One of my favorite quotes in the new book “College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step” comes from Stanford University School of Education senior lecturer Denise Clark Pope on the issue of over-scheduled teens:
“Imagine if Steve Jobs had no time to tinker in his garage because he had to go piano lessons and SAT prep class and art class and was on the travel baseball team that had practice five times a week and away games on weekends.”
Similar common-sense advice fills the pages of “College Admission,” co-written by former Stanford admissions dean Robin Mamlet and journalist Christine VanDeVelde with contributions from 50 admissions deans.
Like most guides, the book assures students that they will get through the admissions arms race and find a campus that suits them.
Of course, the reassurances are belied by the number of thick books on the market now to advise high school students how to get into college. I even found myself getting a little antsy when I read the timelines in this latest guide: The ninth grade to-do list includes discussing college finances with your parents, getting to know your high school counselor and starting a file of your achievements and honors.
I am pretty sure that my older children, as high school freshmen, did none of that prep in anticipation of the college application process. But I also know that their high schools had strong college-going cultures, and it was an assumption among them and their peers that they would apply and attend college.
That is not the case with all kids, and it’s often the students with the least family history of college enrollment who have the least help in getting there, VanDeVelde said.
“Interestingly, the majority of applicants to four-year colleges will soon come from students who are the first in their families to attend college,” she said. “Those students are the neediest in terms of information.”
The research concurs. A 2010 Public Agenda study found that although a student–counselor ratio of 250 high school students to 1 counselor is ideal, the national average is 460 to 1.
The study also found that students from families with less education were more likely to rate their college guidance as “fair” or “poor.”
“Students who are poorly counseled are less likely to go directly from high school into a college program — a step that research shows is highly correlated with dropping out of college,” concluded Public Agenda.
In a new survey of 5,300 middle and high school counselors by the College Board’s Advocacy & Policy Center, only 19 percent of counselors in high-poverty schools reported that college and career readiness was a focus of their schools’ daily mission.
With all the media reports on affluent students resorting to private college counselors and professional packagers to finesse their admission into select schools, it would seem that a poor kid armed only with a pencil and ambition would be at a disadvantage.
But VanDeVelde said she came away from researching her book convinced that admissions deans want authenticity and can tell when parents or advisers have authored the applications.
“They have many ways of seeing a disconnect, seeing another hand in an application,” she said. “Most of them can perform the parlor trick of reading an essay and predicting what the SAT verbal score may be. When they see a disconnect, they have to wonder what else may not be genuine in the application.”
She urges students to bring their own voice to their applications and to not discount their life experiences.
“Colleges are just as interested in the student who spent the summer working at McDonald’s to earn money for school as the student who studied in South Africa,” she said.
If family finances don’t allow college visits before applying, VanDeVelde urges student to at least visit the schools to which they are accepted. (Some campuses will help cover those costs.)
My college planning extended to a 30-minute meeting early in my senior year with my high school guidance counselor in which she tossed out a few college names and I dutifully applied. I never interviewed at a college, visited a class or spent a night in a dorm, although I did take a tour or two.
And I worked as a tour guide myself in college. My memory is that parents asked more questions than students. And their questions were more about college classes, while students asked more about college life.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog