Lowering the Stress in the College Admissions Process

How Parents Can Help

Elizabeth Wilcox writer
Matt Collins illustrator

In case you’re wondering, this is not another article about how the stress of today’s college admissions process is adversely impacting students and parents. It is not about the growing rate of cheating nationally, which some attribute to increased pressure on students to perform. It is not about the mother who broke down into tears in the office of one of the area’s educational consultants. It is not about the infinite number of frantic phone calls from anxious parents to college advisers. Nor is it about the reason why a 15-minute conversation on a fall afternoon about this very subject just can’t fit into the schedule of many Wellesley and Weston seniors. This article is not about that at all.

This article is about how you, as a parent, can help these students weather what has become a well-publicized maelstrom in which students are striving to emerge on top. For as much as we want to help our children succeed in this process, counselors and other experts in the field stress that the answer lies not in being accepted by the most selective college, but rather in starting with an attainable and appropriate definition of success.

Redefining Success
Defining success is often where the problems begin. From a counselor’s perspective, success usually means finding colleges that are the best matches for their students. But for many students beginning the college application process, success can mean getting into a college they know.

“One of the hardest parts for students is to consider colleges that they are not familiar with or have not heard of,” says Timothy Lee, Director of Educational Services at the Sudbury-based Advocates for Human Potential.

“I think a lot of students grow up in these communities hearing names that frequently come from the top tier,” comments Weston High School’s Director of Guidance, Adam Goldberg.

Or, as Wellesley-based educational consultant Susan Case puts it, “A lot of these kids want to go to the same schools.”

But, while fifteen years ago applying to the same handful of widely known Northeastern colleges as one’s peers may have borne results, getting into those colleges today has become much more difficult.

The reason is that not only are more students applying to college than ever before, but the average number of colleges to which a student applies has risen from one to three in the 1970s, to four to seven, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. In Weston and Wellesley, guidance counselors put that number even higher. Tom Hughart, Director of Guidance at Wellesley High School, estimates that students apply, on average, to seven to eight colleges or universities. Private education consultants who assist students in the admissions process put that number higher still, sometimes as high as nine to twelve.

Once more, as competition has increased, so has the desire for diversity among colleges. So even if a student is qualified, his or her chances of acceptance are usually diminished by the large numbers of equally qualified and similarly profiled peers applying to the same school.

The irony is that in the end, attending a top-name college doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll do any better in life. According to a 2000 study by Princeton University economist Alan Krueger, going to an academically elite college does not necessarily boost your earnings potential compared to a less elite college. In his paper “Estimating the Payoff to Attending a More Selective College,” published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a school’s selectivity, as measured by matriculants’ average SAT scores, does not correlate with students’ later income, once the abilities of the students upon entering college are taken into account. The researchers refer to this phenomena as the “Steven Spielberg Effect”; the filmmaker, who was rejected by both USC and UCLA film schools, ended up attending a less prestigious program but went on to achieve tremendous success. The only exception in this finding was for students from a financially disadvantaged background, for whom an elite education did bring greater financial rewards.

Mounting Pressure
Still, findings like Krueger’s appear to have done little to stop perception – names still seem to matter. Which brings us back to that much-maligned media topic: the mounting pressure on our kids.

Because so many kids are applying to the same schools, they are having to work harder to set themselves apart. They are taking more advanced courses; investing more in academic, admissions, and test-taking assistance; and packing their days with a growing number of extracurricular activities, whether those be community service, school clubs, or sports teams.

And if that’s not enough pressure, The College Board last year adopted a new SAT, known by some students here as “The Endurance Test” due to its extended time period – 3 hours and 45 minutes, 45 minutes longer than the old SAT.

Students are surviving
And yet, Wellesley and Weston students are getting through it. They are performing academically. They are graduating. They are enrolling in colleges, often in some of the nation’s most competitive programs. One need only look at the class acceptance lists to see that college placement from Wellesley and Weston remains strong. “They do well because they’ve worked hard and they’ve got support from all levels,” says Weston’s Goldberg.

In responding to a question about how Wellesley High School students do, Hughart says he doesn’t use measures that compare class on class performance in terms of college acceptance. But he can say that 95-plus percent of Wellesley graduates go to college, and that in his 15 years of experience as counselor, almost 100 percent of students who want to go to college, go. Once they get there, well over 90 percent stay and are happy, he says.

To see evidence of that strong placement, one need only look at the acceptance rate at one of the nation’s most selective universities, Harvard University. Over the last 5 years, the national general admission rate for Harvard University has averaged somewhere between 9 and 11 percent, says Bill Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard University. Wellesley’s average admission rate over the last 5 years has been 16.8 percent and Weston’s has been 21.8 percent.

“In theory it’s harder to get in, and yet Weston and Wellesley have done exceedingly well as one might expect, given that the quality of teaching and college counseling is extraordinary,” says Fitzsimmons.

Still, some are asking at what cost. So disillusioned at the growing commercialization of the entire application process was former guidance counselor Lloyd Thacker, that he established the Education Conservancy, a Portland, Oregon-based national organization dedicated to changing college admissions by altering their focus from marketing and rankings back to education.

“We’ve lost touch with what education is about, what it’s for,” explains Thacker, pointing to what he calls the commercialization of college admissions. The end victims, he maintains, are the students.

A growing number of college admission officers seem to agree with the Conservancy’s mandate. Most recently, the Education Conservancy issued a set of guidelines and principles “to make the college admission process more manageable, more productive, and more educationally appropriate” and to calm “the commercial frenzy by affirming educational values in college admission.” Among the who’s who of admission professionals behind the document are ones from Harvard, Smith, Dartmouth, MIT, Dickinson, University of Chicago, and Pomona.

And it’s not just college officials who are concerned. High schools too are cognizant of the growing pressures on students, and some are taking measures to help quell it. As The Boston Globe reported this past summer, Wellesley High School has eliminated homework during April Vacation, done away with midyear exams, and created new intramural teams to help mitigate the stresses their students face.

But even counselors acknowledge initiatives like these can only go so far. Part of the reason is, of course, that well recognized colleges still carry cachet. But even more significant is the fact that until the population bubble deflates, a growing number of students will continue to have to compete for an unchanging number of spots. “In 15 years, when there are fewer students, it will become more of a consumer’s market,” believes Hughart.

So what can we do in the meantime to keep stress levels down? Here’s what experienced counselors, parents, educational consultants, and students recommend students do, and how parents can help:

Map Your Curriculum
The bottom line is that when it comes to college admissions, grades matter. GPA’s, say counselors, are important and so is course load. “It’s important to show depth and strength in your curriculum, to find balance in what’s manageable and what’s not,” says Susan Simon of Admissions Advantage.

Mapping out a curriculum based on abilities, aptitudes, and interests can help students achieve that balance. “I encourage it,” says Weston High School’s Director of Guidance, Adam Goldberg. “It’s not required but it’s very valuable,” he says. Private educational consultants agree. “Students often find comfort in a plan,” says Simon.

Advice to parents: Students should aim to remain challenged but not overwhelmed. Be sure your child regularly assesses his or her plan to determine whether it’s providing the right balance in his or her education objectives.

Do Some Navel Gazing
Most experts say students should start the college selection process with some introspection. Counselors and advisers often start the process by asking questions. These questions might begin with experiences. What classes and activities have they liked? Where are their strengths? What are their areas of interest inside and outside school?

Conversation often moves to what students want out of college. What environment appeals to them? How large a school would they like? What subjects interest them? What do they hope to get out of the college experience?

To better answer some of the more general college questions, some advisers recommend visiting nearby colleges. By doing so, the student might get a better feel for which kinds of schools appeal to them and which do not.

The student also should realize that a college list can take a while to develop. Weston High School student Lauren Margolis began thinking of college during her freshman year, but it wasn’t until sophomore year that she really began working to identify colleges that appealed to her. Now a senior, she feels confident about the schools to which she’s applying based on more specific criteria such as college curriculum and opportunities to study abroad. “I’ve definitely matured in that sense,” she says.

Advice to parents: Counselors recommend you learn to ask questions of your child rather than make statements and that you be open to the answers you hear. What does your child want out of college? “Parents need to be able to separate themselves,” says Susan Case. “If they come at it with a bottom line, whether spoken or implied, that’s a problem.” Also remember that college selection and education itself is a process. Opinions, interests, and perspectives can take a while to evolve.

Most colleges still require SATs or ACTs in their stead, and most students study and take practice tests to prepare. Some counselors recommend taking a practice test for both in order to determine which test will result in a better score.

Regardless of the strategy students choose, experts warn against cramming when preparing. “Slow and steady,” says Chyten Edu-cational Services president and founder, Neil Chyten. Chyten also recommends that students take the SATs in January and spread out preparation over the course of a few months, at least. That way the student can retake in the spring, if necessary. Also realize that no one can guarantee that taking prep courses or tests multiple times will raise scores.

Former Wellesley student Torie Nilsen, who is now a sophomore at Dickinson College, is a case in point. After taking a course to improve her SAT scores, Torie took the test a second time and her verbal score dropped. Says Torie, “Things I learned from the course I took too seriously. The second time, I wasn’t taking it for myself.” She also, by the way, took the ACTs and performed much better on those.

Advice to parents: Tests can be stressful and tiring, particularly given the new and longer format of the SAT. Test prep and studying can help. Help your child take a measured approach by not cramming and even scheduling preparation. Lastly, say some counselors, keep the primary focus on content and where kids need help rather than on strategy.

Researching Colleges
There are many places and ways to research potential colleges. The College (www.collegeboard.com), www.collegeconfidential.com, individual college sites, the Fiske Guide to Colleges – all can help. But as a student researches colleges, counselors stress that they pay attention to their chances of acceptance. Most high school guidance counselors today have some form of database that shows how past students have fared in college admittance based on GPAs and test scores. Being aware of that information can help keep students and parents realistic.

Students also should pay close attention to how well a school can accommodate their interests. How well does a school’s strengths match their own? One often overlooked source that can help in this process is the course catalogue, which tells the number and types of courses offered.

Advice to parents: As your child develops his or her list, remember that the name of the college your child attends will not determine his or her success in life. Keep an open mind. Suburbs West of Boston “are very competitive. One of the yardsticks for measuring success is where you went to college,” says Advocates for Human Potential’s Timothy Lee. But remember: some very successful people have gone to less well-known colleges.

Managing the process
With students applying to half-a-dozen or more colleges, managing the application process can be a challenge, to say the least. “It was stressful,” says former Wellesley High School student Julie Grant, who this year is going to Neuchatel Junior College in Neuchatel, Switzerland. To help manage that stress, students and counselors alike recommend looking at the process on a step-by-step basis.

“The complexity of the process today is huge,” says Wellesley-based educational consultant Nancy Phifer. “You cannot worry about the big picture. Break it down into many pieces.”

“Take little steps,” agrees former Wellesley student Sophia Diamond, who’s now a freshman at Ithaca College. “It’s too stressful if you don’t.”

Making a plan helps. Guidance counselors or advisers are often best placed to assist in that plan, both because of their knowledge and because for many families, the college process can be emotional. Professionals also can provide helpful hints, such as encouraging students to use the common application when permitted.

“Having someone to speak to one-on-one is definitely helpful,” says Weston Senior, Lauren Margolis. “It can be difficult to understand.”

Advice to parents: Parents and students in Weston and Wellesley on the whole are very complimentary of the schools’ college counseling. “Wellesley High School is so great,” says mother to Julie, Cynthia Grant. “Have faith in the counselor.” But she also says that because gathering all the necessary information can be stressful for students, it’s important that parents be aware of the time schedule.

Wellesley High School Senior Corey Testa is also supportive of the counseling he’s received. “School does a lot to ensure you’re on the right track,” he says. He suggests parents provide as much emotional support as possible and only step in when necessary. “Don’t put them on a leash. Give them an electric fence,” he advises parents when dealing with their children. “Say yes a lot. And always remember it’s their process, not yours.” Or as the Wellesley High School counselor comments: “You pay for the bus, they drive it.”

College Visits
Most students visit prospective colleges junior year, but some go as early as sophomore year to get a better idea of what they’re looking for in a school. Most colleges say a student will not be penalized for not visiting. But if you can, a visit is a good idea, not only to get a better sense of the school, but also to show your interest. In fact, some advisers say that the student who shows a strong desire to go to a school – through, for example, visiting the campus, emailing questions to the local representative, calling matriculating students, and sending the admission officer timely updates on activities and grades – can get the nod over a comparable candidate who does nothing but send in the application and fee.

Advice to parents: Parents point out that college visits can get expensive and time-consuming once you’ve factored in transport, accommodation, and meals. But they also can be very helpful. Think ahead. Budget money and time accordingly.

Extracurricular Activities
When it comes to extracurricular activities, counselors say that colleges look for depth, not breadth. “They want to see you doing things year after year,” says Tim Lee. “It’s not the quantity, it’s the quality,” agrees Susan Case.

Advice to Parents: Weston counselor Susan Simon says parents can work on developing a healthy attitude toward their children’s extracurricular activities. They can ask what is most important to their family and their children’s well being. She asks parents to consider their family values and priorities and not pressure them to do too much. “Extracurricular activities are great, but don’t lose sight of the importance of academics. If you are interested in attending a competitive school, school work should be a priority.”

© 2006 Elm Bank Media

Spring 2024