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Keeping Your Cool: Coping With the College Craziness

Published on: November 27, 2012

College girlAdmissions rates of 6 percent? Kids applying to 32 colleges?  Sixteen-year-olds with more impressive résumés than Fortune 500 CEOs?  Has the nation lost its mind?

Why yes, it has.

The college admissions process now requires more time, money and psychic energy than ever before. Applications are at an all-time high. And even though the population of high school seniors is decreasing, there is no end in sight to the hysteria.

Thanks to the easily clickable common online application, kids are applying to dozens of schools. Many universities have stepped up their marketing to entice more students to apply, but then accept a lower percentage so they will end up with higher rankings. At top colleges, selectivity has skyrocketed — “safety” schools are now “50-50’s”; “matches” are “reaches”; and reaches have become “crapshoots.”

Good grades and scores can get a student onto the dance floor, but they are no longer enough. As a result, kids are being over-prepped and even packaged and branded as fossil-identification specialists, rodeo performers, oboe soloists … artsy and academic pursuits designed to impress admissions committees.

Panicky parents

One independent college consultant in Boston, who charges $10,000 a year, has been paying close attention to the way incoming freshmen are introduced at the opening convocation. She routinely advises her clients to forgo summer camp and instead, study tango, shadow a bunion surgeon or become genome researchers.  

Even in less neurotic cities, panicked parents start their children in unconventional activities at earlier ages, with the hope that when it comes time for college, their kids’ résumés will jump off the page, with “hooks” like founding an orphanage, inventing an antibiotic or discovering a galaxy.

There is now a big demand for Junior Kumon, so that kids can get into the right preschools, which feed into the best kindergartens, etc., etc. In fact, one Manhattan mom sued her daughter’s preschool because the children were singing too much and not studying enough.

How to de-stress

Is all this stress necessary? Of course not. But some parents become neurotic about college admissions even if they never were the helicopter type before. One girl reports that her only memory of dinner conversation with her parents as a high school junior had to do with the “C” word.  

Do you really want to deprive your teens of a fun high school experience by focusing on the destination rather than the journey?  

Not a great idea if you want to remain friends with your son or daughter. Back in the day, parents barely proofread their children’s applications. Now, many parents are involved 24/7; I know of a Los Angeles family that procured recommendation letters for a certain Ivy from Nelson Mandela and Stephen Hawking (these didn’t work!).  

We all know that much of this process is out of our control. But luckily, there are several ways to de-stress by planning ahead:

  • Encourage good relationships with teachers and college counselors, who will eventually write evaluations. These adults don’t want to hear from parents; they want to get to know their students. And if you do contact them, avoid the plural pronoun, as in “We finished our Penn essay and now we’re working on the Northwestern supplement.”
  • Help your teens love reading. This is the one activity you’re allowed to force upon them! It pays off on many levels throughout life, including eliminating the need for tedious SAT vocabulary memorization.
  • Help your teens discover their true passions. Colleges do frown on “serial joiners” later on, but ninth grade is a terrific time to find out what floats one’s boat — including entrepreneurial pursuits. Two boys we know swear that their car-detailing business helped get them into the Ivies with lower grades than their peers. Once your child finds an interest, it’s a good idea to stick with it and take it to the next level, leadership-wise, by starting a club, attending a national event or organizing a fundraiser.
  • Keep a file with graded essays and evaluations. A real time saver for brainstorming and contacting teachers who are fans at application time.
  • Look for local community-service opportunities. No need to sign up for an $8,000 program in Ghana; colleges love hours accrued at the aquarium or homeless shelter down the road.
  • Think about big-picture course load (and testing schedules). Colleges do like to see that kids have challenged themselves, but there’s no need for 26 advanced placement (AP) classes. And for schools that do not offer APs, no worries; the colleges just want to see the toughest classes offered.
  • Love thy safety. Falling in love with a reach school is fine, but it is a better bet for students to consider at least one or two “good fit” colleges that will actually accept them.

Yes, it’s a crazy time, but with the right attitude, it is possible to relax and even enjoy these fleeting years. And remember, soon you will be worrying about something even more daunting — whether, after all the money and effort, your kids will be able to get a job.

J.D. Rothman is the author of The Neurotic Parent’s Guide to College Admissions and a blogger at The Neurotic Parent.

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