Welcome to the College Ahead blog!

I'm Julia, a certified college counselor specializing in college planning, preparation, search and admissions. Welcome to my blog. For more than 12 years, I wrote a newspaper column titled College Corner. This blog continues that tradition. I’ve been an independent college counselor for more than 20 years. That means I’ve worked with dozens of students and I’ve seen the successful resolution of dozens of different challenges. Read more about my background here.

 

First and foremost, this blog is about you! If you want to see a topic addressed here, or if you have a question about college selection or application, feel free to email me. I’ll do my best to answer it, or if necessary, find someone who can.

 

My professional motto is “Navigating the college search and admissions process with confidence and optimism.” I want you to approach this transition enthusiastically and I’m here to help you do that.

Externally Published Articles

  • Destination Maturation
    Julia Surtshin, The Journal of College Admission, Summer 2015
  • Where to Start Your Summer Search for Colleges and Financial Aid
    Brent Huntsburger, The Oregonian, June 2013
  • Reassuring Words About Financial Aid
    Higher Education Consultants Association Newsletter, January 2009.
  • College Consultant Tries to Allay Jitters
    (Interview) The Oregonian, November 2007.
  • Liberal Arts & Professional Education
    Under 25, Spring 2002.
  • How to Write That College Essay
    Under 25, Winter 1991.

Recent Posts

October 5, 2018

Who Wants Money for College?

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the gateway for obtaining student financial aid. On October 1 the 2019-2020 FAFSA went live online. Therefore, students who will be attending college in 2019-2020 should file their FAFSAs as soon as possible.

Keep in Mind

1. As the name says, it is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. There is no cost to use this form when you complete and file it at www.fafsa.gov. Do not confuse this with www.fafsa.com which is a commercial site that charges money for filing the FAFSA for you. 2. Students are required to have a FSA ID in order to sign their FAFSA electronically. The FSA ID is a username and password. To obtain a FSA ID, visit https://fsaid.ed.gov/npas/index.htm. Do this before you complete the FAFSA. It can take up to three days to receive your PIN, so apply for it immediately. 3. Dependent students (almost everyone under the age of 24) must submit financial information for one parent. That parent needs a FSA ID as well. 4. Read the instructions carefully. Specific instructions are built into the online FAFSA form. Be meticulous about understanding what must be reported and what doesn’t. 5. It is very helpful to gather all the necessary information before beginning the FAFSA. Visit  https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa/filling-out#documents for a list of documents to have on hand. 6.  Think carefully about using the Data Retrieval Tool (http://www.irsdataretrievaltool.com) that is available. The feature transfers information from the IRS to the FAFSA. This likely cuts (or eliminates) errors, but the downside is that for security reasons, the populated figures aren’t visible, so filers can’t see or verify the transferred information. 7. The FAFSA can be completed and submitted in more than one sitting. The application has provisions for saving information and returning to it later. 8.  The early bird gets the worm. Some sources of aid are limited and may award money on a first-come, first-served basis. The date a FAFSA is filed is the applicant’s “place in line”, so it is important that filers submit their FAFSAs as soon after October 1 as possible. Because the financial information required is based on prior-prior year tax returns (the 2019-2020 FAFSA asks for information from 2017 tax returns), so there is no reason to wait.

Common Mistakes

1. Not filing a FAFSA. Many families don’t file the FAFSA because they assume that they won’t qualify for aid. Never assume when money is on the line. Estimate your Expected Family Contribution at www.finaid.org or www.fafsa4caster.gov. Even if you don’t qualify for need-based aid, some schools are reluctant to award merit aid to students who don’t complete a FAFSA (and CSS PROFILE if required). Further, if you want to take advantage of students loans, or get work-study, you’ll need to file a FAFSA. 2. Filing the FAFSA in the name of the parent. Although parents will in fact complete many FAFSAs, applications are actually students’ and must have students’ names and identification information.  Failure to keep this in mind can cause errors, delaying the processing of the application. 3. Including the name and financial information for the wrong parent. Applicants are required to identify only one parent. For some students this is a straightforward matter. However, other students, particularly students whose parents are no longer married to one another, may find this to be a complicated issue. FAFSA instructions include detailed information about who is considered a parent and which parent to list. 4. Including assets or other financial information that isn’t required. The FAFSA requires applicants to submit a income and asset information. However, some assets are not taken into account. For example, applicants should not include information about their parents’ equity in their primary residence or the balance in their retirement accounts. Read all instructions carefully and submit what’s required. Don’t include assets or other figures that can be excluded.

Continuing Students

Students who filed FAFSAs last year may be eligible to file Renewal FAFSAs, which prepopulate much of the information. Updated financial information must be provided and students may edit prior information as well. Visit https://fafsa.ed.gov/help/fftoc01e.htm for additional information about renewing. For additional information about completing the FAFSA visit https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa/filling-out or contact a local college financial aid office.
September 5, 2018

College First Years Offer Reassurance & Advice for Rising Juniors & Seniors

The new school year is right around the corner. Last year’s seniors are headed off to college full of hopes and dreams. At the same time, if you’re a new junior and senior, you’re probably stepping up your own college search.

With a plethora of websites and guidebooks competing for your attention, decisions needing to be made, and parents, counselors, teachers and friends all asking well-meaning but sometimes intrusive questions, how do you navigate?

I asked a few students who recently completed their own college searches to share their thoughts.

Authenticity is Key

Leo S., who is heading to Harvard, suggests, “Figure out what you enjoy and go all in on that one thing. It doesn’t need to be something that would be ‘good’ for college, just something that you genuinely enjoy. That enjoyment will show.” Marissa L., who’s off to Northwestern, echoes that saying, “Be your genuine self in the application process. I expected to have to ‘make myself seem better’ in my applications but, instead I chose to focus on the meaning of my achievements and activities.”

Peter Van Buskirk, former Dean of Admission at Franklin & Marshall College and one of the most well-respected voices in the field once said, “The goal of the college admission process is to gain admission to colleges that ‘prize you for who you are’”.

Focusing on your own needs, preferences and wishes will help you throughout the process. First of all it gives you a known place to start. Starting with what you know lessens anxiety and provides momentum. Whether you’re a junior who doesn’t know a lot about colleges, or a senior who’s unsure about how to approach your essays, you do know about yourself…or you will if you take some time to reflect. Heeding the Leo and Marissa’s advice will help you use your time and energy in the right direction instead of spinning your wheels.

Take Some Risks

Molly K., who’s about to start her sophomore year at Barnard College, encourages some reasonable risk-taking. She says, “Push yourself, trust your gut and put yourself out there. I’m not saying that your entire college list should be reach schools, but if you feel strongly about a college, don’t let others dissuade you.”

Establish Boundaries

Marissa, a member of Northwestern University Class of 2022 and the youngest of several children says, “Parents are especially difficult during this time. Establish boundaries with them.” One way to set boundaries is to arrange a mutually convenient time each week that you’ll update your parents on how you’re progressing with your college search and applications. This will keep them in the loop while giving you the freedom from having to deal with “all college all the time”. You could also get them to agree that college talk is banished from family mealtimes.

Parents mean well, and it’s helpful to understand that this going away to college stuff is hard for them as well. They want the best for you and have their own dreams, expectations and fears.

Keep An Open Mind

Hanna B. began her college search feeling already burned out from high school. She approached the process with dread, yet recounts that going through the process helped her see that she had options. Hanna, who will be taking a gap year to travel and trek, thinks that keeping an open mind is crucial. Not only did she open her mind to the idea of a gap year, but she also was open to exploring colleges whose names she didn’t recognize or which are frequently mentioned in the news.

Writing Essays

College application essays can be the bane of students’ existence. Even students who enjoy writing likely have never tackled this type of assignment. Neither academic paper or creative writing assignment, college essays are in a category of their own.

Much of the work on essays comes before the writing even begins. Selecting topics that genuinely interest you, that highlight important items, and that allow you to share your “voice” is essential. Leo suggests that students “be willing to completely scrap ideas rather than trying to salvage bad ones into mediocre essays”. Further, students who typically write one or two drafts of a paper and earn “A’s” soon find that it’s not unusual to write four or five drafts before an essay is ready for prime time. While essays can’t get you into colleges for which you’re really not qualified, they can make a huge difference in borderline situations. With so much riding on your them, your essays deserve all the time and effort you can devote.

Last Words

From Leo: Compile a list of accomplishments/awards/etc. so it is easy to transfer them to applications. Having a list of things that I did and wanted to incorporate into my applications was really useful. It enabled me to make sure that everything got included. I ended up putting in there multiple things that I might not have even thought of had I not spent a good amount of time talking with parents and making the list.

From Marissa: Only apply to colleges that are truly essential to your list. In other words, don’t apply to as many schools as possible in hopes of getting into any random one.

From Hanna: Trust the process. “This process helped me clarify my goals, feel secure in my decisions, and provided a solid launching pad for my new life.”

 

 

July 18, 2018

Portland Welcomes Student Centered Higher Education

“With my grades and test scores, where can I get in?” Oftentimes this is the first question students ask when they come for an initial appointment. Typically I respond that I don’t know them well enough to answer that question, and respectfully add that they have, in my opinion, asked the wrong question.

It is NOT about where you can get in.

Rather than determining which institutions will accept them, students should be asking which colleges have the mission and resources to provide them with the experiences they want and need to accomplish their goals.

This turns the college search and admission process on its head in some very important ways.

Colleges That Change Lives: A Pretty Audacious Name, an Even More Audacious Mission

The folks at the non-profit, Colleges That Change Lives understand this distinction and are dedicated to helping students connect with higher education opportunities that build knowledge, character, and values.

Forty-one colleges nationwide have been awarded the CTCL distinction. Although they have varying missions, different admissions requirements, and wide-ranging academic programs, all are dedicated to fostering the growth of undergraduate students. CTCL colleges include such diverse institutions as Agnes Scott College, an all-women’s college in Atlanta; St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota that is best known for its outstanding vocal performance programs; Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian college in Hillsdale, Michigan; and St. John’s College, known for its Great Books program.

 

The West is well represented among CTCL schools. Reed College, Saint Mary’s College of California, The Evergreen State College, University of Puget Sound, Whitman College, Willamette University are all members of the group.

If this sort of student-centered education seems appealing to you, you’re in luck. The CTCL folks are coming to town!

College Fair

Colleges That Change Lives College Fair
Wednesday, August 1, 2017 at 7 pm,
Oregon Convention Center Ballrooms 203 and 204
777 NE Martin Luther King Blvd, Portland, OR 97232

This is an unusual opportunity to hear some very wise folks talk about college admission in an entirely new way. You won’t hear a lot of hype about testing, but you will hear talk about “holistic review”. With the frenzy ratcheted down, the focus is on student reflection and the importance of “match”, between student needs and campus means.

The college fair begins with a 30 minute information session, followed by approximately 1.5 hours of free time. According to the CTCL website, “During the college fair, students and families are invited to collect information from and speak directly with admission representatives from the colleges and universities that inspired the book Colleges That Change Lives.”

All CTCL events are free of charge and open to the public. For your convenience, you may register online.

June 20, 2018

Parents, Please Have a Conversation About Mental Health

This timely op-ed piece from the New York Times is important reading for everyone. Read it, share it, post it.

http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-gedye-college-mental-health-20180615-story.html

Students, know that your friends, your parents, your teachers, everyone is more concerned with your welfare than with your grades. If you have more than just a few days when you don’t feel okay, please let someone know. Sharing lessens the burden.

 

May 1, 2018

Calling All Parents

Do you have a soon-to-be senior? Maybe a rising junior? Is the “whole college thing” frequenting your radar screen more often than ever? If so, keep reading.

If you think that this “college stuff” is intrusive, let me tell you that your college-bound teen is probably way more stressed about this transition than you are. Without the perspective that comes with experience (read age), teens can feel that college admissions decisions determine their chance for future success and are judgements on their personal worth.

This is where you come in. How you handle the college search and application process can have a huge impact on how they handle things. Although your teens may kindly (or not so much) ask you to keep out of their college search, you do have a significant role.

Summer, with its more relaxed schedule, is a great time to rethink how you view the college search and admission process and catch up with your teen about his/her thoughts about college. That being said, many students dread the “college talk”. Here are some suggestions for connecting with your teen.

1.   Tell your teen that you’d like to catch up about the whole college thing and ask for a time
when he/she would be ready to chat.

Then, listen, listen, listen! The college search process is often a time of personal reflection, change and growth. Share your thoughts and opinions only after you’ve heard what is important to your teen. You could learn some interesting things.

2.   Be honest about restrictions and needs. If there are financial, geographical or other factors that restrict college options, communicate them early in the process. Once you’ve established college search parameters, allow your teen to have as much independence as possible.

3.   Communicate your optimism and confidence. Your teens, though they may not show it, need
cheerleaders. When their self-esteem waivers, as it may, they need you, more than ever, to remind them of their worth, their skills, their talents, and that where they attend college is not the final verdict on their happiness or success in life.

4.  Consult an expert. Whether you have questions about what colleges might be most suitable for  your teen, want to better understand financial aid, or are ready to pull your hair out because your rising senior hasn’t taken any standardized tests, there are professionals to provide guidance.

Independent college counselors are experienced in working with high schoolers and their parents. They can give you and your student information, perspective, support and strategies. Further, most know of top notch test prep professionals, college financial planners, psychologists who specialize in working with teens, and learning specialists, and can make excellent referrals based on your needs.

5.  Consider a road trip. Although ideally college campus visits take place when classes are in session, summer may offer the flexibility you need. A college visit can be as quick and informal as walking through a campus to get a feel for size and location, or more structured as offered through the admission office.

More on campus visits in another post.

6.  Honor your teen’s uniqueness. Don’t compare your teen to others, especially siblings. There is  so much about the college admission process that is evaluative and comparative: grades, test  scores, the list of activities and leadership positions. Teens need a break. Make home a “judgement free” zone.

7.  Keep your need for information and control in check. Although it’s reasonable to want your
teen to keep you apprised of his/her thinking about college, frequent college talks stress some teens, making them really closed lipped. Try to refrain from frequent inquiring and micro-managing. Make mealtimes “college free”.

8.  Take college rankings with a grain of salt. The best college for your teen may not be the most competitive to get into or the highest on some college list.

9.  Don’t confuse selectivity with quality. Selectivity is a function of popularity, nothing more. Price to some extent is also a function of popularity. Quality is something else entirely. To make matters more confusing, quality is not objective. What makes one college great for a particular student may be irrelevant to another. Your teen is an individual and should evaluate colleges based on his/her own carefully thought out priorities.

10. Let your teen be a teen. If you’re anxious, have heard horror stories from other parents, or
are worried about financing, your teen’s procrastination or the impending empty (or emptier)       nest, handling it without your teen is usually best. If you need counsel, seek out a professional.

 

Books on parenting teens through the transition from high school to college

Bruni, Frank, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, Hachette Book Group, New York, 2016.

Kastner, Laura, Ph.D. & Wyatt, Jennifer, Ph.D., The Launching Years: Strategies for Parenting from Senior Year to College Life, Three Rivers Press, New York, 2002.

Lythcott-Haims, Julie, How To Raise An Adult, Henry Holt, New York, 2016.

Springer, Sally & Reider, Jon, Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting into College 3rd Edition, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2017.

Welcome to the College Ahead blog!

Julia Surtshin

I'm Julia, a certified college counselor specializing in college planning, preparation, search and admissions. Welcome to my blog. For more than 12 years, I wrote a newspaper column titled College Corner. This blog continues that tradition. I’ve been an independent college counselor for more than 20 years. That means I’ve worked with dozens of students and I’ve seen the successful resolution of dozens of different challenges. Read more about my background here.

 

First and foremost, this blog is about you! If you want to see a topic addressed here, or if you have a question about college selection or application, feel free to email me. I’ll do my best to answer it, or if necessary, find someone who can.

 

My professional motto is “Navigating the college search and admissions process with confidence and optimism.” I want you to approach this transition enthusiastically and I’m here to help you do that.

Articles

Recent Posts

Don’t Mistake Training with Education

Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder, professors at Carleton College, recently wrote a thoughtful opinion piece, Don’t Mistake Training with Education, in which they highlighted the stark differences between these two, often confused, forms of teaching. Although the article was written to demonstrate how diversity training is insufficient for effectively addressing complex issues such as racism, their message has much broader application.

Failure to understand and appreciate the differences between training and education short-changes students, both those who would benefit from post-secondary training, as well as those for whom a college or university education is the more appropriate path.

Khalid and Snyder identify ten points of distinction:

■ Training makes assumptions; education challenges them.
■ Training is packaged; education cannot be contained.
■ Training rewards compliance, education curiosity.
■ Training is having to say something, education having something to say.
■ Training tells you what to think; education teaches you how to think.
■ Training answers questions; education poses them.
■ Training is generic; education all about context.
■ Training simplifies the world; education reveals its complexity.
■ Training promotes conformity, education independence.
■ Training is performative; education is transformative.

Khalid and Snyder write that training should be the preferred approach in many situations, especially when there are clear-cut problems and directly applicable solutions. Students who know they’re interested in such hands-on fields as auto mechanics, culinary arts, fire fighting, medical technologies, or welding, may want to pursue community college, trade school, or apprenticeship training which will equip them for immediate employment. Knowing how to repair the cars we drive and operate the variety of medical devices used to by health care professionals are valuable and necessary skills.

On the other hand, there are students who are interested in challenging their world views, engaging with complex issues, and developing new habits of thought and expression. These hallmarks of education, as identified by Khalid and Snyder, are precisely those of quality liberal arts education. Liberal arts education is less about the information students acquire and more about the habits and skills they develop. It is concerned not only with what is happening today, but also with preparing for a world that is currently unknown.

Futurists tell us that today’s young people are likely to work in jobs that haven’t even been imagined yet. Furthermore, they can expect that their world will be dramatically different from the one we live in now. Students who have the desire and ability to engage in transformative thinking should be encouraged to do so.

Recognizing the differences between training and education, and appreciating the value of each are critical for effectively guiding students and for addressing our current challenges, as well as those that await us.

Essential Wisdom from An Expert

Courtesy of Dr. Steven R. Antonoff & Independent Educational Consultants Association

Dr. Antonoff is a nationally known expert in the field of independent college consulting, the author of several books, and a close professional colleague. I am continually impressed by the scope of his knowledge and the wisdom of his perspective. Students and parents alike can benefit from his experience.

Here are several “golden nuggets” that I hope you all will consider carefully, whether you’re about to begin or are in the midst of the college search and admission process:

  • Picking a college is not just about what you’ll do when you graduate; instead, it’s about the four years you spend there and the experiences you accumulate.
  • The value of a college education is determined not by the name of the institution on your diploma but by whether you choose to take advantage of the resources available to you.
  • The college or university that can provide you with a happy and fulfilling four years is not limited to just one school or even one group of schools.
  • Your college search should focus more on educational aspects and less on admission concerns.
  • Don’t panic if you’re uncertain of your major; consider yourself not “undeclared” but rather “multi-interested.”
  • Never lose sight of the following statistic: 75 percent of colleges accept over 75 percent of applicants.
  • Always remember you are more than your test scores, and the SAT and ACT are not intelligence tests.
  • The more you look for fit and match (rather than name or prestige), the less stress you’ll feel and the fewer tears you’ll shed.
  • You have more than 100 truly elite colleges in the United States to choose from.
  • Your grit, passion, and perseverance will impact your college experience and success in life far more than your IQ, class rank, or popularity in high school and college do.

Test Optional: Is It Really? What Else You Should Know

When the COVID-19 pandemic caused the spring administrations of the ACT and SAT to be cancelled, many colleges declared that they would become “test optional”. Plans ranged from test optional for students applying for the Class of 2021 only, to test optional as a complete change in policy for the foreseeable future.

But test optional? Just skip testing entirely? Could it be that easy? Wouldn’t it be better to have test scores, especially good ones? A few months ago most people, myself included, advised many students to “stay the course” and try to test in the fall. But now as August test sites close, test dates are cancelled, and stress levels mount, it’s time to rethink.

If you’re in the Class of 2022 or later, unless you’re already registered for one of the exams, put concrete plans for testing on the back burner for now.

Is Optional Really Optional?

The short answer is, YES. Just recently the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) released a statement by admission officers just under 500 colleges “affirm[ing] that they will not penalize students for the absence of a standardized test score. Together, [they] strongly endorse a student-centered, holistic approach to admission that will not disadvantage any student without a test score.” Holistic review has been around for a long time and college admission officers are skilled at evaluating applicants along these lines.

Test Optional ≠ Test Blind

Test optional and test blind are two different policies. Under the first, students who don’t have scores won’t be disadvantaged when their applications are reviewed, but those who do submit scores will have them considered. Under the second policy, no test scores will be part of the review process.

For colleges that are test optional but not test blind, it’s not completely clear how they plan to evaluate applicants who submit scores without disadvantaging those who don’t. One option would be to group score submitters into one pool and those who don’t submit scores into a separate pool and then make decisions accordingly. Because admission officers haven’t explained their plans, asking questions might be your best bet.

So, should I still try to test?

Like so many other things in college admissions, “It depends”. The short answer is that you should submit test scores if you believe they will strengthen your application.

That being said, the decision to test or not is highly individual, and while it’s beyond the scope of this post to give comprehensive advice about whether to test or not, but here are some questions to consider:

  1. Have ALL of the schools on your short list adopted test optional policies? If not, this could be the deciding factor.
  2. Is testing available in a convenient location? Traveling a long distance or to an unfamiliar location could add unnecessary pressure to an already stressful situation.
  3. Do public health conditions allow you to feel comfortable about being in the testing situation? Although both the ACT and the College Board have policies and procedures in place for test sites, masks are not being required and there have been reports of less than ideal circumstances.
  4. What is your testing history? Are you a strong standardized test taker? Have you taken a diagnostic test that predicts a strong score that would be commensurate with your grades?
  5. To what extent have you prepped for the exam? If you haven’t prepped yet, do you have enough time to do the work to earn a score that will boost your application. If you’ve already started prepping, can you keep up that level of readiness until you actually test? Retesting will be unlikely.
  6. How much time do you have? Time is not unlimited. Are you better off spending time prepping for one of the tests or devoting it to preparing and refining your applications and essays?
  7. How are your other academic credentials? If you have a strong high school transcript with rigor and strong grades you might make a different decision than if you haven’t really applied yourself during high school, are a strong tester and have been counting on your test scores to boost your application.

As with many issues during this time of COVID, circumstances change constantly. With all the uncertainty swirling around, it’s important to keep in mind that the number one priority should always be students’ mental and emotional well-being. There is already more than enough stress to go around. This just might be the right time to choose to apply to colleges test-optional.

Be well.

Turning the College Admissions Process on Its Head

If you’re like most parents, you want your student to navigate the college admission process with curiosity, confidence, and optimism. That’s a tall order in the best of times, and as we all know, these are not necessarily the best (or easiest) of times. So what’s a parent to do?

One thing you can do from the comfort of your own, physically distanced space, is read The College Labyrinth: A Mindful Admissions Approach, by Dr. Erin Avery, CEP. A deceivingly slim volume, this read packs a decidedly big punch.

Avery demonstrates her understanding of teenage angst and the unspoken, frequently unrelenting, pressure felt by college-bound teens. Avery’s goal is to define the college search process “in terms of what is best for the student by keeping students centered, rooted in perceptions of self- worth and self-identity in order to emerge from this process a more fully formed adult prepared to embrace the often circuitous pathway of life…” (p. 13). She wants students to view the college search and admission process as a “pilgrimage, a quasi-sacred journey… within which [they] can reflect and explore rather than merely engaging in a win/lose task…” (p. 43).

Turn the College Admission Process on Its Head

In other words, Avery is advocating turning the entire college admission process on it’s head! How’s that for a radical thought?! Rather than students focusing on what credentials they need in order to be admitted to the colleges of their choice, she’d prefer that students start with who they are and what they want, along with thoughts of where they might like to go in life, and only then research colleges to determine how effectively they will support those goals and dreams.

Want to join the revolution? Become and stay student-centered. Steer clear of the US News and World Report college rankings that will hit newsstands on September 9. Step away from the focus on “name brand” that’s perpetuated by the media. Where your teen attends college is not a referendum on either their worth as a student or on your success as a parent. So forget about the car decal cachet competition.

Encourage your teen to start with what they know. Suggest that they begin by identifying their strengths, challenges, preferences, and goals. Have them reflect on their learning styles, social preferences, and extracurricular interests, as well as their goals and expectations for college. Using these as the starting point will help them determine the types of environments in which they’ll thrive and will aid them in maintaining a sense of personal efficacy and control.

Why It’s So Hard

There are umpteen factors at play that make the college search process fraught with uncertainty. Perhaps one of the most salient is Avery’s concept of liminality – of being in between and without the security of structure. Adolescence is liminal, in that it’s a period between childhood and adult-hood with more chaos than structure or order. Avery says, “Applicants to college are journeyers through liminal territory, standing in the doorway of their current life stage and looking outward into the wider world and as such they constitute a nomadic tribe searching and eagerly awaiting their arrival on firm ground…” (p. 26). Our teen nomads are engaged in a journey or quest (think Don Quixote) in which they feel they have little control.

What Parents Can Do

Provide grounding ballast for your teen. Teens, by their very nature, lack the perspective that you, as an adult, have. You know your teen’s strengths and their challenges. Reiterate their strengths, especially when they seem to feel that they don’t measure up. Help them brainstorm for ways to cope with and overcome their challenges. Helping them stay balanced is perhaps the most significant thing you can do for your teen.

Empathize with your teen. If you’re frustrated by your teen’s procrastination, consider this: people always procrastinate for a reason. Why is your teen putting off prepping for the SAT/ACT? Why do they sidestep writing their college application essays? Think about the uncertainty of Avery’s liminality. Contemplate the feeling of futility your teen may be experiencing that no matter how much test prep they do, there’s no guarantee that they’ll get the score that will open doors or that no essay they write will be exceptionally noteworthy. Imagine the anxiety of believing that their future rests in the hands of college admission officers who don’t know them from Adam or Eve?

Be your teen’s cheerleader. We all need them now and then. The process of presenting their academic career for review likely has your teen feeling judged. When your teen’s confidence lags, bring out the pom poms – no, not literally, of course. Be the carrier of your teen’s confidence until they’re ready for it back again. And rest assured, they will be. Just wait until those college acceptance letters come rolling in.

The College Labyrinth contains considerable wisdom. The messages are deep, complex, and far beyond the scope of this post. You may find this seemingly accessible book a challenging read, as it is packed with numerous references to authors, developmental psychologists, philosophers, and theologians. The repeated references to religious symbols, figures and concepts can be off-putting for those with a secular mindset. However, approach this book with an open mind and you’ll discover quite a few precious nuggets that will help you and your teen navigate the college search and admission process with your sanity intact.

Hidden Treasure: The Best College Research Tool You’ve Never Heard Of

In a previous blog post I wrote that researching colleges is like peeling onions. There are many layers to examine. You start by using readily available resources and then, step-by-step, move to an increasingly more intimate understanding of a school’s core nature by visiting and talking with people. Unfortunately, options for visiting colleges are slim to nonexistent during this Summer of COVID 19, which leaves many students and their parents wondering how to get “up close and personal” with the colleges on their lists.

Since writing that post, I’ve discovered a wonderful new resource that can help you make an end run around this nasty virus. Enter the “virtual college tour”. Design your own virtual college road trip with the help of StriveScan, a company that provides scanning services for college fairs. StriveScan has helped fill a need by hosting a huge library of video recordings on its website, enabling to you “visit” multiple colleges from the comfort of your own home. At www.strivescan.com/virtual/recordings/ you can learn about a wide range of colleges from Augustana College in Illinois to York College of Pennsylvania. Colleges you may be more familiar with include include Whittier College, the University of Puget Sound, the University of Redlands, and Washington University in St. Louis.

Think of these approximately 45 minute recordings as private Info Sessions, minus the Q&A. Although not quite like being on campus in person, these recordings can give you both valuable information and a sense of college culture. They have the added advantage in that you can watch them at your leisure, rather than by traveling to two or three colleges in a single day, leaving you exhausted, dazed, and often confused about what you saw where.

StriveScan’s recordings go far beyond college-specific videos. For those of you just beginning your college search, the site has numerous videos with titles such as: Finding Your College Fit, Being Undecided at a Large Public Research University, How to Utilize your College Admissions Counselor, College Without the Sticker Shock, and the Best Questions to Ask Admission Counselors. To take full advantage of what StriveScan provides on this site, browse the recordings. This site is truly one of the best kept secrets in the college research toolbox.

Getting to know colleges and their individual cultures during the time of COVID 19 requires that you be creative, innovative, and persistent. These are qualities that colleges want to see in applicants. So, think carefully about what YOU want to know about colleges, get off the beaten path, demonstrate your ingenuity, and enjoy the treasure hunt.