It's the thick of college application season, and your child is diligently churning out common application essays while simultaneously studying for four or five advanced placement exams and researching scholarships, right?
Well, maybe not.
In households of high school seniors across New York City right now, (including my own) there's likely a good deal of procrastination—along with frustration and anxiety about the endless array of essays and electronic forms to fill out. Tasks include the dreaded and still over-complicated federal FAFSA, a federal form with 108 questions and 72 pages of instructions that determine financial aid—all guaranteed to take weeks off your life. (Here's a tip, though: For help, check out this how-to guide from the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School.)
Way too often, the city's public high schools don't have nearly enough guidance counselors to provide one-on-one advice and instruction. In fact, when asked about the ratio of students to counselors at a recent City Council hearing, the Department of Education said they didn't know. Nationally, the ratio of counselors to students at public high schools is just one to 285: with only one college counselor for every 338 students, a recent Hechinger Report story found.
That's why when I was asked to give a presentation about college admissions at my son's Manhattan high school last week, I came up with a handy list of do's and don'ts for parents—some based on many years of covering education, others based on trial and error in my household and the homes of my siblings, relatives and friends.
They might include the kinds of tips guidance counselors could provide, if only there were enough of them.
At the top of my list is a simple tool called Tuition Tracker, showing what students really pay for college—based on income—instead of what the so-called sticker price you can read on any website says. For example, the cost of attending Pennsylvania State University runs about $30,000 a year for in-state students. At Swarthmore College outside of Philadelphia, it's nearly twice that, yet Swarthmore ends up being less expensive for most students, according to one of our stories that used Tuition Tracker. How could that be? The answer is that Swarthmore is among the private liberal arts schools offering hefty discounts, bringing down the average cost to even less than taxpayer-subsidized Penn State's.
Many low-income families are so intimidated by prices and so unaware they may qualify for substantial aid they don't even bother to apply, a study by researchers at Stanford and Harvard found last year. Without guidance counselors and financial aid experts encouraging them to apply, they continue to be unaware.
I hate to think that our overly stressful and complex college admissions process drives away kids who truly deserve great opportunities.
It is simply unrealistic to think most busy high schoolers can navigate admissions and financial aid on their own. Parents have to strike a balance between being overinvolved and uninvolved—the stakes are too high.
Here are my top ten "don'ts" for parents, particularly of high school seniors. Parents, please add your own!
Do not begin every sentence with the phrase: ''Did you do...?''
Do not double-team your child, even if you are lucky enough to have two parents who are involved. Designate one parent to handle financial aid while the second helps keep track of applications.
Do not talk about your child's SAT or PSAT or ACT scores except in private! It's just not good form to talk about test scores in front of other kids and parents or compare scores with friends and siblings. Great scores don't necessarily guarantee top choice admissions, bad or mediocre ones don't necessarily doom them.
Do not constantly yell, nag, compare, beg, punish and put your child down when you get anxious about the ordeal. Instead, pick one admissions task at a time to tackle with them together.
Do not think of college admissions decisions as a reflection or referendum on your parenting skills or how you raised your child.
Do not pin all your hopes on one or two colleges that felt right to you. You aren't the one going.
Do not anticipate much personal attention, guidance and hand-holding from school counselors if you attend a large public high school. Their caseload is too big and they simply do not have the time.
Do not write any of your child's essays. It will be obvious the voice is yours.
Do not talk about nothing but college admission at home. If all goes well, it could be the last year your child will be living with you. Change the subject every now and then; watch a game or a funny movie.
Do not miss important deadlines. Figure out a way to stay on target—via an email relationship with your child, shared calendars, a chalkboard or whiteboard.
Do not forget to check in advance of applying to get a sense of how much aid you might reasonably expect.
Finally, if you have figured out what works well—pass it on!