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How to Get Your Teen to Pick the College You Want—Sort Of

This week's Evil Mother Lady confession: College applications are for the birds.

So, now it is time for the next confession—college applications are for the birds. Having spent much of the recent break and all of the Thanksgiving break working with my oldest on college applications, I wonder how anyone gets through the process reasonably healthy and sane. By the end, I was threatening to make a mockumentary about the process, especially the UC’s. Unfortunately, since my daughter is applying to several UC’s, I am banned from filming until my youngest has entered the school of her choice. So I get to write about them instead.

Let’s start at the beginning: where your child wants to attend college. This seems like a simple one, right? There are multiple websites that will take what you want in a college, filter the 4,000-plus universities and colleges in the U.S., and deliver, free, a list that meets all of your exacting criteria. The schools start snail mailing and emailing students as soon as those PSAT scores arrive. Websites abound, from the school, from school ranking systems, from the College Board, from student review sites, everything you want to know is right at your fingertips, just type away. Much easier than the voluminous bulletins my guidance counselor had, with generic information from which you gleaned what you could before you mailed in the magic postcard that signaled to the universities you were interested in having them inundate your mailbox. At least you would think it was easier.

Unfortunately, the ease of getting information meant my research-happy daughter was soon swimming in information overload. We gave her a summer assignment, pick your top 10 list of schools to apply to, she went away to summer pre-college programs (we knew that would knock two off the list right off the bat) and we gave timely reminders (read “nagged” to the 17-year-old brain). Picked her up from summer camp, asked for the list and received a blank, panicked stare. It was our first clue how complicated the college application system had become and yes, we were 20 years out of date without a clue that our knowledge was largely irrelevant.

She had attempted the research; the problem was there was too much information and little experience on her part in how to filter the information to start making choices. Not to mention the fact that at 17, you feel the world is wide open and choices are limiting, so why should you make them right now? It was time for a mom intervention (since dad was the person picking her up across country and having to deal with the consequences of inaction). I asked her questions about what she wanted in a school, put my research skills to work for 30 minutes and emailed her information and links on 20 schools that fit her criteria. And I admit, I tailored the list and weeded out some probably dandy schools that were too inconvenient to fly to easily or were located in cities that didn’t rank highly for safety in my eyes. If she had the summer to do the research and make choices and opted not to, I felt comfortable providing my very prejudiced list for her review. My research time, my choices. If you want different choices, do the research yourself.

That’s not to say the list I generated was the one we ended up with; no, once there was a list, she dove in and tore it apart. She had a field day, criticizing the schools I left off and adding them, pointing out my ignorance in which schools were truly urban rather than suburban, explaining why certain art schools weren’t ranked (did you realize if there are no graduate programs for a degree, it usually isn’t ranked in the guides?), and which art schools excelled at the majors she was interested in. That was when I realized she really had done the research, she just didn’t know how to get to a starting point, which is where mom needed to come in. From my personal experience, that was what we did with our guidance counselor—times have indeed changed. But more than that part of the college application process later.

Having survived much of the process, I can unequivocally state I am no fan of the college application process. However, since my children are my retirement policy and we will be paupers by the time we put them through college, I am a big fan of positioning them to earn enough money afterwards to provide me a tiny house and someone to cook for me and drive me around in my old age. With my $300,000-plus investment per child plus interest, I am banking on a million-dollar payoff. So, how about you?

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Lynn Wolsey January 13, 2013 at 07:53 PM
Good luck with that!
Mary Lou January 14, 2013 at 09:40 PM
How about me? My son started planning for college when he was in kindergarten - the only one in the class who insisted on wearing a dress shirt and tie to school. He wanted to be a nuclear physicist and attend a college that has a particle accelerator. We told him he would have to work hard, earn a scholarship and put himself through college since we didn’t have much money. He did just that, earning a full scholarship. With quite a few colleges available to him, he chose Berkeley. He took off for San Francisco a few weeks after he turned 18. Grew his hair long and wore tie dye shirts instead of ties. He didn’t care for the party lifestyle in a dorm, so he rented a small apartment right next to the BART. It was loud but he got used to it. No car, so public transit was a must. He worked in the school bookstore to help pay expenses. Got his degrees in math and computer science (instead of physics) and immediately landed a high-paying job at Google, where the employees get free gourmet food and have heated toilet seats. So, kindergarten is not too early to start college planning after all.

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