A Primer for Anxious Parents and the College Bound
Every year, throughout America, a new crop of college-bound high school seniors begins the final and sometimes traumatic lap that will, for most, end with graduation and an acceptance letter from at least institution that promises safe passage to, and preparation for, a new destination called adulthood. The process that leads to that letter has become increasingly complex in the last half century and has almost always been crammed into a short time frame, beginning in the second half of the junior year.
Anxiety about college admission starts much earlier, though, particularly for parents. While sons and daughters have their respective peer groups available to provide collective relief (along with misinformation) from the mounting pressures of the college process, parents have no such support system. Moreover, they remember from their own high school days just how worrying the experience can be. Since many teenagers and their parents tend to avoid meaningful communication as much as possible, however – and that is not necessarily a bad thing during this period – how do those fears and expressions of anxiety get transmitted from one camp to the other? How do kids make their wishes known? How can this process be transformed into a happier and more productive time for everyone?
The answer involves gathering information, developing a game plan and having the time to implement it. Some parts of a college admissions plan can be assembled in relatively little time; other important parts may take years. High school guidance counselors tend to wear many hats, and ‘college counselor’ is just one. The sheer volume of college-bound students assigned to most guidance counselors precludes spending much time with any one individual, especially at the eleventh grade level. (Nationally, the average amount of time spent by a guidance counselor with her student is only 40 minutes.)As a result, families need to take on a great part of the work
Among the most important steps that can be taken by any student is to develop a reading program beyond that which is required in school. It has often been recommended that students in junior high read for pleasure at least a half hour per day. For students in the ninth grade and later, an hour per day is optimal. Reading expands vocabulary, enhances reading comprehension, builds knowledge and expertise, and tends to offer many other benefits, including greater proficiency in taking standardized tests (especially the new SAT) that will become significant to most college bound students.
Reading, then, is the first of many parts of a college plan that requires an early start. But, what to read? Where can a student go to find titles that are worthwhile? Independent schools and colleges everywhere have required outside reading for their own students and applicants for admission. High school librarians can offer great suggestions, too, in print form and for downloading onto readers of all types. The subject matter is less important than the act of reading itself. As long as the book is well written, the benefit from reading will be tremendous.
Other aspects of the college admissions process benefit from an early start, as well. Selecting challenging courses is as important in the ninth grade as it is in the eleventh. Extracurricular and community service choices positively influence the college resume. Meaningful summer experiences help to demonstrate a student’s commitment to the future – a chance to preview career options years before a college major has to be declared.
For the college bound student, higher education decisions often represent the first truly adult considerations to come along in life. The extent to which the student is prepared to make well informed choices in this complex arena will determine in large part the dimensions of his or her long-term success in the world after college. The advantage, undeniably, will go to those who have started the process early and built strong foundations from junior high onward.
Carter P. Reese, Director Informed Educational Solutions
This article is the first in a series of blogs written for parents of younger students, junior high age or so, who are thinking ahead about college admissions. We firmly believe that planning ahead can yield enormous benefits, and reduce anxiety about the transition from high school to college.