While most parents find the college process stressful and bewildering, we interviewed some who have a unique perspective: admissions officers who are also the parents of teenagers and college students themselves. They know that while parents can’t control where their child is admitted, they can influence whether their teenager views the college process as stressful and frustrating or as an exciting time filled with opportunity.
These admissions officers tell their own children that high school is far more than just a pathway to college — it’s a time for maturation, self-discovery, learning and fun. They encourage their teens to embrace activities and courses that reflect who they genuinely are, not who they think colleges want them to be.
We interviewed admissions officers at Allegheny College, Georgia Tech, Kenyon College, M.I.T., Penn State, Vanderbilt, U.C.L.A., U.N.C.-Chapel Hill and the University of Richmond. Every one of them emphasized the importance of their child finding a college that fits, not the other way around.
With throngs of high school juniors about to embark on college visits over their spring breaks, here is their advice. (Interviews have been edited and condensed.)
Diane Anci, vice president for enrollment management and dean of admissions and financial aid, Kenyon College
“Before the college brochures make their way into our house, I plan to ask my son a series of questions that I hope will help him define the type of collegiate environment in which he will be most happy and do his best work. Knowing who you are provides a protective armor in a process that can be overwhelming. Not only are you inundated with communication from the colleges, everyone you know has an opinion of what is a good college and what is not, and they feel very free to express it. It’s empowering for a teen to be able to say, ‘I’m the kind of person who…’ ”
Here are some of the questions she plans to ask her own kid:
Clark Brigger, executive director for undergraduate admissions, Penn State University
“I tell my kids, ‘Do not wait for the deadline to submit your applications.’ There’s a rule in our house that I pay for the applications completed before Labor Day, but after that, my children are responsible for the fees. Getting those applications in early is the best way to reduce stress senior year. I want them to do well in their academic courses and extracurricular activities and to enjoy that last year of high school. Why spend it struggling with applications?”
“As an admissions officer, when that deadline comes around, I see a huge spike in applications. That’s when the procrastinators send them in. It’s advantageous to get ahead of the bubble. Think about it strategically: there are thousands of applications and essays to get through. If you get yours in early, the reader may be more relaxed and in a better mood at that point in the process.”
Doug Christiansen, vice provost for university enrollment affairs, dean of admissions and financial aid, Vanderbilt University
An essential lesson of the college process is learning to make and manage big life decisions and weather setbacks, says Mr. Christiansen. “As parents we know that our kids may not get accepted everywhere they apply. I advise students to complete all of their applications ahead of the early decision news [when] they are in a positive frame of mind. It is far easier to rebound from disappointment and proceed when you have a game plan already in place.”
“When a rejection letter arrives, I see parents who can’t even move on because they are so mad at the school. But that is not letting the child move on. Then it is almost like the next school they get admitted to and may attend is a disappointment. Instead, tell your child: ‘It didn’t work, it is their loss, you’re wonderful, now what do we need to do to go forward?’”
Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, associate vice chancellor, enrollment management, University of California, Los Angeles
“Community service is an expectation in our household. We raised our kids to understand that they have a responsibility to make their community better and to give back. My job was to make sure intellectually that they understood the value of community service and why it was important. I think community service should come from the heart. It’s important that students don’t engage in community service because somebody else wants them to. Find something you are passionate about, or you are interested in if you are too young to know what your passions are.”
“We would talk a lot with our sons about leadership opportunities, and I think that’s the area where we had to give them more guidance. We would say to our sons: Where do you think you can be of greater help? What’s going on at your school, what are the issues? What are the things you like to do where you could provide leadership? With the church there’s a youth group: You’ve been a part of this group for a long time; do you think it is time for you to step up and do something different? This matters in your college application.”
Stephen Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
“When my son was applying to schools, I never read his essay. Parents can sometimes do more harm than good with the essay. My advice to students is to first show your essay to a friend and ask, ‘Can you hear my voice in this? Could you pick my essay from a stack of 200?’ The essay doesn’t have to be about something life-changing or confessional. Smaller topics, written well, almost always work best.”
“My wife and I have tried to give our kids some air and room to breathe growing up. We never checked their homework or felt like their schooling was a family project. It was their life and their work — we provided guidance. In the end, our kids need our love more than they need our direction about college. If that direction gets in the way of the love, it’s not helpful and it’s not worth it.”
Cornell B. LeSane II, vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions, Allegheny College
“My daughter, now a high school senior, has been the driver of the process. Sure, there have been times when I’ve been the backseat driver: Are you sure, and have you thought about this or that? As a parent, it’s impossible not to do that. But you need to allow them to find their way.”
“As an admissions officer, I’ve had parents tell me, ‘Oh, we missed a deadline — that’s my fault.’ At that point I’m thinking — just how interested is the student in our school? I’m not a fan of parents taking over the process. Let the students be the drivers, let them take ownership. Parents should be a great sounding board, but they should not be the ones filling out the applications.”
Stuart Schmill, dean of admissions, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
“What I tell students, and my own kids, is that you don’t have to take every advanced class. My high school daughter, for example, is taking advanced math and science courses but chose not to take advanced English and history. You should challenge yourself. For some students this might mean taking the most advanced classes, but it also might mean taking the most advanced classes appropriate for that student, and not spreading themselves too thin.”
Applicants do not need to tick off a laundry list of engagement in every field, like art, music, sports, Mr. Schmill explains. “M.I.T., and other highly selective colleges, want students who prioritize quality over quantity.” Mr. Schmill offers high school students this litmus test when choosing extracurricular activities: “If you couldn’t write about this on your college application, would you still do it?’ If the answer is ‘no,’ then you shouldn’t be doing it.”
Laura Simmons, assistant director, undergraduate admissions, Georgia Institute of Technology
“For our children, it’s important to earn some money in the summer, so they can do things like put gas in the car. As an admissions officer, that plays right into what I am looking for in the admission process: I’m not looking for students to have done any particular activity in the summer; but instead, I’m looking to see how students grew from whatever they undertook. I do see students who are doing magnificent research and that is a great thing. And I see students, like my daughter, who are working as a lifeguard at the pool all summer, and they are both learning from those experiences.”
“There are some majors here where, if students don’t have any connection to that major, it’s hard for us to predict if they will be successful in it. But in some cases that experience can also come from something they did during the school year. My daughter, for example, is interested in journalism and communications, and she writes during the school year. Over the summer, we don’t feel she needs to do more.”
Gil Villanueva, associate vice president and dean of admission, University of Richmond
“As my son prepares his college list, I’m going to hand him a spreadsheet. Across the top will be the schools, and down the side will be the list of things he feels are most important to him in a college. When he visits these schools and does his research, he’ll fill in the spreadsheet, and it will be a nice road map for him. At some point, once you visit two or three schools in a day or five schools a week, they begin to blend, and you definitely want some bread crumbs to remind you of where you’ve been.”
“On the same spreadsheet, I’ll have him track what I call the ‘three rates’ for each college. The first is the retention rate: Are students returning as sophomores? Because if they are, then I make the argument that they have had a very good experience, their needs are met. Next is the graduation rate. A fifth year or a sixth year in a college represents forgone income or time that you are not in graduate school — and you are not going to get that back. The last rate is the placement rate or ‘student outcomes.’ What are students doing six months, a year or five years after graduation? Are they employed, are they in graduate school, what type of companies or organizations do they work for? The three rates gives parents and students peace of mind that they’ve done their research.”
Lisa Heffernan is the author of three business books, including a New York Times business best seller, and writes about parenting during the high school and college years at Grown and Flown. You can find her on Facebook.