Reality Check: Getting Into College Doesn't Have to Be Hell

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In the decade I've spent helping high schoolers and their parents get through standardized testing and the college process unscathed, I’ve gotten a rare glimpse into the lives, households, and dynamics of hundreds of families. These days, most of my coaching takes place online or in person at my SoHo office, but those early years when I traipsed to many a far-flung home taught me something huge that informs all the work I do today: every family has its own reality. As I walked into living room after living room, and into family dynamic after family dynamic, I learned that my real job wasn't just getting my student the score their dream school required—it was also improving the reality of what these challenging years would look like for this family, in this home.

At this point, I've seen and heard it all. I've seen a ton of different ways that the years of test prep and the college process can go wrong, and I've learned how to help families navigate it with humor and grace. That experience has given me a missing piece that—though it's really incredibly simple—most parents and students just can’t find on their own: a vision of what the college process can be and how to get it to go right

So let me play out two versions of the way these years can go—because it can get pretty gruesome, or it can be a rewarding challenge. And like any good “choose your own adventure,” the choice is yours.

Junior Year Alternate Reality 1: Hellish Junior Year

The summer before junior year, Mom signs Chloe up for an intensive SAT course. It turns out not much content is taught there, but the first 4 of the (finite number of) real College Board practice SATs are used to “measure progress.” Chloe’s score only increases from a 1270 to a 1290, because she hasn’t actually reviewed grammar or math or reading comprehension skills on a deep level, and only learned vague “tricks and tips.”

Mom quickly hires a tutor—a “really smart” boy who just graduated from Princeton and can “do all the problems” on the math section. Really Smart Tutor doesn't have a particular plan or much knowledge of test taking as a skill, but he goes through the missed problems from the practice tests with Chloe and maybe directs the family towards test prep books to work through together once those are done. Since “progress” appears slow, Mom insists on Really Smart Tutor coming over 3 times a week to go over more and more practice sections. Soon all the real College Board practice tests are exhausted.

Mom signs Chloe up to take the October SAT. Chloe scores a 1250, and Mom is beside herself. Mom calls all her mom friends, looking for the next best thing. After all, anything less than a 1500 is a “disaster”! HOW will Chloe get into Harvard?

Mom gets the idea from another parent to change course and sign up Chloe for the December ACT. Maybe Mom continues to hire Really Smart Tutor, telling him exactly what she wants him to accomplish with Chloe at each session (“Build her confidence!”; “What about the essay? That was her lowest score!”; “She needs to just do as many quadratic problems as possible so she’s prepared for every possible way they could ask—other students learn concepts, but she needs repetition”). Maybe Mom hires a second tutor, this one also "really smart," because the ACT is a different test, and doesn’t it make sense to have a different tutor for a different test? (Chloe hasn't firmly decided which test to take, so she's still worrying about, and studying for, both.)

So in addition to taking 4 AP classes, being the captain of the volleyball team, and writing songs on her guitar, Chloe has a tutor for ACT English and Reading, another tutor for ACT Math and Science, the original Really Smart Tutor for the SATs..all in all, she has tutoring 4 times a week. She is signed up for ACTs in December, February, April and June (score choice! do them all!), and is signed up for SATs in December and March, with May and June as SAT II Subject Test dates. (Those might need their own tutors, but Mom can wait until spring.)

Despite (or because of?) all the stress and work she's putting into managing this process, Mom might feel really accomplished (look at all the work Chloe is doing!)...or she might feel like she's been hit by a truck.

Chloe, meanwhile, is ready to scream. She will be a failure if she doesn’t go to Harvard, but she spends so much time tutoring for the SAT and ACT that her AP grades are dropping. Also, she doesn’t have time to write songs or even play guitar anymore. But that’s the thing she sacrifices, because it’s not an extracurricular with a title—you can’t be president of song writing! And guitar won’t get her into college anyway—she’s not “competitive.” Instead, Mom has signed Chloe up to participate in a couple “service trips” to developing nations during Spring Break and summer break—when they’re not visiting every single highly selective university on the Eastern Seaboard, that is.

She can just save guitar for when all this “college stuff” is over and she can get to “be herself” again.

And we haven’t even TALKED about senior year!

That turns out to be more of the same. Mom continues with her barrage of separate tutors, and Chloe continues taking the SAT in August and October and the ACT in September and October. Mom also hires a separate person to help Chloe write her college application essays and “make her look good.” Mom and Dad (who enters the picture here) insist on Chloe’s applying to 25 different schools, most of them “reach” schools. But don’t tell that to Dad! After all, another partner at his law firm just got his daughter into Yale Early Decision!

After all the applications are in, Chloe feels objectified, nervous, and completely lacking in motivation. During the spring of her senior year, Chloe does the bare minimum to “look good” in her classes, and practically gets an ulcer waiting for college admission decisions to come in. She eventually gets into a handful of the schools on her list, and chooses the most prestigious out of those, which two of her friends consider a “safety.”

Dad, while not over the moon, is still thrilled about the prospect of some bragging rights to his colleagues. Pummeled by the whole process, Mom is just happy Chloe “got in somewhere.” Chloe feels “done.” Wait—you mean I don’t get to retire now? I have to actually go to the school and really begin studying? But nope—even though Chloe feels totally exhausted, and probably not so great about herself and her future by now, this is only the beginning. Great beginning, right?

Phew! I almost got hives typing that out.

This version flat-out sucks. Unfortunately, I've been doing this for a decade, and I can confirm: that’s what a large proportion of families actually do to themselves during junior and senior years. (Now imagine how much fun it is for everyone to anticipate doing it all over again when Chloe's younger brother hits junior year!)

It doesn't have to be that way.


Junior Year Alternate Reality 2: Pleasurable Junior Year

Imagine this:

Kylie is about her begin her junior year of high school. Kylie and her mom and dad all hear other parents and students at school freaking out about SAT and ACT prep and picking colleges. Hoping to head off panic mode, they go to an expert who can guide them in the process that's beginning.

With the help of the school’s college counselor (or perhaps an individual college counselor, if the one at school isn’t really involved) and the Fiske Guide to Colleges, Kylie and her parents come up with a short list of five preliminary colleges that look like they may be a match for Kylie’s personality, goals, and academic needs.

Kylie has a natural curiosity about science, but, like Chloe, she also really loves the guitar and writes songs. She’s looking for a school that can nurture her interests but allows her the flexibility to explore other areas of academic interest as well. Though she’s captain of the volleyball team, she will likely not get recruited for that and doesn’t really see sports as a future career. She does want to be on the eastern United States (somewhat close to home), but doesn’t necessarily want to be in a huge city like NYC, where she lives now.

After some research (done by college counselor and/or on their own), Kylie and her parents have about five schools that appear like they might be good fits.

Kylie and her parents then go see a professional test prep expert/mentor who can fill in the blanks on this seemingly opaque process. All Kylie and her family have to do are to come with the short list of colleges and bring in a completed diagnostic ACT and SAT.

With just these three pieces of information, Test Prep Mentor works her magic.

First, she gets to know Kylie by asking a series of questions, figuring out how Kylie is motivated, what her family dynamics are, and what their goals and expectations are. Using that information as well as the diagnostic practice tests and college list, Test Prep Mentor determines which test—ACT or SAT?—is right for Kylie. Turns out that with her timing issues, the SAT is much better for Kylie than the ACT.

After Test Prep Mentor does more extensive research on the college list, she determines several more things:

  • What target scores are required to get Kylie into her college list. (A 1350 is fine, turns out! No 1500 required.)
  • If the Essay/Writing component of the SAT or ACT is required. (For Kylie’s list, it’s not.)
  • If SAT 2 Subject Tests are required, and if so, which ones. (Kylie doesn’t need them.)
  • What Kylie’s testing strengths and weaknesses are.
  • Which tests and test dates Kylie will sign up for and take.
  • What Kylie needs to do each month until those test dates.

Kylie and her mom and dad sign her up for a tutoring package that includes weekly private sessions and a certain number of Parent Calls, all of which they can schedule/reschedule/cancel online. Whenever Mom and Dad want to know about Kylie’s progress, they can just schedule a Parent Call with Test Prep Mentor to have a private conversation. If Mom and Dad want Test Prep Mentor to chat with Kylie’s college counselor or neuropath, they can use one of their package’s Parent Calls for that purpose, too. They just schedule everything online, and it’s as good as done!

Kylie works a little bit each week towards the SAT—that’s the test that Test Prep Mentor determined would get her to her goals faster. Kylie knows what her homework is and just engages with it and completes it before her sessions. If she is confused about it, she hops onto Weekly Office Hours with Test Prep Mentor and gets her questions answered. All she has to do is look at her smartphone calendar to see when Office Hours are that week, and click the internet link at the given day and time. And voila! Instant video conferencing with Test Prep Mentor.

Since Kylie knows exactly what she has to do each week, and how she needs to spend and conserve her energy for the marathon that is test prep, she doesn’t feel overwhelmed. She can focus on keeping up her A average on her 4 AP classes, volleyball, writing songs on her guitar (she’s getting better and better at it!), and building meaningful friendships in which she better learns who she is and how she wants to be in the world.

During breaks, Kylie and her parents go to visit the schools on her list. By doing so, they discover that one they hadn’t really known much about is in fact super compatible with Kylie’s personality and vision for her future. Kylie could totally be happy there! And like Test Prep Mentor figured out already, Kylie only needs a 1350 for that school.

Kylie takes the SAT in March and again in May. She gets a 1370 in May and is done. Since that’s all that’s required to open the door to her college of best “fit,” Test Prep Mentor insists that they end their SAT prep and spend time on other things that matter: cultivating Kylie’s growing passions for songwriting and biology.

After getting all 4’s and 5’s on her AP tests—and rocking her finals since she had study time—Kylie spends the summer on what she loves. She doesn’t have to study anymore for the SAT, after all. She takes a singer-songwriter workshop and even a class on digital music editing. She also finds an internship in a medical research lab. Though she is only filing papers and attending meetings about how the lab’s research is helping children in rural Mexico, she’s getting the sense of what a career in biology might be like. She decides that though she loves bio, what she really loves is being able to use her science knowledge some day to make an impact on communities in need.

In August, Kylie uses this newly-acquired self-knowledge to write a Common App essay about her passions. She spends a whole month brainstorming and writing and editing it, because she wants it to be an expression of who she truly is. Since she clicked so well with Test Prep Mentor, Kylie asks her to take a look to see if the 650 words is an effective reflection of who Kylie is and what she wants to accomplish in the world. Test Prep Mentor has several ideas that Kylie implements to make that short essay vivid and meaningful and communicative of Kylie’s true essence.

Kylie begins senior year with her entire Common App finished, and just has to finish a few more supplemental essays. Not feeling overwhelmed, she flourishes in her upper level science courses and continues with various guitar and music editing workshops on weekends. Little by little, she completes all her applications, submitting her first choice as Early Decision and the remaining ones soon after. No waiting until January 1st for Kylie!

And when December 21st rolls around, Kylie finds out amazing news: she’s been accepted Early Decision to her first choice school! She can go on holiday break worry-free!

Kylie’s parents are over the moon excited. Not only have they gotten through the entire test prep and college process pretty painlessly, but their daughter has also matured into a thoughtful, self-aware young adult who knows how she wants to make an impact on the world. And they can spend the entire spring semester celebrating both of these successes—together.

For Kylie and her parents, the college process wasn't a burden, an endless parade of stresses and anxieties topped off with a sense of failure and doom hanging over their heads. It was definitely challenging, sure, but it was full of chances to learn and grow as people and a family, and they rose to those challenges together.

So what determines whether you end up in Chloe's reality or Kylie's?

You do! There are a lot of choices to make as you approach the intimidating years of test prep and college applications—I get it. I wrote this post to remind you that it's the big-picture choices that count the most. Those are the ones that determine what the reality of this experience will feel like for you and your family. With the right attitude and strategy (and help!), the reality you want is just a choice away.