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Challenge: Back to School

Back to School: What Parents Need to Know about College Admissions

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As a mom of three kids, one entering fourth grade, one entering kindergarten, and a toddler not quite ready for preschool, I am constantly adapting and learning as my children navigate the turns of their own education. Change and growth are continuous and the educational journey for each child is exhilarating and a little scary. Though my kids are nowhere near high school, I think about where they’ll go to college all the time. I can’t help it. It’s my job, both as their mother and as a college admissions professional.


So, as the director of college counseling at The Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and founder of, I offer the following to the parents of high school students as they enjoy the last few weeks of summer:

As parents, we’re constantly and fiercely dedicated to making sure our kids are on the right path - no matter how busy we are, how many hours we work, or how tired we are. This same resolve shows up when it’s time to start the college admissions process. Organization and instincts always come in handy.

Before school ended in June, I met with a junior and her mother about the student’s college list. Unbeknownst to me, the mother had come up with a list of colleges on her own in advance of the meeting. She was afraid to share it. Maybe it was because she’s “just a mom.” Perhaps it was that she hadn’t gone to college herself.

After some prodding from her daughter, the mom shared the list. I was supremely impressed. Her list looked similar to mine. The mom had come up with a beautiful array of colleges that fit into all the categories I recommend. And, the few extra colleges that were on my list, she gently mentioned didn’t have the academic programs her daughter wanted. I smiled ear-to-ear. This mom knows her daughter, understands what’s best for her, and is willing to go to the ends of the earth to make sure she has better opportunities than she had. I would do the same thing.

In this era of information overload, it’s important for our kids to have the most accurate information about the college process. Do your research. Read everything you can about the process. The better you understand this, the better your child will do as he or she searches for the “right fit” for their four years of college.

Here are the 7 essential things every parent needs to know about the college application process:

1. Testing

Colleges have no preferences when it comes to students taking the ACT or the SAT. Students should take the test that suits them better. The best way to determine this is by taking a full-length practice exam for each test. Most test prep companies will make this available to students for free.

Students should try to limit taking the ACT or the SAT to three times. Why?

  • Because these tests are costly.
  • They put a lot of stress on the student.
  • And colleges get turned off when a student starts taking standardized tests in excess.

Most institutions will take the highest composite score on the ACT, while a few schools may even mix and match the sub-scores on the ACT to put the student in the best light. When it comes to SATs, most institutions will take the highest score on each section even if it happens on multiple dates.

Subject Tests can be important if your child is applying to more selective colleges. If you’re wondering, Subject Tests were once called Achievement Tests and then they were called SAT IIs. Two Subject Tests may be required - sometimes three Subject Tests are required. Carefully review the institution’s admissions website as soon as possible to find out if Subject Tests are required, whether to take the ACT Plus Writing, or how they evaluate the highest scores on tests.

2. The High School Record

While test scores can weigh heavily in the admissions process, the student’s high school record still carries the most weight. Many colleges will look at grades nine through 12. Twelfth grade performance can play a significant role at selective colleges. Admissions offices are not only looking at the grades a student gets, but also the rigor of the curriculum. Make sure your child is placed in the appropriate courses.

While school administrators usually make recommendations about what type of curriculum your child should be placed in, you and your child should still have a voice in this selection. Speak to your child’s guidance counselor about curriculum choices in the spring of each school year to ensure they are properly placed for the following school year. This should start as early as eighth grade as a child’s curriculum in ninth grade can easily dictate the rest of their high school experience as well as the colleges they are poised to compete for at the end of the process.

3. Teachers

Encourage your child to seek out teachers early on for advice, help, and for mentorship. Teachers have total credibility with students. But we often see students reaching out to teachers only when they are in trouble or in need of help with schoolwork. Instead, we should be teaching our kids how to approach teachers when they are not in trouble.

Teachers can serve as mentors, role models, and letter-writers when students apply to college. The teachers who know your child in and out of the classroom write the strongest and most detailed letters of recommendation for college. Colleges are generally looking for letters of recommendation from academic teachers (English, foreign language, history, math, and science) from tenth or eleventh grade. A letter from the guidance counselor may also be required.

TIP: Read Can Teachers Really Help You Get Into College?

4. Activities

It really doesn’t matter how many activities your child does. It doesn’t even matter what they do. As long as they are doing something productive with their free time, they are on the right path.

Celebrate whatever it is they do - part-time job, playing a sport, doing a service project, pursuing a hobby. Make them believe they can have an impact on this world. Make them believe their contributions matter. Tell them to go after their dreams even if they are far-fetched.

5. Essays

Most schools across the country don’t teach personal or creative writing, but this is exactly what our children will need to do when writing their college essays. We could encourage them to keep a journal, but a journal isn’t for everyone. The journal for this generation is their Instagram account or their Twitter posts. And, that’s alright - it’s a start. If their moments in life are worthy of an online post, then they are ripe for exploration.

TIP: A word on monitoring your social media activity when applying to college

You would be surprised how the little moments in our lives can become the most defining in the application process. Those moments reveal who we are on a daily basis, and that’s truly representative of the individuals we will be in college (this is exactly why Taylor Swift would write an amazing college essay). When I was in high school, I had someone tell me that I would never be a good writer. That woman’s critique has pushed me every day since then to prove what I could do.

Writing is deeply personal and involves taking risks. Writers, though, are the voice of a generation. No matter how uncomfortable your child is with writing, encourage them to put their ideas down on paper, on their computer, even on their phone. Ideas turn into sentences, sentences turn into stories, and stories are at the heart of those college essays. The stories of our daily lives can capture our humanity, endearing imperfections, and innermost thoughts in the most breathtaking way.

6. Summer

I know we’re getting ready to go back to school, but it’s important to plan for next summer as well. Summer is a time to recharge. Our kids need this. That’s not to say I condone TV watching and playing video games all summer. But it’s okay for our kids to not have to jump through a dozen hoops over summer break.

Summer can be used as a time for:

  • Test preparation for students finishing up sophomore and junior year
  • Rising seniors to visit colleges
  • Start work on essays/applications

Be careful where you spend your money. Academic programs can give students a sense of what it is like to “live” on a college campus for part of the summer, but it typically gives them no advantage in the admissions process to get into the institution where the program was held or any other institution they are applying to.

Summer is an opportunity to let our kids do something productive with their time, and a traditional summer job is just as meaningful as anything else they will do. We also want to encourage them to just be teenagers. Those memories of a day at the beach, hanging out with friends, and staying up late to watch the sunrise will stick with them and get them through some challenging moments during the school year.

7. Trust Your Instincts

There’s always more to know. If you hear something that seems off, trust your instincts. We know our kids. As parents, we know when things are not adding up. It doesn’t matter how many degrees we have or if we have any at all - parents know their children better than anyone else.

We need to teach our kids how to be self-advocates because they need those life-skills for the college process and the rest of their lives. But being the behind-the-scenes person, lovingly encouraging and celebrating them is exactly what we were made to do.

I think about that mom of the junior I met. I can’t get her out of my mind. She is exactly the kind of parent I want to be. We exchanged a pleasant handshake at the end of that meeting, but the heartfelt look she gave me is what I remember most. We were both trying not to let the tears well up in our eyes, or let her daughter see that. As parents, we recognized the gravitas of the moment. This was her daughter’s future we were discussing. Nothing is more important to a parent than giving our kids opportunities we didn’t have.

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