Help your child find the right path to college success

September 02, 2005|By Marion Franck

COLLEGE ADMISSIONS frenzy is upon us, bringing test prep classes, "platinum package" advice, novels featuring 1,000 must-know SAT vocabulary words and other anxiety-provoking products directed at parents and students.

At the center, we find U.S. News & World Report's college rankings that supposedly help students decide where to apply but in reality pit colleges against each other in unhealthy ways as they try to raise their scores. Each year, competition ratchets up. Not long ago, a student's chances of acceptance at a highly ranked school might have been one in three; now the chances may be up to one in 10.

Many students know these statistics, but they want the prize badly. If you read their Internet discussions, you learn that many feel drained and discouraged ("I'd sell my soul ... if I still had one") even before they know where they got in. Is this what we want for our high school seniors? Who is going to change things?

Parents, the job is yours, one child at a time.

When my kids were 2 years old and saying "no" to everything, I learned to give them choices: "Do you want carrots or green beans?"

The solution to the college dilemma also lies in choices, but the numbers should be higher, the choices should be more varied and the parents should be believers, not manipulators.

Here's some background information. Ninety percent of four-year institutions accept at least half their applicants. Ten percent accept less than half, with places such as Harvard, Stanford and Yale accepting percentages in the low teens.

Most applicants need to apply to more than one college, but if the student has high scores and has chosen a school with a high acceptance rate, his or her list can be short. If the student aspires to highly competitive schools, the list must be longer.

But the length of the list is not its most important quality. The list must contain a range of schools, from the highly competitive to the not-so-competitive, or as many counselors put it, from "reach" schools to "safeties." With a list like this, the student is almost guaranteed to get in somewhere.

But "somewhere" is not good enough, if the student won't be happy and won't gain the skills needed for the next steps in life. That's where parents come in. You need to help your child make a list of "good fit" colleges, and communicate the idea that your student can be successful regardless of which of those schools accepts him or her.

Here's a three-step process.

Untangle yourself from the U.S. News & World Report noose. Read how it selects "top" colleges. Consider whether its methods tell you anything about what your child might experience. College administrators don't like U.S. News rankings because no college can be reduced to a bunch of numbers. Don't support this charade.

Learn to appreciate lesser-known schools. There may be advantages to graduating from a school whose name is familiar, but let's face it, not everyone can get in. Look for the same qualities - size, programs, campus culture - in other schools. If you have doubts that lesser-known colleges provide wonderful experiences, check out their Web sites. You'll be amazed at the creative projects, outstanding teachers and innovative community efforts at almost every college.

Share what you learn with your student. If you give your child the message that you don't buy into rankings, that you know that what he or she gets out of college depends on what he or she brings to the experience, you won't have a child who is devastated on decision day.

While going through these steps, look around at your colleagues and friends. Does success in life really require a "name" school? Isn't it more about working hard and making the most of the opportunities that come your way?

Tell your child you'll be happy no matter where he or she gets in. And mean it.

Marion Franck is the co-author of Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting into College.

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