Time to Stand Out from the Crowd

Some students worry that their academic qualifications do not stack up well when compared to those of their peers. Fortunately, summer can be a time to help level the playing field – as they prepare for college applications and their lives as young adults.

Grades, test scores and whether or not your family has the resources to send your child on an amazing volunteer trip need not come into play here. Everyone can find something to do in the summer that will be worth talking about in a college interview and that may make them stand out in a crowded field of applicants.

More important, it will genuinely move your child along on his/her path to maturity and increased self-awareness. It may even help with the discovery of a passion or a career direction.

Summer activities can help your teenager learn about his or her strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes. It can help increase independence, provide a sense of responsibility, develop an ability to interact with and accept feedback from people they do not know well, and even realize the consequences of not following through with commitments.

A job, internship or volunteer experience is a great way to accomplish many of these goals. As can something as informal as learning how to code online, setting up a regular time to visit/help an elderly neighbor, starting a lawn or pet-sitting business, and more.

I’ve been talking with my students about planning for the summer. But I know there are still many teens who do not yet have a plan. It is not too late, but finding a worthwhile summer activity does take work and persistence. Also, I find that this is an area in which your child may need some encouragement and help (from you) in brainstorming options, thinking outside the box and finding an opportunity that feels worthwhile.

Here are some questions to help get your child started:

  • How much available time is there to add something new (considering current responsibilities)?
  • Does your child need to make money? Is there money to spend on an activity or experience?
  • Is there a career interest that could be explored? Either through a formal career exploration program or by setting up shadowing opportunities with acquaintances to learn about various careers.
  • Is there a class or a weekly tutoring session that will make a difference for school in the fall? This may be the time to learn some more effective study skills, communication skills or work on strategies for writing.
  • Is there an interest that has not been fully explored? Maybe there is a class that is nonacademic – cooking, photography, painting, modern dance, etc. Or maybe there is a neighbor who is skilled in an area of interest and who could use a volunteer and teach some skills at the same time.

Ideally, your child will uncover something that he or she is passionate about and excited to pursue, either as a possible career focus or leisure activity. Having an area of intense interest can help a teen blossom and weather many of the less than positive experiences that they need to get through on their way through high school (learning what they do not like can be important too).

Whatever your child decides to focus on this summer, and however it turns out, they will have something of substance to talk about when the college interviewer asks that inevitable question: “How did you spend your summer?!”

Juniors and Seniors: Make the Best of Campus Visits

Winter and spring breaks are popular campus visit opportunities. For seniors, that means going back to “Accepted Student Days” or making a second visit on a typical school day. It’s important to sit in on a class or two, meet with faculty in a specific department and consider spending the night. It may take multiple visits to make this important decision.

Juniors, on the other hand, will likely be visiting for the first time and deciding whether or not to keep a given school on their list.  It’s helpful to visit before May so that students will still be on campus prior to their summer break.  And while most schools start offering tours again in June – and the summer can work for an initial visit – make sure to return when students are on campus if you like the school.

Remember as well to always “officially” sign up for a tour and information session. This way the admissions department knows you were there and you get credit for visiting.

Consider each of these areas on your visits. Take notes! (Seniors will want to get into more detail in each of these areas.):

Academics: What is the strength of the school or the program your student is interested in pursuing? How accessible are the professors? Are teaching assistants used to teach? Is the school’s emphasis on undergraduate teaching or on graduate research? Is the atmosphere more competitive or collaborative? What is the level of student stress?

Class sizes: How large are the freshman classes (this is not the same as the faculty to student ratio)?

Graduation Rates: These may be reported as four year and/or six year rates. Make sure you are comparing apples to apples across schools.

Retention: What is the percentage of freshmen who return as sophomores?  Compare this to other schools of a similar nature.

Support: Are there resources to help with the transition to college? Are there writing, math and foreign language labs? Is there a fee for content tutoring? Are the tutors peers, grad students or faculty?  Is there help with time management, organization and study skills? Does faculty tend to notice if a student is struggling and recommend resources?

Internships: What percent of students complete internships? (A college degree is not always enough these days!) Does the school help secure the internships?

Housing: What percent of students live on campus? Is housing guaranteed all four years? If students live off campus, are they commuters from home or do they live in near-by housing?

Student Body: What is the level of diversity in all areas – racial, socioeconomic, religious, geographical, etc.? What is the level of tolerance for differences? Is there a political leaning one way or another? Do at least some of the students seem like people you could be friends with?

Campus life: Do the students look happy? (Keep in mind that no one looks happy on a college campus early in the morning or when they are dashing to class in the rain.) Try to talk to students in addition to the tour guide. Ask what they like about their school and what they wish were different.

  • What percentage of kids goes home on the weekends?
  • Are there plenty of activities for students who are not interested in parties?
  • Is there Greek Life and, if yes, how dominant is it?
  • Are there ample opportunities for volunteering?
  • Does the school have the amount of school spirit you are looking for?
  • Do students regularly attend sports games or dance, music, drama performances?
  • Where do students go when they want to get off campus?

Location: How easy is it to get home and how much does that matter?

Finances: It’s important to consider the overall expense to graduate. Look at the percentage of kids who graduate in four years and consider the extra cost if additional time is often needed at a particular school. All schools now have a Net Price Calculator to get an early estimate of any financial aid your child may be awarded.

Finally, make sure you leave enough time to have a meal in the dining hall, spend some time in the student union, look at what is posted on the bulletin boards and grab a school newspaper.

Try to enjoy this time with your child. It goes by quickly!

Time For A Family Meeting!

January marks the official start of the “season” for juniors planning to attend college immediately after high school. The first semester or 2nd term is drawing to a close and PSAT scores are back.

With a current GPA in hand and at least some sense of how they are likely to score on the SAT’s (students can also arrange a practice ACT), students have a general idea of the academic level of the schools that might be a good fit for them. That makes it a little easier to narrow down the list from the thousands of potential colleges to which your child might be interested in applying.

The tricky part is that this time of junior year is also very busy. Most students are involved in test prep to prepare for the taking of the SAT or ACT this spring. And many are involved in extracurricular school activities and/or working. Some extra sleep, eating well and regular exercise will go a long way and plant the seeds to continue these habits in college (easier said than done, I know). Overall, Job One remains doing the best they can academically to keep grades up.

Remind your child that this is the year that colleges will look at critically to see that a student is challenging herself academically. Your student should also make extra efforts to participate in class discussions as junior year teachers are usually asked to write their recommendation letters.
Beginning the college exploration process:

For starters, I recommend setting up a family meeting to talk about college in general and to share expectations of both you and your child. The first question should always be: Does your child want to go to college and do all those involved consider this a good plan for immediately after high school?

Keep in mind that there are students who are not yet ready and it has become much more common (and acceptable) for students to take a “gap year” to travel, volunteer, work, etc., with plans to enter college when they are a bit more mature and college-minded. It may also make sense to think about a community college, with plans to pursue an associate’s degree or a certificate program first and then (if desired) transfer to a four-year school upon completion..

Step two, for most families, is to have a frank discussion regarding the family’s financial situation as it relates to paying for college. It’s best to have this discussion early in the process, even before your student puts together a list of schools. This will save much disappointment later on, in case your student does not receive the financial aid package they had hoped for and you are not in a position to make it work at their “dream” school.

It is helpful to calculate your “Estimated Family Contribution” (EFC) early in the process, to determine the possibility of need-based aid. To access the specifics of a given school’s fees and related expenses, visit the “Net Price Calculator,” found on the web site of every college.

For those who may assume they are not eligible for financial aid, keep in mind that many schools offer “merit aid” (scholarships) based on a talent, grades, test scores, community service, leadership, etc. These are not based on financial need, however, for those school that do offer merit aid, they typically offer it only to the top 20-25% of their applicant pool. In other words, they are unlikely to offer it to your student if he or she is an average or below average applicant for that school.

Step three is to consider general college characteristics that will make a school a good fit for your child. These include distance from home; city vs rural/suburban; size of school; size of classes; level of academic rigor; amount of academic support offered; availability of a particular major if known; and make up of student body.

It’s a lot to think about, I know. And while it’s easy to think that there is plenty of time to start this process much later (and there is), take it from me that the time can get away from you too. Particularly if your student will have a busy senior fall (they usually do!) due to a sport, work or extracurricular activity and/or if they want to start applying to colleges mid-fall (many do these days), it is a good idea to start this process of exploring schools soon.

Ideally, your child will start to form opinions of the type of schools that feel right this winter and you can fit in some window shopping visits to see what is out there. Then you can make more focused college visits over spring break or on school vacation days. The summer is an option too, but the students are not on campus and so another visit will be necessary to get the feel of the student body (very important).

As always, have fun with it! Before you know it, your child will be off to school and you will wonder how this time went so quickly.