such as wheelchair access, I recommend that you contact your college housing office directly.

5. Roommate. Your college will typically send out a questionnaire that will not only capture your student’s dorm and room preferences, but your roommate preferences as well. Typical questions include smoking or non-smoking, early riser or night owl, quiet or noisy, Felix or Oscar, and so forth. Once your teen has been assigned a roommate, encourage contact before school starts, through email or Facebook, so both parties will have an idea of what to expect. Advance contact also provides a good opportunity to decide who brings what (i.e., TV, microwave-fridge, video game console, etc.).

It will be difficult to prevent all possible problems that might arise with a roommate, since beyond these basic questions there is quite a bit of randomness involved (or let’s call it serendipity). The freshman roommate situation is a great learning opportunity; it is probably the only random roommate selection your child will ever have to encounter, because afterward he or she will decide based on friendship. I myself had several roommate situations determined by computer selection; some became dear friends, others forgettable situational neighbors, but all were valuable learning experiences. If it’s a disaster, with your kid getting sexiled every night, or finding out the roommate is a nut job, a room change can certainly be arranged.

Relevant reading: Spark Notes: Dorm Life, About.com: Dorm Life 101, eHow: Choose Your Dorm, Crushable: How to Choose Your First Dorm Roommate, US News: How to Choose and Keep a College Roommate. Related posts: College Dorm Checklist: A Sneak Peek! and The College Transition Bible.


Your high school senior will be receiving responses from most of his or her prospective colleges by the first of April, and the universal enrollment deadline is the first of May. After all the agony of completing applications and essays, and the excruciating anxiety of waiting, now the ball is in your teen’s court at last.

April carries a different kind of angst. How to decide?

I encourage you to turn to several of my posts for advice, empathy and support: Waiting for the “Fat Envelope“, Standing Out on the Waiting List Admitted Students Day: A Different Kind of College Visit, and Decision-Making 101. In this post, I offer three principles to keep in mind when making that final decision:

1. There is no “perfect” decision; compromise is part of life. There may have been a time, earlier in your son or daughter’s senior year, when he or she thought, “There is only ONE college for me!” Perhaps this all-or-nothing ideal has already faded, if your student was denied, deferred or waitlisted at an early notification or regular decision “dream school.” Your teen has probably become wiser and more realistic over the past few months. How nice that this painful process has resulted in enhanced maturity!

Compromise is part of good decision-making. Sometimes we can’t have everything we originally wanted, but that does not mean we can’t have anything. Hopefully, we can be resilient enough to de-invest in the original choice, process the disappointment, and redirect our energies toward another worthy option.

For example, just because the most beautiful girl in the senior class has turned you down for the prom does not mean you cannot persuade another desirable girl to go with you. And who knows, you may actually have more fun with that girl than with the original one, if you approach the situation with openness, flexibility and enthusiasm. This simple metaphor applies to getting into college, finding a job, a spouse, and many future life choices. Hopefully, it is a life lesson you yourself have successfully learned, and you will be able to guide your child in learning it.

2. The “wow” factor is something worth considering, but not everythingIt is certainly desirable for the chosen college to offer a “wow” factor that gives you and your student a feeling that this long struggle has had a rewarding outcome. By “wow” factor, I mean your teen’s gut feeling that he or she can be really happy at this school, driven by the perceived “fit” from college visits.

Yes, the “wow” factor can even include jazzy features like being located in a “hot” city, offering academic prestige or a social caché that enables a kid to hold his head high among peers, and so forth. We’re all human, after all, and we don’t have to be so morally superior so as to pretend these things don’t count. It is okay for these elements to be a part of the “wow” factor, within reason, as long as they do not become more important than the student’s authentic belief that he or she will be happy and successful at the school.

So it’s desirable that the chosen college offers a “wow” factor. But just like any big-ticket, complex purchase, the buyer needs to look beyond that overall good feeling. For example, if you are buying a car, you probably want a “wow” factor, such as snazzy styling and speed, or prestigious, classic luxury. A car is more than transportation; let’s face it, nobody wants a boring, ho-hum automobile that offers no excitement.

But you also need to pay attention to attributes beyond the “wow” factor. Can you afford the car, or can you get financing that will be acceptable to you? Does the car offer the practical features you need, such as: four wheel drive if you live in a snowy, mountainous area; high safety ratings if it is for a first-time driver; large trunk if you will use it for family travel; or economical gas mileage if you have a long commute?

You and your student need to look beyond the “wow” factor for college, too. Affordability (now that financial packages are in) and numerous other dimensions all need to be analyzed now, with a much sharper pencil. You may be comparing two or more schools, and the one with the slightly higher “wow” factor may lose out once you have compared all the relevant factors in this complex decision.

Below is a checklist of the key factors to be considered, most of which you have examined before. These features need to be revisited again, however, because your teen has evolved over the past year. Your son or daughter’s perspective has changed, and priorities have most likely shifted.

Affordability (family financial situation, need-based aid, merit scholarships, estimated future debt your child will carry under each school alteranative)

Public or private university, or liberal arts college (visits may have shifted student’s preferences)

Academic program (student’s likely major, changing academic interests, flexibility for further mind-changing)

Extracurricular activities (student’s changing priorities)

Size (visits may have shifted preferences)

Urban, suburban or rural setting (visits may have shifted  preferences)

Physical campus (visits may have shifted preferences)

Social atmosphere (visits may have shifted preferences)

Geographic region (visits may have shifted preferences)

Distance from home (student’s tolerance for distance, transportation costs)

Support services (for physical, learning or emotional challenges)


3. Remember, this is not the only important decision your adolescent will ever make.  The college choice is the first of many major, multi-factor, life decisions your son or daughter will make in the future; decision-making is a “lifetime sport.”

The beauty of this situation is that you are sharing the decision, providing guidance and role modeling, and you obviously have major skin in the game. Since you are most likely financing college, this decision will not be entirely left up to your child, no matter how autonomous, mature, or determined he or she may be. From my perspective, it should not be totally up to your student, who is, after all, only seventeen. Your son or daughter should have significant input, but I feel it needs to be a collaborative decision, leveraging the parents’ wisdom and experience.

This decision should be a participative learning experience, in my view, that will set the stage for your adult child’s optimal, independent decisions in the future. When your student chooses internships, a job, a place to live, graduate school, and other key decisions in the next few years, he or she will have a valuable template upon which to draw. Choosing one’s college, with parental support, is one of the initiating “rites of passage” to adulthood!


As April First approaches, your high school senior has probably already received responses from some prospective colleges. Certainly in a few weeks, all the returns will be in.  You will soon have three pieces of information on the table to help your teen make the decision of which college to attend.

1. Acceptance, Wait List, or Denial. This feedback is the college’s decision about the applicant. Obviously, acceptance means your student is in the driver’s seat.

If your student is waitlisted at a school that is still your teen’s first choice, your student should  inform the guidance counselor and communicate it directly with admissions as well. But make sure that a deposit is sent in by May 1 to a school your student would very much like to attend which has outright admitted him or her. For further advice, take a look at my post: Waiting for the “Fat Envelope.

If your student has been denied at a top choice school, it may be emotionally difficult (although spring denials tend to be counterbalanced by acceptances, with a less “all-or-nothing” feeling than December denials). This is an opportunity to offer parental support for a painful, but valuable, life learning experience. See my posts: College Acceptances and Denials: The Best and Worst Things that Could Happen and The College Process: Dealing with Rejection.

2. Financial Packages. With the acceptance letter or shortly thereafter, your family will receive information on the college or university’s need-based and/or merit-based financial award package for your child. For most families, this information will be pivotal in determining the final choice between college acceptances. For advice on comparing packages, read my post, Waiting for the “Fat Envelope.

3. Admitted Students Day. In April, many colleges and universities host an open house day, or even an entire weekend, for accepted students to visit the campus before making their decision. I encourage you to begin planning visits to schools to which your student has already been accepted, or where you expect he or she will gain admission (register online). Hopefully, admitted students day will not be your teen’s first visit to the campus (see I’ll Only Visit Colleges I Get Into). This time, however, the focus will be different. The college is now trying to “sell”  the admitted student and family on actually enrolling. Your son or daughter will now be in the choosing position, “kicking the tires” and making sure this is the place where he or she will really want to spend the next few years.

Admitted students day is an incredible opportunity, not only to enjoy a congratulatory celebration among fellow accepted freshmen, but to do true due diligence. Typical offerings are student panels, performing arts events, exposure to a classroom experience, student organization fairs, sports activities, financial aid discussions, and campus/dorm tours. Some schools will even allow an admitted student to shadow a current student for a day, or host an admitted student for an overnight stay: a chance to really see what campus life is all about! Take a look at schedules for a sampling of colleges: College of William and Mary, Colgate University, Skidmore CollegeUniversity of Richmond, Lafayette College, Connecticut College and Emory University.

It is once again essential to play the role of an anthropologist, just as your family did during that first visit months ago, making every effort to research and observe the campus culture so that your teen can assess his or her fit, as I described in Tips for College Trips. The video below shows an example of how one student accepted at Brandeis University took full advantage of admitted students day to ask questions and learn what it would really be like to attend the school:

There are only so many weekends in April. Some schools have more than one admitted students days, and some center it around one big weekend, so it helps to be on top of organizing these trips as early as possible, saving the obvious dates and registering as soon as you can. If attending an accepted students day is not possible due to scheduling or cost, some schools offer regional receptions. Example: Vanderbilt University. Virtual contact with the school through social media has also become a great way to connect with the college and fellow accepted students. Example: Denison Class of 2015 Facebook Page.

There is another difference between an admitted students day visit and campus trips of the past. Before, you and your student were window shopping. Now, it is coming down to a decision. It can be emotionally stressful, especially if your family is comparing two or more colleges on multiple criteria, ranging from financial award packages to academic programs  to size of the freshman dorms. There may be added pressure if your student is also on a waiting list for the school that was originally at the top of his or her list. And time is of the essence, knowing the decision must be made before May First.

The decision-making process will certainly be easier if it is not the first time your student has visited the campus. As a parent, you can prepare by crunching the numbers on affordability of each acceptance option as soon as you have need and merit-based financial aid information in hand. But there will be late-April game-changers, such as your student’s reaction to new information at an admitted students event or moving off a waiting list. So stay flexible, be ready for late night discussions, and offer patient support as your adolescent makes the first big decision in his or her life.

Related posts: March Madness: College Acceptance, Waitlist, Denial…and Money,   Waiting for the “Fat Envelope“,  I’ll Only Visit Colleges I Get Into,  Tips for College Trips, Video Interview: The College Visit, Decision-Making 101, Standing Out on the Waiting List, Last Chance College Admission Opportunities, First Day of May.


Our current economy permits few luxuries. Why should families hire an independent college admissions consultant? (An encore post with the addition of my recent video interview on college consulting.)

1. Focused one-on-one attention. In the middle of this decade, studies by the U.S. Dept. of Education and National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) pointed to average public school counselor-to-student ratios in the range of 300-500 to 1. Guidance counselors can only devote part of their time to college advising, since their duties often include scheduling and discipline issues.These professionals are doing their best in a difficult situation. But for families who would like more individual attention for their high school student, an independent consultant can play a helpful role.

2. Rising college competitiveness. S. P. Springer et al, authors of Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting Into College, identify three factors that have made the college process more competitive and stressful than “back in the day”: the “echo” boom (or baby boomlet), social changes, and the internet. They describe the demographic explosion which causes students to be “edged out” of top colleges at which their parents were accepted–supply & demand. “More high school graduates than ever are competing for seats in the freshman class…In 1997, there were 2.6 million graduates…by 2009, the number of high school graduates had grown to 3.3 million…they are projected to stay at or above 3.2 million at least until 2022.” (p. 2).

Social changes have dramatically increased the complexity and competitiveness of the college process. “Application numbers have grown much faster than the age cohort…Not only are there more students graduating from high school each year, proportionally more of them want to go to college…At the same time, colleges themselves have increased their efforts to attract large, diverse pools of applicants.” (p.3).

The internet intensifies competition as well, because online applications (e.g., Common Application) have made it easy to apply to multiple colleges. (p. 3-4).

This competitive, complex landscape requires more guidance than it used to. It can be misleading, unrealistic (and unfair to the child) to rely on parental historical benchmarks: “I went to Penn and my son is as smart as I am, so why shouldn’t he be accepted?” (I went to Penn in the 70’s, Wharton in the 80’s, and Columbia in the 90’s, but who knows if I could get in today!) A consultant can provide an updated perspective.

3. Mistakes are costly. I am talking about cost in terms of student self-esteem as well as time and money. It is essential to have a realistic college list, with an appropriate number of “target” schools, not too many reaches or safes.

Unrealistic expectations may exacerbate the anxiety and stress of the college process, and result in your teen having to “settle” for a school that is not the best fit. They say, “You can always transfer,” and it’s true. But having to “start over” at a new campus can be emotionally challenging.

And don’t forget, transfer students are not always considered for many scholarships for which freshmen are eligible. If the new college’s requirements differ from the original school’s, the student may have to spend extra time and money taking additional courses. Why let a high school student go through this potentially costly “guinea pig” experience? Advice from an experienced counselor can prevent unnecessary expenditure of time, money and angst. You are about to shell out as much as $200K (for a private college), one of the largest investments you will ever make. An initial advisory service seems like a reasonable course of action before launching into such a venture.

4. A third party can help navigate the tricky parent-teen relationship. The college process creates the perfect storm in an already tense parent-teen dynamic. Your teen is legitimately struggling for autonomy, trying to find his or her authentic voice, while you are seeking to protect your evolving young adult from disastrous consequences of high risk behaviors. A third party mentor can lower tension. Often a teenager is more willing to listen to a third party than to parents!

5. An independent college consultant can help broaden opportunities for your child. A seasoned consultant has knowledge of many colleges and universities of which you may not be aware. He or she is experienced with resources (books, internet, individuals) to assist you in efficiently finding schools with strengths in your child’s fields of interest, or “great fits” with your child’s personality and social style.

An experienced consultant will also be familiar with excellent high school summer, gap year and study abroad programs. Although most college consultants are not financial aid advisors per se, they are acquainted with the process and can point you in the direction of specialists. They also can put you in touch with tutors for standardized testing and even educational consultants who can help with learning disabilities.

For information on choosing an independent college consultant, check with the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) or the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA).

Any consultant you consider using in your area should be a member of one of these organizations, in addition to a professional background in counseling, school guidance, or admissions. Other credentials include the IECA Training Institute or College Counseling Certification by UC Berkeley, UC Irvine, or UCLA.

To offer further insights, I am sharing a segment from a recent interview I did on Hometowne TV, a local access cable network based in Summit, NJ, hosted by Myung Bondy. You can find additional segments of this interview covering a number of key college application topics on my YouTube.

Related posts: Your Target Colleges…And It’s a Moving Target, Parents of 11th Graders: Get Set for Junior College Night, High School Juniors Apathetic About College Applications?


Parents of high school juniors have been busy planning college visits since January, and your family will be traveling to campuses during school breaks for the next few months. I hope my recent blog post, How to Plan a College Visit, gave you some helpful perspective to prepare for these valuable campus tours.

To offer further insights, I am sharing a college visit segment from a recent interview I did last year on Hometowne TV, a local access cable network based in Summit, NJ, hosted by Myung Bondy. You can find additional segments of this interview covering a number of college application topics on my YouTube channel.

Related Posts: Tips for College Trips, Why Juniors Should Visit Colleges on Winter and Spring BreakThe Next Six Months of College Visits, and I’ll Only Visit Colleges I Get Into.


It’s that time of year again. School holidays are coming up: President’s Weekend, Spring Break, Easter Break. Time for high school juniors to explore college campuses. As a college consultant, I am frequently asked how to plan and optimize college visits. So here are some key steps:

1. Decide which schools to visit. With the help of your guidance counselor or an independent consultant, you and your high school student need to be developing an initial college list. The criteria for selection should include: type of institution (public, private, university, liberal arts college, technical institute, arts conservatory); academic and extracurricular programs offered; affordability (public, private, merit scholarship availability); size; setting (urban, suburban, rural); geography and distance from home; diversity; and academic, political, cultural and social atmosphere.

Resources to generate the list can include: My own book, Navigating the Road to College: A Handbook for Parents; Lynn O’Shaughnessy’s The College Solution; Steven Antonoff’s The College Finderor its related web site, InsideCollege.com; Loren Pope’s Colleges That Change Lives, or its related web site, ctcl.org; Greenes Guides’ The Hidden Ivies; and the Yale Daily News Staff’s The Insider’s Guide to Colleges 2012. You may also find the following blog posts helpful: First College List Question: Public vs. Private University, College Applications: Don’t Follow the Lemmings, and Your Target Colleges…and It’s a Moving Target. For performing arts or pre-medicine, check out my series on college majors listed in the lower right hand panel of this blog.

Do Internet research to whittle down the list to a manageable number of schools to visit. Besides perusing each school’s own web site, you can obtain visual impressions of the campus from sites such as: YouUniversityTV.com and CampusTours.com. College Board College Search offers free standardized facts and figures, such as size, costs, programs, deadlines and selectivity. US News & World Report offers academic rankings of schools and specific undergraduate programs, such as business and engineering, for around twenty bucks. MeritAid.com identifies scholarship programs. Your  own high school’s Naviance Family Connection will give insights into their students’ historical acceptance rates at each school. CollegeConfidential‘s forums offer opinions from students, parents, counselors and admissions professionals.

2. Set up trips that are not too overwhelming. Your teen needs to digest each campus visit, and cramming in too many schools, for the sake of efficiency when visiting a specific geographic area during a school holiday, could actually backfire. The schools might blend together too much, or the student, burning out by the end, may totally tune out the last school on the itinerary. Prioritize by making sure you hit the colleges that are absolutely at the top of your student’s list, the “must sees.” You might also try to show your student a real contrast, such as an urban vs. a rural school, early on in the spring, because it may help your student clarify what he or she truly wants and consequently narrow down the list.

3. Register for an information session and campus tour. Generally, you need to register in advance by going to the school’s web site under its “admission” or “prospective students” section and find “visits.” They usually have calendars that indicate availability of information sessions, tours, open houses, opportunities to sit in on a class, and special programs throughout the year. Sign up for special programs as appropriate, such as a tour of the performing arts facilities if your student is a musician, actor or dancer. Check out what may be going on at the college the weekend you are planning to visit, such as sports events or performances, and get tickets! What better way to get a “feel” of the college community, its talent, facilities and school spirit?

4. What to do about campus interviews? The interview is not a key deciding factor in college admissions, as I describe in my post, Acing the College Admissions Interview. Many colleges, however, will arrange a non-evaluative interview if you request it when you are visiting. Interviewing is a great way to show “demonstrated interest,” as well as getting answers to questions about the college’s programs. If your student is early in the visiting process, and is nervous about not being ready to make a great impression, postpone it. It is more important for your student to be focused on observing and absorbing, not on performing. Later on, if the school makes your teen’s short list, he or she may be able to interview, on a second campus visit, or with regional alumni. If the school requires an eventual visit for an audition or portfolio review, there is definitely no need to stress out about interviewing early on.

5. What to look for when visiting? My post and book chapter, Tips for College Trips, offers in-depth advice for playing the role of an anthropologist, practicing the art of observation, and seeking the answer to the key question: “Can I picture myself here for four pivotal years of my life?” Related posts: Why Juniors Should Visit Colleges on Winter and Spring BreakThe Next Six Months of College Visits, and I’ll Only Visit Colleges I Get Into.


Colleges for B Students

Nobody’s perfect. Not every teenager is bound for the Ivy League. While parents who interview me as a potential consultant for their college-bound superstar ask about my track record with elite institutions, it is in fact a greater challenge to help a B student find an ideal college match.

I am not talking about a teen who gets a B or even a C in a course or two; I am referring to a student whose GPA throughout high school averages slightly south or north of 3.0. Alas, we no longer live in a world of the “Gentleman C”—it has probably become more like “Gentleman B.” We live in an age of grade inflation, as well as fierce population-driven competition for spots in selective colleges. According to College Board, the percentage of applicants accepted with GPA’s of 3.0-3.24 is generally under 10%, and those accepted with GPA’s of 2.5-2.99 is 1-2%, even at colleges of average selectivity. So the competition is definitely tough out there.

The “B student” moniker covers a broad range of students, with diverse abilities, backgrounds and aspirations. After high school, their trajectories could include: immediate employment; vocational training via a technical institute, art school, or career college; four years in a college or university with an immediate vocational emphasis, such as business; or four years in a college or university with a liberal arts orientation and/or preparation for graduate school.

B students can have any number of individual stories. Some might be late bloomers, distracted from academics early in high school, but catching up junior or senior year as they mature and find their feet. Some may be solid students with an Achilles’ heel in one academic area, such as math or language, that drags down the GPA. There may be a learning disability, attentional disorder, or psychological condition to be diagnosed and addressed. It is also possible that the student’s passion is focused on a less academic field, say, culinary arts, dance, music, photography, fashion design, or graphic arts; he or she is therefore simply not engaged by abstract college prep courses such as Latin or Calculus. His or her true talents are not measured in the high school GPA; the B performance is not indicative of the student’s potential.

First, let us consider B students who are late bloomers, inconsistent performers, learning challenged, or emotionally fragile. They have special individual needs that should be considered in the college application process. It is not enough to simply find colleges with accessible admissions criteria. I suggest that families of B students consider small-to-medium colleges, if affordable, with a favorable faculty-student ratio, academic support, a close-knit student body, focus on the undergraduate, and a nurturing environment. B students are not entering college as finished products, ready to grab the brass ring; they are, in fact, underprepared, and need a transformational environment to help them mature and gain skills for success.

Where are these colleges? Pick up Loren Pope’s Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think about CollegesPope describes these colleges as having “a familial sense of communal enterprise… a faculty of scholars devoted to helping young people develop their powers, mentors who often become their valued friends.” Of Pope’s schools, the most accessible for B students include: Beloit (WS), Knox (IL), Ohio Wesleyan, HiramCollege of Wooster (OH), Kalamazoo (MI), Earlham (IN), Juniata (PA), GoucherMcDaniel (MD), Lynchburg (VA), Guilford (NC), Hendrix (AK), Hampshire (MA), and Marlboro (VT). Full list at ctcl.org.

Check out “Hidden Gems” from Steven Antonoff’s The College Finder: Choose the School That’s Right for You. Of Antonoff’s hidden gems, the most accessible for B students include:  Hobart & Smith (NY), Champlain (VT), Endicott (MA), Bryant (RI), Fairfield (CT), Drew (NJ), High Point (NC), and College of Charleston (SC). For Antonoff’s complete hidden gem lists, visit InsideCollege.com.

If your B student is challenged by standardized testing, take a look at the SAT/ACT test optional schools listed at Fairtest.org. Many are also listed by Pope or Antonoff. Schools most accessible for B students include: Hobart & Smith (NY), Drew (NJ), ProvidenceBryant (RI), Fairfield (CT),  Hampshire (MA), Marlboro (VT),  GoucherLoyola (MD), Guilford (NC), Knox (IL), and U of Scranton (PA).

I hesitate to recommend large universities for students who have struggled academically in high school relative to their peers. The mission of land-grant universities is to serve the public; therefore, these schools are accessible, even for applicants with less competitive credentials. After matriculation, these schools gradually separate the wheat from the chaff. For B students unprepared for a sink-or-swim situation,  however, I suggest a more intimate college atmosphere, in which somebody notices if a freshman cuts class.

Such an environment could be public; Penn State‘s satellite campuses, for example, offer a small-scale “junior college” experience to prepare late bloomers to eventually succeed at the flagship campus in University Park. The student will eventually get to enjoy the “rah-rah” Division I sports and Greek life college experience that many middle class families seem to consider a rite of passage, a socio-cultural phenomenon unique to American society.

Second, let us consider the student with a well-developed artistic or technical interest that is better honed in a vocational institute, career college, or conservatory program than in a traditional four year college. The student could be a high academic performer, or a B student, who may simply be more of an artistic or technical specialist at heart. This situation can be especially tricky for middle class suburban families, whose general expectation is that their children will attend four year colleges. Should this student  be encouraged to attend a traditional four year liberal arts college or go the specialist route instead?

The traditional college route will provide a well-balanced education, of course, arguably important for all members of our complex society. But for the B student, it could result in continued mediocre performance, since the student is not pursuing a field in which he or she naturally excels, perhaps resulting in not graduating or not finding a job after graduation. The more vocationally-oriented route may lack prestige, depending on what kind of program it is, and most likely will not offer a comprehensive liberal arts foundation. It will, however, provide a venue in which the student will thrive. The student will be thoroughly trained in his or her passion, and will be equipped to find an occupation in that field upon graduation.

Can an artistic or technical specialist student have his or her cake and eat it too? Yes, there are some institutions that do offer deep preparation for an artistic or technical field within a traditional university setting, all along the selectivity continuum. Antonoff’s book and website, as well as Rugg’s Recommendations on the Colleges, 27th Ed., by F.E. Rugg, are helpful resources for identifying such programs. Also check out the Majors section of CollegeToolkit.com and MyMajors.com.

In my practice, I have encountered B students from many backgrounds, with diverse individual stories. The only generalization I can offer is that there is no “one size fits all” path for the B student. I feel that parents need to be careful about projecting their own expectations onto their adolescent; rather, parents need to guide their student in identifying the higher education environment where he or she will thrive and be best prepared for a satisfying career. Related posts: Preparing for a Major in…the Performing Arts, Why Study Liberal Arts in College?


As a longtime fan of QuoteGarden, ThinkExist, and BrainyQuote, and a recent convert to Pinterest, I could definitely be called a quotation junkie. I love discovering a clever, pithy line that articulates a fresh insight or ancient nugget of wisdom, pointing out irony and offering hope. In this post, I would like to share some of my favorite quotes pertinent to raising and guiding young people, which have helped me as a parent and a college consultant. I hope that these pearls of wisdom will give you inspiration as you continue to do the most noble and difficult job in the world: preparing your children for adulthood.


“I was a wonderful parent before I had children.”-Adele Faber

“Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children; now I have six children, and no theories.” -John Wilmot

“A mother understands what a child does not say.” – Jewish Proverb

“Don’t handicap your children by making their lives easy.”  -Robert A. Heinlein

“We must teach our children to dream with their eyes open.” -Harry Edward

“Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time.” -Rabbinic saying

“Parents wonder why the streams are bitter, when they themselves have poisoned the fountain.” -John Locke

“To an adolescent, there is nothing more embarrassing than a parent.” -Dave Barry

“It’s not enough to do our best; sometimes we have to do what’s required.” -Sir Winston Churchill

“The most influential of all educational factors is the conversation in a child’s home.” -Sir William Temple

“Life affords no greater responsibility, no greater privilege, than the raising of the next generation.” -C. Everet Koop, M.D


“Live the life you’ve imagined.” -Henry David Thoreau

“Be yourself: everyone else is taken.” -Oscar Wilde

“If I’m going to sing like someone else, then I don’t need to sing at all.” -Billie Holiday

“If you can dream it, you can do it.” -Walt Disney

“It’s a helluva start, being able to recognize what makes you happy.” -Lucille Ball

“All children are gifted. Some just open their presents later than others. “-Anonymous

“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” -Joseph Campbell

“Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it.” -The Buddha

“It is a mistake to try to look too far ahead. The chain of destiny can only be grasped one link at a time.” –Sir Winston Churchill

“No trumpets sound when the important decisions of our lives our made. Destiny is made known silently.” -Agnes De Mille

“Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.”  -Wallace Stevens

“Once you make a decision, the whole universe will conspire to make it happen.”-Ralph Waldo Emerson

“It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” -JK Rowling

“Begin with the end in mind.” -Stephen Covey


When my son hit the terrible two’s,  I received a rather unwelcome crash course in boundary-setting, from none other than my mother-in-law, who casually observed, “Love is spelled N-O.” As a know-it-all Mozart-in-utero Baby Boomer, I did not exactly relish receiving parenting advice from the Greatest Generation, but her simple words resonated. I never forgot them.

As a consultant to families of college-bound teens or young adults preparing for careers, I routinely see cumulative results of parenting style in the student’s academic profile. In the 1970’s, psychologist Diana Baumrind identified three distinct parenting styles: authoritarian, authoritative, and permissive. Her research found that these styles varied their mix of four elements: responsive vs. unresponsive, demanding vs. undemanding. 

Authoritarian parents are demanding but not responsive. This style is characterized by high expectations of compliance to parental rules, with little open dialogue between parent and child. Authoritative parents are both demanding and responsive. They encourage children to be independent but still place limits and controls on their actions. Permissive parents are responsive but not demanding. This indulgent style is characterized by having few behavioral expectations for one’s child. Parents are nurturing, accepting, and responsive to their kids’ wishes, but do not require kids to behave appropriately. Maccoby & Martin added a fourth style: neglectful or uninvolved parenting, in which parents are neither responsive nor demanding. 

A recent teen alcohol study found that teens least prone to heavy drinking had authoritative parents (high on accountability and warmth). “Totalitarian” parents doubled their teens’ risk of heavy drinking, while “indulgent” parents actually tripled the risk. Being your kid’s “buddy” can have severe consequences.

The most desirable style is authoritative parenting, in which Mom and Dad are warm and involved, but also set consistent, firm boundaries. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Much easier said than done, but also an essential goal for parents. Why should a college counselor blog about this?

It is an unfortunate, but common, experience for me to see a student with above average SATs, but below average grades, even without rigorous courses. The student typically attends public high school in an affluent suburb. The student has no hardships that would interfere with academic performance: no tragic family situations, language barrier, part-time employment, or disabilities beyond mild ADHD.

So what is wrong? There are three common contexts, but the root cause, in my humble opinion, is the parenting style.

1. Extracurricular activities. Often, the student is busy with performing arts or athletics, which draw significant time and effort away from academics. So I suggest dialing down extracurriculars. Sounds reasonable enough. But curiously, the parents, who appear genuinely worried about their teen’s college prospects, do not consider this factor as something within their control.

With boys in particular, passionate devotion to sports may be driven by hunger to win the approval of a charismatic coach. Certainly, there is a testosterone element (i.e., a need to demonstrate physical prowess and win in a competitive arena). However, the coach may also be filling the powerful, constructive role of an authoritative parent. A good coach clarifies the connection between behavior and consequences; if a player does not show up for practice, he gets benched. If teachers and parents are not able to engage this boy, but the coach can, what is that coach doing right and what can be learned from him?

Remember the brilliant Stephen Spielberg film, Catch Me If You Can, based on the life of Frank Abagnale, Jr., who, before his nineteenth birthday, successfully performed cons worth millions of dollars by posing as a Pan Am pilot, a Georgia doctor, and a Louisiana lawyer. Abagnale (Leo DiCaprio) had an indulgent, excuse-making father (Christopher Walken), whose poor role modeling led to his son’s sociopathic behavior. The gruff FBI agent (Tom Hanks), who chased Abagnale across the globe, actually became a father figure because he set a moral standard for this young man. Ironically, it was the FBI agent whom Abagnale phoned on Christmas while on the lam, responding to the law officer’s persevering “tough love.” The FBI agent was the first alpha male who ever told this kid no.

2. Social life. Years ago, I heard a parent complain that her high school son did not come home until two in the morning on weekends. When I mentioned the word “curfew,” she seemed shocked at such an old-fashioned idea. Of course, I would be worried about a seventeen-year-old’s physical safety, the possibility that he may be abusing alcohol or drugs, getting a girl pregnant, or getting arrested, if he is routinely coming home at 2 AM. But I would also be concerned that he is not learning to set boundaries, since none have been created for him by his parents.

It is no wonder that a boy like this does not care about his grades, because there is a connection between limit-setting for social behavior and his own ability to internalize standards, set goals for himself, and deliver on them. When this young man goes to college, he will lack the inner tools to get up in the morning and go to class, study instead of party, and graduate with a decent academic record that will land him a job in a tough economy.

When a child grows up in a household without limits, it is actually quite scary for him, because he is developing no inner architecture to deal with life. I am reminded of Pinocchio‘s Pleasure Island, where orphaned, unsupervised boys could lawlessly pursue vices; they became “jackasses,” and then were magically changed into real donkeys and sold to the salt mines. Even as a kid, I felt sorry for those little cartoon donkeys  and wished I could warn them before it was too late. This nightmarish metaphor is full of painful truth: teens whose parents set no boundaries find themselves consigned to a suboptimal life trajectory. Hopefully, the limits we set for our kids will be internalized as a conscience (i.e., Jiminy Cricket), helping them conquer life’s adversities and ultimately take responsibility to become real”  young adults: brave, unselfish and true.

3. Electronic distractions. For boys, electronics can mean escapist, addictive “shoot’em-up” video games. For both genders, social media can take over all free time. But in the end, it is about boundaries, set by parents, and consequently internalized by the adolescent. Parents who feel helpless about requiring that electronics be turned off during evening homework time have a boundary problem. They have more power than they realize, but they are afraid to use it. What are they afraid of? Uncomfortable conflict, an embarrassing scene, their child’s disapproval or rejection, not being a pal, not being liked? But they really need to be more afraid of the alternative. All they need to say is “N-O.”

And that’s how you spell love.

Relevant reading: The Male Brain by L. Brizendine, Boys Adrift: Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men by L. Sax, and Getting to Calm: Cool-Headed Strategies for Parenting Tweens and Teens by L. Kastner. Related posts: Not Just Getting into College: Parenting for Purpose, First Aid for a Disappointing GradeAmy Chua: Everybody Needs a Tiger, No Guts, No Glory, and Honorable Adulthood.


When any market, such as real estate, the stock market, or the college market, becomes so competitive that it is difficult to gain a foothold, the wise “investor” is best served by finding the less traveled path. Success means not following the lemmings; rather, today’s college applicant needs to become an alpha consumer, a trendsetter who stays ahead of the curve by finding the “next hot college.”

In  College Applications: The Restaurant Analogy, I wrote: “When looking for a great restaurant, it is not wise to choose the most famous place, the easiest to get to, at 8 PM on Saturday night. This is a no-brainer. Maybe you go at 6:30 or 9:30 PM instead. Or go on a Thursday night. Perhaps you choose a different restaurant altogether, a hidden gem with an innovative new chef; it may require more research to find such a place, but it is well worth it. Or maybe you try a bistro that is a little harder to get to, that may have some inconvenience factors that will discourage other would-be patrons, such as lack of parking space or an urban location that is not gentrified enough for some.”

In the Northeast, there are many excellent but accessible Common Application colleges that offer non-binding early action programs without burdensome supplementary essays, such as Villanova, Northeastern, MaristProvidence, and Fairfield. There are also highly elite early action colleges, such as Georgetown, Tulane, and Boston College.  In addition, there are plenty of state university “priority application” and/or “rolling admissions” programs; for most Northeast kids, a SUNY, Rutgers, Penn State, U Maryland, U Delaware, and U Michigan are probably on their radar screen.

Anything wrong with applying to some of these colleges during fall of senior year? While not too individually customized, it is a reasonable approach. Applying early does help one’s chances in “priority application” and “rolling admissions” programs. Early action programs, however, do NOT help one’s chances. Unlike binding early decision, which gives the institution guaranteed yield and therefore translates to an admissions advantage, EA does not help one’s chances. In fact, as aggregate psychology drives thousands to apply to an attractive school’s EA program, it can overwhelm the admissions department and they may not get to all the applications before the holidays, forcing them to defer candidates whose applications they have not even had a chance to review.

So, if one of these schools is a reach, if everybody in your teen’s senior class is applying there EA, if your kid has not visited the school and does not particularly want to go there, does it really make sense to apply? I know it’s easy, so why not? It is nice to have one school “in the bag” before Christmas. However, it may not be in the bag, especially as more students flock to these EA options, driving up the competitive quality of the applicant pool. This year, in my practice, I noticed that some students, who would have probably been accepted to these EA schools in previous years, were deferred or even denied.

Is this a bad strategy, then? No, but it is better to zero in on EA schools realistic for one’s credentials, and visit/interview to prove “demonstrated interest.” Even better, apply early decision, if your family starts the  process early enough so that your teen can comfortably commit, and if your financial situation allows you to enroll without comparing need-based or merit aid packages in the spring. Early decision is a Faustian bargain that is not for everyone. However, if it is feasible to make a decision six months earlier, rather than prolonging indecision, enabling the applicant to get into a slightly more competitive college, why not consider this option?

I am a believer in geographic adventure. I understand that, as a practical matter, the three-hour radius around one’s hometown allows transport without air travel and inexpensive weekend trips home. But here is the other side to that argument. You only go to college once. Why be so insular and provincial that you believe you can only be happy in your own backyard? How will you ever branch out and develop as a human being? Applicants write sincere essays about study abroad, diversity and global citizenship, and yet so many are afraid to even visit a college outside the region of the United States where they grew up.

As I stated in my Restaurant post, “I am not saying that your kid has a better chance of getting accepted to Case Western Reserve because its admission folks are so bent on getting such a great New Jersey applicant.” There are simply less competitive Northeastern kids applying to many of the “harder to get to” colleges in the Midwest or Southeast.  Confirm this by a little self-directed US News & World Report College Ranking research.

Take two national universities that US News ranks similarly: Georgetown in Washington DC (ranked 23) and Emory in Atlanta (20). Both are on gorgeous campuses adjacent to desirable cities, two hours plus from the NYC metro area, one by plane and one by train (similar price if traveling by Amtrak Acela). Both have great pre-med and pre-law (one has great year-round weather). Georgetown’s acceptance is 20%, Emory’s is 29%. Why the difference? There may be fewer Northeast high performers who are willing to venture forth beyond the cozy Northeast Corridor. I am biased—my son graduates from Emory in 2012—but there are many more examples.

29-ranked Tufts has an acceptance rate of 24%, with its powerful Boston caché.  Consider, however, beautiful Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, ranked higher by US News at 25, with 40% acceptance. The lemmings forgot to apply. Or, look at two schools tied for rank 38: Lehigh, in Bethlehem PA, with 38% acceptance, and Case Western, in Cleveland, with 67% acceptance. Consider two schools at the 60-rank level: Northeastern U (rank 62, 38% acceptance) versus University of Pittsburgh (rank 58, 58% acceptance). Check the tuition price tag (Pitt is public) and recent press on the highly liveable, and yes, artsy, city of Pittsburgh. For equivalently ranked schools, how much is the Boston caché worth?

Let me offer a few comparisons among the elite private liberal arts colleges. Bowdoin, in Maine, has a 6 ranking and 20% acceptance. Carleton, in Minnesota, shares the 6 ranking but has 31% acceptance. If you have not heard of Carleton, chalk it up to Northeastern parochialism, and if you think it’s colder in Minnesota than it is in Maine, think again. Hamilton, in upstate New York, ranks 17, with a 29% acceptance rate, while Grinnell, in Iowa, ranks 19, with a 43% acceptance rate. Just like in the days of the California Gold Rush, to the adventurous go the spoils.

So, alpha consumer about to spend as much as $200K, start looking for the next “hot” school. It’s right under your nose. It is probably an institution that is already highly ranked for academic excellence, but it might not be located in the “sexiest” city. Ask your child to “stretch” just a little, suspend prestige-label consciousness, and visit at least one college that the lemmings have not found.

To offer further insights, I am sharing a segment from a recent interview I did on HomeTowne TV, a local access cable network based in Summit, NJ, hosted by Myung Bondy. You can find additional segments of this interview covering a number of college application topics on my YouTube channel.

Related Posts: College Applications: The Restaurant AnalogyCollege Consultants: Who Needs’em? Your Target Colleges…And It’s a Moving Target, Why You Should Apply to College Early Decision, and Choosing Colleges in Cool Metro Areas.


Your teenager has been given all the opportunities you never had growing up. You child has been offered material blessings, an affluent suburban community with a competitive high school, as well as parents willing and able to support his or her expensive extracurricular hobbies and finance spectacular enrichment summer programs and travel. Of course, you will pay for academic tutoring, diagnosis and treatment for learning disabilities or attentional disorders, and college consulting to ensure acceptance at a prestigious college.

It is frustrating, however, to find that all your generous, nurturing support has not yet translated into success for your high school student. Your son or daughter does not seem to be driven (as you undoubtedly were). Your teenager has lackluster grades, does not seem to fully appreciate, or take advantage of, enrichment opportunities, and does not appear to have much of a life mission. Rather than seeing your child go beyond you and your spouse, you have the sinking feeling that your child could become yet another sad example of regression toward the mean.

I have written extensively on the role of adversity in building determination and purpose in a young person’s life in my book and blogs. If you are discouraged, read my posts: Not Just Getting into College: Parenting for Purpose, Antidotes for the Race to Nowhere, The College Process: Dealing with Rejection, and Finding a Job in a Tough Economy.

Throughout our children’s lifetimes and most of our own, we Americans have been blessed with a strong economy, affluence, and peace. Our kids have only recently begun to encounter the impact of a recessionary economy. Perhaps in our own complacency, we have been deceived into believing that our children need a “perfect” environment in order to survive and thrive. Greg Esterbrook challenges this idea in The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse.

As our Greatest Generation parents or grandparents will confirm, it is adversity that builds inner strength, determination, grit and character. We human beings need adversity just as muscles need resistance to build strength and tone. Ironically, by trying to give our children everything, we may have actually worked against their sense of purpose and their ultimate success.

There is, however, hope for our sheltered, indulged and entitled kids, as there is for every generation. The first thing I advise you to do is, do less, and let your child do more. Then have faith in life, that life will teach your child, and have faith in your son or daughter, who will process those lessons, dig deep within, and find those inner resources. Your young adult will begin to make a shift—I guarantee you–from your ownership to his or hers. Yes, your young adult will genuinely OWN his or her life, find the passion, and the ultimate purpose. You, however, need to get out of your child’s way, as I wrote in How Parents Can Launch Their Young Adult Children By Being, Not Doing.

If you do not see this happening right away, do not become discouraged, because it is happening below the surface. Like gestation in the womb, development is mostly an inner thing; manifestation is a result, a culmination, an end-product, that occurs when everything has finally come together. As I wrote in High School Juniors Apathetic about College Applications?, parents simply need to be patient, because profound growth and tumultuous change is always going on inside an adolescent, and when ready, the young person will care about the future, and begin to prepare for it.

The spiritually wise psychiatrist Dr. Frederic Flach, MD, wrote about the intersection of inner readiness and the serendipity of circumstance in an intriguing book called The Secret Strength of Angels: Seven Virtues to Live By. He presented a powerful quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “If it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.”

Let your child’s life unfold, with life as the teacher.

Related posts: Parents, Teens…and the Dance of College Applications, How Parents Can Launch Their Young Adult Children By Being, Not Doing, Not Just Getting into College: Parenting for Purpose, Helicopter Parents: College and Beyond, and Honorable Adulthood.


As a college consultant, I spend the holidays helping applicants digest admissions feedback. If your teen is struggling with disappointing news, you can find consolation in my posts: Colleges Acceptances and Denials: The Best and the Worst Things That Could Happen, The College Process: Dealing with Rejection, December 15 College News: Deferral or Denial, and A College Consultant’s Grown-Up Christmas List.

In this post, I propose a less orthodox perspective that will help applicants to not take admissions feedback so personally. I offer  a template for strategic selection of potential “hidden gem” schools. Rather than viewing the admissions process as a kind of “judgment day” that pronounces the final verdict on how well you parented your child, or how well your student succeeded in high school, I propose a“restaurant analogy.”

In Woody Allen‘s classic film, Love and Death, the überphilosophical Tolstoy-esque Russians Boris and Sonja wrestle with Kant’s categorical imperative while attempting to assassinate Napoleon Bonaparte. Woody Allen asserts, “If everyone went to same restaurant on the same evening to eat blintzes, there’d be chaos!” while Diane Keaton sarcastically assures him, “But they DON’T.” What does this have to do with the college admissions process? Everything. Stay with me.

Ever notice how something “goes viral,” whether it is a trendy restaurant, a new HBO series, a hot stock, or a YouTube video? No big mystery. There’s word of mouth, a rising phenom feeling, an awareness that this new thing is the NEXT BIG THING. There’s a build that reaches a critical mass, as described in Malcolm Glidwell’s bestseller The Tipping Point. There’s powerful group psychology going on, on a grand scale. That’s what drives the stock market, the real estate market, technology bubbles, global currencies, everything. Group psychology. Should it be any surprise that such aggregate psychological dynamics could influence the college process as well?

For the past four years, U.S. News has ranked “up-and-coming” colleges. Guidance counselors, college consultants, education journalists, and families catch on to schools out there that are becoming “hot.”  That information trickles through to students. Just like a new fashion trend or music fad, rising colleges magically begin to appear on applicants’ radar screens.

Northeastern University is a great example of the restaurant analogy. NU ranks eighth on U.S. News’ “up-and-coming” list, cleverly repositioning its co-op intenship program as “experiential learning” to capitalize on students’ new desire to gain job experience in college to prepare them for a tough job market. Further, Northeastern  brilliantly offers an attractive application alternative: non-binding early action, via the Common Application with no supplemental essay. Not to mention that it is in smack in the middle of Boston, the most popular location for today’s cosmopolitan, academically competitive, Northeast Corridor Amtak-riding applicants. This is what I would call a “white-hot” restaurant, where it would be tough to get a table at eight o’clock on a Saturday night.

Let’s look at another great college city, Washington DC, as a city of academic “restaurants.” For “Georgetown lovers” who think the Hoyas are the only game in town, think again. The triune forces of the baby boomlet population explosion, increased expectations for college attendance, and college app technology have made it more difficult to gain acceptance at colleges we may have considered accessible “back in the day.”

As Georgetown has become out-of-reach for many excellent students, applicants who would enjoy college in our nation’s capital are enthusiastically exploring the other great DC metro area “restaurants.” Once they get over the idea of a linear pecking order, they realize that each school offers unique benefits for each student’s individual interests. George Washington University is hotter than ever, with its prime Foggy Bottom location, its highest-internship-per-capita distinction, and strengths in business, foreign service, and medicine. Budding performing artists can find superb programs at GW, American or Catholic. U.S. News’ up-and-coming schools, U of Maryland-College Park and George Mason, are nearby. Howard is still one of the country’s best historically black colleges. Not to mention premier specialty schools such as Concoran or Galludet. There is a “restaurant” in DC for every appetite!

When looking for a great restaurant, it is not wise to choose the most famous place, the easiest to get to, at 8 PM on Saturday night. This is a no-brainer. Maybe you go at 6:30 or 9:30 PM instead. Or go on a Thursday night. Perhaps you choose a different restaurant altogether, a hidden gem with an innovative new chef; it may require more research to find such a place, but it is well worth it. Or maybe you try a bistro that is a little harder to get to, that may have some inconvenience factors that will discourage other would-be patrons, such as lack of parking space or an urban location that is not gentrified enough for some. Do call ahead for a reservation–don’t just show up.

In today’s competitive college app environment, families would do well to consider the less traveled path. A college consultant can help identify colleges beyond the “usual suspects,” but the family needs to keep an open mind. Don’t simply follow the lemmings and apply where everyone else is applying. How about a sense of geographic adventure, outside the three-hour-drive comfort zone? If you are from the Northeast, read my posts about the Midwest, South, or West. Some of my creative, independent-minded New Jersey clients have been brave enough to venture abroad to McGill, NYU Abu Dhabi, and U Edinburgh, as well as U.S. schools far from home such as  U Miami, College of Charleston, Elon, Wake Forest, Emory, U Michigan, Wheaton (Ill) and USC.

I am not saying that your kid has a better chance of getting accepted to Case Western Reserve because its admission folks are so bent on getting such a great New Jersey applicant; CWRU may or may not have an institutional objective of broadening its geographical representation. Everybody in your teen’s competitive private school class is probably not applying to this impressive, highly selective Ohio school, ranked 38th among national universities by US News; most of them are, however, applying to Northeastern (ranked 62nd) and American (ranked 82nd). Just think of how many competitive New Jersey applicants are NOT applying to Case Western. If your kid is, there just might be an opening. Geographic flexibility is like Warren Buffett choosing a less obvious, perhaps less sexy, stock, and laughing all the way to the bank…but it doesn’t take a genius to do this.

The “reservation” part of the restaurant analogy is about early decision. Early decision is binding, so it is not for everybody, but it does carry an admissions advantage. Early action gives the applicant early notification, but it does not carry an admissions advantage. So if your kid is applying to a “hot” school, is sure this is the dream school, and your family does not have to compare need and merit packages in the spring, encourage early decision. If your student is a senior who was disappointed with early action news in December, consider EDII for the school he or she feels is at the top of the January application list. If you really want that table, get a reservation.

Bon APP-étit!

Related posts: College Consultants: Who Needs’em? Your Target Colleges…And It’s a Moving Target, Why You Should Apply to College Early Decision, and The College Process: Dealing with Rejection.


Parents of high school juniors, you are probably just beginning to wrap your minds around the landscape of the college process. As a college consultant and fellow parent, I am here to help. This blog has many helpful posts about junior year and what is ahead, such as: What Is Important to Colleges? Top Ten Factors, Your 11th Grader’s 11 Steps to Success, Parents of 11th Graders: Get Set for Junior College Night!, College Reading List for 11th Grade Parents, Public vs. Private Universities or Liberal Arts Colleges, and Should I Take the SAT, the ACT, or Both? to name a few.

A resource you may want to pick up for guidance on the white-knuckle ride is my recent book, Navigating the Road to College: A Handbook for Parents. It is part “how to” and part reflective observation that will encourage you along the journey. Available in paperback and Kindle editions; visit Amazon.com for purchase information and reviews. While you and your high school junior are mapping out the next year’s “mission” over the holidays, this book will serve as a helpful guide that will reduce stress, avoid mistakes, and enhance your appreciation of the rites of passage you are soon to experience with your teen.

Another powerful way to prepare for the mission ahead is to listen to my recent audiopodcast interview with former Princeton University financial aid director and admissions committee member Don Betterton. If you would like a seasoned insider’s perspective on what the Ivies look for, relative advantages of applicant “tags” such as early decision or legacy status, the role of the college essay, or how to afford college, this interview offers valuable insights. Check my website for details.

Hope you will be checking in often to this blog as you move through the college process with your adolescent!


There seems to be so much at stake when college admissions decisions come out, whether it is December or April. It is especially difficult in December, since early notification applicants usually only have one, or at best a few, options on the table, resulting in an “all-or-nothing” feeling. If the news is disappointing, there is often no countervailing news to offer solace. It is easier in April, with more irons in the fire and perhaps the benefit of feedback from December, but it can still be tough on a teen’s fragile self-esteem and parents’ emotionally invested expectations.

Every December, I urge my clients and readers to keep a low profile at school to escape the heavily wired insanity. I also encourage families to make this process about discovery and direction, rather than self-esteem. December is a learning experience that can result in a better outcome in April, only if the family embraces that learning and interprets it in a constructive way.

If December news is disappointing, I explain to my families that it may simply mean that the admissions committee of this particular college decided not to admit their child. This may mean his or her academic credentials were not quite strong enough for this institution, or that the admissions people surmised the match wasn’t there, or even random occurences over which he or she has no control.

December news can also be a wake-up call that the student shot too high, requiring reassessment and a move to Plan B. I encourage the family to meet with the guidance counselor and utilize quantitative tools (i.e., Naviance Family Connection) to re-evaluate the realism of the college list. I suggest adding  less competitive schools, but institutions the student would be happy to attend. I am reminded of a quotation from investor and author Robert G. Allen: “There is no failure: only feedback.”

What may seem to be the worst experience of your child’s life may actually provide the feedback that indicates a different route, one that ultimately is a rewarding path. Richard Carlson, author of Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, told a story about a wise man who was consulted by a villager about a series of dramatic events. When the villager asked, “Isn’t this the worst thing that could happen?” the wise man replied, “Maybe, maybe not.” When he asked, “Isn’t this the best thing that could happen?” the wise man replied, “Maybe, maybe not.” Check Thoughts.com for a quick racap of this insightful story.

My point is that the wise, resilient individual does not judge an event too quickly, but learns from it, adjusts the life trajectory accordingly, and moves on. It is only in retrospect that one can judge the events of one’s life. As a personal example, I was nervous a decade ago when my husband, Brad Hintz, chose a job in a new, uncharted career path instead of a job in the field he had been in for years. Ironically, the low-risk job he rejected was located on a high floor in the South Twin Tower and the high-risk job he chose was securities equity analyst for Sanford Bernstein: the rest is history.  As the late Steve Jobs said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect to your future.”

Related posts: The College Process: Dealing with Rejection, Your Target Colleges…And It’s a Moving Target, December 15 College News: Early Decision Acceptance, December 15 College News: Early Action Acceptance, December 15 College News: Deferral or Denial, Waiting for the Fat Envelope, and, from my “careerblog” for college graduates, Finding a Job in a Tough Economy.


As a college consultant, I am frequently struck by the fact that many parents who clearly love and want the best for their teenage or young adult children ironically seem to create rebellious, undesirable behavior in their kids or even drive their kids away. I see this painful paradox in parents’ demands for academic achievement; college, major or career decisions; fashion, peer group or dating choices; the list goes on.

So often our actions, intended to create what we see as desirable behavior in our children, actually have the opposite effect. For example, when my son was applying to college, my anxiety about his success led to my micromanagement of the process, frustrating my son and exacerbating his natural teenage boy procrastination. When I backed off, he took more ownership, and then he succeeded. As parents, we have all observed these common sense patterns at work in the dynamic between ourselves and our kids. Yet, it remains tempting to “act” the next time we are anxious, starting the toxic cycle all over again.

Recently, a wise friend, who has been a mentor to me in my journey as a parent, mentioned a phrase I had never heard before: “beneficial presence.”  My psychology background and eclectic spiritual study has introduced me to many profound concepts, but this was new to me. My friend drew this phrase from the teachings of metapsychiatrist Dr. Thomas Hora, excerpted below:

“Let us consider the meaning of a beneficial presence in the world. Beneficence is an activity, while beneficial is a quality… A ‘beneficial presence’ is a quality of consciousness. It may be difficult to conceive of an individual who can be a great blessing to a situation just by the quality of his consciousness. Some people have the best intentions to be helpful, and yet things go sour in their presence. Sometimes we may hear someone exclaim in exasperation, Please, don’t help me! This is the opposite of what we call a beneficial presence… In the presence of a beneficial presence, which is a loving consciousness, things have a tendency to work together for good in an almost mysterious way.”

Simiarly, the renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk, teacher, author and poet Thich Nhat Hanh once wrote: “The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.”

It’s just like the ancient Aesop’s Fable about the contest between the Sun and the North Wind to decide which was the stronger of the two. The challenge was to make a passing traveler remove his cloak. However hard the North Wind blew, the traveler only wrapped his cloak tighter, but when the Sun shone, the traveler was overcome with heat and had to take his cloak off.

Have you ever known a person who offered a beneficial presence? You may have gone to that person to vent, and the friend did not say much, yet quietly offered a listening ear, a caring heart, and a safe space in which you could freely explore your feelings. And somehow, that healing exchange helped you find your way. The friend cared, but did not seem overly invested in the action you chose going forward. There was a loving detachment that made you feel unconditionally supported. And it really helped.

Wouldn’t it be great to give our children a gift like that? I, for one, am going to keep trying. Related posts: Senior Year? Learn to Paint, Parents, Teens, and…The Dance of College Applications, Senioritis and What To Do About ItHelicopter Parents: College and Beyond, and Honorable Adulthood.


Years ago, I sat in a New Jersey auditorium listening to a Vanderbilt University roadshow information session. The young admissions representative and Vandy alum was also a graduate of Delbarton, a premier local private high school, and was therefore entrusted with New Jersey prospective applicants. While offering advice on essays, he left us with these memorable words: “If an essay sounds like it was written by a forty-five-year-old attorney, it probably was.

I cannot tell you how many times his words have reappeared in my mind while working with families as a college consultant. My colleague, Deborah Ernst, and I spend countless hours with our young clients, brainstorming essays, trying to draw out what teenagers authentically feel about their topics. We would both agree with the William Zinsser quotation, “Writing is thinking on paper.” We believe that crafting an essay is an adventure in self-discovery.

An essay’s evolution usually involves input from English teachers, school counselors, and family members, which results in an even more polished essay. It is desirable to read one’s essay to several audiences; getting multiple reactions can help the writer tweak the tonality before sending it to a college. Occasionally, however, too many cooks spoil the broth; the writer needs to be aware of the danger of trying to please too many masters. The worst possible pitfall is “pen-in-hand” editing by the parent, better known as “re-writing.”

Why is “re-writing” a pitfall? At the extreme, it is unethical. Take a look at a statement the student must check before signing the Common Application: “I certify that all information submitted in the admission process—including the application, the personal essay, any supplements, and any other supporting materials—is my own work, factually true, and honestly presented…” Does that mean that you cannot have an English teacher review the grammar? No, in my view, checking the mechanics with a knowledgeable expert is part of being a conscientious applicant. But when parents start “re-writing,” it becomes a slippery slope.

Even a sprinkling of well-intentioned re-writing could call the student’s authorship into question.  You don’t think admissions people can tell the difference between a high school writer and a parent? Think again. Reading essays is what they do for a living! If your teenager does not have stellar verbal skills, as evidenced by lackluster English grades or SAT scores, but his or her personal statement reads like a Pulitzer prize-winning novel, don’t you think the admissions reader will raise an eyebrow? If the student’s academic record is incongruent with the essay, the admissions reader could doubt the veracity of just about anything on the application. It is not worth it to raise such a question in order to submit a better essay.

In “What’s Important to Colleges? Top Ten Factors,” I explained that 26% of all colleges surveyed by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) in 2010 indicated that essays were of considerable importance in the admissions decision (31% of all private institutions, 13% of all public universities). Translation: the essay is somewhat important, certainly in private colleges, but not as pivotal to the admission decision as other factors, such as grades and test scores.

In my recent audiopodcast interview with former Princeton University financial aid director and admissions committee member Don Betterton, we discussed the importance of the college essay. Don’s seasoned opinion was that there are abysmal essays that negatively influence the admission decision and home runs that positively affect the decision; most essays, however, are somewhere in between, with negligible impact. My own feeling is that if a student’s academic record is not in line with a school’s requirements, an essay will not make a diference. If the student has the requisite academic record, or is within striking distance, it may be a tie-breaker, but the essay should not be expected to carry a disproportionate burden.

I share these thoughts with parents who are tempted to wordsmith their teen’s essays ad nauseum. Even if excessive wordsmithing does not raise questions of authenticity for the admissions reader, it may make the teenager feel inauthentic. The last thing you want to do is deflate your student’s sense of ownership. After all, it is a critical rite of passage for a young adult to think for oneself, and speak for oneself.

The essay is one of the few opportunities for a student to speak in his or her own voice in this often depersonalizing college process. So for God’s sake, let your kid speak: in genuine, natural, naive teen-ese. Believe it or not, admissions readers can interpret the native language of teenagers, without an adult’s translation into a pristine, three-point business memo. (And kidspeak is so much more interesting.)

It is difficult for a parent to control the tendency to wordsmith; believe me, I know. When my son was applying to college years ago, my own micromanaging was the cause of intense conflict. Realizing now how little any specific sentence really mattered in the scheme of things, and understanding how toxic the dynamic at times became, I wish I could go back in time and practice a more hands-off essay policy. Fortunately, I did “learn to paint,” my son pushed back, insisted on his own authenticity… and ultimately he was very forgiving. I hope, however, that you all can take some advice from a “sadder but wiser” parent.

To offer further insights, I am sharing a college essay segment from a recent interview I did last year on Hometowne TV, a local access cable network based in Summit, NJ, hosted by Myung Bondy. You can find additional segments of this interview covering a number of college application topics on my YouTube.

Related posts: How Important Is the College Essay, Really? Senior parent? Learn to Paint, What Is Important to Colleges? Top Ten Factors, Public vs. Private Universities or Liberal Arts Colleges, Parents, Teens, and the Dance of…College Applications, Honorable Adulthood, Helicopter Parents: College and Beyond, and The Importance of Character in Admissions Decisions.

As a college consultant, I have become intimately familiar with numerous supplemental college essay questions. While many prompts seem doomed to elicit responses that are conventional clichés, others are bound to spark creativity, and hopefully evoke genuine self-discovery, for the motivated applicant.

In no special order, here are ten of my “faves”, with musings about how I might try to respond to these thought-provoking questions:

1. Imagine that you have the opportunity to travel back through time. At what point in history would you like to stop and why? (Swarthmore College) How fun is this? It’s like Peabody & Sherman’s WABAC Machine! I want to apply to Swarthmore myself, just to write this essay. Would I wish to be among the crowd on the Via Dolorosa that fateful Friday afternoon, two millennia ago? Stand as a spectator on the Tower Green as Anne Boleyn forgives her executioner, the swordsman from France? Be aboard the ill-fated Titantic that freezing night in April, deciding whether to step into a lifeboat or remain on deck with my husband? In my family, filled with history buffs, this essay prompt could be an exciting after-dinner game.

2. Select a creative work — a novel, a film, a poem, a musical piece, a painting or other work of art — that has influenced the way you view the world and the way you view yourself. Discuss the work and its effect on you. (New York University)

My choice would have to be David O. Selnick’s epic film that brought to life Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, Gone with the Wind. I have always admired survivors of civilizations that were totally disassembled and reconstructed in a new way, such as my parents and in-laws living through the Great Depression. I occasionally wonder how I would fare if today’s way of life was suddenly forever changed. Further, Mitchell’s insightfully crafted immortal characters are archetypes that offer wisdom into the human condition; they have become lifelong tools for analyzing my own motivations and the roles others play in my life.

3. If you were to describe yourself by a quotation, what would the quote be? Explain your answer. (Dartmouth College) As a fantatical “quotaphile,” I would find this choice overwhelmingly difficult. It would be tough to select from the wise and witty sayings of Shakespeare, Churchill, Einstein, or Wilde. But since the quotation has to describe oneself, as a lover of the mysteries of the psyche, I would probably choose  Carl Jung‘s observation: “Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”

4. If you could go back and change one day in your life, what would you change and why? (Santa Clara University) This prompt brings to mind the intrguing award-winning movie, Sliding Doors, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, which explores the concept of whether we make our fate by specific actions, or whether there is a destiny dynamic at work that prevails despite our actions. In my 56 years on the planet, I have come to subscribe to the latter view, so it would be difficult for me to answer this question. I would probably choose to discuss my ideas about free will, random events, serendipity and destiny.

5. If you had a day to spend as you wish, how would you use your time? (Carleton College) Wow. An applicant’s answer to this question would be truly revealing. I remember watching a Twilight Zone episode as a kid (“Time Enough at Last”), in which a bookworm is the sole survivor of a nuclear apocalpyse, finally having time enough to pursue his passion: reading (and of course, in Rod Serling‘s nightmare world, his Coke bottle thick spectacles break on the steps of the library). I would spend my “day” similarly (without the broken glasses!), either reading or writing, and I guess that reveals quite a bit about me. How your student would describe his or her perfect day would reveal much as well.

6. If you were to develop a Mt. Rushmore representing the 20th century, whose faces would you select and why? (College of William and Mary) This question reveals one’s philosophy of life, ideas on leadership and heroism, value system, and perhaps, one’s politics. Not to mention a knowledge of American history. For me, the four heroic leaders, Democrat and Republican, black and white, would be:

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose bold brilliance as the architect of D-Day turned the tide of the war against Hitler; President John F. Kennedy, whose leadership during the Cuban missile crisis may have saved the world; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose non-violent leadership of the civil rights movement ushered in a great step forward for racial equality in our nation; and President Ronald Reagan,whose assertion of his passionate beliefs in American exceptionalism, personal liberty and limited government led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and decades of U.S. economic prosperity and innovation. Whom would you choose?

7. Recall a compliment you received that you especially value. What was it? From whom did it come? (Yale University) A dear and wise old friend, whom I greatly respect, met many of my long time friends at my fiftieth birthday party a few years ago. After the soirée, she observed, “All your friends that I met told a story of how you had helped them with something, like the courage to start a new business, or the strength to get through a personal tragedy.” Thank God. This meant more to me than any compliment on raw talent or professional accomplishment, because it affirmed my own values about helping others to find their way. If I can accomplish this goal, I will feel that my life has been a success.

8. If you founded your own college or university, what topic of study would you make mandatory for all students to study and why? What would be the values and priorities of your institution and why? (Lehigh University) Several years ago, one of my clients answered this prompt by calling her institution “Altruism University,” requiring that all students learn about compassion and engage in community service. This exceptional young woman was of Indian descent and was a fervent adherent of Jainism, the non-violent, altruistic religion of Mohandas Gandhi. Her essay revealed much about her inspiring value system. What admissions officer wouldn’t want a student like this in the campus community?

9. “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.” – Miles Davis. What does this quote mean to you? (University of Chicago) I believe this question is about uniqueness. A student’s contribution to the world is not about doing something no one else has ever done before; it is about doing what perhaps many people have done, but in one’s own special way.

10. Why did you do it? (Tufts University) Tufts always takes the prize for the most amazing, thought-provoking questions. How would you answer that?

My rule of thumb for “fave-ing” a college essay prompt is: would I myself be eager to roll up my sleeves and answer that question? Would it really make me think, look within myself, and respond from the heart? Or would I simply roll my eyes and start typing a perfunctory response, immediately knowing what the “right” answer is to a simplistic, stereotypic question?

Your teen may not be interested in applying to  schools that happen to write the most provocative essay questions. But it might be a thought-provoking exercise to kick around some of these questions on a long family drive, to stimulate reflection for your high school student (and everyone else in the family). Future essay writing may be easy after taking on these challenging questions!

If you have come across a provocative essay prompt you would like to share, please feel free to comment.



I clicked on the slide that listed the “Top Ten Factors” that are most important to colleges in making admission decisions, according to the National Association of College Admission Counselors’ annual survey. I had made this presentation numerous times before during my book tour, in many community venues, and I had become accustomed to the questions parents typically ask.

I described each factor in order:

  1. Grades in college prep courses.
  2. Strength of curriculum.
  3. Admission test scores.
  4. Grades in all courses.
  5. Essays.
  6. Demonstrated interest.
  7. Teacher recommendations.
  8. Counselor recommendations.
  9. Class rank.
  10. Extracurricular activities.

I answered what experience had told me were the usual questions. “Grades are first on the list, and extracurricular activities are last,” I explained.  “After all, college is an academic institution.” Two hands shot up in the library meeting room. A mother asked, “What about leadership?” Then a father joined in: “What about character?”

I didn’t make up these stats, I thought.  NACAC is the national governing body for college counselors, and this is their authoritative word on what is going on inside the college admissions office. And don’t the findings make intuitive sense, that academic performance would be the essential ingredient in a successful college application? So why is my audience giving me such a hard time?

Nevertheless, their questions prompted serious reflection. Surely college admissions decisions cannot be made on an entirely values-neutral basis, nor would we want them to be. These parents sincerely wanted to know how the personal qualities of a young person can shine through on a college application.

My response to these insightful inquiries was offered extemporaneously by showing how each of the ten factors can reveal the personal strengths of the applicant. With more time to reflect, here is a more thorough response:

Certainly, academic performance demonstrates personal strengths. Beyond pure talent, academic achievement is a result of goal orientation, focus, perseverance, maturity, ability to manage time, and the discipline to postpone gratification. I have worked with ESL immigrants who have graduated from high school with impressive grades and test scores in verbal subjects; clearly, their accomplishments are evidence of not only intelligence, but also determination and old-fashioned hard work.

Essays are a perfect venue for demonstrating such personal strengths as leadership and character. I tell my clients, “Tonality is the most important thing in your essay.” The “entertainment value” of the topic or story is far less critical than the message: what does the essay say about you? If a performing artist writes about the experience of being center stage, and sounds like a self-absorbed diva, that essay is not serving her well. One of the best college essays I have ever read was written by a budding creative writer and photographer, about her after school job as a grocery store cashier. This student saw each customer as a person with a story. The essay demonstrated her keen insights into human beings, her imagination, and her empathy for others.

Teacher and counselor recommendations are significant venues for providing evidence of an applicant’s leadership capabilities and character strengths. When my 85-year-old father-in-law sat in on one of my presentations, he observed that character recommendations played a far more pivotal role in his day. I am sure he is right. In a less heavily populated educational landscape, recommendations by adults who knew the applicant well would naturally carry more weight.

Today, it is not always possible for a guidance counselor to know your teen well (particularly in a large regional public high school); it is possible, however, for a teacher to be a strong advocate, if your student makes an aggressive effort to build personal credibility and rapport. And when it comes to character, it seems better to have another testify to ones character, rather than one asserting one’s own character strengths.

In the extracurricular activities category, leadership can be demonstrated through election or appointment to leadership positions, such as team captain, class president, newspaper editor, band section leader, club founder or president, and so on. Commitment can be shown through “deep” involvement (years, hours). Admissions officers know how to read the Common Application activity section and surmise whether  the student is a leader, committed member, or a casual dilettante.

Interviews did not make the top ten factors, because interviews are not a mandatory part of the admissions decision process in most colleges and universities today. In public institutions, the ratio of admissions staff people to applicants requires a significantly more quantitative approach to admissions decisions in general. Even in private colleges and universities, interviews tend to be conducted by alums, and are considered as optional opportunities for applicants to learn more about the school in a non-evaluative setting. Only the most elite institutions require evaluative interviews.

That said, I recommend that applicants do interviews if possible. Even f they are officially non-evaluative, a strong candidate with a great personal story can shine in an interview. The power of personal connection must never be underestimated.

So to parents out there everywhere, I say, “Yes, character is important in admissions decisions.” But character qualities are the subtle ingredients in these factors that influence admissions decisions. Admissions officers can read between the lines on an application, surmising the character that has translated into accomplishment, as well as the personal qualities more directly expressed in essays, recommendations and interviews. Not to worry. It’s still about character.



This post is the third in a month-by-month timeline for keeping your high school senior on target with minimal stress.


Keep on top of the spreadsheet you started in September. Your student may have completed some early or rolling applications, but most likely there are additional applications left to complete with later deadlines. If these applications require supplemental essays, your senior may actually have quite a bit of work remaining. Keeping track and checking off tasks will lower the stress.

Hopefully your student has completed the main part of the Common Application. If your student has not finished this task yet and needs guidance,  access my recorded webinar that walks students through the forms. Before your student presses “submit,” insist that each application be printed out; review it with your student to make sure everything is correct. Admissions people typically print out the electronic apps and review hard copy, so if you like the way it looks, the admissions people will too. If your teen has already submitted the Common App, and would like to change any element of the main application or Personal Statement, check out my post on preparing an alternate version.

If you have not already done so, clarify with your high school’s guidance counselor how school forms are sent to colleges from your high school. Some schools manage that entire process centrally online through Naviance; others still ask families to provide stamped, self-addressed envelopes. Contact College Board.org or ACT.org to have test results sent, on a rush basis if required.

Today, colleges have electronic systems for keeping track of each application, which items have been received or are missing. Your student will have access to these lists through a username-password system. Encourage your student to keep track of all passwords! Your teen needs to check to make sure his or her application is considered complete by the deadline. If not, it is your teen’s responsibility to contact the high school guidance department and rectify the problem. Yes, I have known students who were denied admission because something was missing in their application and they did not check until it was too late.

If your student is planning on re-taking standardized tests during November or December. spring for a one-to-one tutor if affordable, because senior year fall is the last chance to swing for the bleachers. If tutoring is not in the budget, do a small group session with Chyten, Kaplan, or Princeton Review. Cost-effective online tutoring is also available through ePREP, if your teen is sufficiently self-motivated or you can stay on top of the kid to do a little bit every night. Standardized testing is really the only element of your student’s candidacy that can be measurably improved in the short time remaining. On the GPA front, just avoid grade disasters during this first marking period.

Heads-up: Your student can take either the SAT I or the ACT with Writing, and it will make no difference to the college. However, which test your student chooses may affect whether or not he or she needs to take SAT II’s. Many colleges will allow applicants to waive SAT II’s only if they have taken the ACT with Writing. For a complete list of SAT II Subject Test requirements, refer to Compass Education Group. If your student is applying to oh-so popular Boston College, Boston University or Tufts, make sure you have your ducks in a row.

Related posts: Tricks and Treats of the Common Application, Part I; Tricks and Treats of the Common Application, Part II; Why You Should Apply to College Early Decision; Senior Parent? Learn to PaintHigh School Testing Strategy and TimelineParents, Teens…and the Dance of College ApplicationsThe College Waiting Game.


Years ago, when I was studying group dynamics and family therapy at Columbia University Teachers College, I couldn’t get enough of the books by one of my school’s most famous alums, Dr. Harriet Lerner. We’ve all read The Dance of AngerThe Dance of Intimacy, and The Mother Dance: How Children Can Change Your Life, to name a few.

Dr. Lerner introduced Murray Bowen’s theory of family dynamics to the rest of us, with plenty of real-life examples. My favorite Bowenisms brought to life in Harriet’s books were:  “pursuer and distancer” and relatedly “underfunctioning and overfunctioning.” In classic Bowen theory, these concepts apply to spouses, but to me, they seem relevant to any relationship (i.e., friendships, business partnerships, parent-teen dyads).

Now as a college consultant, I often moderate tense interactions between parents and adolescents, over clashing ideas about college, major or career goals, or parent vs. teen role expectations in the college process. Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” plays in my head as a soundtrack. As a mother of a college senior, I am experiencing poignant déja vu, albeit now with a much more evolved young adult. Parallels do exist between senior year of high school and senior year of college, generating familiar anxiety and conflict between our generation and offspring preparing to launch. Dr. Harriet, where is The Dance of College Applications?

Even without such a book, the concepts popularized in her bestsellers can offer us wisdom for the college process. I often sit with families, as parents do all the talking, while the teenager averts eye contact, sometimes doodling, appearing disengaged or even sullen. Some parents speak about their adolescent (sitting right there) in third person, explaining, “We want him to go to U of X,” or “We’d like him to go pre-med.” Later, they email me, venting their frustration that their kid “takes no ownership of the process.”

Uh-yeah. Overfunctioning parents, underfunctioning teen. This dynamic began 17 years ago. Every contest was too important to allow the child to do it independently and perhaps fail. Remember that second grade Egyptian diorama, the best sculpey reproduction of King Tut’s tomb ever displayed in your kid’s school? You should be proud! After all, you finished it while your kid scampered off to watch SpongeBob in the middle of molding a tiny green Anubis jackal into a Sphinx pose, too impatient to wait while you fired up the figurines in the oven.

It’s an epidemic of our Helicopter generation, and, hey, we’ve all been guilty. I’ve assembled a few nifty dioramas myself. But how can we now arrest our overfunctioning tendencies when our kids are encountering rites of passage that must be about them, not us, where personal authorship is critical?

Vancouver psychotherapist Tim Meek, PhD., offers powerful insights about over- and underfunctioning dynamics that perfectly apply to parent-teen dyads during the college application process. He posts in his blog: “By ‘functioning’ I am referring to our ability to manage life (make decisions, manage time and stress, etc), to be responsible for the things we are involved with, and to operate as autonomous beings.

Under-functioners (UFs) often rely on others to manage things for them, have problems maintaining progress on goals, and are often under-employed. UFs are often seen as ‘having so much potential but wasting it’ in the eyes of others, and can be thought of as taking less than 100% responsibility for life…  appearing to others as lazy or unmotivated, and being somewhat immature for chronological age. There are a lot of causes of under-functioning that cover the spectrum from people being over-protective, too permissive, or doing things for the person too much during earlier parts of life (or today)…

“Almost always, someone who is under-functioning is paired with, or supported by someone that is over-functioning. This person can be seen as taking more than 100% of responsibility… Over-functioners (OFs) are usually seen as people who “have it together”, are detail oriented, organized, and reliable, and are typically viewed as being good workers, partners, and parents.

“Classic characteristics of over-functioning include being overly focused on another person’s problems or life situation, offering frequent advice or help to the other person, actually doing things that are part of the other person’s life responsibilities (and believing that ‘if I don’t do it, then it won’t happen’), feeling anger when help is not ‘appreciated’… Over-functioning can be seen as a type of ‘enabling’.

“Some causes of over-functioning are being placed in that role as a young person or assuming the role as part of a family system, having anxiety related to watching someone else make mistakes or do things that seem unwise, feeling a sense of guilt or obligation to help someone, or using the other person’s life and problems as a distraction from one’s own.

“The route to change for OFs is often in returning responsibility for life back to the UF. That may mean not bailing the person out for the 20th time, not reminding them of key things that other people seem to be able to remember, not asserting opinions or managing the other person’s life, and tolerating the natural consequences of what will happen in the UFs life.

Thank you, Dr. Tim. Time to get out those time-worn paperback “Dance of…” books. And Dr. Harriet, I’ve got a great book idea for you!

Related posts: Senior Parent? Learn to Paint. , Senioritis and What To Do About It, Get Online Applications Done This Summer, Off to College: The Hero’s Journey, Helicopter Parents: College and Beyond, and Honorable Adulthood.


This post is the second in a month-by-month timeline for keeping your high school senior on target with minimal stress.


Remember that spreadsheet you created last month? Keep updating it. Keep track of what’s been done and what remains on the docket for this month! If your kid has fallen behind, play catch up.

Hopefully your student has completed the main part of the Common Application. If your student has not finished this task yet and needs guidance,  access my recorded webinar that walks students through the forms.

Urge your teenager to complete the Personal Statement and Short Answer Essay for the Common App. If your high school senior has not already done so, he or she needs to request recommendations from two teachers and the school counselor.

Clarify with the school counselor how school forms are sent to colleges from your high school. Some schools manage that entire process centrally online through Naviance, and others still ask families to provide stamped, self-addressed envelopes. Contact College Board.org or ACT.org to have test results sent.

Once the above steps are complete, your student can send an application to at least one school. Common App will indicate whether or not a Supplementary Application is required for that school. Some schools will have additional essays, at least a variation of the question: “Why University of X?” If your student is applying to elite colleges, expect multiple supp essays from each school. Do not underestimate how long this task will take!

If your student is planning on taking (or re-taking) standardized tests during October or November. spring for a tutor if affordable, because senior year fall is the last chance to swing for the bleachers. If tutoring is not in the budget, do a small group session with Chyten, Kaplan, or Princeton Review. Cost-effective online tutoring is also available through ePREP, if your teen is sufficiently self-motivated or you can stay on top of the kid to do a little bit every night.

Standardized testing can be a game-changer in senior year fall, if your student can improve significantly versus junior year test results. Avoid GPA disasters, but even a 4.0 cannot substantially change a lackluster average for the past three years. So if you have a good plan for improving the SAT or ACT score, focus on that plan with discipline and conistency. It can make a difference!

If your student is applying early decision or early action, the application to the college(s) involved must be complete by the first week in October. That’s right. The guidance department must be notified several weeks ahead of the deadline, so they can coordinate with teacher recommenders, ensure the counselor recommendation is written, pull together the transcript, and so forth. A 11/1 deadline means all materials are sent by 11/1. If your student is retaking a standardized test in October, check with the EA/ED school to verify whether they will accept October scores; then arrange with College Board or ACT  to have scores sent on a rush basis.

If your teenager is not ready to apply for binding early decision yet, I suggest that you be sensitive to his or her feelings. Yes, ED offers an admissions advantage, but there are pro’s and con’s, and it’s not right for everybody. Your student may need more time to visit, digest the visits, and evolve in the search and choice process. ED II (usually 1/1) offers a slight admissions advantage as well, because the applicant is guaranteeing yield for that school, so that may be a good alternative for your family.

Your family will probably be visiting a college or two over the holidays if you are not Jewish or Columbus Day weekend, either for the first time or to get a second look before applying. Help your teen balance all the pressures now, between visiting, taking standardized tests, completing applications with essays, and avoiding grade disasters. It’s a challenging time!

Related posts: Tricks and Treats of the Common Application, Part I; Tricks and Treats of the Common Application, Part II; Why You Should Apply to College Early Decision; Senior Parent? Learn to Paint.


Your high school senior is about to embark on one of the most frenzied, tense few months of his or her young life. As a college admissions consultant, I would like to offer you a month-by-month timeline for keeping your teenager on target with minimal stress.


Create a spreadsheet. That’s right. The college process is complicated, and it will help you and your student keep a checklist of tasks. Here’s an example:

Encourage your student to complete the Common Application, the undergraduate application through which applicants may apply to any of 456 member colleges and universities in the US (online or paper). If your student needs help, I will be conducting a walk-through workshop on Sept. 11 locally in NJ, but you can also participate in a “live” webcast that same afternoon.

Urge your teenager to complete the Personal Statement and Short Answer Essay for the Common App. If your high school senior has not already done so, he or she needs to request recommendations from two teachers and the school counselor.

Clarify with the school counselor how school forms are sent to colleges from your high school. Some schools manage that entire process centrally online through Naviance, and others still ask families to provide stamped, self-addressed envelopes. Contact College Board.org or ACT.org to have test results sent.

Once the above steps are complete, your high school student can send an application to at least one school (Common App will indicate whether or not a Supplementary Application is required for that school).

Do not send the first application to the dream school; pick one of the “likely” schools on the college list. I suggest one that offers early action or rolling admissions. Early notification (non-binding) will give your teen at best security and confidence, and at worst early feedback, in this tightly wound process.

Many public institutions with early action, priority action or rolling admissions programs use their own apps rather than the Common App. But having done the Common App, your student is well prepared to apply to these universities. Data are essentially the same; the Personal Statement is similar as well. Additional essays, such as “Why University of X?” are similar to supplemental essays asked by Common App colleges.

One last thing you need to do before you finish this busy month: Register for any standardized testing your student plans to do in October or November.

If you and your teen can accomplish these goals during September, you will dial down the stress that most families experience throughout the fall semester. To receive an email when I post key tasks for October, respond to the prompt on the righthand panel.


Update of last fall’s popular post.

We Baby Boomers, the intensity generation, have hurled our hearts and souls into every life chapter. As the first generation to choose when to become parents, we became passionate parents, elevating parenting to the apex of Maslow’s Hierarchy, playing Mozart to make our children “smarter” in utero. We became soccer moms, then helicopter parents, sometimes taking our passion to an unhealthy extreme that deterred, rather than advanced, our kids’ autonomy and self-esteem.

When one’s child–especially the last one–leaves for college, what does a parent do with all that passion?

It’s hard to find a more worthy goal than one’s child. After my only son was born in the early nineties, I left my marketing position at Nabisco. I was fortunate to have the financial flexibility to stay home, and full participation in my child’s life seemed more meaningful than selling Teddy Grahams®.

When my son graduated from high school three years ago and left for Emory University, my husband said, “It must be difficult getting ‘fired’ from your ‘job’ after 18 years.” He was right. You’re always connected, but now they’re grown ups who can generally fend for themselves. That was the goal after all, wasn’t it?

When I was first struggling with this paradox years ago, a cynical parent I knew quipped sarcastically, “Get a life!” I’ve had a life, thank you, I responded inwardly. An all-absorbing, rewarding one. That’s why I can’t just turn off a switch and disengage.

This woman’s trite cliché trivialized the complex process of switching gears when one’s kids leave home, glossing over the grief-loss component and midlife transition issues. A wiser, wittier friend offered this advice: “Find a new source of meaning, and try not to get too fat.”

Wearing my psychologist hat, I suggest that empty nesters focus on “inner work” to fully embrace this new chapter. My favorite books: Beyond the Mommy Years: How to Live Happily Ever After… After the Kids Leave Home by Carin Rubenstein, Inventing the Rest of Our Lives: Women in Second Adulthood by More magazine contributing editor Suzanne Braun Levine, Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life by Civic Ventures CEO Marc Freedman, and  Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life by Jungian analyst Dr. James Hollis.

For most empty nesters, the exorbitant price of college and our shaky economy requires return to the paid workforce;  expansion from part time to full time work; or a prolonged time horizon of full time employment before retirement. For some, resuming a role in the workforce may not be financially necessary but desirable, since a new, active vocational focus is so needed.

Many parents try to identify a more socially meaningful variation on one’s occupation before children, since parental purpose is such a “hard act to follow”.  After being a parent, one may need more “generativity” in one’s work than before. For example, a corporate executive who opted out for parenthood may choose to return to professional life serving in a nonprofit organization. Our current economy may not give many midlifers the option to switch to a job with greater “obvious” societal purpose, but an attitudinal shift about the meaning of one’s work will certainly lead to greater satisfaction during this new chapter.

The great psychologist Carl Jung offered wise insights about the attitudinal shift that he believed was imperative to soul satisfaction in one’s work and life at middle age: “The afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage to life’s morning. The significance of the morning undoubtedly lies in the development of the individual, our entrenchment in the outer world, the propagation of our kind, and the care of our children… But when this purpose has been attained… shall the earning of money, the extension of conquests, and the expansion of life go steadily on beyond the bounds of all reason and sense? Whoever carries over into the afternoon the law of the morning, or the natural aim, must pay for it with damage to his soul…” (C.G. Jung, “The Stages of Life” 1930).

So whatever your new gig is, it needs to be approached with the purposeful perspective of an evolved, inner-directed, generative mid-life adult. For practical navigation of your encore career, I recommend the classic: Back on the Career Track: A Guide for Stay-At-Home Moms Who Want to Return to Work by Carol Fishman Cohen and Vivian Steir Rabin. These authors have a resource-rich website, iRelaunch.com. They sponsor annual Return to Work Conferences to bring “career relaunchers” together with employers for education, inspiration, mentoring and networking. I was honored to be among the panel speakers at last year’s New York Conference at NYU Stern; the successful conference will again be held at Stern Oct. 4, 2011.

Another valuable conference for female “career relaunchers” is Charting Your Course at Harvard Business School. I attended this program three years ago, when Position U 4 College was in its infancy. Despite the intimidating resumes of the mostly HBS alums, I discovered that most had paid their dues as soccer moms and chairs of fundraising auctions, just like me. All of us needed confidence and a new vision to re-enter the professional world.

In “getting a gig,” I also “got a life” that mirrored, and actually expanded on, the lifelong gifts I gave to my son during his formative years. My college consulting office is in my home, and it’s great to have teenagers here again. Somebody’s got to eat the junk food!  It is gratifying to guide young people as they discover their strengths, find colleges where they will thrive, and initiate a trajectory that will ultimately help them find a rewarding career.

Related posts:  The Hero’s Journey, College Move-In: The Aftermath, Helicopter Parents: College and Beyond, College Freshmen Home for Thanksgiving, Empty Nester Holiday Blues, and College Family Weekends: Forever Jung.


Three years ago, not long after starting my college admissions consultancy, Position U 4 College LLC, I decided to write a blog to help parents guide their adolescents in the journey from high school to college.

I hoped to offer more than “how-to” advice on the application process (although “how to” is certainly a valuable service). I also wanted to offer some personal observations, from the perspective of a college consultant, psychology aficionado, and of course, a parent of a college student, on the emotional rites of passage that parents and teens experience throughout the complex transition from high school to college.

Like most novice bloggers, I stumbled through creating a WordPress site, making it up as I went along. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was beginning to draw a following of interested readers. It was gratifying to think that an insight, word of empathy, or nugget of advice was helpful to a parent or family “out there” who might be struggling with the stressful dynamics of the college process, or with the bittersweet feelings of actually moving one’s young adult child to college.

Readers, clients and friends began to encourage me to assemble my most popular blogs into a book. So I collaborated with Deborah Ernst, a veteran high school teacher and guidance counselor from Kalamazoo, Michigan, to create Navigating the Road to College: A Handbook for Parents. For further perspective on the book, I invite you to view a video interview I did with Myung Bondy of HomeTowne TV, a local access cable station in Summit, NJ.

As my readers know, I hardly ever post a “commercial” on my blog, but I thought this was an appropriate exception. If you have found my blog helpful, you may find my book to be a valuable resource as well. Visit Amazon.com to purchase, in paperback or Kindle ebook format. If you like it, I would be honored if you’d review it. I value your feedback!


Update of last year’s popular post: Your rising senior is finishing up summer camp, courses, or travel programs. And you know what’s looming up ahead: the thankless task of nagging your teen to work through the 2012 Common Application, launching MONDAY, AUGUST FIRST.

How hard can it be, just filling out a few online forms? Isn’t it the essay that’s the real killer? Depends on the student. But even the block-and-tackle part of college applications, filling out endless forms, can be a source of  tension in parent-teen relationships. At 17, an adolescent is experiencing a strong drive for autonomy, which flies in the face of a parent constantly nagging, “Finish that Common App, dear!”

Last year I wrote a post, “Senior year? Learn to paint!” with advice on how parents can engage in their own projects to ward off their own college admissions stress, stay out of their kids’ hair and keep tabs on their kids’ progress without micromanaging.

For comic relief, we can all remember the famous skit from The Amanda Show, where “The Procrastinator” superhero tells her Mom she will get to every emergency “eventually…”. For teenagers, that’s perfectly fitting for the college process.

But wouldn’t it be nice to wake up one morning and find out your kid filled out the Common App, and even a few state university online apps, and now only the essays remain? Wouldn’t it be even more of a relief to have those forms completed this summer, before the stressful senior year fall begins? If your student intends to apply Early Action or Early Decision, getting the online application filled out tout de suite is one more thing that becomes essential.

Last summer and fall, I piloted several Common Application “walk-through” workshops at our Position U 4 College office in Basking Ridge NJ. Students brought their laptops, and they were guided through the Common App. All they needed to do in advance was prepare an extracurricular activity list. Junk food was provided for fuel. Kids found it relatively painless, and parents were relieved.

I co-taught this workshop with a veteran high school teacher from NY’s Hudson Valley, Mr. Alfred “Doc” Snider. Doc’s teaching skills and knowledge of the Common App helped students get “ahead of the curve” . He introduced students to the subtleties of the Common App, such as how to do more than one version of one’s application,  arts and athletic supplements,  and much more.

In 2011, we broadcast a live webinar of this walk-through workshop. If you missed it, and would like your high school student to be guided through the Common App by experts, we offer access to a video version of that webinar, as well as other powerful information to help ace the college process, through a lifetime online membership for ten bucks. An easy way to relieve stress and get it done right.


Related reading: Acing the College Application by Michele Hernandez, Secrets to Writing a Great Common App by Sandy Yu et al. Related Web sites: Common Application FAQs  and Online Tutorial. Related posts: Tricks and Treats of the Common Application, Part I, Tricks and Treats of the Common Application Part II, and  PU4C Calendar for High School Juniors, Part II.


In the adult career world, the interview is pivotal to landing a job. It is natural that parents would expect interviews to play a key role in the college process as well. Client families often come to me feeling stressed about interview preparation. Can I help them? Yes. Should they be stressed? No.

In college admissions, the interview is not a key deciding factor, as in employment. In the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC) State of College Admission 2010 Report, only 9 percent of private institutions surveyed attributed “considerable importance in admissions decisions” to the interview; the percentage was zero for state schools.

Interviews are offered at elite private institutions, such as Ivies, and small liberal arts colleges that take a holistic approach to admissions. Most interviews are conducted by alumni who represent the school regionally, since admissions staffers are busy reading applications. They are optional, non-evaluative, and offered throughout the country so as to not require long distance travel for applicants.

So why do an interview? The key reason is to find out more about the school and its programs. Making the effort to interview also shows “demonstrated interest.” 21 percent of schools surveyed in NACAC’s 2010 report attributed “considerable importance” to this factor. As I posted in “Why University of X?”, demonstrated interest has become a hot button for admissions people required to maximize their yield (see  The Boston Globe: “A new factor in making that college–loving it”) .

So if the college offers an interview, and it is feasible for your family to arrange one, it is a good idea. If your teen is confident, poised, and articulate with adults, interviewing will create a positive halo effect. And if college admissions is akin to courtship, it’s like a date. Both parties learn more about each other. That can only result in making a better ultimate match.

Families always want to know how the student should dress. This is not an investment bank, but the student should project the attitude of caring about the interview. Grown-ups call this “business casual.” Jackie Burrell offers great suggestions in her About.com article: “For young men…dress pants with a nice belt, a collared shirt – an Oxford cloth or crisp, striped, long-sleeved shirt, for instance – and dress shoes. A sport coat and/or tie would bump that up another notch. If it’s a very casual campus, where your son might feel peculiar walking across campus in anything super dressy – or if he’s going to be attending a class too – he could probably get away with very dark jeans, and roll up the sleeves of that striped shirt for a more casual look, then throw on a sport coat for the interview itself.

“Young women should wear dress trousers or a skirt (but nothing too short), and a nice blouse or shell, with a cardigan or stylish jacket, and nice shoes, i.e., no flip flops. Avoid extremely high heels – they’re murder on a campus tour, in any case. But your daughter doesn’t have to forego style here. A stylish jacket and a soft scarf will make even dark jeans or crisp capris look dressy, and that can be a good option on a very casual campus.”

What kinds of questions are asked in college interviews? Dr. Allen Grove lists excellent questions in his About.com article, such as, “Tell me about yourself.”  It is wise for an applicant to think through his or her personal responses to these questions, even typing them out and/or creating role play practice.

This is NOT an interrogation. Since most college interviews are non-evaluative, the interviewer will quickly shift gears and ask what questions you have about the school. Prepare your student to take advantage of this opportunity to find out more about the college and its programs. Asking well thought-out questions that exhibit a thorough understanding of the school also demonstrate serious interest. Questions that are too superficial (easily gleaned from the website) might communicate a lack of interest.

There is only one mistake in a college interview: having NO questions.

Relevant Reading: What You Don’t Know Can Keep You Out of College: A Top Consultant Explains the 13 Fatal Application Mistakes and Why Character is the Key to College Admission by Don Dunbar. Related Posts: Why University of X?  Public versus Private Universities or Liberal Arts Colleges.


Years ago, I sat in a graduate psychology class on family systems therapy. The first day, our professor asked us to reflect on our families of origin, and introduce ourselves to the class by giving a one-word description of our family role. Students mentioned a wide spectrum of fascinating labels: peacemaker, hero, troublemaker, golden child, scapegoat, invisible child, baby of the family, nurturer, protector, rebel, black sheep, and so on.

Studying group dynamics gave me insights into the workings of all social groups, from sled dog teams to human families. It naturally affects the way I view launching an adolescent from high school to college.

In psychobabble, a group is two or more individuals connected by social relationships. Since they interact and influence each other, groups develop dynamic processes such as: roles, norms, communication styles, patterns of dominance, team effectiveness, and ways of handling conflict. Individual members unconsciously “carry” emotions for the group: one voices the group’s anger, another expresses the group’s anxiety, compassion, vulnerability, idealism, and so forth.

The nuclear family starts as a couple, with the addition of children; each individual   who joins the group alters its dynamics. When my niece learned, at age four, that she would soon have a baby sister, she exclaimed dramatically, “Oh no! It’s the end of my perfect life.”

In the life of any family, there are comings and goings. Parents may leave the family unit due to divorce or death; new adults join as significant others or marriage partners, perhaps bringing stepchildren into the mix. Extended family members may move into the home due to eldercare, illness, unemployment, or other domestic situations. Children grow up and go to college, join the military, or marry. All these movements disrupt and ultimately recreate the family unit, changing roles and expectations over time. A family is therefore never a rigid institution; it is a dynamic work-in-process.

So everyone with a family member about to go to college is in for a new experience. It’s not just about the freshman who is going, or the parents waving goodbye. Each sibling is changed by the withdrawal of a brother or sister from daily life at home.

As I mentioned in a post several years ago, When Big Brother or Sister Goes to College, siblings’ processing of the move to college is often an unexpectedly significant experience. A sibling’s reaction to leaving, or being left behind, is as unique, complex and individual as each sibling’s self-image, temperament, and historical role within the family.

When the first-born daughter of family friends was leaving for college a decade back, I attempted to comfort the more reserved younger daughter, who was trying to prepare emotionally for her beloved sister’s departure. The two siblings had a close relationship, and I knew they would miss each other. Trying to find the silver lining, I said, “Now your parents will be able to give you their full attention!” After a few moments of silence, she replied, “Yeah. That’s what I’m afraid of!”

Recently, when my older niece left for college, her middle school sister welcomed the chance to take center stage. Both bright and talented girls, there had always been competition between them. Covering her sibling’s high school graduation photo with her hands, the younger niece triumphantly proclaimed, “Sister no more!”

When one family member exits the stage of daily life, group dynamics psychologists tell us, the comfortable historical patterns are disrupted. Whether healthy or dysfunctional, the family has achieved a delicate balance over the years. Now everyone at home is suddenly thrown into a state of disequilibrium, temporary but disorienting chaos.

The remaining family members scramble to adjust, to compensate for the role that has been relinquished. Who will become the “peacemaker” now that the “peacemaker” has left for college? The troublemaker, the worrier, the life of the party, the angry one, the analyzer, the soother, the communicator, the justice seeker?

Our society has given the “empty nest syndrome” great attention. It is a complex phenomenon, driven by many forces, notably cultural attitudes about women, marriage and aging. However, when an only child or last child leaves home, the  emotional upheaval is about group dynamics as well. Three may be a crowd, but it also offers an “other” focus for parents. When that focus is removed, the couple find themselves in a dual partnership once again, after two or three decades.

The new empty nest partnership can be a daunting challenge, particularly if the spouses have not been able to address issues in their marriage during the demanding task of raising a family.  It is not a surprise that sometimes a separation or divorce may follow the last child’s move to college. Such a path is painful for parents and the college student, but with hard work it can hopefully lead to satisfying individual lives for the parents and young adult who has left home.

For most couples, it is a time of transition and readjustment, of focusing on each other clearly with the eighteen year “project” no longer center stage. Hopefully, the couple can rediscover the qualities that drew them together in the first place, and appreciate the strengths that have evolved in the partner during the childrearing years.

Like all life’s changes, the move to college is an opportunity for every member of the family to learn more about oneself, individually and in relation to others. It is a time for for reflection, understanding, and empathy, as well as trying out new roles and identities within the family. The move to college can be group therapy… a hidden opportunity for each family member’s personal growth.

For those new to my blog, many of my posts are practical advice about the college process. Some, like these, are reflections on the emotional rites of passage that underlie the launching of a young adult from high school to college. Related posts: No Guts, No Glory, Letting Go, Off to College: The Hero’s Journey, College Family Weekends: Forever Jung, When Big Brother or Sister Goes to College.


I just finished reading “A Pre-College Summer To-Do List,” an excellent article in NY Times “The Choice”  Blog. Education journalist Jacques Steinberg asked Lynn Jacobs and Jeremy Hyman, authors of  The Secrets of College Success, for some tips on what high school graduates should be doing to prepare for freshman year of college over the summer.

The authors’ advice and readers’ comments offered a rich array of perspectives on how this unique summer should be spent. I welcome you to read it yourself and see what rings true for your graduate and your family. Meanwhile, here are a few tips that I often share with my clients.

1. Give your graduate a break from “resume-building” activities. The college process has become so competitive in recent years. Your graduate has been doing intense “resume-building” extracurricular activities for many summers, and will probably be pursuing demanding internships for many college and grad school summers to come. These kids have just finished a stressful run-for-the-roses, and the last thing they need is an overscheduled summer. This summer is the only one where your grad has the luxury of stepping outside that “Race to Nowhere” mindset.

Remember that we all need a little ebb and flow, with a balance between up time and down time. Personal trainers advise skipping a day between resistance strength training to allow muscle recovery. Prolonged sleep deprivation so damages physiological functions that it is used in interrogation and considered torture by some. Crop rotation or fallowing a field prevents soil fertility decline that can occur from growing the same crop in the same place for consecutive years, disproportionately depleting the soil of the same nutrients. Mental silence associated with meditation is linked to robust mental health benefits; after a recent weekend of silent meditation at the New York Zen Mountain Monastery, I personally experienced powerful recharging and renewal.

2. Give your graduate’s fried brain a rest. Every high school senior’s experience is different, but most students bound for competitive colleges have not spent their senior year staring out the window. Many have been busting their humps taking AP (Advanced Placement) courses or doing senior projects. My clients often report that they are simply mentally exhausted at the end of senior year. They need some time to recharge and renew before plunging into freshman year academics!

The above notwithstanding…..

3. Despite how burnt out your graduate is, don’t cave in and allow him or her to “do nothing.” Out of sympathy for how hard your senior has been working, you may be tempted to just let the kid stay up late on Facebook or go out with friends (a recipe for underage drinking and driving tragedies), then sleep until noon every day. Don’t give in to this temptation. Lack of structure during the pre-college summer could set your teenager up for failure in college, where it is easy to party late and then sleep through morning classes.

This pattern also sets up an unhealthy dynamic at home, in which parents get up and engage in adult responsibilities, while the adolescent is curiously exempt. Two shifts are operating in the household, night shift for the kid and day shift for everybody else. This structureless pattern may continue every time your college student returns home, for holiday breaks, summers, and perhaps even after college graduation.

Unfortunately, this pattern often encourages an assumption that the young person has no obligations at home, such as cleaning one’s room, doing one’s laundry, or washing one’s dishes. I recall the old Billy Joel line, “Well, you’re twenty-one and still your mother makes your bed, and that’s too long…”

The old saw, “an idle mind is the devil’s playground,” does not only apply to juvenile delinquents who fill a “structure vaccuum” with mischief, as might be suspected by the SNL Church Lady. Intelligent, creative, perfectionistic, analytical, conscientious young people may be especially prone to mental health conditions such as OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). A non-structured waiting period before a new, challenging life chapter (like college) could be a recipe for heightened anxiety and mental anguish for such individuals.

4. I agree with the authors that transformative, give-back experiences are ideal pursuits for the pre-college summer. However, I encourage families to consider experiences not jaded by “resume-building” goals. These experiences should be simple and engaging but not overthought, and done for their own sake, not for earning brownie points on an application someday. For the time being, your graduate is “so done” with that kind of thing.

I encourage simplicity, such as volunteering at the YMCA or local animal shelter. Becoming a counselor-in-training at a beloved camp provides purposeful activity, as well as emotional grounding with one’s “camp family” before going off to college. How about a church youth group service trip to Appalachia, funded by car washes and spaghetti dinners? For inexpensive, simple but meaningful ideas, check out Sheryl Kane’s Volunteer Vacations across America.

5. Paid employment is a great way to add structure and purpose to the pre-college summer.  Your kid can’t sleep till noon if he or she has to get up to work at the grocery store. Many teens have never had the experience of working at a minimum wage job, because they have been too busy building their credentials for college. But this summer offers the perfect opportunity to develop the kind of “show up on time and smile–even if you’re bored” responsibility that only a paid job can offer. A job can offer distraction from pre-college anxiety, and a chance to practice the social skills needed to connect with new people.

Earning money may help your adolescent to appreciate the educational investment you are about to make as well (for private colleges, $200K+). Realizing (experientially) that college costs money may motivate your teen to get up on time next fall and go to class!

Related posts: College Dorm Checklist: A Sneak Peek!, The College Transition Bible, College Orientation Rites, Letting Go (Back by Popular Demand), Off to College: The Hero’s Journey, Ten Ways for Teens to Spend the Summer.


COLLEGE MOVE-IN is around the corner. Where to start? As a college admissions consultant, I not only like to see my clients get into their first choice college, but also be prepared to move into college as well. I annually update a college checklist for my soon-to-be freshman families.

YOUR KID’S COLLEGE WEBSITE: Find the download list  (instructions about what/what not to bring). Take note of rules about microwaves (colleges often specify a microfridge combo model you can buy or rent), extension cords (colleges usually want power surge protectors), and lightbulbs (halogen bulbs are forbidden). Find out if you are allowed to “loft” beds and buy a futon for underneath.

Confirm what furniture and interiors are provided before you purchase anything (carpeting, microwave or fridge in common areas).  Check with the roommate before buying a TV, speakers, computer printer, air filter, large fan, and other major electronics. A great excuse for roommates touching base before they arrive!

Before buying a laptop, check with the school (some colleges actually supply laptops, many offer discounts). What modes of transportation are common on this campus (bikes, shuttles)? For cell phones, consider insurance, and make sure it offers a seamless shift between voice, text and email (easier to reach your kid), with camera and media features to minimize the need for buying additional electronics. Most dorm rooms do not have landline phones.

INTERNET CHECKLISTS: Web sites:  CollegeBoard, iVillage, HundredsofHeads, SparkCollege, JustDorm.com, Gifts.com. Online discussion forums: CollegeConfidential. Blogs: CollegeDormIdeas.com, DormGear.com, Notes from My Daughter. Search engines: About.Com:Dorm Room Accessories, About.Com: Dorm Furniture, About.Com: Futon Sources.

ONLINE STORE CHECKLISTS: For well-organized store checklists, often printable, check out these terrific shopping resources: PBTeen, Bed Bath & Beyond, JCPenney, Walmart, Target, Ikea, Kohls and The Container Store . For school logo gear, explore CollegeGear.com, YourCollegeGear.com, FansEdge, and your teen’s college bookstore online.

If your young adult is going by air, you can buy online (with free shipping offers), and ship directly to school.  Buying online is more cost efficient than an impulsive move-in “supermarket sweep” (when local stores are sold out of many staples). Colleges receive packages by mid-August. Check your school’s website for dates and location for receiving packages.

Getting my son ready for Emory, I found it disorienting jumping between online shopping resources, to identify the best gear and of course, price-shopping.

To alleviate readers’ stress, I created my own checklist of essential items at a good value, which I update annually. I drew upon multiple manufacturers, often sourcing from Amazon, the gold standard clearinghouse with a reliable shipping record, usually offering free shipping (indicated by italics).

Here’s my checklist!

BATH: Dorm Caddy Shower Tote, Utility Caddy, Eagle Creek Toiletry Pouch, Travel Toothbrush Holders, 6-pc. Towel Set. And Havaianas flipflops are a must for the trek to the shower!

BED: 3-pc. Sheet Set, 2 Bed Pillows, Mattress PadFleece Blanket Comforter, Bed Risers (best kept secret: so your kid can store stuff under the bed), Foam Mattress Topper (this made my son happier than anything else I bought him).

LIGHTING: Desk Lamp, LED Lights 3 Pk (for closets or wardrobes),  Clip-on Mini-Reading Light, Flashlight,Torchiere Lamp.

CLOSET & STORAGE: Ultra-Slim Hangers, Pop-Up Hamper, Hanging Shoe & Sweater Bag, Over the Door Hanger, Underbed Storage Container, Jewelry Organizer. Bunkpal makes a cool “adjusted bed shelf.”

DESK SUPPLIES:Drawer Organizer, Pencil Holder, Wastebasket, Stapler, Staples & Remover Set, Desktop 2-3 Hole Punch, Electric Pencil Sharpener, Scissors 2-Pk, Scotch Tape 3-rolls, Pencils 12-Pk, Erasers 3-Pk, Ballpoint Pens 12-Pk, Sharpie Highlighter 12-Pk, Sharpie Permanent Marker 2-Pk, Glue Stick 6-Pk, Correction Film 2-Pk, 5-Subject Notebook, Hanging File Folders, Paper Clips, Printer Paper, DuraCell 20 AA Batteries.

KITCHEN: 3-pc Smiley Dinnerware Set (my niece rolled her eyes, but these little dinnerware sets are surprisingly hard to find), Spork 4-Pk, Tupperware Microwave Container, Neiko Multi-Function Pocket Knife with Bottle & Can Opener, Redenbacher Microwave Popcorn 12 Boxes/3 Pks Each.

UTILITY, COMFORT & SAFETY: Duct Tape (for any emergency!) Foil Finish Mirror, Industrial Strength Velcro Fastener Tape (to hang the mirror), Conair Double-Sided Make-up Mirror 5X, Hamilton Beach Allergen-Reducing Air Cleaner, Honeywell Small Oscillating Fan (to supplement lame dorm air conditioning), Cordless Hand Vacuum, Power Squid Surge ProtectorComputer Notebook Lock & Security Cable or Laptop Safe (yes, laptops do get stolen at college!),  Keychain Alar with Light, First Aid Kit, Tabletop Ironing Board, Steam Iron, Portable Fabric Steamer.

ELECTRONICS: Not all of these are “must-haves”. Your student’s major, gadget affinity, and budget will dictate whether or not these items will be on your list .LED Backlight Alarm Clock, SONY Noise-Cancelling Headphones, Electronics Mini-Charging Station HP 8 GB 2.0 Flash Drive, Western “My Passport” 500GB USB 2.0 External Hard Drive, Adjustable Laptop Stand & Cooling Fan, TI-89 Titanium Graphing Calculator (especially for quantitative and science majors).

Related posts: Off to College: How to Choose Your Freshman Dorm–and RoommateThe College Transition Bible,  Orientation RitesCollege Move-In: The AftermathAdjusting to College Life: Friendsickness, College Dorm Laundry Service?When Big Brother or Sister Goes to College, and College Freshmen Home for Thanksgiving.


It’s no secret that the rise in the cost of an American college education has outpaced inflation for decades. A compelling summary by FinAid.Org reveals a 1.5 ratio of tuition inflation to general inflation circa 1975; that ratio grew to 2.0 in 2005. According to College Board’s 2010 Trends in Higher Education, the average price of tuition and fees at private non-profit four-year colleges and universities for 2010-11 was $27,293 (this number does not include room and board, and many private schools’ tuition and fees are considerably more). In contrast, the average price of tuition and fees for in-state students at public four-year institutions was $7,605.

College Board’s study points out that public universities’ costs are rising at almost double the rate versus private colleges (5.6 percent beyond inflation versus 3.0 percent over the past decade). However, the state institution price tag, on an absolute basis, still looks a heck of a lot better to most middle income families than the private college sticker price.

As a college admissions consultant, I ask my client families one straightforward question in our first session: “Are you including public universities in your college list?” It is crucial to get both parents and student on the same page from Day One.

Nothing is more frustrating to a teenager who has been posturing to his or her peers about the prestigious private colleges he or she intends on pursuing, only to be told halfway through the college process that the more likely destination is State U. Many parents do not realize until halfway through the process that they make too much money to qualify for financial aid, but they cannot afford a $200K+ private college tuition, fees, room and board bill for one child.

So I ask the question. I describe the options, as I did in my popular post, “Public versus Private Universities or Liberal Arts Colleges.” A lively, sometimes fiery, discussion follows. There may be disappointment on both sides, if attending an elite private college was a dream for parent or child.

The familiar roles of parent as the “realistic, purse holding, we-know-best dreamstealer,” versus child as the “why not? impractical pipedreamer” painfully kick in now. It is the adolescent’s inevitable confontation with adult reality that feels like some kind of a betrayal. It is the weighty realization that the great college adventure of self-discovery will cost A LOT, and a private education will severely impact the parents’ retirement or saddle the young adult with debt.

I listen as the universal play progresses, occasionally offering sober insights like a one-person Greek chorus. I explain that it is a “difficult but necessary conversation,” and it is best for all involved if “it happens earlier rather than later.” During this confrontation, I am grateful for my background in counseling and family therapy!

It is not always a black-and-white decision, and often the family compromises by including public in-state and out-of-state universities, a few more reasonably priced private institutions, or a private school offering merit scholarships that the student may have a good chance at earning. I discuss these options, as well as less conventional ones, in my post, “How to Afford College.”

If a public institution is clearly the way to go, here are some ways to create a more “private school” experience for a highly motivated student:

1. Apply to an honors college within a state university. An honors college is an elite school within a diverse, multi-collegiate institutional setting that includes colleges of arts and sciences, business, and engineering, typically under its own dean, with higher admissions standards. It may be large by private liberal arts college standards, but it certainly creates a “smaller world” than the rest of the university. A quality honors program requires a senior thesis or challenging capstone project. Wikipedia provides a list of U.S. honors colleges.

2. Apply to a highly ranked public university. US News & World Report’s 2011 Rankings shows the following public institutions among the top fifty national universities: UC Berkeley, UCLA, U Virginia, U Michigan, UNC Chapel Hill, William & Mary, Georgia Tech, UC San Diego, UC Davis, UC Santa Barbara, UC Irvine, U Washington, U Texas Austin, U Wisconsin Madison, Penn State, and U Illinois Urbana-Champaign. (Some universities are difficult to get into from out of state, such as U Virginia, UNC Chapel Hill, UT Austin and U Wisconsin Madison.)

3. Apply to an elite, small-sized public school campus. One great example is SUNY Geneseo, with 4,950 undergraduates, middle 50% SAT’s of 1290-1380, known as NY’s public honors college or the “Ivy of the SUNY’s.” Another is The College of NJ, with 6,135 undergraduates and an average SAT of 1300. Both are considered “Best Public School Values” by Kiplingers.

And don’t forget, if your student attends a public university, there will be more money left over for study abroad programs, unpaid internships that may be crucial to building experience in one’s field, graduate school, younger siblings’ education, weddings, empty nest travel, and oh, yes, retirement.

To offer further insights, I am sharing a segment from a recent interview I did on Hometowne TV, a local access cable network based in Summit, NJ, hosted by Myung Bondy. You can find additional segments of this interview covering a number of college application topics on my YouTube channel.

Related reading: Debt-Free U: How I Paid for a College Education without Loans, Scholarships or Mooching Off My Parents by Zac Bissonette; The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price by Lynn O’Shaughnessy; Pay for College without Sacrificing Your Retirement: A Guide to Your Financial Future by Tim Higgins.


As a college admissions consultant, graduate school advisor, and career counselor, I work with young people of all levels of motivation, some who amaze me with their intensity and discipline. Often, however, I find myself nudging adolescents along, at the request of their parents, hoping to breathe life into comfortable suburban teens who are sadly lacking in passion and purpose.

I have frequently posted about the need to instill a sense of purpose in our children (Not Just Getting Into College: Parenting for Purpose; Antidotes for the Race to Nowhere; Why Study Liberal Arts in College? and Honorable Adulthood). Occasionally, I encounter a young person who seems to have gotten the message.

Last night, I attended a reception for the children of family friends, a son graduating from Georgetown and a daughter graduating high school and headed for Elon. I had met their parents back in my corporate years. I had known the children since they were babies, but due to geographical moves had not seen them in recent years. The reception was held at the family’s close-knit African-American Baptist church in NJ, which had been a nurturing home base for them despite several relocations over the years.

Ross, a handsome, articulate and charismatic double major in philosophy and theology, spoke about his future, bringing many in the gathering (including myself) to tears. He talked about his community service work with inner-city teens in Washington DC while studying at Georgetown.

Ross mentioned a special connection with a young man who wanted to drop out of high school, because none of his friends had lived to be twenty-one. With such a morbid perceived life expectancy, this disillusioned teenager did not want to spend his “last years” in school. After encountering such a heartbreaking situation, Ross decided to commit two years of his life to Teach for America.

Teach for America is a non-profit organization that aims to eliminate educational inequity by enlisting the nation’s most promising future leaders to teach for two or more years in low-income communities throughout the U.S. The organization was founded by Wendy Kopp after she developed the idea to help eliminate educational inequity in the U.S. for her senior thesis at Princeton in 1989–the year Ross was born.

Applying to Teach For America has become highly popular among seniors at America’s elite colleges. In its first year, TFA placed 500 teachers; in 2010, it received more than 46,000 applications resulting in 4,500 new corps members. These applicants included 20 percent of the senior class at Spelman, where Ross’s mom went to college; 12 percent of all Ivy League seniors; 7 percent of the graduating class at U Michigan-Ann Arbor; and 6 percent at UC-Berkeley.

Dismal job market news for 2011 graduates continue to fill the newspaper headlines, broadcast airwaves, and cyberspace. Recent examples: “Tight Job Market for Recent Grads” (UPI.com); “Class of 2011, Most Indebted Ever” (WSJ.com); “Jobs for College Grads Growing at a Snail’s Pace” (U.S. Chamber of Commerce).

Concerned parents are understandably encouraging their high school graduates and college students to pursue “practical” majors that will give them a good shot at employment. Their greatest fear is that after spending  (or borrowing) $200K for their kid’s education, he or she will have to move back in with Mom and Dad after college is over, with no job prospects. And their worst fears are oftentimes coming true.

Yet, here’s a young man who did not major in accounting or economics to hedge his bets. He followed his heart, studying philosophy and theology. He saw a desperate need in society, and took it upon himself to answer the call to meet that need. Pretty simple. And profound.

Many kids coming out of college today do temporarily move back with Mom and Dad, to begin a job search, prepare for graduate school admissions tests, get a stop-gap job and save money, or try to otherwise find their way. And I understand that for many college grads, that is a necessary route to take. But it is also deceptively easy to waste several years in a state of suspended animation. Instead, what about changing the world?

I don’t know how much TFA teachers get paid, although I know graduate school partnerships offer benefits ranging from active recruitment of TFA alumni to tuition help. But most important, experiences like TFA change the person who joins forever, and change the young people that member influences.

Ross will be teaching 8th Graders in New Orleans. Can you imagine the impact this smart, centered, charismatic young teacher will have on disadvantaged teens, especially boys, who need a grounded role model?

I work with many high school students writing essays about how they want to improve society, and I believe most are sincere. But very few of those applicants find a way, through their college majors, internships, entry level jobs, or long term career choices, to actually become agents of change. Most people, in the end, settle for survival and perpetuating the status quo. Once in a while, however, someone decides to really change the world.

Related reading: The Path to Purpose: Helping Our Children Find a Calling in Life by William Damon; A Chance to Make History: What Works and What Doesn’t in Providing an Excellent Education for All by Wendy KoppStart Something That Matters by Blake Mycoskie (founder of Toms Shoes, available September 2011); Global Girlfriends: How One Mom Made It Her Business to Help Women in Poverty Worldwide by Stacey Edgar. Great summer reading for high school students to help them incorporate entrepreneurial social action into their evolving life purpose.

Related posts: Not Just Getting Into College: Parenting for PurposeHonorable Adulthood; General Petraeus Inspires the Cornwall HS Class of 2010: No Guts, No Glory; Graduation, Rites of Passage, and Letting Go; Letting Go (Back by Popular Demand); Off to College: The Hero’s Journey.


Update of my popular post for this upcoming summer: My college admissions consulting clients often ask how their high school students could best spend the summer. Here are ten alternatives to consider:

1.  “Do nothing.” This approach goes back to educator Thomas Mann, who fought the 48-week school year in the 1840’s  because “overstimulating young minds could lead to instability or insanity” (Altman, A., in Time, 1/19/08).

Should parents discourage kids from doing anything in summer? Are they so fragile they will break under pressure?  We’ve all heard parents decrying the demands of today’s culture: “Our parents opened the back door, had us go out and play, and we never came home until supper.”  Nostalgic: but helpful? Like most Boomers, I fondly recall running barefoot in fragrant, freshly mowed grass on summer evenings, catching fireflies and listening for the Mister Softie truck. Great memory! But it doesn’t need to be every summer, all summer.

2.  Exploration of alternatives.
How about trying something new? Self-discovery is a teenager’s Number One developmental task. Summer programs (academic, wilderness, arts, sports, travel, service) give adolescents a chance to experiment in an untapped interest or talent area, and the opportunity to meet “kindred spirit” young people who enjoy similar pursuits. Pick up a copy of Ultimate Guide to Summer Opportunities for Teens by Sandra Berger. Search for programs on the comprehensive Enrichment Alley Web site.

Is it necessary for a college applicant to have such experiences? Absolutely not! Admissions committees know many students cannot afford exotic summer programs. They do not want college applications to simply be transparent measures of a family’s wealth. However, if you can swing it, programs can be a true gift of self-discovery for your child.

3. Remedial academic catch-up. Consider one-on-one tutoring, a local class or online course if your student could benefit. It’s not fun, but it can circumvent an academic slide. Summer content reinforcement or study skills and executive function training can be especially helpful for kids with learning disabilities or attentional disorders.

4. Advance preparation for next year. Get ahead if fall holds tough courses or standardized tests. Vehicles include local preview classes, online courses, books or one-on-one tutoring. The Princeton Review and Kaplan offer test prep in classroom, small group, tutor, book and online formats. ePrep offers unique on-demand video tutoring to prepare for standardized tests. For free online test prep, try  Number2.com.

5. Enrichment and creative renewal. Your teen can find inspiration through an arts workshop, wilderness camp, leadership program, academic course on a college campus, travel experience, online enrichment course or an inspired summer reading list. My favorite programs include: Broadreach, Overland, LeadAmerica, Julian Krinsky, There Be Dragons, Interlochen Arts Camp, Idyllwild Arts Camp, Iowa Young Writers Studio, and Brown University Pre-College.

6. Family and friendship time. Traveling or at home, summer is an ideal time for solidifying relationships with immediate and extended family, as well as hometown friends. This window is open for only a short time, and closes so quickly! No education is better than Pop-pop’s stories, or adventures with cousins at the family lakehouse.

7. Extra-curricular mastery. If a student has a passionate interest, it is likely a year-round one. Most parents know that a serious athlete needs involvement in that sport all year to be competitive, so training camps, sports clubs, and regional or national competitions are a fact of life for those kids. Performers advance skills via summer intensives and performance experiences, and visual artists create portfolios. However, parents can help a child strike a balance between  becoming a “technician” and developing as a human being. Parents can support a child’s aspirations while adding a gentle reality check, keeping their own egos and dreams in perspective.

8. Earning money. Paid employment is as acceptable to admissions as summer programs. Your family’s needs and child’s preferences should dictate. Number of hours worked, percentage of tuition earned, and promotions to positions of responsibilty will demonstrate on the application the student’s motivation, leadership and time management skills.

9. Giving back. Kids who serve give and receive intrinsic benefits, whether they help others through church, school, scouts, or programs like Habitat for Humanity.  Admissions and scholarship committees are impressed by service that is measured and recognized by a prestigious national award (Congressional Medal of Honor for Youth), membership in an organization that recognizes character (National Honor Society), or a senior scout rank accomplishment (BSA Eagle Scout or  GSA Gold Award). But it is critical that service, as expressed in a student’s essays, be “from the heart” — not just something to round out the resume.

Where to find volunteer opportunities? Pick up a copy of Volunteer Vacations across America by Sheryl Kane. Visit Web sites that match volunteer age, interests, and zip code to local needs. Good bets: Idealist.org; VolunteerMatch.org; Servenet.org; 1-800-Volunteer.org; YMCA; American Red Cross; and National Council of Jewish Women.

10. Responsibility and leadership. These essential qualities can be developed in summer camps, athletics and arts activities, family responsibilities, paid employment, and community service. So–do anything over the summer, anything but nothing!

Related posts: Not Just Getting into College: Parenting for PurposePreparing to Major in…the Performing Arts, College Applications and the Lost Arts of Reading and Writing, Prepare for College Essays by Journaling, Get Online College Applications Done This Summer, and The Next Six Months of College Visits.


Amy Grant’s touching rendition of Grown-Up Christmas List was omnipresent on the radio this season. I welcomed it, far more than the slaphappy holiday fare that glosses over the complex lives we all lead, textured with joy and pain, gain and loss, peace laced with worry and uncertainty. No holiday is as pure and simple as the songs portray it.

As a college consultant, I share my students’ disappointments  as well as joys, and December is a bittersweet time. While many seniors are accepted Early Action, some are not. When Early Decision apps are deferred or denied, the sting is especially painful.

In Admissions Matters, December heartbreak is vividly described: “The problem with an early application denial is that it usually occurs in isolation, and also at holiday time…students usually apply early to only one college, and those who receive denials have no simultaneous acceptances to ease the blow” (Springer et al, p. 215).

But acceptance stress is only one kind of trial that students face in December. So here is my grown-up Christmas list:

1. I wish students and families were free to separate a young person’s self-esteem from acceptance at a specific school. There is a suitable higher education choice for every individual. Our society is so preoccupied with prestige, symbolized by material wealth or college pedigree.

But it is unrealistic to expect that “baby boomlet” children of “boomer” parents who graduated from elite colleges can get into those same schools today (i.e., growing demand vs. static supply).

Even academic stars will face rejection unless they adjust expectations. There are only 8 Ivies, but 2500 4-year institutions in the USA: your kid’s gotta get in somewhere! As a separate issue, many kids do not possess interests or skills that fit with 4-year schools.  But they also have plenty of choices, among 1700 2-year schools that are more focused on career training.

Despite our culture’s disdain for vocational education, many kids will be happier, and more likely to get jobs in this economy, if they learn medical technology instead of archaeology. With apologies to Indiana Jones, how many archaeologists do we really need?

Look, if everyone wants to go to the same restaurant the same night, someone will be disappointed. No reason to lose self-esteem: it’s just supply & demand. If we truly “got” that, the college process would be more about discovering one’s unique “fit”, and less about “getting in.” I wish parents could gear their kids to find a school where they’d thrive and find their way, without a feeling of failure if rejected by a “hot” school that is probably not a good fit anyway.

2. I wish students would start preparing for college earlier. WHAT? you say. It’s already stressful enough, starting spring of junior year. Hold on! I don’t mean taking SAT’s in kindergarten or visiting campuses in utero.

I mean, simply thinking about the future. Some teen athletes know all about their physical capabilities and how to improve to switch to a more desirable position or team. But if you ask about their academic abilities, or what they imagine doing for a living someday, you get a blank stare…

Not that an adolescent should have this all worked out now, but it would be nice to at least have a clue. Only in the USA is it acceptable to apply “undeclared.” Why are European teens able to pick an occupational focus but Americans are not?

At minimum, a student can prepare by earning good grades. All colleges want that, even if the applicant doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up. So my second wish is that parents would urge their students to start getting good grades–early.

3. I wish standardized tests were not timed. We hear about time accommodation for learning disabilities (LD’s). Do more kids have LD’s today than back in the fifties? Are they just more frequently diagnosed? Or, as simplistic cynics insist on cruelly proposing, are they just an excuse for poor motivation?

My instinct says, when a problem is epidemic, there’s a broad-based cause. But I doubt the answer is that every American suddenly just decided to become lazy. Someday scientists may figure out that LD’s are linked to environmental toxins, food supply, or an ubiquitous force that has only become prevalent in the past 50 years.

Meanwhile, the movement to obtain LD extra time accommodations has unearthed a concern that was always there for some students: PARALYZING TEST ANXIETY. Someday we may learn that families who go to great lengths to obtain accommodations were actually trying to help a kid with severe test anxiety.

If tests were not timed, LD students could demonstrate their true potential without jumping through bureaucratic hoops. Untimed testing could also measure the true potential of a much broader sector of students, those who suffer from test anxiety.

My guess is, there is one group of test-takers, high academic/low anxiety, who excel, timed or not. Another group, low academic/low anxiety, test poorly, timed or not. But two groups, high academic/high anxiety and low academic/high anxiety, may do significantly better if not timed. Non-timed tests would measure the true potential of these students.

A 1995 study by Onwuegbuzie & Seaman, The Effect of Time Constraints and Statistics Test Anxiety on Test Performance in a Statistics Course, concluded: “Both low- and high-anxious students performed better… under the untimed condition… However, the benefit of the untimed examination was greater for high-anxious students than for low-anxious students.”

But they need to test your ability to think under pressure, don’t they? I say, Why? If you aspire to become MacGyver, diffusing bombs while seconds tick away, then timed testing is a good predictor of career success. But as a marketing executive, I never had to make a decision with a stopwatch ticking. So what’s the point of a timed test?

Sure, I was one of those nervous test takers. It is amazing how I ever got three Ivy League degrees, because I choked on the SAT’s, GRE’s and GMAT’s. My scores weren’t disastrous, but they always underpredicted my higher education performance.

If test anxiety is a cause of underestimation of college success in the population at large, it will be worse among disadvantaged groups without the luxury of paid tutors to help them practice under timed conditions. If standardized testing was originally adopted to “level the playing field,” this is one more dimension in which the wealthy win and the less affluent lose.

I have often comforted a Position U 4 College client who earns excellent grades, yet cannot overcome test anxiety. But recently in a pro bono setting, a terrific young woman from the inner city, a hard-working student with fine grades, was denied at a school due to low test scores. She had studied a workbook (tutoring was out of the question), but her scores were still too low. “Do you get nervous taking the SAT’s?” I asked. Fighting back tears, she nodded. “I always did, too,” I said.

That’s why this is my third grown-up Christmas wish.

Related Posts: December 15 College News: Deferral or Denial, Your Target Colleges–And It’s a Moving Target, Parents of 11th Graders: Get Set for “Junior College Night!” What Is Important to Colleges? Top Ten Factors.