Chill Out, Mom
Is your child thinking about college? Don’t panic. Here’s how to get through the admissions madness.
Illustration by Ryan Snook
Last March, my eighth-grade son began preparing for the decision that many believe will define the rest of his life: where he will go to college.
He had an appointment to meet with his future counselor at Las Lomas High in Walnut Creek, where he’s starting in August. He and the counselor were going to figure out classes for his freshman year and develop a plan for the rest of high school, depending on his goals for college and beyond.
While the meeting may have made him a little anxious, the idea of his applying to college started to haunt my imagination.
Not only was I wondering how we were going to pay for college, but I had become well versed in the preparing-for-college horror stories: the crushing homework loads of Advanced Placement classes, students popping prescription meds to manage overscheduled lives, and meltdowns by kids—and parents—over multiple application deadlines, the tension of waiting, and the heartbreak of rejection.
I recalled “College Crazy,” the article Peggy Spear wrote for this magazine two years ago. It described how the process was terrifyingly uncertain, even for her daughter, who had strong extracurricular accomplishments, a 4.4 GPA, and a perfect 2400 SAT score. If it’s that insane for a superstudent, I thought, what chance do all the other kids have of competing for a spot at a good college? And by good colleges, I had in mind the usual suspects: the better-known UCs, Stanford, and the Ivies. Could my son stand out in other ways? Through sports or amazing community service?
But I also thought that I don’t want the next four years of his life to become an exhausting scramble to build a résumé of grades, test scores, and achievements. I want him to enjoy high school and learning.
The way many parents and students talked about it, the mania was inevitable. But pretty soon, I started to hear an alternative view.
“Applying for college shouldn’t be a contest about getting in. Kids and parents can end up taking what is really a great voyage of discovery about who they are, and what education means to them.”
This view came from Michael Beseda, the vice provost for enrollment at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga. Beseda is not alone in offering a healthier perspective on this rite of passage.
Over the next few months, I talked to other admissions officers, college counselors, parents, and students. I attended a college-planning panel at Foothill High in Pleasanton, one of the many schools in our area populated by bright, high-achieving kids. The panel consisted of graduating Foothill seniors, as well as representatives from California public two- and four-year colleges, the U.S. Air Force, and private and out-of-state schools.
In the picture they presented, getting ready to apply for college involves focus and hard work—but you don’t have to lose your mind.
Basic messages emerged. Cast your search beyond the so-called good schools. Get real about what you want from school. Don’t trip about the future or all the things outside your control. Take things step by step. And stop believing that where you go to college will define the rest of your life.
Much of the admissions mania stems from what Miramonte High counselor Marilyn Lewis-Hampton calls the “good school syndrome.” It’s the belief among bright students and families in affluent areas like ours that going to one of a small number of prestigious universities is the golden ticket to good jobs and a good life.
There’s debate about whether an undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley, Stanford, Harvard, or other prestigious schools makes a difference in future earnings, career opportunities, or even happiness. The debate has grown more urgent as the sluggish economy and rising costs of college heighten the question of the impact of an expensive education.
Denise Pope, a senior lecturer with Stanford’s School of Education and cofounder of the Challenge Success program, is one of those who say that where someone goes to college doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of life. “It’s one of the many, many decisions students make to shape their world.” Susan Kjorlien, who is a private counselor for students in the 680 corridor and reads freshman applications for UC Berkeley, adds that many of the stories students—and parents—tell themselves about the necessity of a prestigious school diploma are “not based in reality.”
Casey Saran admits he wasn’t the best student at Acalanes High and had no clear direction, so he opted to go to Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill. He then transferred to UC Berkeley, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mass communications. Now 26, he’s at Google, working in a career—advertising—that he fell into but loves. “I spent much less money than my friends who went to a four-year college, did things my own way, and came out of it with a more life experience,” he says.
Regardless of where you stand on the debate about elite schools, the fact is that many students aren’t destined to go to one—and not because they lack intelligence or other qualities that predict future success.
In the latest round of admissions, submitted by 77 colleges to the New York Times’ The Choice blog, a total of 247,749 applied to the nation’s 10 most selective schools. These schools are Brown, Columbia, Cooper Union, Dartmouth, Duke, Harvard, Juilliard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale. Combined, the schools said yes to only about 19,969 of those applications, or 8 percent. UC Berkeley and UCLA, the two most selective California public colleges, received 61,702 and 72,657 applications, respectively, and admitted fewer than one in four.
Applying to any of these elite private schools is a crapshoot, more than one counselor told me. Even if you are the most super of superstudents, you can get turned down for reasons you can’t possibly anticipate: The school has met its quota for students from a certain geographic region, it must honor a legacy applicant, or the music program “needs a piccolo player, and you don’t play piccolo.”
As public attention focuses on how selective these schools are, we ignore the fact that many other colleges, including those on prestigious tiers just below the most selective, say yes to a high proportion of eligible applicants.
Western Undergraduate Exchange:
California students are eligible to receive a reduced tuition of 150 percent of the resident tuition at some two- and four-year public colleges outside their home state. So if you want to attend “State College X,” where in-state tuition is $10,000 a year, you’d pay $15,000 instead of the $20,000 non-resident cost, saving $5,000. Participating institutions include the Universities of Oregon, Arizona, Alaska, and New Mexico; Colorado State, Boise State, and Portland State; and schools in North and South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. Note: Some institutions have qualification criteria such as test scores or high school GPA. wiche.edu/wue.
UC Berkeley’s Middle-Class Access Plan:
For families whose annual gross income ranges from $80,000 to $140,000, the new plan caps the contribution parents make toward the annual cost of a Cal education at 15 percent of their earnings. Total cost includes tuition, fees, housing, and other related expenses. students.berkeley.edu/finaid.
These schools include campuses in the University of California and California State University systems. The 2012 acceptance rate for California students to the UC system was 66 percent. (To some, this may seem high, but it’s not high enough for critics of UC’s policy of admitting an increasing number of out-of-state students to counteract the decline in state funding.)
The overall acceptance rate for CSUs varies from 22 percent for Cal State East Bay to 33 percent for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to 62 percent for Chico State and 81 percent for Sonoma State. California is also home to 112 community colleges, which increasingly have become a popular option for students from affluent communities such as Lamorinda and the San Ramon Valley, as tuition skyrockets at California’s four-year schools.
Meanwhile, there are private and out-of-state institutions that don’t require straight A’s, near perfect SATs, or a statement about how you saved someone from a burning building or pioneered the next billion-dollar tech company.
“Students will say, ‘There’s no way I can go to college,’ and they will talk about the classes they haven’t taken or their grades, and I’ll say, ‘Yes, you can,’ ” says Foothill High counselor Jennifer Roush. At the panel she helped organize, she assured parents: “Your sons and daughters will be able to go to college.”
California is home to more than 70 private colleges, and the United States is dotted with more than 4,000 public and private two- and four-year institutions. Some are small liberal arts colleges with sterling reputations in certain disciplines. Others are state schools serving tens of thousands of students. They are located in small towns or big cities, near mountains, farmlands, or the beach, and they cater to students with a wide range of talents, interests, and learning styles.
Even U.S. News & World Report, often blamed for fueling admissions mania with its hyped school rankings, celebrates lesser-known colleges that offer “great value” or for being “up-and-coming:” Chapman, University of the Pacific, Pepperdine, Azusa Pacific University, and Biola. Others counselors like to cite are Lewis & Clark, Whitman, Reed, Colorado College, St. Olaf, Antioch, Claremont McKenna, and Pomona.
Counselors are also eager to dispel parents’ assumptions that it is always more expensive for students to attend private and out-of-state schools. Out-of-state public colleges offer scholarships or tuition breaks (see box), and private colleges can be very generous with financial aid. Saint Mary’s, for example, has a $39 million undergraduate aid fund.
Las Lomas High graduate Taylor Heaton Crisologo applied to UC Berkeley and UC Davis, but was more interested in an out-of-state private college. Upstate New York’s Cornell University, her first choice because of its top pre-veterinary program, costs up to $60,000 per year for tuition and living expenses. But, like other private schools, Cornell offers needs-based scholarships, with the average aid package more than $33,000. For Crisologo, Cornell came through with a scholarship that guarantees to cover what she and her parents cannot.
Clayton Valley High graduate Joey Clough will enter college with two scholarships, so it will be less expensive for him to receive a degree from the University of Montana in Missoula than it would be for him to go to a UC or CSU, says his mother, Kelly Clough.
“He’s also guaranteed to graduate in four years,” she says. California budget cuts mean that UCs and CSUs can’t always offer classes that students need to take to graduate in four years.
In challenging the notion of what makes a “good school,” Northgate High counselor Linda Clark tells people that her idea of a “bad school” is one where a student is not engaged or happy.
Finding a student’s ideal school, counselors say, means helping students get real about what they want out of college and what fits their interests, personality, learning style, and future aspirations.
“My job is basically to help people manage expectations,” says Danville private college advisor Stacy Kadesh. “It’s important for students and their parents to get a grip early on of what’s possible.”
Leah Romm, a Foothill graduating senior who spoke at the college planning panel, urges students to stay true to themselves. “Don’t pick a school because it’s where your parents want you to go or because of the name,” she says. “Pick it for yourself.”
For Romm, UC Berkeley was always a top choice, though she also applied to Harvard and other Ivies because she believes those schools earned their reputations.
Romm meticulously planned her schedule every year to include “the most challenging and intriguing classes,” among them eight AP classes. She also was involved in piano, dance, figure skating, and volunteering. But Romm didn’t work hard just to make herself desirable to Cal admissions officers, she says. She only took on activities in which she had a genuine interest. It just happened that her classes, grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities “conveniently sharpened my college applications.”
Jason Sablok, who was also from Foothill and spoke on the panel, said he realized his freshman year that he “was not UC material.” When he told audience members he was going to Chico State, his voice carried a hint of apology, as if he assumed his listeners would view going to a CSU as settling for less. But his face brightened as he talked about how much he liked Chico. He added: “If you don’t like the location of the school, the weather, the people, you won’t like it there.”
Most colleges accept both tests, and each is suited to students with different learning and test-taking styles. Ideally, students should take both tests in their junior year, see which nets the highest score, and decide if they want to retake one to score better, says Danville counselor Stacy Kadesh.
How to Prep
An entire industry has grown up around helping students prepare for these tests, with costs running into the hundreds or thousands of dollars. Whether you choose the more affordable option of studying on your own or you hire tutors, you should expect to put in time for best results—as many as 50 hours over a two-month period, say the experts at Bay Area SAT Academy.
Jenna Nibert, a recent Foothill graduate, said she was initially set on UC Santa Cruz. That was before she visited Humboldt State University, one of the lesser-known campuses in the CSU system. Set amid a redwood forest just north of Eureka, Humboldt has a reputation for small class sizes, a funky North Coast vibe, and an esteemed program in wildlife biology, which Nibert wants to study. “I couldn’t forget how beautiful Humboldt was and how much I connected with the school and the people there.”
Jill Rovner, who graduated from Danville’s San Ramon Valley High in 2010, learned the hard way how important it is to match one’s record to a school’s average qualifications. A dancer, Rovner had her heart set on Chapman University in Orange County, which is known for arts programs. She visited the campus, sat in on classes, talked to faculty, and auditioned. “I was obsessed with getting in,” she says.
The problem? Rovner’s GPA was about a 3.2, and Chapman typically wanted students with a 3.65 or higher. “I was bummed when I didn’t get accepted,” she says. She received a yes to two of her “safe” schools. One was Arizona State in Tempe, where she is now entering her junior year. “I love it,” she says.
Her younger brother, Brody, was a bit more realistic in his college search. A “full-on B student,” Brody wasn’t destined for a UC, says his mother, Carolyn Rovner. Wanting to go to a school somewhere in the mountains, he’s now delighted to be attending Boise State in Idaho. “Once you understand the reality of who your child is, it makes the process a lot more manageable,” Rovner says.
Like Brody Rovner, Joey Clough, who enters the University of Montana this fall, wanted to go to a college in the mountains. With a 3.4 GPA and a love of lacrosse, he applied to four state colleges in Colorado, Utah, and Montana, and was accepted at all four.
Clough’s mother, Kelly, heard horror stories about students giving up their teen years in pursuit of a small number of spots at name schools. She and her husband supported their son’s decision to follow his own path: “What’s meant to be is what’s meant to be.”
We left the meeting with my son’s counselor feeling relieved—and a little excited. After the counselor got my son talking about what classes he liked and whether he was thinking about college, she helped him map out a four-year plan that will have him fulfill the A-G course requirements for UC campuses. She also suggested he get involved in sports or some activity that will let him show his leadership skills.
This first step got me thinking about the common advice from organizational consultants about launching any major project. They say break it down into small steps. This first-things-first approach informs time lines that counselors, such as Stacy Kadesh and Athenian School’s Amy Wintermeyer, have created for students. They help students keep track of college, financial aid, and testing deadlines, and to know, for example, when to ask teachers for recommendation letters or to visit prospective colleges.
Seeing those time lines made me think, we—or my son, rather—can do this. As Danville mother Laura Ross told me, “The process is not that much of a mystery.”
Her daughter, Meredith, is heading to the University of Texas at Austin. Ross echoed counselors and other parents who said it’s important to let kids be in charge of the process. While Ross helped with research and checked in, she believed it was crucial to her daughter’s work ethic to manage her own time around doing her applications.
I was glad that my husband and I sat mostly silent in that meeting with my son’s counselor. As we listened to him articulate his hopes for the future and his strategy for achieving them, it sounded like he had a plan.
Having a plan should prompt him to care about doing good work and to get him involved in things he likes. As Denise Pope said, the journey, rather than this one decision, will define his life, and he’s already taking the first steps.
Where the Graduates Go | Data from 2011 exit surveys with Acalanes Union and San Ramon Valley Unified graduates.
To a UC: 17 percent / To a CSU: 18 percent / Out of state: 27 percent / Community college: 26 percent / To Stanford: 20 students /
Top choice UC: Davis / Top choice CSU: Cal Poly
Top private and out-of-state choices: Chapman University / Loyola Marymount / Saint Mary’s College / Santa Clara University / University of Arizona /
University of Colorado Boulder / University of Oregon / University of San Francisco / University of Southern California
WEB EXTRA: Go to diablomag.com/college to read profiles of other recent East Bay graduates and learn about their college decisions.
This time line helps students keep track of all the testing and paperwork deadlines associated with applying to college.
Compiled from time lines created by counselors Stacy Kadesh and Amy Wintermeyer
Freshman and Sophomore Years:
» Meet with your counselor to discuss the next four years.
» Get involved in activities that interest you.
» Start a folder to keep track of academic and extracurricular activities.
When Grades Really Count
» Take the fall PSAT and start researching options for financial aid.
Winter and Spring:
» Sign up for the ACT tests offered in February or June, and the SAT reasoning and subject tests in March, May, and June.
» Go over your preliminary college list with your counselor and request admissions and financial aid information from those schools.
» Consider test prep classes.
» Start preparing your applications: draft essays, assemble portfolios. The Common Application for more than 400 colleges goes online August 1.
» Register for the fall ACT, SAT, or SAT subject tests.
» Ask two teachers to write letters of recommendation.
» Turn in any required school forms for transcript releases.
» Don’t slack off; senior year grades count.
» If you plan to apply for Early Action, Restrictive Early Action, or Early Decision, let your recommendation writers and counselors know by October.
» CSU and UC applications go live October 1.
» Submit CSU and UC applications before the November 30 deadline. Don’t wait until the last day; the server has been known to crash.
» File Early Action, Restrictive Early Action, or Early Decision applications. Notifications come out in mid-December.
» Submit your FAFSA and any required financial aid forms.
» Make sure your mid-year report is sent when you receive your first semester grades.
» Submit any required financial aid forms, and correct your FAFSA if any financial information has changed once your parents file their taxes.
March and April:
» Make arrangements to visit the colleges that said yes.
» Consider your college financial aid offers.
» If you’re on a wait list, get in touch with that school and tell them why you want to attend.
» Prepare for AP exams in May.
» Choose a school. May 1 is the deadline for letting colleges know yes or no.