Now it Gets Personal

Working with high school students for more than two decades, I have a lot of insight into the college admissions process. Over the years, I’ve worked with students and their families, written hundreds of recommendation letters for students, collaborated with dedicated college counselors, and have gotten to know some of the most experienced college admission officers in the nation. But, it is always different when your own children go through the process. Now, having finally experienced it on a personal level, I can affirm what a rewarding, educational process it has been for my twin daughters, and my wife and I could not have been more pleased by the support and guidance my girls received from Colorado Academy.

If I can give one piece of advice, it would be to urge you as parents to let go of preconceived notions about how you think the college admission process works and how higher education operates in general. Be open to learning and listening. Primarily, this means listening to your children about what they want. What are they interested in studying? Where do they want to be geographically? Do they want a big university or a small college? Ultimately, this is their life, not yours. This is easier advice to give than to heed. In fact, I wish I could have recorded some of my conversations when I didn’t always follow my own advice! One of the reasons your child is thriving is that you have been an involved parent, and we know that is important. It is still important in the college process. Yet, there is a fine line that all parents must learn to walk if they hope to make this an exciting and adventurous process versus one marred by conflict, stress, and anxiety. In the end, I found myself a little envious of my girls and the choices they had about their futures.

Making the Most of CA’s College Office

Another important group of people to listen to and learn from is the staff in the CA College Office. Their work is aimed at supporting students and their families through an increasingly complex process. Note that the value proposition we offer in this area is about counseling, not about placement. No school has a “hotline” to an elite college, and the independent school industry at large has wrongly equated an investment in a private school education with some automatic or guaranteed result in college placement. Surely, we help to prepare and launch students, and CA students prove time and again that they can go literally anywhere and be successful. However, college acceptance decisions are not ones that CA controls.

The college admission world is so sophisticated and competitive, and it is driven by factors that force institutions to be more and more selective, and less and less in the service of students. The general public lacks a real understanding of how college admissions actually work, as well as what a quality undergraduate education really looks like. As you meet with the counselors, you and your child will be well served to listen to professional and informed understanding of the college admission landscape. Our team approaches their work with integrity and honesty. Sometimes that means giving families more of the news they need, and perhaps not always what they want to hear. It’s a tough reality, but it shouldn’t overwhelm you or your child.

One of my girls worked with Sara Purviance, and one worked with Cathy Nabbefeld. Our son will work with Sonia Arora, our new Director of College of Counseling who will join CA next year. Many parents are not aware of how much our counselors work as a team. While each student has one counselor as a point person, each family gets the expertise and experience of the entire office. They regularly pull in other administrative leaders, like Dr. Vogels or me, to help review college lists. We want to help inspire students to achieve their dreams, and at the same time, we also have an ethical responsibility to guide students to create balanced lists that include some “reach” schools, but also ones that are achievable, given the high level of global competition for admissions to American universities.

Taking College Trips/Making Sense of the 3,000+ Colleges Out There

At this point last year, we as a family found ourselves a little stressed about college visits. We hadn’t taken any trips – we were all so busy that it was hard to find the time. If you haven’t visited a school yet but all of your friends have, don’t worry. There is time next fall when we give seniors a week to explore. Sometimes, it is good just to visit a random college campus to give your child a sense of what schools are like. We live in a perfect state to explore what a small liberal arts college feels like (Colorado College), what a mid-sized private university is like in an urban setting (University of Denver), and what a flagship state university can offer (the University of Colorado at Boulder). These are easy trips to schedule and where my family started before we invested in plane tickets.

I would also urge some caution as you talk to other parents, friends, and relatives. Be sure to filter your comments and observations. Just because one student didn’t like a school, doesn’t mean that your child will have the same opinion. Conversely, what is a great school for one child doesn’t make it great for your child. Every student is different, and there are thousands of schools out there. It is easy to zero in on a handful of schools singled out by the rankings. Be aware that these rankings often say little about the quality of a school for undergraduate education and even less about how it might meet your child’s specific needs.

To help our girls think about the myriad of options, we listened to the college counselors about different choices. Once we had a sense of preferred school size and region, we went online and took virtual tours of each college. Taking the time to do that research can really make a difference in your child’s excitement and understanding of what the next level of education should mean.

Thoughts on Standardized Testing and Preparation

When it comes to testing, it is easy to do too much too early in ways that distract from your child’s academic achievement. As a family, we focused on the ACT test. We looked into it starting sophomore year, but were advised that investing in tutoring at that time made no sense. It would take away time from the girls doing their regular work, and it would confront them with material that most students don’t see until their junior years. So, we used an online test prep company that was highly affordable and offered great instruction in the winter of their junior year. The weekly sessions that they did along with other students led right up to the first ACT date in the spring. They took it again in the early summer and then again in the fall. We saw significant improvement from spring to fall that had less to do with test prep than overall maturity and testing comfort. These tests seem to be a universal stressor for parents and kids. They are imperfect measurements, and it is no wonder that more and more colleges are going “test optional.” Approach standardized testing with some common sense, and remember that research shows that more pressure you put on your child, the worse he or she will perform.

Supporting Kids During the Application Completion/Essay-Writing Stage

Advising student writing is an art, and it is something that requires subtle advice. Most parents at CA find this a tough part of the process as their children rarely share their essays. The College Office spends a great deal of time helping students one-on-one with their essays, and we bring in experts during our “College Admission Boot Camp” week to help, as well. So, if this is a “pain point” you want to avoid, trust that your child will get expert advice.

College essays entail a very different style of writing. It is more personal than analytical, and the watchwords tend to be vulnerability and authenticity. A typical college admission officer reads thousands of essays annually. They can tell when it is an adult voice versus a student voice. College admissions officers comment to us when they detect that a parent or perhaps a private college counselor has overstepped in the editing, and this definitely can affect an outcome. What you think might work great for a letter of introduction is not really what these essays are about. They work best when they support the “body of work” we are presenting to colleges and give specific insight into what an individual can offer a college.

Navigating Boundaries Throughout

Parents can sometimes be made to feel excluded from this process. That is not our intent and not our goal. Parents must be involved. Throughout the process, our goal is to empower students and prepare them for how they will apply for future opportunities. Our messaging is primarily aimed at students, as they are the single most important constituent. We don’t want to overwhelm them, nor do we want to overpromise or mislead them. The office always welcomes calls and messages from parents and will be responsive. Sometimes, parents and the counselors can work together to communicate with a stubborn or stressed-out senior. We also can help assure you. CA has guided thousands of students to great schools, and we have seen literally every situation. The College Office is here to support you as we know that each child is taking a leap into the unknown and that can be scary at times. But, it also can be incredibly exciting!

Final Thoughts

My door is open as well. The process was an amazing one for my girls. They learned much about themselves and gained confidence in their abilities. They learned to make strategic decisions. They learned to deal with failure. They learned to manage stress and to confront situations that had no clear resolution.

I am so grateful for the support that we received as a family. I am also proud of the way my girls managed the pressure and did not let it overcome them or our relationship. I am also really glad to be through with it. Now comes the really hard part: saying goodbye.