When I was working my way through the obstacles to getting my PhD, I had to sit for two written exams and one oral exam. I created binders of information that had to be crushed into my brain in preparation for any question that might come my way. Theories of property from Plato to Durkheim to Nozick. Competing models of federalism. How FDR expanded the powers of the presidency. Lincoln’s arguments about the federal government in the Lincoln/Douglas debates.
It took months to prepare these binders and to memorize all that material in order to pass the exams. I came away from that insanity with the awareness that my brain was a very finite instrument. If one piece of random information entered my brain, like the proper method of roasting chicken or the sale price of a pair of shoes at Macy’s, it might push out an essential fact that I might need for the upcoming exam. So, in the few weeks leading up to the exam, I would keep myself in the exam bubble and keep any outside information to a minimum.
I have applied that wisdom to parenting. I only deal with the issues that are right in front of my face at that moment. That included all topics related to getting my kid into college.
I understand the internal dynamics of colleges, because I was a part of that world for many years. I did a lot of research on student loan debt for various articles. Student loan debt is also a personal topic, since we’re still repaying our graduate school for the torture involved in taking those pointless exams. But whenever neighbors and friends talked about getting their own kids into college, I tuned them out. I figured that I would learn more about that process when the time came.
Well, the time is here. I have a high school sophomore. He took the practice PSATs a couple of weeks ago. The morning of the exam, I couldn’t remember if kids were penalized for guessing on the test or not. I had to google it, five minutes before he left the house.
That moment of awesome parenting made me realize that it was time to figure out the college admissions game. So, I’ve been talking with other parents and reading articles on the topic.
Wow. It’s an entirely different game than when I applied.
When I applied to college, my parents did very little. My mom signed me for an SAT class, because other parents told her to do it, but that was about it. My parents, first generation college graduates, ended up in college mostly because of accident and luck, so they couldn’t tell me what to do. I wrote my college essay on an electric typewriter in the basement. Nobody proofed my work. I chose the colleges on my own and filled out the applications. I visited colleges on a weekend trip to upstate New York with friends. I arranged for the interviews. They had very little input in the whole process, until it was time to figure out the finances at the very end.
Today, the parental involvement in the college application process is jaw dropping.
A couple of weeks ago, I was talking about colleges with a friend, who is more connected with the rich folks in town than I am. She said that a number of her friends were hiring college consultants. I went into a rant. “Why do people need college consultants? All that information is available in books and online. You just line up your kids’ GPA, SAT scores, and your ability to pay with the lists of colleges and then you pick ten or so. You apply and see what happens.”
My friend chuckled at my naivety and said, “no, no, no, Laura. People decide which college they want their child to attend and then they hire a college consultant to make that happen.”
What else have I learned in the past two weeks?
Kids don’t just take the SATs once, like I did. They take the SATs and the ACTs many times. One girl took both tests four times. Then you piece together the best scores. Some colleges let you take the verbal score from one test and the math score from another test.
A bad high school record? Well, you can go to a great state school as an out-of-state student and pay the equivalent of a private school tuition.
You can’t just show that you belonged to clubs anymore. You have to show LEADERSHIP. So, your child should create an exercise club for autistic kids or send money for clean drinking water to Africa. There are websites to keep track of all your child’s leadership activities.
High schools offer seminars for parents to help them navigate this process.
People pay consultants to work with the child to create the perfect admissions essay. There are very fuzzy lines on the authorship of the final essay.
The cost of college isn’t the only obstacle to getting working class and poor students into higher ed.