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09a.jpg (24458 bytes)Five Easy Rules

Parents and children can simplify getting into college by remaining calm and reading further.

by Tom Iampietro ’74

When TS Eliot wrote "April is the cruelest month," he must have been a parent with a child applying to college.

Which college is best? Do I have to decide on a major before I apply? Where do I want to go to school? Where am I ever going to find the money?

In the ’70s and ’80s, when many of us were in our salad days climbing Cardiac Hill after meals at the Student Union, we were the winners in a simple application game that had immediately recognized not only our incredible native intelligence, but our perspicacity (I threw that word in for all you folks who were admitted with higher SATs than I had. God bless Dean Guy Martin), achievement, sincerity, excellence and naturally shiny teeth, as well. Let’s review the facts: we each were admitted to at least one, and maybe more, of the nation’s most selective and prestigious and outstanding and incredible — well, you get the idea — colleges. We were victors in our nation’s intellectual lottery. We were at Colgate!

Things have changed.

Applications at selective colleges are up and financial aid is down. Standardized testing scores are recentered. While we’ve happily bragged for the last 20 years about how selective our alma mater has become, now it’s time for us to recognize that fact when speaking with our offspring. I wonder: Would any of us like to brave the admissions standards at Colgate or many other like schools today? Realizing the level of competition out there, now may be a very good time for us all to reconsider what this whole admissions process is supposed to produce.

Before venturing on, just for the record, I should note that the opinions expressed here are mine, so don’t go seeking to tar and feather anyone in Colgate Admissions. The staff is totally innocent of any blame for my viewpoint. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that if most colleges were as well-served by their admissions offices as is Colgate, this process would be a great deal easier and less stressful for everyone involved. My jaundiced view of the process comes from 15 years of counseling students toward highly selective colleges and universities and helping other kids consider the less competitive brethren.

For all too many families (Colgate families included), the college application process is a daunting period of stress and anxiety. This unnecessary, self-inflicted torture can be easily avoided and, in fact, the entire ordeal can actually be an opportunity for parents and children to experiment with their changing relationships. Picking a college is a good time to remember why Colgate was important to you and then to apply those lessons to picking an equally appropriate school for your kids.

 

Rule #1: This is supposed to be fun. There are few better "bonding" experiences for a modern family than picking a college. It should be fun. Believe it or not, it isn’t hard to have an amazingly enjoyable experience if everyone remembers two things: Listen and be honest.

Whether you like it or not, your youngster is about to break up the family unit. Unconsciously, you’ve been preparing for this moment since your son or daughter was born, but our kids are "works in progress" and the college application process is a wonderful time to let them take the lead in decision making. It’s also a great opportunity for everyone over the age of 30 to patiently hone their listening skills. When in doubt, refrain from jumping in too early with insights and opinions.

If you listen, you’ll find your progeny asking some very good questions and coming up with fairly sophisticated answers. On the other hand, help your son or daughter make intelligent decisions by helping him or her realistically understand the individual situations. It’s always a great idea to get a copy of his or her transcript and review it together. One warning: No fair rubbing in that bad grade she might have received in history her freshman year — and no, one grade does not "keep you out of college."

Also, be as honest as you can be about your financial situation. Nothing is harder for a student today than being unable to attend a school for financial reasons no one will explain. Most of us remember a time when such discussions did not take place at the dinner table; finances were Mom and Dad’s business. In an age of limited college funding from the federal government and with colleges strapped for financial resources of their own, a little direct honesty allows your child to begin wrestling with the kind of priority assessment you deal with daily.

Lastly, remember to encourage your issue to view him or herself favorably. Everyone of us has a few scars and blemishes. The college application process is not the time for a parent to unearth the memory of a poor choice made five years ago by a then-13-year-old child. Work together. Be honest. Laugh as much as possible.

 

Rule #2: There is no perfect college. Every college and university has advantages and disadvantages. While more and more admissions offices push students to apply to "their" school as early as possible, enjoy some quality shopping time and try a few on for size.

Some questions to consider: Does your son or daughter want to be in a city (contrary to myth, city schools are not necessarily more dangerous for students than rural campuses)? How large a university seems interesting? Large research universities typically offer a greater breadth of courses and sometimes better facilities, while smaller institutions (like Colgate) usually provide a more inclusive community of teachers and students.

How about that major? A word of caution: in these uneasy economic times, it is easy to worry about your son or daughter picking an "impractical major." No matter what major a student selects, the only certainty in life is that economic conditions will change and that nothing is certain. Since excellence in an area is often the best meal ticket, encourage your son or daughter to study some-thing he or she loves, or at least is interested in. We all do our best at work we enjoy and not everyone should be a doctor, lawyer, engineer or business mogul.

 

Rule #3: Meet the deadlines. Since college counseling is an "art," not a "science," able practitioners will often differ on many issues, except one: Deadlines are important. Procrastination equals disaster. Seek out your high school’s guidance counselor. It isn’t too early in a student’s sophomore year to discover what sort of academic expectations colleges have today so you can help your son or daughter effectively plan his or her course of study. Guidance professionals can also guide you through the maze of information available: videotapes, books, pamphlets, CDs and the Internet.

Don’t be afraid to call a college directly with questions. They really don’t become annoyed — even after the fifth call. Once you’ve selected a number of schools to apply to, meet the deadlines. This is also true about financial aid. Every aphorism you were ever taught is true when it comes to financial aid deadlines: The early bird does catch the worm. Be an activist and help your applicant be one, too.

 

Rule #4: We didn’t get in anywhere. Years ago, satirist Art Buchwald wrote a column discussing a mythical cocktail party where parents sat and compared notes on "where we got in." His point was made with all the subtlety of one of Doc Reading’s jokes, but Buchwald was right. This adventure properly belongs to your son or daughter. You’re allowed to cross your fingers, but "guilt trips" are not. Celebrate the acceptances and calmly toss out the rejection letters ("What do they know, anyway?") but, most of all, work hard to help your children be proud of their accomplishments and excited about the next steps.

 

Rule #5: Stop saying, "Show me the money!" Yes, college is expensive. It was when we were urchins, too; there are just more zeroes after the numbers today. Silliness aside, it is important not to succumb to college "sticker shock." Most colleges offer a variety of sources of financial aid. Loans have become a fact of life for today’s students and, while it is important that your son or daughter not become an indentured servant, the reality is that he or she (and you) will probably be paying college costs for some time to come. The important thing here is the value of this education and how important it is that your child become an educated member of society.

College teaches us "how to think and learn." In this rapidly changing society, the ability to acquire new insights and the skill to solve problems are talents beyond price.

So, there you have it. A primer on the joys and perils of college application. There are almost 4,000 colleges and universities in this country alone and someplace special awaits everyone if you and your heir will just take the time to find it.