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The “applying for college” rant
Old 09-05-2009, 01:51 AM   #1
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The “applying for college” rant

My last college application was over 30 years ago. I'm told that things have improved since then, but I'm not so sure. Let me rant share our experiences in the hope that others can either suggest better ways to finish the process, or at least avoid our pain.

As a retired naval officer with considerable bureaucratic nuclear power experience, married to another retired naval officer with even more executive-level experience, we assumed that we had what it takes to guide a teen through the process. We regret that assumption.

High-school seniors are usually encouraged to apply “early”, but everyone knows that most colleges have January application deadlines. Senioritis is highly contagious, though, so it's important to get them moving as quickly as possible. The high-school bureaucracy is also usually ill-equipped to handle the last-minute crush of applications, recommendations, and transcript mailings. All good reasons to finish in September what most teens wouldn't even start until late December. Probably just before heading out for the New Year's Eve party.

Our teen split her interests between USNA and NROTC. Since she's the legacy of two retired USNA grads, she's a twofer for a presidential appointment (safety school). However she's still “encouraged” to go through the process of obtaining a congressional appointment so that USNA can save the presidentials for jocks who can throw a football 70 yards other suitable candidates who might not otherwise make the grade. So no time or labor is saved there, either, and those nomination requests are due to congressional staffs by October.

NROTC requires applying to five schools, and they'll award a scholarship to one school which may (might) be transferable (upon special request) to any of the other four. Applicants have been unofficially advised to make the most expensive school their #1 choice so that the scholarship will cover any of the five. (I doubt that this works in practice as well as it sounds in theory.) “Luckily” our kid's #1 choice, also her stretch school, is #2 in price and not too far away from the most expensive. Colleges are supposed to be needs-blind, but NROTC highly suspects that they give preference to teens who've already been approved for an NROTC scholarship. (No parent is willing to risk testing this suspicion.) The NROTC application is online but does not open until 1 June, and our teen submitted hers by the 20th. She seems to have a pretty good shot at a scholarship but as of early September, despite the recruiter being behind quota promises of giving this a higher priority, the official word hasn't been received yet.

Many of today's colleges (service academies excepted) use the common college application at CommonApp.org. You would think that filling out one application for five colleges would be a one-time effort with five “submit” button clicks. You would be wrong. Each college has a (slightly different) supplemental app in addition to the main app, and each college uses a slightly different version of their essay questions. It requires ingenuity and creativity to write an essay that can stretch to cover all five, or else it requires a lot of effort to write five different essays. Most of the colleges also have printed/mailing forms in addition to the online applications.

To put this next concept as broadly and as tactfully as possible, you will be surprised at what a teen thinks is a good topic for a college application essay. If it's written well on the first draft, then you will be even more surprised. If your teen willingly accepts your suggested revisions and scampers off to incorporate them, then you'll be fantasizing. I think our spawn inherited my writing genes but it still took her an average of three drafts (and two weeks) for each essay-- along with other homework, extracurricular activities, and assorted high-school musicals dramas.

To help thin the herd of wannabe collegians, her high school (class of 500+ seniors, so far) requires that all applications be routed through their office. This includes a transcript request, a counselor recommendation, and two teacher recommendations. Each requires a form, a checklist, and an information sheet to help the counselor remember which whatsername they're recommending as an outstanding student. This implies that the counselor is sending official transcripts to six different addresses-- all in the snail mail stamped “official transcript”, and none over any of the school's online grading/transcript website systems. Even if your teen's chosen college is using an online system, the high school is almost certain to be using an incompatible online system.

Our teen took a couple of high-school classes that offered dual credit for local community colleges. You would think that the two college transcripts could be included in her high-school transcript. Wrong again! She's contacting two community colleges for her transcripts. More “official transcript” snail-mail.

Stretch schools are tough to get into, and our teen is in the lower third of their freshmen demographics. In her favor, the school is expanding and they've indicated that they want more well-rounded students (especially women engineers!). However the conventional wisdom for this situation is to apply “early decision”. This is reported to raise the probability by 10-15%, with the understanding that if the teen is accepted by the ED school (usually by the end of December) then they'll immediately drop their applications to all other schools. Note that this timing does not allow a teen to apply to an ED school, learn their decision, and then have enough time to snapshot their applications to alternate choices. Nope, she has to apply to six schools and then wait for the early one to render the other five irrelevant.

So now our teen is tracking a counselor's transcript-mailing request, a counselor's recommendation request, two teacher recommendations, and two community-college transcript requests. When this first college package is launched, she has five more waiting in the tubes or on the reloads. You veteran parents know how that's going to turn out.

Once she finished submitting the first application, she was informed that it's a good idea to “volunteer” for a local alumni interview. (Thanks for the name, Htown Harry, we're going to use it!) We should probably add four more and then add in the congressional nomination interviews as well. Luckily she's already finished both NROTC interviews.

I just can't wait to see the forms she has to fill out for the military's medical entrance exam. Turns out I've been waiting over 30 years to show her what mine look like.

Our teen made a five-minute local TV short for winning a Kumon math award. She has a cool interview on DVD that totally sells her accomplishments, and I'm not alluding to the application tactics used by the character in “Legally Blonde”. But none of the applications even mention DVDs, let alone YouTube, so the best we can come up with is a “supplemental” cover letter and snail mail. Six times.

By the way, if your teen is looking for high SAT scores then that might require at least two attempts and a confidence-boosting prep class. (In our teen's case it required a little more, but you get the idea.) Some colleges also require special subject “SAT II” tests, which also may have minimum score requirements. If you're charting out the SAT & SAT II dates and allowing for multiple attempts, your teen should take the PSAT as a sophomore (great practice) and then take the first SAT the spring of sophomore year. They may have to take it again the spring of their junior year anyway because some colleges want the SAT score to be less than a year old at the time of application.

I haven't even added up the SAT fees, prep course fees, counselor's transcript-mailing fees, and college application fees. Were you planning to walk your teen on any of those hot teen campuses that they've admired on the college websites? Better start planning those summer vacations (and spring/fall breaks) right after 9th grade. (Can't interfere with driver's ed classes, either!) By the time the schools are selected and applied for, it can add up to a fifth year's tuition.

All of that came to a head this week, when our teen was about 70%-80% complete with all areas of the common app but not nearly finished with any of them. We put together a “goals list”, a deadline, and a Labor-Day-weekend liberty lockdown plan. Motivation soared inversely in proportion to morale, but this morning she pushed all the “submit” buttons on school #1. She escaped in the car shortly after that and swears that she'll be home before her driver's-license curfew. Because now it's time to study for the SAT IIs (in only 35 days) and to write three congressional nomination letters!

State U is beginning to look like a pretty good idea after all...
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Old 09-05-2009, 06:48 AM   #2
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Rant is an understatement. What comes to mind is Blackhawk parenting.

I know a lot of HS seniors and several college freshman (to your daughter's #1 school). I write recommendation letters all the time. All I can say is relax. Take Prozac. Take something!

BTW, my senior hasn't even started college apps, but seems to have taken some SAT tests. And please shorten your rant to 250 words or less.
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Old 09-05-2009, 07:37 AM   #3
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All of this reminds me of Japan, where the overwheming push is to do well on the college exams and get into a good university. And then relax for 4 years!


ta,
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Old 09-05-2009, 08:06 AM   #4
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Wow. Times have changed. My preparation for the SAT consisted of reading through the example questions and getting butterflies. Filling out the applications was an evening each. Being a rube from rural Texas I was particularly clueless, but I don't think that I was all that different from the majority of other seniors. Kids who went to prep schools and had ambitions for places like Harvard or Princeton probably had an experience similar to what you describe, but most of us didn't.

I did go to an interview on the Rice campus (we lived an hour away, so it was no big deal). I recall that the interviewer asked me what my favorite book was and I am embarrassed to admit that my answer was Atlas Shrugged. He smiled and said some like "That's what they all say." Gaack! I went to college with a bunch of delusional romantic libertarians who imagined themselves as Francisco D'anconia or Dagny Taggart. Well, Calculus 101 was waiting to take us all down a couple of pegs.
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Old 09-05-2009, 08:12 AM   #5
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Nords, the only difference I can perceive in comparison with my 1965 applications to colleges from what you say is that apparently parents are going over the student essays on the applications rather than having students write them on their own, and also if there was an "SAT II" back then I didn't know about it. I got zero specific preparation for the SAT. I did take the SAT once in my junior year and once at the earliest date in my senior year (though I am sure it was much cheaper back then). Signing up for the SAT's on that early date (August? September?), finding out when and where, and getting myself to the test site (which was out at Kam schools and I had never been there before in my life) was my own responsibility though my parents did pay for the test. Like in your experience, I had to fill in a separate application for each college (using a typewriter in those days), and as I recall Punahou sent a separate transcript to each directly by snail mail with a charge for more then some number (3?).

Reading through the lines, I think that possibly some of your frustration arises from the bittersweet fact that your daughter is growing up and the difficulties all parents have in letting go at this age. Believe me, as a parent I understand how much harder that is to do, than it sounds, especially when we fear that a mistake could affect our child's whole life. But still, it is time to let her do as much as is possible or reasonable. We want to do everything for our kids, or at least most of it, but really at this stage your daughter is ready to be stepping in and doing all or most of this (like the essay writing, like getting the transcripts, and so on). She is a young woman and if she is going to make it at these schools (which she IS), then she already has the initiative to take care of the vast majority of this herself as you step aside and watch/advise from the sidelines, when asked, and fork out the $$$ as required. My opinion is that your primary role in this from now until college graduation is as Chief Moneybags, in charge of the dough.

One thing that was an advantage in the 1960's (and may still be?) was that most top mainland schools seemed to want students from Hawaii (even haoles like me) for reasons of geographic diversity. I was surprised when I was accepted by every college I applied for but apparently that was the reason for it. We also had interviews with recruiters who flew to Hawaii and dragged us out of class for interviews and to offer us scholarships, something that amazed me at the time. Don't know if that is still the case or not - - probably not since the world is a much smaller place now.

By the way, as I recall what was really staggering to me way back when was the application fees! They were more than the SAT fees. So you get to look forward to those.... Good luck!
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Old 09-05-2009, 08:14 AM   #6
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Thanks for bringing back memories of my daughter's college application . I have one word for you DAUGHTER . I had two children . Son , college choice easy , college tour easy, college application easy . Daughter , college tours days from he-- , college choice passed on lack of nerds on campus , college applications the drama of the essays was endless . So it is not the process it is the gender that does us in . Good Luck !
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Old 09-05-2009, 08:19 AM   #7
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My kids would have absolutely died before they let me read their essays--they were probably all about the crazy mother in their family.

At least your daughter is applying to only five schools, Nords!
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Old 09-05-2009, 08:37 AM   #8
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My kids would have absolutely died before they let me read their essays--they were probably all about the crazy mother in their family.

At least your daughter is applying to only five schools, Nords!
I would have felt that way too!! I remember discussing in the essays how I was seeking academic "challenge" (whatever that is), and briefly mentioned an interesting class that I had taken already and how exciting that was to me, thinking that the colleges would really eat up the "challenge" baloney. Like your children, I never showed them to my parents, either. Honestly I did not even mention my parents (too embarrassing as a teen to even admit that I HAD parents). I spent hours writing each essay and wrote each a little bit differently because I was scared that the colleges might compare them!

I applied to four though I wanted to apply to five. I was dissuaded from that because the money tree from which I was getting the application fees, only coughed up enough for four. My daughter refused to apply to more than one, and got in (it was just a junior college), so that was simple. Most of my stress was in battling with her to try to get her to apply to a more difficult school but I finally gave up.
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Old 09-05-2009, 08:38 AM   #9
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Nords, let me ask this question: What does Mom think about all this? In a family of 3, usually 2 people take the same side and gang up on the third. Who is odd man out on this?
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Old 09-05-2009, 08:42 AM   #10
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I would have felt that way too!! I remember discussing in the essays how I was seeking academic "challenge" (whatever that is), thinking that the colleges would really eat it up. Honestly I did not even mention my parents (too embarrassing as a teen to even admit that I HAD parents). I wrote each essay a little bit differently because I was scared that the colleges might compare them!

I applied to four though I wanted to apply to five. I was dissuaded from that because the money tree from which I was getting the application fees, only coughed up enough for four.
"We were so poor" (ba dum dum) my parents didn't even discuss college with us--I applied to one school that would be tier 3 maybe today that had no application fee and had a work-study program. I don't remember the essay but I had done really well (for me) on the SATs for some reason so the school snapped me up. My parents didn't even know I was applying.
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Old 09-05-2009, 08:49 AM   #11
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Coming out of high school..... I applied to one school. The local junior college. If you had a check book and the ability to write a check, the process was simple. And transferring to my University of choice was about the same.

I guess that is one of the benefits to being just an average student. Eliminating all the high end schools you know you have no chance of being accepted to.
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Old 09-05-2009, 08:53 AM   #12
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"We were so poor" (ba dum dum) my parents didn't even discuss college with us--I applied to one school that would be tier 3 maybe today that had no application fee and had a work-study program. I don't remember the essay but I had done really well (for me) on the SATs for some reason so the school snapped me up. My parents didn't even know I was applying.
My parents weren't poor at all, but they were newly retired and building their retirement home on the beach in Hawaii. I was their "baby". Did the stock market tank around 1966? Not sure but anyway the eventual outcome was that they wouldn't pay for any college at all. So my freshman year I went to our state university, the University of Hawaii, lived at home, and paid for it myself. At least they didn't kick me out. Later I left home and did the same in another state. Welcome To the Real World, Step One.
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Old 09-05-2009, 09:24 AM   #13
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I want to thank Nords for posting this. I talked to my daughter a moment ago about some guy blogging about his his daughter's college applications. I wanted my daughter to know that her parents are not getting on her ass about getting the apps submitted.

She did tell me that her English class is writing college essays as an assignment. That means that at least the teacher will be commenting on and grading such essays.

As for my college application days, all I remember is my parents telling me, "You aren't going to get in and even if you did get in, we aren't paying for it." How's that for encouragement?
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Old 09-05-2009, 09:44 AM   #14
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As for my college application days, all I remember is my parents telling me, "You aren't going to get in and even if you did get in, we aren't paying for it." How's that for encouragement?
Yikes!! I am so impressed that you were able to overcome that and make a bright future for yourself, despite that environment. That is just awful.

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IShe did tell me that her English class is writing college essays as an assignment. That means that at least the teacher will be commenting on and grading such essays.
I had a wonderful senior honors English teacher, who taught us Chaucer and much more that will remain with me always. But he forgot to teach us how to write college application essays. That's OK - - I didn't want him snooping into my essays.
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Old 09-05-2009, 11:30 AM   #15
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Many of today's colleges (service academies excepted) use the common college application
What I remember about college applications was that every school was completely different and required a completely separate application. (Which I would have died before showing any part of to my parents. I didn't know anyone who had parental help, or would admit it if they did. Apparently, times have changed.) Even so, admissions was competitive and my classmates and I all applied to several, plus a safety school, in hopes of guaranteeing acceptance somewhere. What my nieces tell me is that with the advent of the common college application, the limits to how many schools applicants can apply to have eased up considerably. It's a hassle to get transcripts and maybe a small application supplement, but it's a lot easier than a full application so as a result kids (at least in their schools) are applying to 20-25 places. There's a fee for each one, but with the uncertainty of admissions and with the skew in numbers from common applications, they feel they have to do so to be sure to get accepted somewhere. Youngest niece applied to 20 and got accepted at 6.

Meanwhile around here state schools are also caught in a budget squeeze. They are reducing admissions to control costs - cutting back on staff and classes - at the same time that applications are up, possibly in part driven by economics and more students seeking the relative bargain of in-state tuition. Result is admission to in state public college is much more competitive and average GPA of admitted students has risen considerably, leaving students who formerly would likely have been accepted to scramble elsewhere or look at community colleges.
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Old 09-05-2009, 12:32 PM   #16
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Well, that would have been a fun read along the lines of "Oh yeah, I remember what a PITA that was", except then I remember the HS Junior living upstairs. My dim recollections of a dining room table covered with piles of application materials, and the nagging ("I need that essay by Tuesday!"), are no longer so vague, or safely in the past. My fine Saturday mellow has been harshed.

Somewhere in Hell, the College Application Design Committee (Marquis de Sade, Heinrich Himmler, Vlad the Impaler, and the guy who writes the Instructions for Form 1040) are being rewarded by Old Scratch himself. It's all an evil plot to discourage responsible parents from turning out good kids, "Sweetie, engineering looks complicated, maybe you should consider some alternatives. Do you know how much Hooters Girls make in tips?"

Here are my words of encouragement: It will all be over soon. The letters of acceptance will come in, the sun will peek through the clouds again, you will all celebrate, and before long you will think to yourself: "Ah, that wasn't so bad. We were all freaked out over nothing." And then the happiest thought of all will bubble up and make everything all better: "Thank God we only had to do that once!"
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Old 09-05-2009, 01:02 PM   #17
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Next year about this time will be the "College Drop-off Rant" about taking kid to college and installing her in the dorm room.

I heard all about this from a few parents last month. There was the "room was a roach pit" moan from Mom. Dad thought the communal showers hadn't been cleaned since he went to college.

The staff was giving the parents the message: "This is an extremely safe campus. Grandma could leave her doors and car unlocked anywhere without problems." But there was also the "reality safety talk" which occurred about 5 minutes after the parents left, "Travel in groups. Don't walk from the library to your dorm without a military escort when it's dark outside. Don't forget to get your concealed hand-gun license."
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Old 09-05-2009, 01:41 PM   #18
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I broke out in an anxious sweat just reading the rant. So many memories.

40+ yrs ago I went through this with no parental help and I'm pretty sure it wouldn't have been useful anyway. I was determined to use college as a step to avoid continued poverty.

10 yrs ago DW and I went through what Nords is experiencing now, but x2 (DS then DD). Looking back our efforts probably helped them go to better schools but didn't make a whit of helpful difference in their lives' trajectories. I hate the possibility that it may have been harmful by casting education as our goal rather than theirs. Personality and personal goals eventually win out over parental goals. We could have saved ourselves an Ivy League-level tuition.

Enjoy this last year as a nuclear family (no pun intended), Nords. You've probably already done almost everything that can be done to help.
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Old 09-05-2009, 02:39 PM   #19
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Oh, lordie. That brings back memories from several years back. We impulse launched #2 child with a very similar experience. File cabinet full of paperwork, tracking sheets for each school, etc. We successfully hit Georgetown, and now Fordham for postgrad work. (What is it about Jesuit schools and young adults that like to argue?)

#3 child looks to be a swimout launch. She's dipping her toes in the local community college this year to see what she might like. Much lower pressure, for now.
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Old 09-05-2009, 03:05 PM   #20
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Our high school english teachers helped us with our essays - it was part of our class and that was it. No help from parents since most of us had parents who studied in other countries...

I applied to two private colleges and their apps were a pain as you describe. The UC (Univ of CA) schools was one application and you can check off which ones you want to receive the app - easiest ever! I ditched one of the private apps on the due date, the other went in. Ended up at a UC...I was a low maintenence kinda gal!
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