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A Time for Everything:
Is It Too Early To Think About College?

Article appeared in Worcester Magazine, August 2003

I received an e-mail this week from Sally J. An internet search for an educational consultant who could advise her family on college admissions had led her to my website. Ms. J. wanted to know if I could recommend ways that she could maximize her daughter's chances of being accepted at a "top notch research university" where she could develop her talent in dance while preparing for graduate or professional school in science. The child was ten years old.

I considered several possible e-mail replies, but none seemed appropriate, likely to satisfy the parent, and helpful to the child. After several days of thought, I called Ms. J. Although I had expected her to be aggressive and demanding, I found her to be a well-meaning, thoughtful mother whose nephew had recently struggled through a frustrating college application process. She wanted to be sure that her daughter did not miss any opportunities that would help her gain admission to the college of her (or her mother's) choice. Her daughter, Ms. J. told me, was a hard worker, who "deserved" to attend a school with an excellent reputation.

What I wanted to do was shriek, "YOUR DAUGHTER'S TEN! SHE DESERVES TO PLAY!" Instead I commended Ms. J. on her interest in her daughter's education. I hoped that by the end of our conversation I would have alleviated some of Ms. J.'s anxiety about the college her child would attend in eight years. We spoke about raising happy children who enjoy school, organized and non-structured activities with friends, and time alone to think and explore. Ms. J., however, wanted specific suggestions and a roadmap from fifth grade to college. I told her that I was preparing an article that would address some of her concerns and would be happy to send her a copy. Ms. J, this article's for you.

Judging from the media hype, it's a wonder that anyone gets into college. Ms J., I do understand your concerns. It is true that the most selective colleges in the country have single digit acceptance rates. However, almost half of U.S. colleges accept more than 75% of their applicants. And most of these colleges do an excellent job of educating their students. There really is a college for just about any student who truly wants to attend college. It is students who buy into the Woody Allen "I don't want to go to any college that wants me" syndrome who suffer.

Ms. J., I suggest that you begin Samantha's (not her real name) journey to college by understanding that it will be her journey, not yours. Prepare yourself for the reality that decisions that admissions people make are not always fair or just. Advocate for your child and protect her - to a point. Learn to accept that the world will not always treat your child the way you would like her to be treated. Practice accepting disappointment graciously on her behalf so that you can model this behavior for her. Lots of excellent candidates are denied admission to a particular college for reasons that are neither comprehensible nor logical. Remember that there is no single college or group of colleges that will enable your child to achieve happiness and success. Parents do their child a disservice when they raise them to believe that certain colleges are indicative of, or necessary for, success.

The single most important factor that colleges consider in evaluating applicants is academic performance in high school. Parents should be aware of the academic standards at their child's school and should speak with teachers about identifying their child's strengths and weaknesses. Encourage Samantha to think about her learning style. Does she learn best by writing the material, saying it out loud, or talking about it with a friend? Is it easier for her to pay attention in class if she sits in the front of the room? If there are concerns about a child's progress and the concerns are not addressed adequately in school, an outside evaluation may be necessary to determine the cause of the child's difficulty.

Frequently, a bright, hardworking child with a learning disability appears to be progressing well until she reaches a new level of difficulty. Often, this happens when the child begins high school. It is especially distressing for a child who has done well in the past and who is suddenly incapable of succeeding, despite hard work and determination. Parents of high school students with a diagnosed learning disability have factors to consider in the college selection and application process that will require additional time and effort. They would do well to begin the process even earlier than families whose student does not have a learning disability. They should remember, however, that a learning disability does not mean that their child is not bright or will not be successful in college. It just means that there are additional factors to consider as their child prepares to graduate from high school.

College students with weak verbal skills often struggle with the heavy load of reading and writing assignments. Encourage Samantha to read for pleasure from a variety of sources. She should begin to develop the habit of reading a daily newspaper and a weekly news magazine as well as both fiction and nonfiction books. The College Board has compiled a recommended list of 101 great books. (Click here for the list.) Begin now to encourage Samantha to explore all types of books. Some of the books on the College Board list that are currently above her reading level might interest her on audiotape or video. Most of all, let Samantha see you reading for enjoyment. Help her make reading a lifelong habit.

You tell me that Samantha is interested in science and dance. Encourage her to develop these interests while exploring others. Help her identify what skills she uses when she dances or performs science experiments. Is she becoming a better listener or observer in dance class? Does science teach her to anticipate outcomes or ask thoughtful questions? Encourage Samantha to have fun with these activities. If Samantha continues to be interested in dance and science, encourage her to find out what type of jobs people with similar interests have. What do some dancers do beside perform, choreograph or teach? Can she name five careers that people who like science might pursue? What about people who want to build a career based on their love of both dance and science?

When Samantha is ready to apply to college, she will be asked to demonstrate how she spends her time outside of school. Admissions personnel look for a sustained interest and involvement in at least one or two activities and a demonstrated commitment to these activities. Admissions officers believe that the student's attitude and behavior in college will be similar to the student's attitude and behavior in high school. They seek to admit students who have demonstrated initiative and leadership and who are active and involved in high school. They know that these students are most likely to be active and involved members of the college community, as well.

In addition to extracurricular activities and athletics, many colleges expect that students will engage in community service. You can begin now to encourage Samantha to think about ways that she can help others. She is not too young to become aware of her obligation, as a member of a community, to contribute to the wellbeing of others. As community service has become an important part of college applications, many high schools have initiated community service requirements. Colleges were quick to learn to distinguish between a genuine concern for others and a school requirement.

I am sure that Samantha knows that you consider college to be important. She also needs to know that attending college involves a major financial investment. In a few years Samantha can begin to explore merit scholarships that are offered by corporations or organizations. Merit scholarships are typically not tied to financial need. They may be awarded on the basis of the student's or family's affiliation with a particular group or a characteristic that the organization considers to be important. They often require an essay or project that supports the mission of the organization. There are different age requirements for these competitive scholarships. Some are available to students as early as freshman year of high school.

Because locating and applying for these scholarships requires a great deal of time, students should begin their scholarship search early in their high school career. Parents, however, should become familiar with the financial aid process and should begin assessing their college savings plan as soon as possible. Parents should understand that the majority of financial aid at most schools is in the form of loans, and that at some schools, applying for aid can affect their child's chances of being accepted.

Schools have different formulas for assessing a family's need and these formulas change over the course of the years. Once a student is ready to make choices about schools, the family should meet with the financial aid officers at the colleges the student is considering. Prior to that, however, there are several online calculators that help parents estimate the future cost of their child's education at different types of colleges, the amount of financial aid they might receive if their child were currently applying to college, and a savings plan designer. One such calculator is located at www.finaid.org/calculators.

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