By Anne Stanton
A couple of months ago, a surgeon was making small talk as he put six
stitches into my head.
So, he said, inquiring of my 14-year-old daughter -- stitch, stitch,
stich -- where does she want to go college?
She once mentioned Yale University, I said, but I didnt know how
serious she was. And with four years of tuition costing in the
millions (or might as well be), her only hope would be for an academic
Money might be a moot point, he said, pausing with the needle for
effect. Colleges expect far more than terrific grades to even get in.
They want to see something spectacular, like volunteering in the Congo
or starting a small non-profit (maybe Im exaggerating).
My friend joked that aspirants to Harvard or Yale merely have to
temporarily adopt new parentsideally a childless couple living on Old
CONSIDER THE OPTIONS
Sally Stilwill, who counsels high school students on getting into
college, said that there are many great colleges besides Yale,
Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford. Stilwill said a students best bet
is to find a college that matches his or her personality, family
budget, and desired area of interest rather than pushing only for a
Stilwills first piece of advice is to start thinking about college as
early as you can. I myself didnt think of going to college until my
junior year when my boyfriend, a year older than me, informed me he
was going to Michigan State University. Me too! The following year, I
had a new boyfriend. He attended the University of Michigan.
But lets say, youre more evolved than I was. Youd like to attend
Harvard University, lets say. So go take a peek at its website and
make sure youre signed up for the right classes. Heres what it
says: An ideal four-year preparatory program includes four years of
English, with extensive practice in writing; four years of math; four
years of science: biology, chemistry, physics, and an advanced course
in one of these subjects; three years of history, including American
and European history; and four years of one foreign language.
The website is mercifully honest about its reputation for legacy
admissions. It explains that, Among a group of similarly
distinguished applicants, the daughters and sons of College alumni/ae
may receive an additional look. A hard gaze, more like it. It also
concedes the admissions office looks at the quality of the schools
attendedas in prep schools. And to think I laughed when my New York
City friends doled out $25,000 to send their daughter to kindergarten
(this small child also had to interview and test for her place in
class, I kid you not.)
Sadly, as my niece in Livingston, Montana, found out, her public high
school wasnt considered rigorous enough, so she was rejected from
all the Ivy League schools to which she applied despite impeccable
grades, top test scores, and loads of volunteer work. Yet, she is
doing just fine at Montana State University where she cobbled together
several merit and community scholarships for a free ride. Shes not
There is a common sense side to all of this. Its all well and good to
aspire to a highly respected college, Ivy League or otherwise, but not
if the competition is too fierce to succeed. Same with taking
challenging classes in high school. Advanced placement (AP) classes
make an excellent choice, unless youre not up to the coursework. AP
classes are followed by an optional examif your score is high enough,
the class can be accepted as college credit by many, but not all
Stilwill recommends taking the highest level of class in which you
will likely do well. So maybe take just one AP class at a time, or two
or three if you can handle it. Or take the class a step below AP and
avoid the intense stress level while still earning a good grade.
But always engage in learning, Stilwill said. The key to taking
advanced placement classes is that it allows you to compete with other
students nationally since it is a recognized curriculum that colleges
understand. I subscribe that students should take the highest level of
classes they feel they can be successful in and that goes for colleges
too. I was told recently over 75% of our students go on to college for
either two or four years, yet only 33% graduate from college. This is
a really important fact because college is expensive and you need to
be prepared for a successful experience.
THE KEY TO COLLEGE:
Stilwill has met with a wide range of students, from a young lady who
had to apply for colleges from her home in Italy to assisting a young
man whose parents were too busy to help him navigate the deadlines and
requirements. Each student has highly individual interests and needs,
But for all students, the key to finding a college is to do everything
much earlier than you think you have to.
Beginning in ninth grade, keep a record of all your extracurricular
awards, volunteer gigs, paid jobs, athletic triumphs, awards, and
travel activities. This all goes on your resume and is used on your
college applications, as well. Stilwills advice is to pursue the
extracurricular things you love with a passion, rather than taking a
shotgun approach of doing lots of things in a rather haphazard way.
Admission offices like depth more than breadth. So if you love drama,
stick with it and work to become the lead in plays or a student
director. If you begin as a reporter on the school newspaper, work
your way up to editor.
If you want to go into the arts, a portfolio is absolutely
essential. But you knew that.
Many colleges ask for samples of your best schoolwork, so keep a few
papers in the same file as your resume.
Make your summers count. Your optimal summer job or volunteer gig
should be related to your desired field of study. Dan Spencer, a U-M
sophomore, said that he didnt think much of donating blood over the
years until Stilwill asked him about it. Those acts of liquid charity
helped him get an internship in the hospital emergency room. He
eventually wants to become a doctor.
Take your warm-up ACT (called PLAN) in the sophomore year. The PSAT
is also available in your sophomore year, but some wait until their
junior year for less test stress. These exams are optional, but there
are advantages to taking them, such as finding out your weaknesses
before taking the ACT and SAT in your junior year. Also, a high score
(in the 90th percentile or above) on the PSAT taken in your junior
year will automatically put you in the running for a National Merit
Scholarship. Finally, taking the PSAT is an easy way of making
yourself known to colleges across the land (if you check the box, that
To prep for these exams, use a practice book, a tutor, or online
resources on the SAT College Board site. You might want to order The
Real ACT Prep Guide ($25) at www.atc.org. Do not wing your ACTs or
SATs unless you are exceptionally bright and tend to test in the 99th
percentile. After prepping with a textbook, you can try a SAT
diagnostic test using the College Boards Real SAT Subject Tests sold
on Amazon and other online sources. You can also take an ACT test
online for a fee.
Its best to take ACTs or SATs during your junior year. That way,
youll have the summer months or your senior fall to apply to college.
If your scores are low, youll have time to try again your senior year
and more than once (you choose which scores you want the colleges to
The advantage to applying early is that youre admitted earlyor not.
If you get your application in by September of your senior year, your
application will be seen with fresh admission eyes that are open to
your individual nuances. These same
eyes tend to glaze over with the application avalanche of November and
December and arent quite as open. Spencer said that, with Stilwills
guidance, he had finished his college applications before starting his
senior year, which freed him up for
the tennis season in the fall. He received his acceptance letter in
October, along with a few others on his tennis team who did the same.
The other reason to apply early is that youll have more time to
hunt for scholarships, grants, and loans. Trust me, youll need every
cent you can find with the yearly cost, even at state universities,
averaging $68,000 for four years. U-M is more like $18,000, causing
one to think, does the president really need her $784,000 salary?
Private schools are more than double that at $142,000 for four years,
on average, but are more likely to provide financial help, especially
for high achievers.
Although most of us baby boomers toured the college campus on the
same day we pulled up in front of our dormitory, its now quite common
to visit college campuses in the students junior year (springtime)
and thereby avoid a miserable mismatch. Campus visits earn points with
the admissions counselors, and provide a glimpse of whats ahead in
terms of size, distance from home, the diversity of students and the
feel of campus, available majors, the look of dorm rooms, style of
clothes kids wear (schleppy or preppy), and, um, the party scene.
Youll soon find out about the common application. This is an
online application form that many colleges use to make life easier for
the applicant. Instead of filling out 10 different applications,
youll have to fill out maybe only one. Most colleges require that you
write an additional essay for them.
When you write an essay, try to make it as personal and meaningful
as possible. Now may be the only time in your life that its
considered a plus growing up with a single mom and having to take on
the responsibilities of an adult at the tender age of 12.
My friends daughter wrote a really compelling essay about watching
her older sister mess up in high school with drugs and alcohol, barely
graduate, and choose to waitress in a distant city. The two sisters
stopped talking for a long while. She described how she learned to
accept her sister, eventually becoming her close friend.
College applications require recom-mendations from the counseling
office and from teachers. So make it a point to get to know your
teachers and let them get to know you. The best time to ask them for a
recommendation is in May of your junior year. And when you do, they
will ask you to write an accounting of why you think youre so
special. This is when your resume and life story come in handy.
Consider alternatives to a four-year university. Some students are
taking a post high school year at Interlochen Arts Academy to gain
further expertise in the arts, such as film or music, and to build a
portfolio for scholarship opportunities.
Consider getting your general education requirements at a community
college to save tens of thousands of dollars before heading off to a
pricey four-year school.