Wednesday, September 29, 2010

10 Costly Mistakes in College Admission

It’s panic time for more than a million high school seniors and their parents. It really shouldn’t be, but it is: competition for admission to the nation’s “top” colleges has never been tougher. A huge cohort of kids combined with more qualified, full-tuition-paying foreign students – all of them applying to more colleges – makes the odds of getting in simply awful.

To complicate matters, too many kids – spurred on by ill-informed parents and over-worked guidance counselors — unwittingly make the situation worse. Here are 10 mistakes that can be easily avoided.

Mistake 1: Keep that college search narrowly focused. – College admission is really a buyers market – once you get beyond the “top” 50 or so schools. That means that really good “name” schools typically accept more kids than they reject. But it also means that kids and parents have to look beyond the most famous brand names you’re probably familiar with. But with more than 3,000 college and universities in the US and Canada, there are more than few that will be a good fit for a student.

One of the most common mistakes kids make is the size of the colleges they consider. The vast majority of high school seniors limit their initial search to either large universities or small colleges. The reasons for this self-imposed limitation are understandable – and yet wrong. A high school student’s frame of reference is pretty limited, and their perceptions of what big-vs-small colleges offer is usually at least half-wrong. (Large universities almost always offer small seminars and small liberal arts colleges typically require students to take a few large lecture classes.)

The single most important mistake a student can avoid is not visiting enough colleges – large and small.

Mistake 2: “Top” college lists matter. But for mostly the wrong reasons. Just this week I picked up three different magazines that had published their “top” college lists. I’ll probably buy three more next week. And I will marvel at how subjective, skewed, and misleading the lists are. But that’s not to say that they aren’t important. Because they are in one very significant way: they reinforce a college’s “brand” value. No one should pretend that a “name” college doesn’t help open doors in the job (or social) market. It does. Name recognition counts. But it should only be one of several factors used when choosing a college. And by no means should a family discard a possible college because it “ranks” a dozen places below a competitor.

Mistake 3: Colleges are looking for the well-rounded kid. They are looking for the well-rounded class. Kids – egged on by their parents – think that they need a laundry list of extracurricular activities, sports, and a summer experience volunteering as a latrine-builder in Belize in order to get into a top college. Absolutely not true. Colleges put together their entering class as a mosaic: a few great scholars for each academic department; a handful of athletes; some musicians, dancers, and theater stars; a few for racial and economic diversity; some potential club leaders, etc. Colleges want a kid who is devoted to – and excels at – something.

Mistake 4: The essay better be perfect – and seriously substantive. It might be all those things; or not. What it must be is the kid’s own. Admission officers, who typically read more than 50 sets of essays a night — can see through those written with “just a little polishing” by parents or counselors in a heartbeat. The essay should answer the question asked, and provide insight into what makes the applicant tick. Whenever possible, kids should stay away from the “3-D’s”: death. disease, and divorce. While grandma’s death may have been important to the applicant, it too often comes across as an (unsuccessful) attempt at sounding profound. Similarly, the essay that focuses on the applicant’s trip to Belize where he helped build that latrine may seem unique to the student. But to the admission officer who has read thousands of such essays, the only thing the AO is wondering is why there isn’t a latrine stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. (I suggested to my younger son that he write about what he really did on his “service” trip: he helped the local Rastafarian farmer harvest his marijuana crop. My son had the good sense to ignore me.)

Mistake 5: Get those VIP recommendations in early. There is a well-established saying in the admission world: the thicker the folder, the thicker the kid. Do not ask VIP’s – Congressmen, corporate CEO’s, members of the college’s board of trustees – to write recommendations for your kid. Unless your child has actually worked for that person in a real and substantive context. Colleges want teacher recommendations. – teachers who can provide insight into the student’s interests, strengths and growth.

Mistake 6: Ignore the interview; it doesn’t really count. Although most colleges don’t require personal interviews – too many kids applying; and too many who live too far away – if they are offered, take advantage of them. And yes they count – sometimes a lot. (And that includes alumni interviews.) Which means kids should be prepared to speak articulately about themselves and knowledgably about the college they are visiting.

Mistake 7: Nobody is going to check my Facebook page. Don’t count on it. More and more colleges are setting up Facebook pages and want to friend potential applicants. So students should show some discretion about what they post.

Admission officers also take note of little things, like a student’s e-mail address. I’ve heard more than a few stories of admission officers deciding to reject a candidate “on the bubble” because of an e-mail address such as “hotchickatthemall @hotmail”.

Some online services – such as which I have a relationship with – can provide a “safe” and mutually productive technology link between students and colleges.

Mistake 8: Colleges are flexible about deadlines. Ha! No way! Be forewarned: do not miss a deadline.

Mistake 9: We can’t afford Big Name College. There is a lot of money available for college. Some of it is scholarship money; most of it is loan money. And while parents and kids may have an understandable aversion to taking on debt, access to money is almost never a barrier to attending a college.

Applying for financial aid can affect one’s chances of admission – if the college is not “need blind” in its admission policy. But virtually every college is candid about its linkage of admissions and financial aid, and posts its policy on the college website.

Mistake 10: Focus on finding money. The money is out there, and parents simply have to apply for it. But “simply” is a misnomer. The process is run – in parallel — by the federal government and the individual colleges. And you have to deal with both. Applying for financial aid – starting with the government’s FAFSA form and often including the College Board’s “Profile” form – the process is much like root canal without anesthesia. But if you want any sort of scholarship or low-interest loan, you have to deal with it.

Never, ever pay for a scholarship matching service! The vast majority of “weird” scholarships – along with government scholarships and low-interest loans – are administered through the college’s financial aid office. Simply apply for financial aid through the college and the school will figure out what you are eligible for.

The college admission process is rarely fun. But it can be tolerable and less stressful if you avoid these classic mistakes.

Written by Steve Cohen for on September 14, 2010
Posted by Lindy Kahn, M.A., CEP for Kahn Educational Group, LLC

Thursday, September 2, 2010


Many schools are holding orientations for anxious mothers and fathers of freshmen, attempting to teach them a lesson not contained in any traditional curriculum: Let go.

The UCLA meeting hall was standing room only as campus psychologist Susan Bakota delivered a message to about 150 parents gathered at an orientation session designed just for them.

"Take a moment to inhale and release your concerns and anxieties and release your student to this wonderful adventure," she told the audience, whose children are about to enroll as UCLA freshman. "And I suggest you too enjoy the ride."

That may be easier said than done for many parents who are dropping their children off for the first time at a big university in a huge city. But at this time of year, more and more colleges across the country are attempting to teach anxious mothers and fathers a lesson not contained in any traditional curriculum: Let go.

Facing a generation of text-messaging parents who are often intensely involved in their offspring's lives and academic careers, many schools are launching or expanding orientation events to inform parents about all sorts of details of university life. There are parents-only workshops on health insurance, dorm life, financial aid, academics, alcohol abuse and policing.

More important, campus officials say, is explicit advice aimed at easing the pain of separation for the older generation and discouraging intrusive habits that have earned some the title of "helicopter parents" for their habit of hovering.

Even in the age of cellphones and Skype, families of new college students have to learn that "life is going to change for both the students and parents," USC's orientation director, Thomas Studdert, said at a recent parent meeting at the Los Angeles campus. "It's no longer being a parent of a child, it's being parent of an adult."

Last year, 97% of U.S. and Canadian colleges and universities surveyed had held orientations for parents of incoming students, according to the University of Minnesota's National Survey of College and University Parent Programs, a study of 500 schools. That's up from 61% in 2003, the study showed.

Many schools are starting parent volunteer organizations and hiring staff to serve as full-time parent liaisons, sometimes to handle complaints, sometimes with an eye to fundraising.

Because of frequent text messages and e-mails home, parents today know significantly more about their college-age children's lives and problems than parents knew a generation ago. So, orientation officials say, they try to give parents information to help them refer their children to the right campus resources. The parents then are encouraged to let students do the rest legwork themselves.

That increased communication between students and parents — and parents and colleges — "is not either good or bad. It's just the way life is," said Marjorie Savage, parent program director at the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus.

Savage, the author of a guidebook called "You're on Your Own (But I'm Here if You Need Me): Mentoring Your Child During the College Years," said few parents become a serious problem for schools. Parental intrusions tend to decline after freshman year, she said.

Craig Mack, president of the National Orientation Directors Assn., said another reason for colleges to pay attention to parental anxiety is the growing price of college tuition. "A lot of parents are paying big tabs, and they want to have a more active involvement in where their money is going," he said.

The colleges also have a long-term financial interest in keeping them happy, Mack said. "If the student had a great experience and is gainfully employed after graduation, the parents are more likely to contribute to the school even if they are not alumni," he said.

Success is not universal. Educators tell of parents who refuse to leave campus at the appropriate time, even if orientation schedules now often include a specific time to say goodbye. Some impersonate their children in telephone calls seeking information from campus offices. And some can't stop protesting the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which keeps grades confidential unless students allow parental access.

Colleges keep trying. For example, some parents are surprised to learn during orientation at Washington University in St. Louis that they cannot participate in academic advising sessions at which students choose classes, said Danielle Bristow, director of first-year programs.

If the parents feel excluded, she explained, "we have to say, 'we are sorry but this is not for you.' "

At UCLA, parents recently attended workshops on financial aid, health insurance and "What about MY Transition into College?" Staff members urged parents to shift their attention to children still at home, refocus on personal interests and even rediscover their own romantic lives.

"This is as big a transition for you as it is for them," said Jacquelean Gilliam, UCLA's director of parent programs.

The message reassured Ron Eastwood of the town of Spreckels in Northern California, whose only child, Sara, will start at UCLA next month.

"When we were growing up, the world seemed to be a very different place," Eastwood said. "People didn't seem so worried about personal dangers. But our generation has been very protective of our kids as they grew up in the world. And what I think this is helping us to do now is to keep our helicopters on the ground more often."

Elizabeth Warren of Fremont said she appreciated advice about what one speaker described as "the difference between mothering and smothering, between fathering and bothering."

"I don't want to smother," Warren said of her relationship with her son Jonathan, a UCLA freshman. "Yet you are a mom and you want to keep in touch. So this whole process puts it all in perspective and relieves a lot of the anxiety we feel as parents."

At USC, the last of several recent orientation sessions was geared mainly toward parents of international students. The families peppered a panel of upperclassmen with questions about homesickness, safety, drunken parties, the wisdom of double majors and the drinkability of tap water in Los Angeles.

Pressed about campus cafeteria food, one young man reassured them: "I definitely miss my mom's cooking, but I've never starved."

Parents Terry and George Stockus of Victoria, Canada, said later that their concerns about crime were addressed in the session and said they also felt better prepared to part with their daughter, Sydney. "She's happy, so we're happy," Terry Stockus said.

Yet when the moment arrived, it was still hard to leave. "We were all very good up until the room was put together and Dad figured out the printer," Terry Stockus said. "When it was time to say goodbye, it was very emotional. But those were happy tears, excited tears."
Copyright © 2010, Los Angeles Times
Posted by Lindy Kahn, M.A., CEP


I am an educational consultant in private practice advising families on day/boarding schools, college admissions, schools for teens and young adults who have emotional/behavioral problems, learning issues, neurological and psychiatric problems.

This blog is dedicated to the wonderful students and families who come to me for advice on school placement. I will try to post information that is related to Texas and national college admissions, as well as information related to topics of interest in the field of education. We will address a variety of issues and trends in college admissions, boarding schools or programs who serve students with special needs.

We hope to provide you with answers to frequently asked questions and current trends in the industry. For more information on the Kahn Educational Group, LLC, please visit my website. Thank you for your interest. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.

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