Does it have to be so stressful?
Your college-bound student and the application process

If you think applying for college is more of a big, hairy deal now than when you were filling out your own application forms, you're right. It's a tension-filled process, and both college-bound students and their parents are feeling the pressure. Is it the fault of the media? Are we, the parents, putting too much pressure on our kids? What of the colleges themselves? Are the stakes really higher?

Blame it at least partly on the media and those who have made something of a cottage industry out of the American drive to help our kids succeed. Today, there are books about getting into the college of your choice; lists ranking the &#8220top” schools are hot news stories; and private &#8220college consultants” ply their trade, some of them charging tens of thousands of dollars to help with applications, essays, and interview preparation. And then there are the tutors and businesses that prepare students to take the SAT or ACT tests.

Once upon a time, I remember lazily leafing through an SAT preparation book; a friend's son did some low-key online test prep. And then there is my neighbor's daughter Kelly, who's taking a prep course at a pricey &#8220learning center” after her first scores were excellent but not perfect. &#8220I want to go to an Ivy League school,” Kelly explains. &#8220I've got the grades, the activities, and volunteer work. Now I need the perfect score.”

Perfect score or not, what if she doesn't get in to one of the Ivies?

&#8220Oh, I will,” Kelly says. &#8220I have to.”

&#8220She will,” her mom assures me. &#8220Kelly never fails at anything.” She looks at her daughter and laughs. &#8220For Kelly, failing is getting an A- instead of an A. I wouldn't be paying for the course if I didn't know Kelly will give it her absolute all and get a perfect score.”

Kelly's mom, who attended a community college, is determined to see Kelly, her oldest child, attend an Ivy League school. &#8220I was talked out of pursuing a quality education, so I'm focused on Kelly getting one,” she says.

On the other end of the spectrum is Munna Yasiri, who was relatively laid back about college choices. &#8220I don't believe in foisting my ideas on my children,” says the Eden Prairie woman, who has two boys in college. &#8220For me, my main concern is that they see the value of higher education and pursue it.” However, Yasiri admits, &#8220Their father intervened more and was more concerned about which institution they selected.” Yasiri's sons both happily attend Minnesota state schools.

My neighbor's attitude isn't unusual, say college admissions professionals. &#8220Some parents see the college selection process as a life-or-death situation,” says Jennifer Hantho, senior associate dean of admissions at Carleton College in Northfield, a highly selective school. &#8220Some parents wish they could do it over again differently. Others say, ‘I went to XYZ and I'm doing fine.' In a perfect world, parents who have the means to do so would say to their children, ‘Let's look at a wide variety of places so you can decide what sort of place is best suited for you.' ”

Hantho and other college admissions officers acknowledge that the increased pressure about admissions is due in part to stepped up marketing within their own ranks. &#8220Colleges market themselves much more broadly,” Hantho says. &#8220Students and families are much more aware of a variety of options.”

Frank Sachs agrees. &#8220Colleges recruit more aggressively,” says Sachs, who has been counseling students and their parents about college decisions for 25 years, the past 23 at the Blake School, where he directs the college counseling department. Sachs is also something of a national authority, who has authored a number of articles about the process; he is the current president of the National Association of College Counseling (NACAC). &#8220I used to have slower times of the year, but now the recruiting is almost year round,” he says.

Media influence

Sachs says his role is to offer information and educate students and parents about college choices and the process. &#8220The process has been dramatized to the point that there is unnecessary stress created,” says Sachs, who blames the media. &#8220Counselors can help calm people down. We give the parents information, educate them about the process so they understand what's reasonable. If the parents are upset, the child's upset.”

&#8220We do hear from parents,” says Tina Kampa, a guidance counselor at Mound-Westonka High School. &#8220It kind of depends: if it's the first child, the parents often wonder, ‘Where do I start? Where do I go, What should I be doing now?'” Kampa finds that the media has definitely influenced how parents think about colleges. &#8220Prestige, the top 10 lists are important to a lot of parents,” she says. &#8220We see a handful of situations where the parents and child want different things. It's important to make sure the parents' goals and visions are consistent with the child's.”

Frank Breeden, a guidance counselor at Edina High School, sees his share of parents with expectations, too. &#8220The involvement of parents is much greater than in the past,” says Breeden, who ought to know: He has 32 years as a guidance counselor under his belt. &#8220When many parents went through the process, it seemed much simpler. They knew a few places and applied to those.

&#8220Today, it can be more complex. A lot of that complexity is introduced by mass culture. Twenty years ago, you'd have been hard pressed to find books about colleges. Today, there are sections of bookstores devoted to college guides. That literature helps hype the process.”

Guidance counselor's role

&#8220High school counselors, when they're trained and informed, can be of tremendous assistance in helping students and families sort out options,” says Dr. Wayne Sigler, director of admissions at the University of Minnesota. &#8220Working with a counselor can take some of the stress out of the process.”

All three counselors we spoke with stress that the most important decisions a student can make have to do with academics. They agree that taking challenging classes and doing well in them is the single best way for a student to get a leg up on the admissions process. &#8220Make sure you take the classes required by the colleges you're interested in,” says Kampa.

Preparation at Mound-Westonka begins in earnest in the sophomore year, according to Kampa. &#8220We meet with the 10th graders every two weeks to expose them to a variety of postsecondary options. We used to do this junior year.” Mound-Westonka offers a variety of educational workshops for the parents of juniors and seniors; Kampa says the financial aid night is the best-attended. The district offers college admissions test prep for high school credit and through its community education department. It also hosts college admissions reps and transports busloads of students to the NACAC College Fair, held each fall at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

The process at Edina High School also starts in the sophomore year. &#8220Each counselor meets with small groups of students for a couple of sessions,” says Breeden. About 35 percent of Edina students take the PSAT; all sophomores take the PLAN (the pre-ACT). In their junior year, Edina students are encouraged to take SAT and ACT tests and to complete the school's comprehensive six-page &#8220college exploration” packet. Edina also offers test preparation courses through its community education department. Edina students and parents meet with counselors as needed throughout the process.

At The Blake School, all sophomores take the PSAT in October, and there's a Sophomore Parents College Night. Blake juniors are enrolled in a year-long college seminar program that focuses in the first semester on the college search process: &#8220Exploration, application, selection, and transition to college,” says Sachs, the counselor there. The second semester of the program focuses on test preparation for the SAT exam. The school hosts a variety of events for parents, and counselors meet with students individually and with their parents. Senior year is when the process is most intense, as students narrow down their choices, apply to them, and wait for acceptances - or denials. &#8220We talk about college being a match, not a prize,” says Sachs. &#8220The student, not the college, is the prize.” He encourages students not to settle on their &#8220top choice” until acceptance letters come out, advising, &#8220Your top choice should be your first choice among the schools that accept you.”

Educational consultants

Convinced there's a lot of pressure in this process? It could be worse. Breeden puts things in perspective when he contrasts the way things work in the Midwest with the modus operandi in the Northeast. &#8220Everyone has coaching for [admissions] tests,” he says, and cites independent &#8220educational consultants” who &#8220charge $25,000 to $35,000” to &#8220package” students for the applications process.

The prevalence of these educational consultants is not just anecdotal, it's actually quantifiable: The database of the Independent Educational Consultants Association lists just seven college consultants in Minnesota and surrounding states, compared to 88 (some with multiple offices) in New York and surrounding states. So what do you get for roughly the equivalent of one year's college tuition?

&#8220One of the consultants is Michele Hernandez, who charges $7-8,000 for a ‘boot camp' for preparing applications,” Breeden says. Hernandez, a former assistant admissions director at Dartmouth College, and herself a Dartmouth graduate, also offers her services to those who can't afford her fees in the form of the handful of advice books, including A is for Admission, (Warner Books, 1999) she's written for students and parents with aspirations like those of Kelly and her mom.

One firm, Ivy Success, plays into parents' feelings of confusion about the process. Its web site,, declares, &#8220Few decisions will have as great an impact as the choice of a college for your child. With so much conflicting information about what it takes to get into a top college, even the most dedicated and concerned parent can feel overwhelmed. You want the best for your child, but you may not know how to begin preparing for the competitive and complex process that lies ahead.” Ivy Success' standard consultation package, which allows for up to 20 hours with one of their consultants, costs $15,000; they don't publicly disclose how much it charges for their deluxe &#8220Complete Strategy” package, which offers unlimited access to Ivy consultants.

What does Sachs of Blake think of these consultants? &#8220Kids get themselves into colleges,” He says. &#8220Counselors, whether they're independent or work at a public or private school, share information, give advice.”

In the end, is choosing - or getting into - a specific school that important? Sigler doesn't think so. &#8220Students, especially here in Minnesota, have a wonderful array of options for higher education.” Munna Yasiri agrees. &#8220My personal experience has been that almost regardless of the school you attend, your college experience is mostly what you make of it. Determined and enthusiastic students seek out opportunities, make efforts, and get involved.

&#8220This is not something parents can manage for their children; the child must be self-motivated to accomplish this.”



-If you want to take a practice PSAT, this is the time to register for it.
-Register for the pre-ACT (PLAN).

-Register for the PSAT.
-Register for &#8220practice” ACT.
-Begin attending meetings with college representatives.
-Attend NACAC College Fair (this year's was September 28 at the Minneapolis Convention Center).

-Narrow down college choices and send for applications.
-Register for November SAT, SAT II, and ACT tests (note: these tests are given several times throughout the year, but it's important to take them early in the year in case the student wants to re-take one or all of them).
-Apply for ROTC scholarships.
-Explore financial aid resources.
-Begin attending meetings with college representatives.
-Attend NACAC College Fair (this year's was September 28 at the Minneapolis Convention Center).


-Take the practice PSAT.
-Take the PLAN.

-Take the PSAT.
-Take a &#8220practice” ACT.

-Send for Early Decision college applications.
-Begin applying to colleges.
-Take the ACT.


-Take a &#8220practice” SAT.

-Take the SAT.


-Meet the deadline for ROTC scholarship application.


-Complete applications with a January deadline.
-Begin filling out financial aid applications.


-Complete applications with a February deadline.
-Send mid-year reports to colleges applied to.
-Complete and submit financial aid forms.
-Begin applying for scholarships offered by local businesses, religious groups, community groups, and other organizations.


-College acceptances, wait list notifications, and denials begin arriving around March 15.
-Some colleges are still accepting applications.


-Most acceptances, wait list notifications, and denials will be received by the end of April.


-Most colleges require an acceptance and deposit by May 1.


Sophomores and Juniors
-Prime time to visit prospective college campuses.