Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Talking to Anxious Juniors About College

By: Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Almost every junior I talk to this time of year is convinced they are behind in the college application process.  They’ll tell me about the five college campuses they visited over spring break, and how those visits have led them to conclude they’re looking for a medium-sized college with a strong honors college that’s located close enough to a city to have good sushi—but they feel they’re behind in the college selection process.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m delighted they’ve thought about college this much, and they’re starting to understand that there are some colleges where they are more likely to find the right mix of opportunity, challenge and support.  On the other hand, students who have thought this much about college who are convinced they are doing nearly enough to be college-ready makes me wonder if they’re seeing college essay prompts in their sleep—or if they’re sleeping at all.

Not every student feels this way, to be sure, but those that do have an awfully hard time of things right about now, as the newspapers again report record highs in applications and record lows in admit rates.  Throw in the media coverage that’s convincing everyone there’s no point in applying to college unless your parents have a spare 4 million dollars to give the college, and it’s easy to see why even the most conscientious student is thinking twice about their preparedness.

What’s the best way to create an opportunity for these students to seize a new perspective?  Try this:

Identify your goals for them  The energy and angst students bring in to your office can sometimes be enough to make you forget that you are the adult, and the expert in college admissions.  Since you’re both, step up to the plate and address the banshee in the room.

“Just so you know, you’re in great shape.  For our students, we hope they get to the end of junior year having visited about three or four college campuses.  We hope they’ve taken the SAT and ACT at least once, and we hope they’ve asked two academic teachers from this year to write their college letters.  You’re right on track to do all of that, so things are looking great.” (Your school’s expectations may be different, and that’s more than OK.  Just let them know where they stand.)

The message here is a clear invitation to come back to reality, and most are grateful to accept.

Tell them what comes next  Most of the time, students feel they are behind in the college selection process because they haven’t started filling out college applications.  They shouldn’t be right now, and they know they shouldn’t be—but try as they may, they just can’t shake the feeling.

There’s a couple of ways to get at this.  First, tell them when it’s normal to start filling out the forms.  “I’ll be sending you an email in early August with some suggestions about when to start applying to college.  There are a lot of different factors behind when you start, but most of our students will have the basics—name, address, list of extracurriculars—done before school starts.  That gives you the weekends to work on essays during the school year, allowing you to focus on your studies and other school activities during the week.”

If the student isn’t comfortable with this answer, encourage them to start filling out parts of the application now.  Some online applications, like The Common Application, are open now, and while the essay questions for many colleges will change next year, the basic identification questions won’t.  Students can save those answers, then complete the application in the fall.  For now, they get to tell their friends and parents (and more important, themselves) they’ve started to apply to college.

61.  If some cold facts about the application process doesn’t snap them out of it, tell them that only 61 colleges admitted 25 percent or less of their applicant pool in 2017—and that the vast majority of colleges admit about two-thirds of their applicants.  Even if their plans are to apply to these low-admit schools, the fact that so many more are easily accessible usually gets them to consider college from a new point of view, and allows them to breathe.

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