When parents of high school students are overwhelmed by the college admissions process, they often do not know where to turn. But Beth Pickett an author, and college admissions counselor has been able to calm many of their worst fears.
For more than a decade, the founder of College Prep Counseling has been working as a college admission counselor with students across the nation.
She is proud that her clients and essay students have earned admissions to Harvard, Yale, Brown, UC Berkeley, UCLA, Stanford, Williams, Pomona, UMich, Tulane, Colgate, Cornell, and many other colleges and universities across the U.S.
The graduate of Stanford also earned her Certificate in College Counseling from UCLA and began working with families as an independent admissions consultant in 2007.
Pickett’s philosophy of college admissions is founded on the principle that “students who dig deeply into their interests during high school become happier, more accomplished students who are able to submit more compelling college applications.” Her book College Admissions: The Essential Guide for Busy Parents, is helping to change lives.
By developing the ability to articulate their goals, students learn about themselves and how to make a plan to move forward in a methodical and precise way. She feels privileged to guide families and mentor students as they navigate the rite of passage that is selective college admissions.
Beth, why did you write this book? Talk about your personal philosophy of college admissions and how it is reflected in this book?
Beth Pickett: I wrote this book because so many parents are confused and anxious about the college admissions process, and I wanted to find a way to get them key information in a concise, supportive, and very affordable way.
The book breaks down the different aspects of college admissions–creating and balancing a college list, considering the finances, navigating Early Decision and other admissions strategies–and gives parents a list of key takeaways for each chapter.
My philosophy of college admissions is founded on the principle that students who dig deeply into their interests during high school become happier, more accomplished students who are able to submit more compelling college applications.
Developing the ability to articulate their goals, students learn about themselves and how to make a plan to move forward in a methodical way. I feel privileged to guide families and mentor students as they navigate the rite of passage that is selective college admissions.
What are a few mistakes that college-bound students and their parents typically make during this process that they do not need to?
First and foremost, the parents need to understand how financial aid works and how to help the student craft a list of colleges that make financial sense for the family. Most families naturally assume that a college with a lower sticker price will cost them the least. But that’s not always the case, which is counterintuitive.
Why? Because the more expensive colleges often have better need-based aid or offer merit aid, which can end up making those colleges a better option for families in the long run. Colleges with a lower sticker price might offer a bunch of loans instead of free money (grants and scholarships). The kicker is that most selective colleges offer either great need-based aid or great merit-based aid, but not both, so the family needs to understand which set of colleges is the best option given the type of aid they need.
The second problem is that students don’t start working on their applications early enough. My rising seniors–those who will submit their applications this fall–are in the thick of it right now. The key is to build the college list together and get a head start on the essays in the summer. That relieves a lot of the pressure of working on all that during the fall, when senior-year coursework, homecoming, and extracurriculars leave the student with little time to carefully work on their applications. And no one does their best work when the application deadlines are looming.
Is there a “panic mentality” when it comes to applying for college?
Absolutely. Students and their parents are triggered by the stress of not really understanding how the application process works and how to pull together the different elements of the application on time, and by the uncertainty of whether the student will be admitted to their top choice colleges.
Without guidance, students who aren’t sure what steps to take often simply procrastinate, which amplifies the stress once they do realize that the deadlines are looming. Parents sometimes get wrapped up in the idea that earning a spot in a highly selective college will guarantee their child a financially lucrative future (thereby allowing the parents some sense of reassurance that the student will be okay as an adult). Others carry the name of their student’s college as a parental badge of honor, broadcasting to the world via bumper stickers and college gear that they raised a child who got into XYZ College. That is extremely important to some parents, who feel a lot of pressure from their social circles to have their students attend a “name” college.
Is there one path to getting into college? Do you recommend taking a gap year, starting with a technical school or community college, or spreading out your college experience to more than 4 years? How receptive are parents and students to this?
Great question! And no, there is NOT one path. There’s not even a requirement that a person has to go to college to be financially successful, particularly now that young people can earn money online in so many ways. I remember sitting in the multi-million-dollar home of one of my clients down in San Diego back around 2008, in the very wealthy community of Rancho Santa Fe.
I was surprised to learn that the father, a contractor, had never gone to college. But he was business savvy and knew how to run a successful organization. I doubt any of his employees cared that he didn’t have a degree. That said, he certainly wanted his children to have a college education. And, for what it’s worth, I see the benefits of a college education beyond just what it can do to boost a person’s career.
A gap year can be a wonderful opportunity for students to take a breath, mature a bit, and explore activities that are of interest to them rather than simply following the path through high school and into college that is often laid out by others. That said, sitting around the house playing video games is not a great use of a gap year. I do think that those who’ve had a chance to take a gap year appreciate the opportunities they have on campus a bit more once they matriculate.
Community colleges can make sense for families financially, especially if their student was not a star student in high school who could qualify for significant financial aid at a more selective college. Too many people are going into too much debt for their bachelor’s degrees, so community college is an affordable option to consider. That said, statistically, fewer than 20% of students who start at community college ever earn their bachelor’s degrees, so the student needs to dodge those pitfalls that may derail them on their way to a degree.
What are the trends in SAT and ACT because of test-optional opportunities?
Students who have strong scores are still submitting them, and a few schools have reinstated or maintained the requirement for applicants to submit scores (MIT, Georgetown, and Florida’s state colleges come to mind). But because most are test-optional, students who have scores in the lower 50 percent range for admitted students to any particular college are choosing not to submit. This then pushes up the average of scores the following year because only the top scorers are submitting. It’s a bit of a cascade over the last two years that has nudged the SAT/ACT average scores higher and higher.
The bottom line is that having strong scores will help a student in the admissions process; not submitting scores or submitting lower scores means that the admissions offices have to put more emphasis on the student’s transcript, extracurriculars, recommendations, and other components of the application. Much as I dislike the tests for a variety of reasons, I still recommend that my students take them so they have the option of submitting them to at least some of their schools.
What does a high school student need to do in his/her freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior year to smooth the path to college?
Explore! Discover! Follow the student’s interests to help them test drive various careers or academic subjects. Follow those leads in extracurriculars and summers. It makes for a much more interesting student and more interesting college application.
If the student determines that an area of interest is not what they expected, they have time to pivot and find something else. But their applications for colleges will be much stronger, and they’ll be happier, if they haven’t been beaten down in high school with threats of “not getting into a great college if you don’t check off box A, B, and C.” I remember the story of a girl on Reddit who was bemoaning the fact that she “wasted” her entire high school career because she was running around doing activities, she hated but imagined the colleges would want to see. When that didn’t lead to the admissions offers, she expected, she was bitter.
Academically, I recommend that students follow a 4 by 5 schedule–four years each of five core subjects: English, math, science, history/social studies, and foreign language. And yes, electives thrown on top of that. The colleges will also look at the student’s rigor–the number of Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate or honors courses the student squeezed in. And, of course, the student’s grade point average is one of the first things the colleges will look at to determine whether the student is a viable candidate at their school.
How important are extracurricular programs – drama club, sports, volunteer work at school and the community?
As I mentioned, for most selective colleges and universities, grades and the rigor of the student’s transcript (that is, the number of honors, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses) are the first hurdle students must pass in the admissions process. Without a competitive GPA or enough rigor, the student won’t be considered.
But most selective colleges receive thousands more academically qualified applicants than they can admit, so they then begin to thin the pool of applicants by looking to other aspects of the student. That’s where those extracurriculars, and the student’s level of involvement in those extracurriculars, can play a major role in determining whether the student is offered admission.
The most selective colleges (that would be the Ivy League and Ivy-caliber schools such as Stanford, Duke, and MIT) will regularly deny admission to students with the highest GPA and test scores if the applicant has nothing else to show on their application. Colleges are looking for students who will add energy, engagement, curiosity, and different perspectives to the campus; applicants can demonstrate those qualities via their extracurricular activities.
That said, if a student is told by a parent or advisor that they must participate in this or that activity (one that they aren’t truly interested in) just to check a box for a college, it can backfire. The student can be miserable spending their time on activities they dislike. Far better for the student to use their extracurricular energies to explore potential careers, delve deeply into subjects or activities they love, and take the opportunity to discover new skills and interests. That approach results in a happier student who can write enthusiastically about their activities for their college essays…and one who has a better sense of themselves and the direction they’d like to go as they prepare for college.
What are a few aspects of this process that my readers will learn from this book?
When you’ve gone through this process as often as I have, certain strategies and approaches seem obvious. But they are not at all obvious to a family that isn’t as familiar with college admissions in the 2020s, especially since the upheavals in admissions since the COVID pandemic began. When the most selective colleges went test-optional as a response to the pandemic, the number of applications they received soared; 43% higher (Harvard), 66% higher (MIT), and even 102% higher (at Colgate University). But the colleges didn’t add any more freshman spots, so their already low acceptance rates dropped even lower. For many families, the grim statistics raise their anxiety even higher.
My book walks families through each step of the process, including how to start with the student to determine the factors that THEY want in a college (rather than starting with the name of a college and then trying to figure out how to get a student admitted there). I give them resources and a process to narrow the list down to 24 to 40 schools, then weed the list again based on the financial aid considerations.
I show them how a student can, in essence, help steer the direction of their letters of recommendation by providing anecdotes and insights to the teacher who will actually be doing the writing. The book covers testing, demonstrated interest, and how to look up information on colleges that most families don’t even know is just sitting there waiting to be accessed. One of my rising seniors recently looked at some of this data and declared, “Oh, so this is the rubric for getting into a college.”
The book’s chapters are divided into the different aspects of the admissions process that parents should be familiar with so they can make informed decisions along the way and avoid common pitfalls. Each chapter is meant to be a fairly fast read to get parents oriented and up to speed quickly–because it is, after all, aimed at parents who don’t have a lot of time to do hours of research on each of these aspects.
There are a few of the most frequently asked questions about applying to college – from students and parents?
“When do we start?” Start the application process in the summer before senior year begins. My rising seniors are in the thick of it now, and we started back in March. As far as summer and course planning go, that starts before freshman year.
“What do we need to do?” Each chapter in my book looks at a different task in the process. There’s the college search, figuring out the finances, and creating the resume and activities list. No single piece of the process is overly daunting (except perhaps the essay writing), but orchestrating all those aspects to come together before the deadlines is the tricky part.
“Won’t my child be virtually guaranteed a spot at an Ivy League college if they have straight A’s or are their school’s valedictorian?” No.
“My friend’s daughter’s boyfriend’s dad is on the board of a college; won’t that help my child get accepted?” No, especially in the aftermath of the Varsity Blues admissions scandal. Yes, massive donations by a family (tens of millions of dollars) to a college can help an otherwise not-quite-qualified student get in. Otherwise, just no.
“I’ve never heard of XYZ College. Can it be any good?” I get this a lot when I suggest amazing schools like Carleton College, Babson College, or Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which many families aren’t familiar with. College awareness tends to be regional, except for the most selective colleges or those that play football or basketball on a national level. But a fabulous school for your teen may be one you aren’t familiar with yet. I’m reminded of the story by a student in Maine who was headed to Caltech (the California Institute of Technology, with a 6.7% admission rate). Her friends dismissed it, saying it must not be any good because they’d never heard of it. It’s an amazing, world-renowned school, just not one those students in Maine were familiar with.
How can you help parents quell their fears when helping their high school students go through this often confusing and overwhelming process?
Reverse engineers the fear to try to pinpoint where the anxiety starts. Is the parent afraid their student won’t get into their top-choice school? That’s a statistical likelihood if the school is very selective, so parents need to make peace with the idea that there are a multitude of colleges where their students will be challenged academically, thrive socially and emotionally, and launch into a productive, independent future. Then help them put their best application forward and reinforce the idea that any single college’s denial cannot block them from their future career of choice.
If the anxiety is related to the process itself and getting the work done, then sitting down with the student to map out what needs to be done, and when, will help. Break the larger task into smaller chunks over a longer period of time. There’s a month-by-month to-do list at the end of my book that can help with this. If the student is applying to selective four-year colleges, it’s probably going to take 50-100 hours of research, planning, and essay-writing to get to the end, so parents can help their student understand that this is simply not something that can be done well at the last minute. This is a major reason why families hire me because I do the planning, pacing, and shepherding through the process with the students so the parents don’t have to take that on.
If the stress surrounds the financial aspects of college, then parents need to get a handle on that immediately so that the student is only including colleges on their list that make financial sense for the family. They shouldn’t even be applying to schools that can’t offer them the financial packages they’d need to make it work. Applying blindly and then hoping to be surprised with a good financial outcome in the spring of the senior year is the worst approach for families that are concerned about the price tag of college.
If the parents are worried because they never went to college and are utterly unfamiliar with the process…I recommend buying the book. It will open up a whole new world of understanding.
What else would you like to add?
I would say to love your teen through this process. Be his/her cheerleader. Let them know you’re proud of them no matter which college they go to. There are simply not enough spaces in Ivy League schools for all the valedictorians the U.S. graduates each year, so please realize that if your student has built up a transcript and extracurriculars that make them a viable candidate for one of those schools, you and they have already won. They have all of the drive, persistence, and work ethic they need to have a successful future, and there is no one college that can block their success by denying them admission.
Please provide a link to your website, social media, and the book.
My website is CollegePrepCounseling.com.
The book can be found in Kindle or paperback versions on Amazon (College Admissions: The Essential Guide for Busy Parents), Barnes and Noble, and other independent online booksellers.
My quick, video-based course, Financial Aid: Key Concepts That Can Save You Thousands, is available online.
Parents and students are welcome to join the free Facebook group for Q&As and information: https://www.facebook.com/groups/admissionessentials
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