Top universities are reporting record-breaking numbers of wanna-be students. Stanford, for example, admits only 2,400 or so freshmen each year but received 36,744 applications this year. What can you, the parents, do to de-stress the process for your kids (and for yourself)? To find, I talked with the co-authors of College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step — Robin Mamlet (the former dean of admission at Stanford, Swarthmore, and Sarah Lawrence and the mom of a freshman) and Christine Vandevelde (a journalist and parent of a newly minted Vanderbilt graduate). Excerpts:
Why is the number of applications so high?
Robin: First of all, more students are applying to college than in our day. And they are applying to greater numbers across the country. They're no longer necessarily sticking as close to home.
What leads to the application inflation – nerves and the Common App?
Robin: It's nerves, it's the Common App, it's the fact that you can apply much more easily because of where technology is. It's pressing "send."
Christine: We counsel applying to 6 to 8 and at the most 10 schools. Most of these schools have supplements. You have to know about a school to show them you're a good fit.
Robin: The idea of applying to 15, 30, whatever, it's a mirage. You think that you're increasing your chances. But in fact, you're taking away from your ability to find the place that's right for you and to communicate it through your application to the admissions staff. There's only so much time you've got.
You talk about over-packaged candidates. Ideally, should parents avoid even looking at their kids' colleges essays and applications?
Christine: It's fine for parents to read an essay right before it goes in for grammatical errors or typos. That's a good idea — if you're a parent who won't stick your finger into the essay. We feel pretty strongly that students need to have their own voice come through. If there's too much meddling from a parent, or if it's writing by committee, the admissions deans get a muddled view of who the applicant is. This is the one place in the application where the student voice can come through most clearly. There are places where parents have a role. They should let their son or daughter know right away what limits there are, if there are financial limits or distance limits, or if there's a desire for them to attend a college they attended. Put those out on the table right away, and then walk away and let the student deal with that. Throughout the process, parents should hopefully have a dialogue with their son or daughter.
Robin: The other thing they need to do is learn about financing education. Before they say, "I can't afford a $250,000 education for my student," they need to look at whether or not they'd qualify for any need-based financial aid, and they need to find out about merit scholarships.
What do you think about the many rankings, such as the U.S. News "best colleges" lists?
Robin: One of the things is they help make people aware of some incredibly good institutions they may not have heard of. For example, before going to Stanford, I was dean of Swarthmore. It's typically one of the top three liberal arts colleges in the country. There are going to be names in there that people don't know of. It's a good way to get a sense of some of the other college choices that exist in the country.
What do you think about the gap year?
Robin: We both think it's a great idea for many, many students. The research is showing this is a valuable thing for students to do. They're more mature and have a better sense of who they are and what they want – and frankly, these days I bet they're more rested!
How do you feel about the SAT or ACT, and should students take both?
Robin: Taking both is not always in the student's best interest. There's a limit to again the amount of hours in a student' day.
Do you care which test students take?
Robin: No. They should look at both – the [ACT's] Plan and the [SAT's] PSAT — and see which they do best on. There are so many students now who are encouraged to really spend time boning up for both. I think that's a total waste of time and a misuse of their junior and senior year. They should figure out which one they want to concentrate on and then do that one.
What about schools that don't require SAT's or ACT's?
Robin: I was dean of admissions at Sarah Lawrence. That is a place that has said when we look at the grades of our incoming students, the test scores that they had don't necessarily help predict success.
Many schools admit they tip the scale a bit for "legacy" applicants whose parents are alumni. What do you think about these policies?
Robin: The question is, what do students and parents need to know that will help them navigate the process? The reality is there's a bunch of schools, not all of them, that have decided it's important to them to value cross-generational ties and family ties. The issue is what does that mean for you.
You say grades count the most – even more than SAT's or ACT's. Why?
Robin: I think what we mean by that is the courses you have taken and how you have done in them. That's because this is school!
Christine: We as parents forget is that these students are being evaluated to enter a learning community. That's the fundamental basic fact.
Is it fair to say that colleges today aren't necessarily looking for a Renaissance person?
Robin: You do want some people who are Renaissance people, but just not all. When we were applying to college, we were encouraged to do some of everything. The message was that if you don't do some of everything, you're not going to get in. it was a limiter. It's important now what we're trying to be clear about is you're no longer limited if you don't do everything. It's a good thing. It doesn't mean that the person who's jack of all trades doesn't stand a chance of getting in. It does mean that the person who plays chess incredibly well and has never gone out for a sport is not going to penalized.
In your book, the Harvard dean talks about the obsession with having a "hook." What should parents of hook-less kids do?
Robin: The reality is most students who go to selective colleges are not going to Harvard. There are three to five colleges or universities that are dominating the news in terms of how you should apply to college. Most students are not going to go to Stanford. They're going to go to any number of incredibly strong, wonderful options. They need to be good students, good people, who have done something with their time. They don't necessarily need a hook. Most good students are normal, average young people who are doing well in school and leading good lives, and they haven't made the javelin team for the Olympics, and that's just fine.
Christine: The narrative in the media is often about 1 percent of the schools in this country. What I like to remind parents is that colleges are looking for all sorts of things, among them the nice kid who's going to make the dorm a good place to live, and the students who are going to sit in the stadium and cheer for the football team. You have to close your mind to some of the media madness.
What about the idea passion and commitment matter more than the number of activities? What can parents do if their kids lack a passion?!
Robin: So many don't. That's normal. I don't think the deans are saying that everybody needs a passion. That's been a distorted message. The message is do what you care about, not what you think we will care about. Don't spend your time just crossing off checking the boxes. It's not about how busy you are. It's about eventually figuring out who you are and finding some way to connect to a world that's larger than you are.
Christine: Deans are keenly aware that not all students have those opportunities as well. They look at those students who have to work to support their family or earn money to pay for college or even for a private high school. Those students are given just as much weight as students who have all sorts of opportunities thrown at them.
Many parents worry about their child being penalized for not visiting campuses. But that's not necessarily so, right?
Robin: Some schools will expect that if you live within an easy driving range, you will visit it. Stanford won't even record it. More than ever, you can learn a great deal about a place without visiting. Our best advice is if you can visit, do so because it's good for you.
But what if you get a rotten tour guide?!
Robin: Yes, but more knowledge is good. As long as you know how to put things in context, then it's hard to say it's not going to help you overall make the best set of decisions. In terms of being penalized in the process, you need to learn enough about a college to know if it's right for you and be able to demonstrate it's a good fit. One of the good ways to do that is by visiting. There are lots of ways now to demonstrate that.
Christine: My husband and I kind of split up the search. If you approach it with the right attitude, it can be one of the peak parenting experiences of your life.
Any last thoughts?
Christine: There are more than 2600 four-year colleges and universities in this country. There is a school for everybody. Just have that as a mantra.
For more stories about your kids and college, read: