Parents: How to Help with the College Essay — Without Taking Over

Parents: How to Help with the College Essay — Without Taking Over

It’s essay season! 

Itching to get your hands on your student’s application essay? Just once?

Don’t do it. 

Your child’s essay may be deeply personal. Unless your child offers you a share in the review, remain as hands-off during this process as possible.

What you can do: Go over the “rules” beforehand. You don’t want to be the parent who says, “Oh, by the way, don’t repeat any other part of the application, like your awards, grades or test scores. You’ve already reported those” — after your child wades through the essay.)

You’ll hear, “Mooo-om! That’s the whole third paragraph!”

Instead, intervene at the beginning if you want to help with the college essay — read this first!

1. What’s unique?

You know your child better than anyone else. You know what makes him tick (oooh, get rid of clichés!) 

He shouldn’t write about what he thinks will impress a scholarship committee or admission committee. 

In other words, your child shouldn’t write about world hunger if it’s not his thing. Let’s say his thing is caring for animals. Does he get up at dawn every day to birth calves with the veterinarian next door?

He should write about cow placentas if his life is all about cow placentas! Admission committees want to hear about unique interests. 

Can your child think of something unique — besides football, soccer or school subjects? (Overused topics.)

Maybe your daughter’s an Origami wizard. Maybe your son overcame OCD. 

Get your child thinking about his own passions — and how to craft these ideas in his own voice.

2. Writing can’t suck.

Obviously. It’s got to be interesting. Check out this intro:

Let’s acquaint. Born in New York City, I grew up filthy on the streets. Snowflakes landed on my dà pán jī and my sleeping bag in synchronicity. Mrs. Ming at Hou Yi fed me six times a day and I learned to swear in Chinese.

Just kidding. I grew up in Greenwich — privileged, yes, but check this out. I’m typing this essay with my toes. That’s right — no arms!

Wow, doesn’t that get your attention? 

Compare this to the first two sentences of my own autobiography (I wrote it in fourth grade): 

I was born on a cold, windy day in November. I was a greenish color and I cried when I was born. 

ZZZZZzzz. 

High schoolers sometimes can’t kick the passive voice because it’s easier.

Plus, bad English teachers + maxing out word count = raging passive voice.

How do you make sure your kid writes unlike he speaks? We all speak passively, and not everyone writes well. Remember those old summer vacation essays?

“We were on our summer vacation and Cape Cod was the only place I wanted to be.”

Yikes.

Get rid of clichés in your own speech and remind your high schooler. By the way, your child should strike anything redundant (extra words — yuck!) and ambiguous (give concrete details!).

3. Get someone else on board ahead of time.

Ask to critique his work and your kid looks at you, buggy-eyed, like you suggested staring at elephant poop. “Mom, you’re an insurance agent, not an English professor. Please sit this one out.” 

Sound familiar?

Get a third party involved wayyyy in advance, preferably someone who knows really good writing. Ask your copywriter friend, your child’s English teacher — someone other than you or your partner. 

(Even if you know your writing skills sparkle!)

Take control of the college search

4. Encourage your essayist to take it slow.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. (No clichés, remember?)

The Common App requires a 650-word essay, so encourage your child to make them count — slowly. Let’s say your child must meet a November 1 deadline for School X.

Ask him to start the essay now. Why not write 100 words over the course of six weeks? (Beats writing it all two days beforehand.) Pencil it out, like this: 

  • Write 100 words: Week of September 13
  • Another 100 words: Week of September 20
  • Crank out another 100 words: Week of September 27
  • Get it! Another 100 words: Week of October 4 (Already up to 400!)

…and so on. There’s nothing worse than last-minute panic. You know that from personal experience, right?

Help your child map out the entire next six weeks — and make sure he or she ends up with more than 250 words. It’s tough to impress an admission committee in only 250 words.

Your child may fill out other applications instead of the Common App. Schools often offer a “suggested limit” — don’t go over that. Try to use the Common App’s 650-word limit if no suggested limit exists.

5. Add in buffer time.

Add in time for creative stewing. For Netflix spirals. For reading a book chapter, typing a sentence, reading another chapter and writing another sentence.

It’s impossible for most people to sit down and write in one sitting. (Right now, I’m watching T.V., reading and working on three other freelance articles at a time.) I can’t commit to one thing at a time — your kid can’t, either. The point is, within those 100-word weeks, add in lots of buffer time.

Don’t forget to have your high schooler put the essay down quite a few times — think cold eyes and lots of revisions!

7. Answer the prompt!

It’s easy for admission officers to throw out essays that don’t specifically answer the prompts provided. Maybe the prompt asks about your child’s achievements and he answers with a lengthy blow-by-blow of his latest breakup.

Not relevant. Furthermore, make sure he relates it to his future performance in college. 

Read the prompt, then set it aside for a day or two. You don’t want your child to misread the prompt!

8. Resist the urge to take over.

You can’t write the essay for your child. Not even a small sentence here and there. If you do, you might give yourself away! Many old-timers slip in two spaces after every period or exclamation mark. Nobody does that anymore. (And if you do it, stop.)

Designate yourself “Cheerleader Mom” and reach out to your already-appointed proofreader instead. Your copywriter friend offers a subjectivity that you don’t have. The copywriter friend you know doesn’t have the same “My kid’s a genius!” bent or ample criticisms. (And if he does criticize, he’ll use a diplomatic approach — “How ‘bout we say this instead?”)

Take control of the college search

Help, but Stay Hands Off

Just like nobody warned you how hard it would be to watch your child fall down as a one-year-old, nobody warned you how tough it would be to keep your mitts off that admission essay.

Trust that outside advisor to walk your child through it — and if you need to, hire help! 

One last tip: Encourage your child to read great essays. Your child can glean a lot from samples, as long as he doesn’t copy them verbatim.

Questions to Ask Colleges and How to Get A+ Answers

Questions to Ask Colleges and How to Get A+ Answers

Time to put a zip in your step, folks! Are you ready to transform into a savvy prospective parent?

What do savvy prospective parents do?

They ask excellent questions.

One family asked me such difficult questions in the admission office that I gave them an “A+” for “hardest questions of the year” and said, “You should go talk to my boss.” 

They asked me questions like: 

  • “What’s the college pay for water and electricity and how does that work into my son’s tuition?”

And: 

  • “How much money do your college’s LEED buildings save per year?”

I’m sorry to say, I didn’t know the answer to their questions.

The point is, it’s important to ask relevant questions. We’re busy. Schedules only allow us to squeeze in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at lunchtime. That’s about it. 

Relevant questions get to the innards of what you need to know. Asking the right person the right questions is paramount.

Was I the right person to ask about water, electricity and LEED buildings? 

No — and does it even matter in the grand scheme of things? They should’ve asked the director of facilities, “How much waste does this school produce and how does that cost me money?”

“How much will it cost me?” — the real question.

What are the questions you should be asking? Let’s conquer those questions to get you started.

Who’s my child’s admission counselor?

Let’s start out with a simple question. This question means everything, though. 

You can even figure this out using the college’s website — you just need to select your state and sometimes even your child’s high school. Wham! It’s that easy to find your child’s go-to person.

Why is it important to get to know your child’s admission counselor?

Here’s an easy answer. One day, circa 2012, a student panel was underway during one of our visit days. Here’s how it went: 

Parent in audience: “Why did you come to this college?”

Student panelist on stage: “My admission counselor was awesome! She was one of the main reasons I decided to come here.”

A million reasons, folks! It’s a great question because:

  1. Your child’s admission counselor helps your family navigate financial aid, scholarships and more. The admission counselor may even be able to point you toward other scholarship opportunities. They may be scholarships in your community or online scholarships he/she knows your child could qualify for.
  2. The admission counselor can help you and your child make connections. Whether you need to talk to a biology professor, a financial aid officer or someone else at the school your child’s interested in, the admission counselor is the conduit to making that happen. Take advantage of it!
  3. Admission counselors know a lot about the college they work for. They know about the fun stuff, the clubs and organizations launching, the most popular majors and more. Admission counselors are often alumni, so they really have special knowledge about an institution. Ask an admission counselor what the best residence hall is and you’ll get an earful in milliseconds.
  4. Admission counselors know what types of students thrive at their institution. Let’s face it. Not every college is a great fit for every student. Why not ask what the ideal student at College/University XYZ looks like? It’ll be interesting to hear the admission counselor’s response.
  5. Admission counselors are statistics collectors. Admission counselors’ brains cannot go on autopilot. They should be able to know the percentage of students who graduate, how many go on to graduate school, how many get internships and more. (Just don’t ask them really quirky questions like that family did with me!)
  6. Admission counselors know what it takes to get admitted. Admission counselors are available to walk your child through the admission process. They should be able to tell you whether your child has a shot at getting admitted with his or her current credentials. An admission counselor may recommend submitting an additional letter of recommendation or other supporting documentation. They’re experts at strengthening an application. Ask before you send it in.
  7. Admission counselors can guide you through the process. You’re in the know at all times when you’ve got an admission counselor to guide you.
Take control of the college search

What should I know about the admission process right now? 

Question two. I know it relates to question one, but it’s an important breakout question. Colleges’ admission processes have changed. 

Maybe COVID-19 pushed ACTs or SATs to the annals of history. Or not.  

Maybe admission offices shoved interviews off the cliff. But maybe not.

You might just be learning the admission process at one school. However, if your child became aware of admission requirements for a particular school last year, things may be different. Double-check!

A few good questions: 

  • Do I need to supply my ACT or SAT score? If not, what will that do to my child’s admission chances? (Test optional should really mean test optional!) Check FairTest’s ACT/SAT test optional college and universities. FairTest is a national advocacy organization that seeks to “end the misuses and flaws of testing practices.” Most accredited 4-year higher education institutions adopted test-optional policies for fall of 2021 admission. 
  • If a college or university isn’t on FairTest’s list: Why does your college or university require ACT or SAT scores? Listen carefully to the reasons and determine whether it’s still important for your child to apply to that college.
  • What other metrics will you use for admission purposes instead of standardized test scores? Every college’s response will be different. Find out.

What are your COVID-19 policies right now? 

Should you find out about a school’s COVID-19 processes, even if your child’s a sophomore?

YES.

True, it’s tough to say what that will look like in a few years. However, learning more about a college’s process right now can help you and your student:

  1. Understand a college’s response to COVID-19. It’s important to evaluate a college on all fronts, and it’s critical to agree with the college’s response to the crisis. 
  2. Figure out what policies may look like down the road. It’s really possible that things could stay the same for next year and beyond. Truth be told, we don’t know how long this virus will hang around!
  3. Learn the online learning protocol and whether it makes sense for your student. Maybe your student says he’s 86ing online learning and you like another college’s COVID-19 policy better. Maybe your child wants to forgo a residential experience altogether. You can find really cheap ways to get an online degree!
  4. Assess how a college can help on the technology front. You and your child may not have the technology needed to make Zoom classes happen. How will the college help?
  5. Determine how a college makes classes interactive or uses creativity within the constraints of online learning. Yeah, how does a chemistry professor do labs online? I’m sure you’re really curious. (I am, too.)

Can my child connect with a professor or other necessary individual?

… or through Zoom if in-person meetings aren’t possible?

One of the best ways to get to know faculty members at institutions is to… meet them! 

  1. Your child will know instantly whether he wants to learn from that person. (First impressions!) You should meet a particular physics professor at my alma mater. He’s got personality plus and he’s exactly what you’d imagine when you think of the stereotypical physics professor. The students rave about him. He’d greet everyone on the first day by asking them their first names and one fact about them — and remembered everything. Great professor!
  2. Even if your child changes his mind on major — most do! — you’ll still get a feel for how the faculty members work with students. I think it’s a bad idea to choose a college based solely on major, but I do think all students should get to know at least one professor during the college search, if possible. It gives your child a general idea of whether professors are hands-on professors, whether they’re available for students and what their office hours are like.
  3. Who else should you meet? You might not be interested in hearing from a professor. What about a dietitian? The tutoring center? A coach?

How can my child talk to a current student? 

Your child must talk to a current student! I don’t care if it’s on Zoom, over the phone, in person — however it can happen, make it happen. You can find out a lot from students, who don’t spew the same jargon-filled, marketing vocabulary that a professor does.

You can learn more about:

  • The overall experience
  • Gossip about professors 
  • Residence hall living
  • Classes and academic rigor
  • Internship availability
  • Students’ opinions about the college’s COVID-19 response
  • Quality of food in the cafeteria (why not?!)
  • Athletic experiences if your student is an athlete
  • Class and day-to-day structure
  • Why the student chose to attend that college (my favorite question!)

Can you think of other topics your student should ask about? Think your student will never agree to talk to another student? How about if the admission office arranges it and the other student has tons common with that student? If you set it up, it might not happen, but if the admission office arranges it? — totally different story.

How to start the school year guide

What’s one thing you can guarantee that my student will experience at this college and why?

I really, really like this question! Know why? It puts a dart right in the middle of a college’s values. 

Once, a student said this to me about a competitor school: “I really didn’t enjoy my tour at XYZ College. The tour guide spent all her time talking about the religious opportunities on campus. I found out that over 60 percent of students at the college attend chapel or other religious services and I realized that college wouldn’t be a great fit for me at all.”

Now, in reality, the college actually could have been a great fit for the student because it offered an excellent academic experience. And the tour guide was wrong. Just 15 percent of students participated in religious activities. However, the student didn’t believe she’d fit in. It worked out to our benefit, however. The tour guide at our college did an excellent job of sharing all of the other salient points for the student and she came to our college! (It really is all about perception, isn’t it?)

Find out whether the school will meet your kiddo’s expectations. Ask around! Sometimes people take a students’ point of view as the gospel truth — and, well, my story proves what can happen there.

How much financial aid can I get?

Think you have to wait around to find out how much college will cost? Until you get your child’s financial aid award?

No! 

You can find out long before you get that aid award in the mail and can know the cost wayyyy in advance.

How?

You’ll find a net price calculator on every college’s website. The net price calculator holds the secrets: What you’ll pay out-of-pocket or through student loans. The college’s total cost — tuition, room and board and fees, minus any grants and scholarships — tells you what you pay. Is it a full, robust snapshot with every detail?

No. 

But you can get close.

By the way, you can also ask for a preliminary financial aid award or a financial aid early estimator. 

They give you lots of great information. Bottom line: You’re armed with a lot more information way before you receive a financial aid award.

How to Get A+ Answers

How to get A+ answers? It’s simple.

The only way you’re going to get answers to your questions is to ask them. Push a little. It’s okay! In fact, I firmly believe that’s a parent’s job during the college search process. 

Ask tough questions. And when the admission counselor can’t answer — she asks her boss. (Just like I did.) 

And then, when the boss can’t answer, he goes to the facilities planning and management personnel who can answer (or whoever it is.)

The point is, you’re the customer. You should get the answers you want and need. 

What I Wish I’d Written to My Mom Before the College Search

What I Wish I’d Written to My Mom Before the College Search

Hello! Here’s a guest post from my friend and colleague, Henry Khederian, who’s also a recent University of Michigan grad. He wrote a post-graduate letter about what he wishes he would have talked to his mom about during the college application process. Henry is a data research content creator at Benzinga. Enjoy!

Dear Mom, 

You’ve guided and supported me through some of the most difficult and challenging decisions in my life. 

Whether it was helping me select the best and brightest colors to finger paint when I was 5 or helping me look my best for my last high school prom, I know I can always count on your input! 

I’ve had my ups and downs in high school, and you know that better than anyone. When I didn’t make the varsity basketball team, you were there to tell me life goes on and things happen for a reason.

When I went out on my first ice cream date, you did the little things like help me pick out a 10/10 outfit and let me borrow your car.

College is just around the corner, and like a member of Congress needs the counsel of his aids, I want to tackle this thing they call college admissions together. 

I Want Your Help — I Really Do!

I’ve heard this thought bounced around on college admissions forums — the only thing harder than a student selecting a school is the parents’ role in steering their child in the right direction.

In other words, this process will not be one of linear progression (thanks, Algebra II, for the lingo). As decisions come in from the universities I apply to, I will face the heartbreak of rejection and the elation of success on this path. 

When I falter, I’m not asking you to hold my hand per se, but provide a way forward if my favorite school doesn’t pan out the way I dreamed it would. After all, you will feel my impending acceptances, waitlists and rejection decisions at an emotional magnitude greater than or equal to me, that’s for sure.

It’s my responsibility to write the arduous college essays, recount my high school extracurricular activities and gather transcripts. But more than ever, I could use your wisdom to help me keep my ducks in a row during an incredibly stressful process. 

Will you join me on this journey?

I’ve assembled a short list of the ways I believe you can support my success in the college admissions process. 

In other words, here’s what I believe I need from you. (This is by no means an exhaustive list, and there’s no question that we could argue points made here, but this is what’s at the forefront of what I need from you as a high school student.)

Read Between the Lines

The ever-daunting question many high school students like me face is how should I handle the college admissions essay process?

Am I left to toss and turn at night, perplexed in the uncertainty that what I’ve written may not be good enough for an esteemed Ivy League admissions board?  

Because so many college essays ask you to tell your personal story and journey, who better than to help me map my life experiences up to this point than you, Mom? 

Help Me Identify My Strengths and Weaknesses

The concept of blind spots does not only apply to learning how to drive, you know! It can be hard to recall each one of my strengths and weaknesses these past 4 years. Where did I shine in my schoolwork, where did I lack support from my community in the midst of stressors from school? 

Here are 3 key examples of questions where the common app asks me to recall my biggest of strengths and weaknesses:

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback or failure. How did it affect you and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Absent the need to submit SAT and ACT test scores, essays are more important than ever. 

I’m a firm believer that blind spots can only be spotted by the people closest to you. Why else would they be called blind spots if you could determine what they are all on your own? 

I need your help with that college application checklist, even if it seems like I don’t appreciate your input. 

Give Me Feedback

We’ve sat down together and hashed out so many incredibly active discussions on our life views (and yes, we’ve had arguments). I promise I won’t be mad if you have some critical feedback after I write the first few drafts for my common app essays. 

Because I know your feedback can shine a light on my blind spots and is the most golden of all.

In other words, it’s one thing if I visited a hurricane-relief zone for charity work, but why did I decide to take on this role? What are the lasting effects of helping others in need? Anyone can tell their story, but it’s you, Mom, who can best build depth and breadth to the experiences I’ve had. You know me best!

Know that this Year is Stressful

My high school graduating class is facing stress before classes even begin. Due to coronavirus, the end of my “in-person” high school career may be cut short. 

If anything, this uncertain timeline for the upcoming school year makes me want to make the most of each day that you and I have together before college arrives.

Because I’m bound to struggle with the logistical learning challenges brought on by COVID-19, I want you to be the first to know that, because you’ve been there for me time and time again, I trust you more than anyone to guide me through the finish line!

Some things never change — like how much I appreciate your support and critical feedback when I need it most. 

Thank you for everything, and I know we’ve got this!

Love,

Your Son

How to Be Happy About Your Teen’s College Choices

How to Be Happy About Your Teen’s College Choices

The last time I went to the dentist, my dentist told me all about how the college search was going with her senior. (Naturally, I wanted to ask her a billion questions as her dental instruments clinked against my teeth.)

Anyway, she told me that her senior, Will, was happily considering a local liberal arts college and a state school an hour down the road. She said to him, “Do you have a reach school? Somewhere you really, really want to go? Far away?”

He thought for a second. “Nah,” he replied. He went back to playing his video game. 

She was kind of disappointed. Later, she asked him why he didn’t want to “see what else is out there.” Will told her he thought it might be weird to do something other than what everyone else seemed to be doing.

Another mom I know has a student who’s completely focused on saving money, not taking out any loans and making it easy on his parents. He’s looking at state schools and private colleges to humor his parents, but his mom said, “He’s seriously looking at community colleges and I’m actually disappointed. Imagine that! Disappointed that he wants to go to college and save us money. But… I just don’t think community college is the best fit for him.”

You want your kids to make their own college decisions, yet you want college to be the right choice the first time around. So what do you do when you feel slightly disappointed (or a lot disappointed) by your student’s shortlist? 

Never fear — here are some helpful pointers!

Not thrilled about your child's college decisions so far? Unhappy with college choice options on the shortlist? Here's what to know.

1. Know that it’s Okay to Feel This Way

When you‘re unhappy with college choice or your child’s college search isn’t going the way you envisioned, you might feel sad, confused, guilty and also harbor a range of other emotions. First of all, know that your feelings are normal. 

It might bring up reminders of other times in your life you were slightly disappointed. Remember when your daughter decided to give up piano lessons? Or your son decided to choose soccer over baseball?  

It’s natural — you’ve invested some major time and energy (and money!) into piano lessons or soccer. Let’s take piano lessons, for example. You invested your time by hovering over your daughter as she practiced and drove her to piano lessons every Thursday. You invested your assumptions (“Wow, she played that song really well!”), hopes and dreams (“Maybe she’ll get into Juilliard someday!”). 

The more invested you feel, the more you expect an incredible outcome. Same with college. You feel mounting expectations for your child with every A+ math test and every note from an English teacher that says, “You’re a Shakespeare whiz!” 

But here’s an interesting question: Is your child supposed to fit your expectations or are your expectations supposed to fit your child? You don’t want to drive a wedge between the two of you.

2. Make Sure Your Student is Ready for the Next Step

E. St. John said, “There is, perhaps, no college decision that is more thought-provoking, gut-wrenching and rest-of-your-life oriented — or disoriented — than the choice of a major.”

I’d like to add “choice of college” to that list, too. This is particularly true because you might have to ask yourself if what your child’s ready for. Some kids have a lot of growing up to do before they choose a college. 

I recruited Jesse, a bright (really bright!) student. He had the worst time getting through his first year of college because, suddenly, there was this gigantic responsibility on his shoulders — how well he did in school depended completely on him. He faced enormous distractions because his friends (seriously) never went to sleep — they just hung out all the time. To make matters worse, he’d let his grades slip during his senior year in high school so he could have fun with his high school friends. In one fell swoop, he weakened his study habits before he’d even gotten to college.

The increased degree of freedom and independence was too much for him. His relationship with his parents suffered and so did his grades. 

How well do you think your child will do in college? Is your child a major procrastinator? Is she smart but easily overwhelmed by what’s set in front of her? Know your child’s capabilities and think carefully about whether he or she can handle the type of college you’ve always dreamed of. 

By the way, Jesse’s story ended well! He did graduate and is now a teacher in California. 

3. Ask Yourself Whether Your Dreams Are Overshadowing Your Child’s

This is definitely a family decision, particularly if you’re paying for college. But ultimately, it’s hopefully your child’s decision. You know your student will be successful if he knows he’s blazing his own trail. 

My former boss’ son went to a state university despite the fact that she really wanted him to go to a private liberal arts college. She’s the proud alumna of a liberal arts college herself and works at a liberal arts college and knows the benefits. He had nothing to do with any of it and shipped himself off to a state university. Of course, she’s happy he chose a great state university but had to give up on her long-standing dream of him attending her alma mater. (She’d always pictured his flaming red hair bobbing up and down her alma mater’s soccer field.) It was a little bit of a letdown to know that he’d never play soccer there like she had. 

Nobody warns you that you might have to mourn this a little bit. There’s research out there that says most moms have a bout of real grief after they drop off their kids at college. (Note: There’s good news. Nine out of 10 moved on from this feeling within a month or two, and some do sooner.)

But nobody tells you that you might be deeply disappointed for a while about The College Choice that Never Materialized. Lots of kids refuse to go to their parents’ alma maters or where their parents really want them to go. (I’ve seen it happen firsthand after so much effort to attract these kids.) 

4. Consider the Big Picture

The goal is college. The goal is to get into college — and make it, and graduate and get a job. (And be happy.) If your child feels he must do X, then X and X to get there (whatever those Xs are) then it’s important to remember one thing: Your child’s still going to college. If you have to tell yourself that a million times, do it. But keep the big picture in mind. Your goal was to save for college — and your child is going.

Now, it’s still important to make him aware of certain oppositions you have. Maybe the school he’s going to isn’t accredited or is in a known gang neighborhood — or whatever. Obviously, if he will endanger himself or his future, it’s not a good idea and you must have that important discussion. 

5. Talk to Your Teen

Yeah! Have you had the deep-down, heart-to-heart discussions with your child about college that last late into the night? (This is what I’m picturing in 10 years when my oldest starts her journey. Please tell me this will happen!) Obviously, how much you talk about college depends a lot on both of your personalities and how open your child is to talking about the college search.

Evaluate the Academic Fit Together

The academic fit is obviously one of the most important parts of the college experience. Ask your teen what he’d like to get out of the academic experience and what his priorities are. 

Talk about the academic differences between a community college, a state university and a liberal arts college. Talk about academic rigor between like institutions. A small rural college might pack an academic punch but an Ivy League institution is obviously going to kick it up a notch. 

It might be interesting to hear about his biases and perceptions. Make sure your teen is getting his information from a reputable source. His well-intentioned assistant baseball coach might not be as reliable a source as a college professor, admission counselor or financial aid representative.

There’s no shame if both of you aren’t sure what the exact facts are. That’s what the college search is all about — it’s a fact-finding mission. Do whatever you can to be sure you’re getting the right facts about academics. 

Also, remember that a lot of colleges pay to be on the “Best of” lists. Use your best judgment when you’re Googling yet another “Best Small Liberal Arts Colleges in the Northwest” list. Your best bet is to visit each college, ask lots of questions, sit in on classes and make those determinations for yourself.

Talk About the Importance of Social Growth

I’m going to flat-out say it: There’s a big difference between a commuter college versus a residential campus. If your child’s a social butterfly, she may already be thinking she wants to live in a sorority or on a residential campus. She may naturally gravitate that direction. 

A more introverted student may want to go the community college route because he’s hoping to live at home and keep life how he knows it.

But what’s best for both of these types of students in terms of social growth? An introverted student might thrive at a university, a bubbling social butterfly might be able to focus better in a smaller environment. 

Have a Discussion About Retention

Retention rate is certainly something that doesn’t come to mind immediately during the college search. I believe it deserves careful investigation. 

What is retention, anyway? A college or university’s retention rate is measured by its percentage of first-time, first-year undergraduate students who continue at that school the next year. Let’s use my recruit, Jesse, as an example. He studied full-time in the fall semester of 2016 and kept studying at the college during the next fall semester. He was included in that cohort of students who retained during their first year.

Here’s an easy way to learn about a school’s retention rate. Check out College Navigator from the National Center for Education Statistics. I really love that tool! Just type in the name of the school, find it in the drop-down, then click on “retention.” You’ll be able to see first-year retention and overall graduation rates and a lot of other great information.

You want this retention rate to be as high as possible. Steer clear of a college if its retention rate is really low — like in the 30th percentile. This means a large number of students transfer out after freshman year. If your student is really excited about a college with a low retention rate, you’d better quiz the admission counselors at that school about why its retention rate is so low.

Talk About How a Visit is Really Important

Has your teen already decided where he’s going to go without checking it out? 

Just because your child’s got his mind made up, try to strike a deal. Teach your child how to schedule a college visit at one large, one medium and one small school to give him an array of options. 

Talk About Money

Is your fear about money manifesting itself in disappointment? In other words, are you disappointed because your child has chosen a really expensive school and you’re not sure you can make it happen?

Conversely, have you set aside a pile of money and your child isn’t going to use it? Maybe he’s opted for a community college but you planned for an Ivy League. Is the amount you’ve invested equally proportionate to your giant expectations? 

The money part of college can bring out all sorts of emotions and fear is a big one. Just make sure your child understands that your disappointment is placed on money — not his or her decision to go to college.

6. Know that Your Child Can Go into Any Industry with a Degree from Any College

This is huge. In fact, there’s some major evidence that pinpoints exactly what matters most in lifetime success. Want to know the secret? 

It’s grit. Grit is the passion and perseverance to achieve long-term goals. It’s a stick-to-itiveness that simply having a degree won’t magically do to instigate success. Psychologist Angela Duckworth has said, “Grit is passion and perseverance for long-term goals. Grit is living life as a marathon, not a sprint.”

If your child decides that College X (which you’re not a big fan of) is the best place for him, rest easy if you’ve noticed your child’s excellent work ethic. Your kiddo will be just fine.

Disappointment Happens — But Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

Again, you know the prize is that calligraphy-clad diploma at the end of the road. Your child’s going to get there. Often, good decision making for success in college includes making excellent decisions about college from the get-go. 

Make sure you tell your child you’re proud of so many things, including his choice to go to college (even if you’re not excited about the path he’s taking to get there).

Socrates said, “Know thyself,” and in this case, “Know thy child” is so applicable.

The Best Ways to Reach Out to Colleges with Your Student

The Best Ways to Reach Out to Colleges with Your Student

My husband likes to get up every Saturday morning and watch fishing shows. He’s not even really an avid fisherman; he simply enjoys watching professional fishermen reel in giant, slimy fish. My kids like it, too. They all group around the television and “Ooh” and “Ahh” every time some guy catches a largemouth bass.

Why am I telling you this? Because you may feel like finding the right college is kind of like finding the biggest bass in Lake Okeechobee. Right?

Building relationships with people at colleges can make the “fishing” process seem a little less daunting. It brings more clarity to the college search and helps your child hone in on those “Aha” moments. 

Anna Dealy, associate director of advancement communication at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts, used to work in enrollment at a private liberal arts college. She says her favorite part of working in admission is building friendships with students and families. 

Dealy says it’s important for parents to help students understand that colleges want to get to know you, then help guide the relationship-building process. 

“It helps for students to know that those of us working in enrollment aren’t scary,” says Dealy. “We want to meet students and want them to succeed. Maybe if they know that from the beginning, they might not think building relationships with admission offices is so foreign and unknown.”

The thing is, you and your high schooler have to work toward building relationships. Plus, your student has to be willing to get on board. (That may feel like reeling in a shark!)

As with most things, it’s better to do it together.

If you're ready to build up those college contacts and develop  relationships during the college search, good for you! Here's how!

Add College Contacts with Your Student

Make sure you reach out to people during the college search together. It’s really intimidating for your child to have to do it alone, particularly when your high schooler may not be great at getting to know new people. That said, anytime you need to talk with a financial aid officer, set up a college visit, talk scholarships with an admission counselor — whatever it is — put your child on speaker and encourage him or her to make the first move. It’s time to start learning how to interact with anyone now — it’s good life skills training.

Encourage Your Student to Attend High School College Rep Visits

Encourage your kiddo to attend college rep visits at his or her high school. Colleges usually make the rounds at high schools in fall and spring and intermittently during the winter. 

It’s a great idea to get to know admission counselors through those visits. Your child’s school counselor or college and career counselor will have a list of dates when colleges will visit. 

You may hear that high school teachers prefer that your child stays in class, but this is a great relationship-building opportunity, particularly if your child’s classmates all stay in class! That way, your child will get lots of one-on-one attention, particularly if your student has an eye on a smaller school.

How can you do this together? You might want to request some private time with the admission counselor and your child if you have specific questions. Call the high school and find out whether the college rep can spare some extra time. Or go directly to the source and contact the college rep.

Get to Know Alumni

Even if alumni graduated 20 years ago, they’re still great people to build relationships with because they’re the ultimate cheerleaders. They can be great at explaining the heart and soul of an institution — that usually doesn’t change! (You’ll still hear current students talk about some of the same things that older alumni describe.) 

Alumni may also do interviews with your student as a required or optional part of a school’s admission process. In that case, you can help your child set up the interview, but it’s best if you stay home. You can help your child dress for success, practice interview tips and make sure your child follows up after the meeting. This is just one area where you’ll have to sit on the sidelines!

Go to College Fairs with Your Child

College fairs are a great way to learn more about what colleges offer. Go to a college fair with your child so he or she doesn’t have to go it alone. The school counselor at your child’s high school should have a list of local and regional college fairs you can attend. National college fairs can also offer a great opportunity for you and your son or daughter to communicate with a college representative together — these fairs are usually packed. 

Come with a list of specific questions about campus culture but leave the questions about class size at home. You can find that online. 

Oh, and make sure your child asks the first few questions!

Give Your Child Opportunities to Get to Know Students

Obviously, the students are the life and soul of a college or university. The best place to get to know them is during college visits on campus. Encourage your child to talk to the students during these visits. This can be such a challenging thing for a high schooler! They might feel like they’re kindergarteners all over again.

Prep your student ahead of time for what to expect. There’s nothing worse for a college student tour guide than trying to give a tour to a family who’s too timid to ask questions or make conversation. It’s also tough on the tour guide when parents dominate the conversation — FYI! 

Beyond the college visit, are there students around your community who attend the colleges your child is interested in? They can clue them in on a lot — campus culture, tips for navigating the first year, the best residence halls, where to go for resources, programs, etc. It’s fun for your student to hear all this from a student perspective and it’s instructive because you also get away from all the college marketing hoopla. College students can be completely real and help your child get the scoop on it all.

Meet with Faculty and Staff

Meeting with faculty and staff is one of those things that can make a kid die a thousand deaths, as you probably already know. Talking to a financial aid guru, faculty member or other staff member can be terrifying for a 17-year-old high school student. This is one of those times when your child may never say, “Mom, I need you,” but he does! 

“Faculty members can really give students that level of comfort that someone in enrollment might not know about the details in the area of study and success stories. Faculty are huge resources of finding the right fit. That’s what it’s all about for students — finding the right fit,” Dealy says.

Yessss.

Getting to know faculty and staff may even help college professionals “look out” for you during the college search. Here’s an example. When I worked in the admission office, a professor decided to collect money from other faculty and staff to offer up scholarships for deserving students. He amassed an impressive amount — enough to offer students an extra $1,000 to their aid awards. 

He asked admission counselors for the names of who they thought deserved the scholarships the most. I very vividly remember him asking me about the students in my territory.

Naturally, the students who knew our admission counselors best received the scholarships because they’d gone through the trouble of building relationships with them. Obviously, this is a super-specific example and doesn’t happen at every college, but do you see how there could be far-reaching benefits for students and families?

Know Your Student’s Admission Counselor

Getting to know admission and financial aid is a good place to start, says Dealy.

“Based on the people I’ve met in the enrollment industry, we want to be resources and advocates, help students thrive, help them find the right fit and go out in the world and be successful. We believe that all students can do that and we want to help them along on their journeys,” Dealy says.

Exactly!

Get in Touch for All the Right Reasons

So here’s the other thing. When you’re “fishing,” you want to be sure you’re fostering genuine relationships with college contacts. This isn’t a good approach: “Let’s make friends with key people at colleges just so they go above and beyond to help us.” 

It’s got to be genuine and sincere, because, if anything, you’re teaching your child how to be a really nice person. The best relationships are reciprocal friendships — each party gets something out of it. Yes, college representatives are “hitting goals” by getting your child to attend their colleges. But most really, really want to recruit graduates — students who will enroll, love the experience and graduate to be proud alumni.

Why You Need to Be Brave and Get Life Insurance for College

Why You Need to Be Brave and Get Life Insurance for College

This post may contain affiliate links.

I did a very scary thing yesterday.

I signed up to be part of a study: The Mayo Clinic GENERATE (GENetic Education, Risk Assessment, and TEsting) Study. Here’s a snippet of the cheery email that appeared in my inbox:

We are very excited to share that the study is now open to anyone who has a first-degree relative who has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, regardless of genetic testing status. You can read more about our updated eligibility criteria at https://generatestudy.org/participation/.

Basically, if I get accepted, I’ll undergo genetic testing which will tell me whether I have the markers for pancreatic cancer.

Yippee.

My mom developed pancreatic cancer at 55 — the same year my daughter was born. I remember thinking, “I refuse to raise my daughter without my mom around. I can’t do it!” But the odds were stacked against us.

Despite the fact that everyone told me to stay off the internet, I’d Googled the statistics anyway: For all stages of pancreatic cancer combined, the one-year relative survival rate is 20% and the five-year rate is 7%, according to the American Cancer Society.

Fast forward seven years: My daughter still has her grammy. My mom beat all the odds, and she’s a nurse now fighting COVID-19. (Ask me how I feel about that.)

Anyway, as you can imagine, it’s a bit terrifying to think about what the tests will find. And oh, geez, the implications: Will I be around for my kids? If not, what will happen to my husband (emotionally and financially)?

I Realized I Need Life Insurance

Signing up for this study was the club to the head I needed. Nothing like signing up for a cancer study to assist you in realizing your own mortality. Gah. I’d gotten a sizable policy through my old job at the college and I have one through my current full-time job, but it’s not worth much.  

The point of getting life insurance is this: What if I die early and can’t help my husband pay for college for my kids? What if I die before our house is paid off? It might not be from cancer, either. I could get in a car accident or fall off a ladder. 

How Does Life Insurance Work? 

Life insurance is pretty easy to understand. You pay a recurring amount of money, called a premium, to an insurance company. The insurer pays out a tax-free sum of money to your beneficiary or beneficiaries if you die while the policy is active. This is called a death benefit.

Life insurance helps with expenses upon your death, such as: 

  • Replacing your income
  • Paying off a mortgage
  • College costs
  • Funeral and other end-of-life costs
  • Day-to-day bills
  • Cosigned debt
  • Child care or dependent expenses
  • Medical expenses or long-term care (Certain life insurance policies offer an accelerated death benefit rider which means you can access a portion of your death benefit if you’re diagnosed with a terminal illness. Doing so while you’re still alive could help with medical or other expenses when you can’t work.)

You can choose from different types of life insurance: 

  • Term life insurance lasts for a set number of years before it expires.
  • Whole life insurance is a permanent life insurance policy. It offers a death benefit and a cash value — a tax-deferred cash value account that accrues interest at a predetermined fixed rate. A certain portion of the premium you pay goes into the cash value of the policy, which offers a guaranteed rate of return.
  • Universal life insurance is also a permanent life insurance policy. It also has a cash value, but you can use the cash value to pay the premium, or let your accrued interest pay your premium each month.
  • Variable life insurance has a cash value and is similar to investing. Money that you pay in goes into a series of accounts like mutual fund accounts. You can gain or lose money, depending on the markets.
  • Variable universal life insurance lets you adjust the premium and death benefit amount while investing the cash value in the policy’s cash value.
  • Final expense insurance covers the cost of anything associated with your death, which could include medical costs, a funeral or cremation.
  • Group life insurance is exactly how it sounds. You purchase it through your employer. 
  • Simplified issue life insurance allows you to get insurance without a medical exam, but you do have to fill out a questionnaire.
  • Guaranteed issue life insurance allows you to get insurance without a medical exam or a questionnaire. 

I Chose Simplified Issue/Term Life Insurance

In my opinion, I firmly believe that term life insurance is the best option for most people. First of all, the point of term life insurance is to cover you while you still have dependents, a mortgage, etc. Eventually, our kids will be grown and the house will be paid off. My husband and I may not need life insurance after that. Plus, because term life insurance expires, it’s cheaper than whole life insurance and the rate and payout never change. I liked the idea that we’ll pay the same amount every month and my death benefit won’t change.

I also didn’t want to go through a medical exam — particularly during COVID-19. 

I Chose Bestow

One of the reasons I chose Bestow is because I fell prey to the mere-exposure effect. Have you ever heard of that powerful psychological term? It’s when you develop a preference for things merely because you’re familiar with them. It’s also called the familiarity principle in social psychology. (If you’re good at marketing or sales, you know the power of this psychological phenomenon.)

Bestow is one of a million insurance agencies — you don’t have to choose the same one I did. 

Bestow offers policies provided by North American Company for Life and Health Insurance®. Bestow only offers 10-year and 20-year term policies and the 20-year term is only available if you’re under 45 years old. 

Anyway, I wrote about Bestow for a not serious article close to Valentine’s Day and remembered the name.

However, I also chose Bestow because there’s no medical exam, Both plans allow you to cancel any time, without paying any fees. You can apply for a plan in a matter of minutes online and get approved quickly. Dust off your hands. You’re done.

Plus — no blood draw? Sign me right up.

Here’s How I Signed Up

The process couldn’t have been easier. First, I filled out some basic information. 

I chose 20 years because of my kids’ ages — they are seven and four, so 10 years wouldn’t be quite enough.

Then, I added my address and email address. And created a password:

It took me to this screen: 

I needed to answer a few questions about my health, such as whether I have high blood pressure, cancer, etc. I also needed to check the boxes on whether I SCUBA dive, skydive or other types of high-risk activities.

A popup did ask whether a parent of mine had died of cancer or heart disease before age 65. I was able to say “No!”

I added my beneficiaries and my credit card payment. I monkeyed with the coverage a bit, then hit “Enter Your Payment” and I was set. Covered for 20 years!

Peace of Mind for the College Years

Is your child heading to college this fall? In that case, it’s still a good idea to get life insurance if you plan to use a tuition installment plan for college — you may not quite have saved all the money you need for college and plan to do it per month. 

Bestow in particular only insures people ages 21 to 55, so look into different life insurance options. Life insurance is more expensive as you get older. Also, the more health problems you have, the higher your rate will be — or you could be denied altogether.

Think about this, though — I’m going to be really straightforward here. It’s totally possible to contract a disease and die within a four-year period, while your child is in college. My reality is that for all stages of pancreatic cancer combined, the one-year relative survival rate is 20 percent and the five-year rate is seven percent.

Protect Your Family

These days, it doesn’t require a whole lot of effort to get life insurance. And really, if you prefer to find the cheapest option possible, you might want to undergo the medical exam. It could save you some money in the long run. 

Getting life insurance is a great way to say, “I love you!” to your family members. It’s one way to care for them the way they deserve — and it’s also a great way to help your spouse or kids do any number of things after your death, including go to college.

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