There are no fundamental truths behind the college application process when the prospective freshman is your own child.
After more than 20 years teaching Advanced Placement courses, being a college guidance counselor, and supervising standardized college testing, you’d think I’d have all the right answers for questions about college admissions. Yet, as I start out on the process of exploring college options and filing applications with my own son, now a high school junior, I find myself second-guessing everything I have come to know and trust as fundamental truths. Here, for example, are just a few:
- SATs are only part of the student’s total profile. I’ve always known that my son would score well on the SAT. He is a reader, an above-average learner, and has always had a knack for taking multiple-choice tests. He actually enjoys the experience. I began by telling him to ignore what his friends were saying about SAT prep courses. I told him they were a waste of time and money. I told him not to allow himself to get caught up in a media-driven frenzy. When his PSAT scores arrived in December of his junior year, I suddenly found myself thinking, “Gee, if he did this well, with a little guidance on strategy, think how much better he could do on the real SAT.”
So when my son mentioned, once again, that all his friends were getting prep work, I relented. And even though my logical side told me that spending an extra $13 to receive his December SAT scores over the phone was a waste of money and I was just buying in to the hype, I found my finger dialing that number and my anxiety building as I waited for the automated voice to confirm my greatest hopes or worst fears. Yes, the scores were good, but with a little extra work, maybe they could be stellar?
- Take as many AP classes as possible. The age-old question arises: Is it better to be in a lower section and get an A, or in an advanced section and get a lower grade? Of course, the answer is simply to be in the AP class and get an A. But what if this isn’t a likely outcome? What if the student is strong in some areas and weak in others? What if the high school doesn’t offer AP sections in the areas of the student’s strength? Will the colleges really pay attention to the curriculum offered, or will they simply glance down the transcript and draw quick conclusions?
How can my son make his strengths stand out and look unique? Should I push him into courses that may not be appropriate or of interest to him, just to gain that edge on the transcript? Of course, I know the answer to this question. But then, how do I explain to the relatives that he’d rather take photojournalism than AP statistics, thus probably taking him out of the running for a highly competitive college? I am almost embarrassed to admit that I had this conversation with myself.
- Stay on track; build a consistent record for four years. Since the 8th grade, my son has been highly involved in a few extracurriculars. He has been dedicated to his sport, to a community-service club, to a continuing summer job at which he has advanced considerably in responsibility, and to an art for which he has clearly demonstrated a passion. This is obviously a model for success in the admissions process. It demonstrates an ability to commit, it shows discipline, and it illustrates his maturity and focus.
So, when my son decided to take the spring semester off to attend the Maine Coast Semester of the Chewonki Foundation, I wondered how this would affect his record in terms of college admission. I heard his friends at school ask why he’d risk leaving his commitments for a semester, especially during that critical junior year. I heard him wonder whether missing a season of sports would keep him from making varsity captain. I heard other boys bound for the program mention the same concerns. I talked to the program’s director, who assured me these were common fears amid the growing anxiety families feel about college admissions.
My colleagues on the college-admission side, meanwhile, assured me that programs such as this, or the many foreign-exchange programs, only enhance a student’s profile. Why, then, do we, as students, parents, teachers, and coaches, worry about the effects of stepping off the beaten path? Maybe it’s because as a society we prefer conformity and safe choices to individuality and risks.
In the end, then, 'knowing thyself' is also the key.
- If I hadn’t sent my child to private school, he would have earned A’s at the local public school and been admitted to a better college.Why did I spend so much on tuition to lessen his chances? Every year, in my role as the college guidance counselor at a private school, I hear this from at least one parent. My response has always been, “But think of the opportunities your child has had to interact more closely with teachers, to learn more independently, to receive more attention in and out of the classroom, to be a person and not a number.”
Can you guess who entertained the same question this year, after her first meeting with her son’s college counselor? I kept saying to myself, “What a ridiculous question. You know he would have had the same grades at the local public school because motivation in the classroom is not measured by class size, it is intrinsic to the self.” I thought of the mentors he has had in his private school and how he has developed relationships with adults that will last for a lifetime. I thought about how easy it was to talk with someone who knows my son in and out, whenever I had a question or needed a problem solved. But then again ... would his GPA have been higher? Is a college-admission panel going to measure the quality of my son’s daily experience? Unlikely.
After all of this angst and self-involved arguing, I finally thought to myself: What would my colleagues say if they knew I was grappling with the very same issues I’ve spent years telling the families I counsel to ignore? Would they raise eyebrows and snicker? Somehow, I doubt it. We all succumb to doubt—especially doubt fueled by college rankings based purely on statistics that are often spun mercilessly to the advantage of the marketer. Though I don’t buy into the newsmagazines’ college rankings as the final word on selectivity, it’s very hard to ignore that the general public does use this as a yardstick of success.
So what is the answer? Yes, a student must know his statistics. He must realize that this, ultimately, is the basis on which an admission decision will be made. This is reality. But as Loren Pope, the author of Colleges That Change Lives, suggested in a letter to The Chronicle of Higher Education, it is, in the end, the quality of the educational experience that will shape a student’s life. And having a mix of abilities represented on campus is essential, he wrote, to “good discussion and good learning.” I like how he explained that: “The middle group of students ask the questions that the bright kids are ashamed to ask and that the slower ones don’t think of.”
Basing college entrance purely on statistics, rather than considering other qualities, such as emotional intelligence, creativity, and character, would have meant, according to the author, the automatic rejection of “such people as Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Michael Faraday, Thomas Edison, and William Butler Yeats because they were basket cases in school.”
In the end, then, “knowing thyself” is also the key. If the most important aspect of one’s college education is to be a part of a highly selective student environment and to have that all-important Ivy name on the window of the car, pay attention to the statistics. But remember, too, that quality of life extends beyond the material. To know thyself is to be happy, no matter where one goes to college, no matter what others think of that choice. To know thyself is the greatest gift any human could seek. So as the parent of a high school junior, I will happily say to my son next year, “I am so glad you know yourself.”
Anne Macleod Weeks is the director of college guidance at Olfields School in Glencoe, Md.
A version of this article appeared in the April 03, 2002 edition of Education Week as Second-Guessing On College Admissions