Friday, August 31, 2007

Stress of College Prep

In my role as a communications consultant for businesses, I work with a higher education consultant in Minneapolis. Valerie Broughton founded College Connectors ( after more than 30 years in the education field. She now helps students and their families traverse the increasingly complicated world of college selection and application.

If you don't have children this age yet, you should know that college prep should begin in the sophomore year. As your child gets closer to graduation, you may find that tensions ebb and flow. Your child is beginning the process of breaking away from the family tribe while simultaneously trying to finish high school, write admissions essays, manage peer and love interests, beg for letters of recommendation, maybe work a part-time job, visit colleges and imagine filling the blank slate that is his future.

This can be stressful.

Valerie takes a very practical approach to college preparation, but also takes some of the heat off of parents who are watching their child make this transition. She is a bit of a liaision between the parents and student, too, keeping everyone on task and facilitating productive communication. Here are a few of her tips for the realities of college preparation.

Set Yourself Apart

Given that drop-out rates for college freshman are around 50 percent, a student’s choice of college is just as important as the student’s qualifications for said college. Students who are well-grounded are more attractive to admissions staff than students who just have perfect grades and test scores.

What this means is that students who show passion or interest in a particular area are often seen as more motivated and valuable to colleges than students who seem to be involved all over the place. While standardized testing is the top way that larger colleges establish a “floor” for selection, smaller colleges and large colleges alike heavily weigh the style and tone of admissions essays. It makes sense to devote extra time to this piece and invite several critiques.

Letters of recommendation, special talents, experiences, and a demonstrated love of learning are also highly valued in the student body at small and large colleges alike. If two students have equally impressive grades and test scores, colleges will look for that unique nugget of information that makes they say, “I want to get to know this student better.” Sharing your passions and dreams to how you overcame adversity, let your unique self shine through.

Avoid Senior-itis

The tendency to go overboard on college-prep courses is just as strong and possibly fruitless as coasting in that final year. Students will have a much better chance at more colleges of their choice if they demonstrate solid grades with an upward trend or even lower grades in more rigorous classes. Take a higher-level science or math class, but don’t sacrifice electives that you enjoy such as music or languages. They indicate a depth of talent.

If you are considering a post-secondary option because it supports your maturity and life goals, go for it. Avoid doing it just to save some money. Not all post-secondary coursework is transferable if you decide to attend a different college for your degree. You will have missed out on a genuine high school experience and still have four to five years of study ahead of you.

Get Involved

If you have a passion for animals, the elderly, or stamping out hunger, find an outlet for it in your community. Directed community involvement or volunteering is much more valuable than a list of 20 different activities. Authentic dedication to a cause shows that you are a thoughtful individual and aware of life beyond your own front door.

Involvement can also lead you to your career path. Colleges aren’t concerned that you have declared a solid major, but demonstrating your efforts at career exploration through summer work, job shadowing and career days indicates that you are serious about your future.

Don’t discount the value of leadership opportunities in high school. Leading your section in the band, serving as a sports captain or editing the high school yearbook are all noteworthy achievements. As any Ivy League admissions rep will tell you, there is more to educational achievement than academics.