How to get your kids into college

March 1, 2003 by  
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School Daze
Secrets of Getting Your Kids into College

You’ve made countless brown bag lunches, endured the mosquitoes during arboretum field trips and stayed awake until 2 a.m. putting finishing touches on science fair projects. But the peskiest, and perhaps most stressful, part of educating your kids stands before you: getting them into college.

Here’s the good news – the college admissions process doesn’t have to be as frantic as a late-night run for Cliff’s Notes the night before the Huck Finn test. Experts from colleges and high schools around town say you can relax if you prepare yourself and your kids early.

Start in the ninth grade

Experts agree that by the time kids enter high school, they should be thinking about college. According to Jenine Amaki, college counselor at the Kinkaid School, students and parents need to talk generally about the academic rigor of college students and specifically about the courses they should take early in the students’ freshman year.

Parents need to be realistic about their children when discussing curriculum planning, says Wendy Andreen, a college counselor at Memorial High School. “Not every child is an honors student, and that does not mean they won’t be successful,” Andreen says. “Work with their strengths. Don’t panic if they’re not straight-A honors students. On the other hand, if they’re looking at very selective colleges, grades, class rank and test scores are going to be important.”

Amaki warns against students trying to pad their resumes with activities and clubs that aren’t meaningful to them. “Pick one or two activities that closely mirror your passions, and pursue those,” Amaki advises students. “If you participate in clubs or organizations, get involved enough to be in leadership.”

And what about the costly SAT prep courses and private tutoring that are available? Amaki says that while these offerings may help some students gain familiarity with the standardized tests, nothing prepares a child more for these tests than simply reading.

Help your children make a match

“Parents have an important role: helping students understand that they are probably a match at five or six schools,” says Julie Browning, dean for undergraduate enrollment at Rice University. “Don’t tell your kids that only one school is right for them. Students should identify several schools where they would be happy.”

Each of the more than 2,500 colleges and universities in the country has its own culture. Trouble comes when parents and students don’t take the time to find the several schools that are right. “This is a developmental process, not something you commit a weekend to and get on with it,” Browning says.

Most teenagers are still learning about themselves, and the process of shopping for schools helps them develop self-awareness, Browning says. “Students should feel empowered not to put all their eggs in one basket.”

Convincing kids to look beyond “conventional wisdom” can be more difficult than it seems. When Parker Dalton opted to attend Texas A&M University instead of Harvard, his peers challenged his decision.

“Very few understood that A&M was a good fit,” says Dalton, who will play baseball for the Aggies. “The teachers said, ‘Parker, do you know what kind of life you’ll lead when you get out of Harvard?’ There was a little resentment from my friends.” Still, Dalton trusts the sense he got when he visited A&M, that ‘this is exactly where I need to be.’

Visit early and often

Planning college visits may seem expensive and time-consuming, but parents and admissions professionals on both sides of the diploma say they are worth the effort.

“Developing that familiarity with a school means that students will develop preferences,” Browning says. “Pay attention to gut-level responses; they mean something.”

Colleges offer visiting students everything from campus tours to class visits, overnight stays in dorm rooms to meetings with financial aid officers. Browning suggests starting no later than junior year and using spring breaks to make the visits.

Combine college visits with family trips, and take advantage of local universities to sample various types of schools, says Andreen, who recently helped her own son win admissions to the University of Texas School of Architecture.

“If you happen to visit your aunt in Florida, visit a university. See what the campus is like,” Andreen says. “Go to the University of Houston and get a feel for a larger public university. Go to St. Thomas and see what a private, cozy campus is like. Go to Rice and see what a selective, mid-sized, private university is like. HBU is here.”

Nancy Dalton has visited campuses across the country with her son Parker, his twin brother and their sister who is two years older. “Ideally you go sit on a park bench and watch people go by, or you go in the cafeteria if you can,” Mrs. Dalton says. “You get a feel for the university by looking at the students.”

State school admissions are changing

Applying to college isn’t what it used to be. New laws have changed the process for getting into state universities in Texas.

The signing of House Bill 588 in 1997, which mandated that Texas state universities enroll all students who graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school class, has placed a greater emphasis on students’ class rank than on their SAT scores or activities. State universities have moved away from a traditional admissions model that takes into account academic and personal achievements.

Although Andreen has seen students wanting to go to the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University most affected by the new legislation, she describes a ripple effect on other state universities.

“I tell parents, ‘Let’s look at North Texas State University, Southwest Texas State University, Texas Tech,'” Andreen says. “Students can no longer walk into those schools. If you’re in the third quarter of the class, Southwest Texas, North Texas and Texas Tech all want at least an 1180 on the SAT. I call it UT-A&M fallout.”

Count the costs

Paying for a college education for your child is like buying a home, Browning says. Parents need to consider the possibility of taking out a loan themselves or allowing their children to do so. View college as an investment, she says.

“Finances matter. Look at your financial situation early in the process. Give your child a real range,” Browning says.

The College Board Web site ( has a feature that allows families to enter financial information and gives them an estimate of the amount of financial aid for which they qualify.

Don?t stress

Finally, parents can help their children find the perfect college by minimizing their stress. Working with high school guidance counselors, talking to parents who have successfully sent kids to college and breathing deeply can make the process less trying.

“Try to keep kids calm,” Andreen says. “There is a place for your child. Most of my kids came out thinking, ;I’m in the right place.’ That’s the college’s goal, too. They want students who will be happy there for four years.”

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