The College Admissions Process: Advice for Parents

graduationcap_postWhen they were high school seniors back in the seventies or eighties, most baby boomers walked into the SAT exam without any test preparation and sent off but a handful of college applications. Now parents of high school students, those same boomers are discovering that, when it comes to their own children’s pursuit of the perfect-match college, things are not as simple as they were back in the day.

Indeed, many parents of current high school students are realizing that the intense competition for coveted slots at the most sought-after colleges rules out the casual approach that they took way back when.

As selective college admissions have become increasingly competitive due to the swelling number of students who hope to enroll at top-tier American colleges and universities, applicants have sought ways of boosting their odds of acceptance by seeking help in both standardized test preparation and the college application process. To be sure, many parents are discovering that out-of-school test prep tutoring and college counseling have become the norm in their children’s school communities. Of course, these same parents are also discovering that an often-befuddling spectrum of test prep and college counseling services has emerged in recent decades.

A pair of recent articles in the Wall Street Journal draws attention to the dramatically altered landscape of college admissions and the challenges of wandering across it for the first time. One article, entitled “SAT Prep: Issac Says No to Outside Help,” presents one family’s attempt to make sense out the new rules of the game. The article presents a father’s proud consternation that his son has said “no” to outside help of any kind despite his father’s assumption that precisely such help would be best for his college-bound child. The other, entitled “Families Seek Help with College,” discusses the brisk business that test-prep companies and independent college consultants are currently enjoying despite, or perhaps because of, the troubled economy. What is the right thing for a parent to do?

Although the article about the student named Issac who refused any help implies that he chose the high road of  “personal responsibility and a touch of DIY ethics,” the other article makes the case that some families invest in such outside help in order to increase their children’s chances of gaining admission to one of  “the top-tier schools, many of which offer the most generous aid packages.” Reductive arguments about the ethics and socio-economics of seeking help in the college admissions process do not necessarily illuminate - and certainly do not exhaust - the issue.

Of course, when Issac said no to test-prep help, Issac was making a decision that may well have been the best decision for him. Clearly, some students may be motivated enough to prepare on their own. Certainly, some might need the structure of a test-prep class and others might be best served by a one-on-one tutoring program. A colleague who is a college counselor at a nearby prep school offers the analogy of how gym memberships are used by different people: some people are motivated enough to just go to the gym and work out on their own, some might need to enroll in a cardio-training class, and others would be best served by one-on-one sessions with a personal trainer. The question lingers: What is the right thing for a parent to do?

Pragmatically speaking, we recommend that parents approach the college admissions process by further informing themselves.  As concerns the specific issues raised in the two articles from the Wall Street Journal that we cited above, we advise:

  1. That parents begin a conversation with their child’s college counselor at school no later than February of the junior year in order to develop as realistic a sense as possible of how their child’s broader profile (transcripts, test scores, co-curriculars, etc.) compares to the profiles of students admitted in recent years to the schools that their child wants to attend.

  2. That parents use their child’s December PSAT results to assess if test prep might be wise and, if so, what type of prep would be best suited to their child’s individual needs: Is their child motivated like Issac? Might an online course be effective? Would a classroom experience be more productive? Are there certain areas of weakness that need more work than others? Etc.

  3. That parents be certain to carefully vet any test-prep program that they are considering for their child in order to ensure that it offers an approach to the tests that meets their child’s specific needs while also meeting best practices guidelines established by the National Association of College Admissions Counselors:

    • Familiarity with test question format

    • Familiarity with test administration procedures

    • Alignment with skills necessary to master college preparatory coursework

    • Instruction in basic study habits and skills

Editor’s note: Special thanks to NCSA Sports as well as Courtney Federle, PhD, for the above article. Federle, from the University of California, Berkeley, has taught at the University of Chicago and is currently working as a teacher and curriculum developer at Academic Approach.

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