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Let's Admit It: Every Parent Needs a College Plan

It is the kind of activity fraught with tense moments, periods of euphoria and more than a few tears shed. No, it's a not a One Direction concert: it's the dreaded college admission process for my daughter.
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As the weather turns crisp in New England and back-to-school routines finally feel settled, a new 'to-do' has appeared on our family's list. It is the kind of activity fraught with tense moments, periods of euphoria and more than a few tears shed. No, it's a not a One Direction concert: it's the dreaded college admission process for my daughter.

Last week my oldest daughter, a tenth grader, took the precursor to the ACT exam, which along with the SAT are the two primary standardized tests required by most colleges. I knew this time was coming, but it seems like just last year I was volunteering in her pre-school.

Really, I should be prepared for this, having been deeply involved in education policy as Governor of Massachusetts and for the past 12 years working in the education technology space to help students achieve their academic goals. But when it comes to your own kids, it becomes easy to lose perspective. This is her future after all, and what parent doesn't want the best for their child?

Fortunately, my professional experiences have afforded me a window into the harried, stressful and often opaque world of college admissions. I have a plan, for both my oldest daughter and eighth grade twin girls, based around these principles:

Set expectations - My husband and I have conveyed to our daughters since elementary school that they should expect to go to college. Creating that expectation was critical for me growing up in a blue-collar family in Western Massachusetts. While my parents were not Ivy League graduates, they always set high college expectations for me and my three siblings. They stressed academic success and also getting involved in our school and community, factors that helped set us apart in the admissions process.

My parents' high standards and support gave us the confidence to attend good colleges despite not having enormous family wealth or any meaningful legacy connections.

Don't stress - This edict, which I know is easier said than done, applies to both parents and students. Not stressing doesn't mean that it won't take some hard work on everyone's part, especially on researching the best college fit, but that things will generally work themselves out for the best in the end. Get rejected from your first choice? That school blew it, not you. Looking back now as an adult, if you had been admitted to your "dream school" you never would have taken that class that inspired you to follow an incredibly rewarding career. You never would have met that lifelong friend who served as the best man or maid of honor at your wedding.

I first heard this philosophy a number of years ago from Jeffery Brenzel, the recently retired Dean of Admissions from Yale University. I collaborated with Jeffery a few times at a previous job and was always impressed by his Zen-like view of college admissions. Jeffrey wrote this in a piece on Yale's website:

After years of experience, however, here is what I know, virtually to the point of certainty: almost nothing depends on exactly which strong college admits you. Everything depends on what you decide to do once you get to a strong college, and how well prepared you are to take advantage of the infinite opportunities you will find there.

While Jeffery is addressing students who are more than likely attending another Ivy or top-tier school, this really applies to everyone. Where you attend college should not define you but what you do when you are there should. As an employer, I have met plenty of graduates from elite colleges and universities who just couldn't hack it in the workplace, while those from "less prestigious" institutions can be highly productive employees. Being an Ivy Leaguer may open some doors, but it's your hard work, skills and creativity that allow your career to progress no matter what your diploma says.

Define your differences - I have been fortunate to teach a class at Williams College for the past several years. I have always found that my students are not homogenous prep school strivers, as the stereotype may be. My classes have athletes, school newspaper editors, artists, math majors, political volunteers (of both parties) and future military officers. Students are admitted to Williams and elsewhere not because they will fit in, but because they offer unique skills and perspectives to the college community.

My oldest daughter has a passion for speaking French, an avocation my husband and I are doing our best to foster. Our family's recent move to Vermont for my work as the CEO of a language learning company was fortuitous for her in that we are both in close proximity to Montreal and its native speakers and culture, but also because there are many out-of-school opportunities to pursue her passion for French. Next summer, she will attend the Middlebury-Monterey Language Academy, spending a month living in Quebec City and speaking only in French. We believe that being fluent in French and experiencing a foreign culture will better prepare her for college.

Highlighting a student's passion also provides an opportunity to search for schools that offer specific programs to match a student's major or career interests. For example, my daughter is interested in healthcare, so we are looking into schools with strong nursing programs. Perhaps she can find a way to mesh both of these interests post-college by serving as a nurse for French-speaking populations in the U.S. or abroad.

There are a lot of resources available for students and parents to help with the college search. A couple years back, the New York Times created a monthly college checklist for juniors and seniors, and many states, including Massachusetts, provide online resources for college admissions and financial aid options.

As nerve-wracking and time-consuming as the college search process can be, it will be one of the last major life experiences you can share before your son or daughter becomes an adult. So, take a deep breath and enjoy the ride.