Going with a Pro

Going with a Pro

Demystifying the dreaded college app.

From August through December last year, the postman stuffed our Oakland mailbox daily with glossy brochures from colleges featuring bucolic landscapes, smiling coeds, and serious, purpose-driven athletes. Our shelves bulged with thick college guides. All were supposed to help our 17-year-old daughter, Maddy, choose her dream college. The next step: getting in.

“How hard could this be?” I wondered. After all, our daughter, who attended St. Ignatius College Preparatory School in San Francisco, had excellent grades, decent college entrance test scores, an interesting mix of extracurricular activities, and a compelling life story.

As her mother, I saw myself as Maddy’s loving guide, editor, and secretary. My job would be to help her keep track of deadlines, schedule college visits, brainstorm essay ideas, and narrow her list of choices. But as it turned out, I was completely off the mark: Despite my efforts to help, my daughter seemed to see me as a clueless meddler. Within a month of the late August start of her senior year, our relationship had deteriorated into a tense war of wills. In a panic, afraid that our bond would not survive the college application process, I waved the white flag, and began searching for help.

“This process can be incredibly stressful for families,” says Marilyn Aiches of College Admit Pro, a private college counselor in Berkeley whom I found through the popular online listserv, Berkeley Parents Network. Hiring a counselor, says Aiches, “takes the pressure off the parents. I become the designated nagger. Probably the biggest reason parents hire a consultant is that it takes the burden off of the family.”

While many college-bound students and their parents sail through the hectic autumn of senior year without outside help, East Bay families are increasingly turning to private consultants like Aiches to help them navigate the ever-more competitive college application process.

Business of applying

From freshman year in high school on, just keeping track of what you (or rather, your child) should be doing that year to get ready for college is a challenge. Meanwhile, the aspiring college applicant is also attending high school full-time, participating in those college-pleasing extracurricular activities like sports or music, and taking on ever-more adult obligations like driving or holding a part-time job. For kids (and families) who are already in over their heads, the organizational assistance that a college admissions counselor offers is indispensable.

Some families have their child connect with a counselor as early as freshman year for guidance in selecting high school classes as well as, eventually, colleges. Others hold off until sophomore or junior year. In the earlier years of high school, counselors can help students discover and develop special talents and interests, whether athletic, service-oriented, musical, or artistic, and find ways to showcase themselves. But many say the biggest contribution a college consultant can offer is help with the dreaded, highly important application essay(s). (Consultants don’t usually include ACT or SAT test preparation among their services, but refer their students to appropriate classes or tutors.)

“Having a college counselor gave me deadlines, and not just from my parents,” says Maddy. “It’s their profession, they know what colleges are looking for. This really helped me with the process, especially with my essays.”

These days, finding professional guidance for the college-bound is about as challenging as spotting a frozen yogurt shop on Shattuck Avenue. Berkeley Parents Network maintains a useful archive of recommendations for college application consultants. Members of “Parents of Teens,” an affiliated listserv, regularly discuss the college admissions process and swap information and personal recommendations about educational consultants.

For do-it-yourselfers, as well as those who hire outside help, there are hundreds of books and websites that both enlighten and confuse. Canonical references include The Fiske Guide (SourceBooks, Inc.), The Best 377 Colleges (Princeton Review), The Insider’s Guide to the Colleges by the Yale Daily News Staff (St. Martin’s Press), and Colleges That Change Lives (Penguin Books). For a bird’s-eye view of the process, try The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College by Jacques Steinberg, published by Penguin Group, an enlightening look at admission into selective colleges.

Like everything associated with higher education, college consultant services are costly. Most offer services either à la carte—with hourly rates ranging from $45 to $150—or as a package. The latter, which offers extensive contact and communication between a student and the counselor over several years—can climb to $5,000.

We came into the process late, so we paid hourly. Aiches helped Maddy narrow her college list (although she already had a good idea of schools she was interested in) based on factors like size, location, majors, and reputation. They grouped the schools into three categories: safety (institutions that are sure bets, given the student’s GPA and SAT scores), target (within the bounds of a student’s academic achievements), and reach (out of academic bounds, but not impossible). Maddy applied to 15 schools, three of them “reach.” The bulk of Aiche’s work, however, was helping Maddy shape and edit her essays.

Jennifer Ettinger, whose daughter, Celia, graduated in June from Berkeley High School and will attend the University of Michigan this fall, hired Joanne Levy-Prewitt, a Moraga-based college admissions adviser, at the beginning of Celia’s junior year.

“Celia really wanted this,” says Ettinger. “Most of all we wanted peace in the house.” Ettinger stresses that she and her husband, John, were not “helicopter parents” hell-bent on getting Celia into an elite school. “We wanted a school that would be a good fit for her socially and academically,” she says. “It wasn’t about pushing her into a super-selective school. We also wanted to enjoy the process. And we wouldn’t have if I was involved.”

Because Celia attended Berkeley High, a public school, Ettinger says she felt justified in spending $5,000 for private college counseling. Additionally, Ettinger says she was reluctant to rely on school counselors because she felt they were stretched too thin with heavy student caseloads.

During her junior year, Celia prepared for the SATs with Study Smarter, an Oakland-based tutoring and test preparation company that had also tutored her in math. “Celia is not the best test-taker so this was crucial for her,” says Ettinger. “She was really prepared . . . and did so much better than she would have if she had not done the test preparation.”

Help at high school

Nora Spencer-Wong, whose daughter, Alexandra, will attend Middlebury College in Vermont this fall, took a different route. Head-Royce School in Oakland, from which Alexandra graduated this year, has two specialized college admissions counselors who work with 40 students each.

“They don’t want you to work with outside counselors because they feel that they have a more personal and established relationship with each and every student.” says Spencer-Wong. “These counselors were fabulous. But then again, we were paying for it,” she adds, referring to the private school tuition at Head-Royce.

By contrast, at Berkeley High, a public high school with an enrollment of over 3,000, two college counselors work with more than 400 students each. But Berkeley High’s longtime college counselor, Angela Price, says her advice to parents and kids is simple and effective if followed.

“The kids who do well are kids who are strong within themselves, have pride and commitment to things they want to do and that make them happy,” says Price, whose son attends Amherst College in Massachusetts. She cautions families who begin worrying too early about applying to college.

“Instead of students trying to be intellectually curious, they are trying to fit into a box. Your child is not a robot. They are children and part of education is growing and learning,” says Price, who says that there is a good school match for every student at the thousands of colleges in the United States. “Kids should follow their passion and then when it comes time to write about it, they can do it. The whole process is skewed because parents are anxious and kids are anxious and colleges are confused.”

There are also many programs aimed specifically at low-income and first-generation students, like Berkeley’s Y-Scholars, and U.C. Berkeley’s Educational Guidance Center.

Even if you have been stashing money in a college savings account since your child was in diapers, you may be shocked by the sticker price of a four-year college education, which can range from about $20,000 to $60,000 (or more) per year. Some high schools schedule financial aid meetings for parents, and many high school counselors can refer families to specialized financial planners.

Whether your child works with a high school counselor, private college adviser, or goes it alone, counselors and experienced parents all stress that the most important part of the process is to start early, get organized, and stay on top of deadlines.

Authenticity is key. “It is a process of self-discovery,” says Aiches, who believes that seniors should have resumes that stress community service, leadership, academics, teamwork, and originality. “We can help guide them from freshman year with course selection and to find activities that they are really interested in, not just something that looks good on a resume.”

Aiches described one student who fretted because he didn’t have a long list of extracurricular activities to help him stand out from thousands of other high school seniors burnishing their curricula vitae. His parents owned a hardware store, where he worked weekends and summers. Aiches suggested that he start a “handyman” club at his East Bay high school to develop leadership skills. She also suggested he volunteer for an organization like Habitat for Humanity where he could put his building skills to good use.

Says Aiches, “I am a mentor to ‘my’ kids, but it is their road. I just guide them.” Consultants, counselors, and experienced parents all offer consistent advice.

Deadlines are crucial. Students should write their college application essays in the summer before their senior year rather than tackling this major task after school starts. Parents may give feedback, but don’t help your child with his or her writing. (College admissions officers know if a student or an adult is the author.) Don’t get your heart set on one college: Apply to a broad range of schools. And remember, there really is a school for every child.

In December, Maddy received acceptances from the five schools she had applied to early-action, but made no commitments. When March arrived, like thousands of students across the country, Maddy raced home from school every day to check the mailbox. Other family members were forbidden to open any college envelope, large or small.

One day in late March, I was watching a swim meet when my younger daughter bolted up the bleacher stairs, telling me Maddy was trying to text me. I stared at the screen—Maddy had been accepted to her top choice—and squeezed back tears. The wait was over.

Jacqueline Frost is a former newspaper reporter and current grant writer for a local nonprofit organization. She will go through the college application process again in 2015 with her younger daughter.

Extra Help :: RESOURCES
ACT; act.org.
Berkeley Parents Network; parents.berkeley.edu.
College Admit Pro, Marilyn Aiches, (510) 559-8815; collegeadmitpro.com.
College Board; collegeboard.org.
Susan Packer Davis, (877) 686-8939; susanpackerdavis.com.
Educational Guidance Center (low-income, first-generation students), 2150 Kittredge St., Berkeley, (510) 643-3223; egc.berkeley.edu.
Get Going College Admissions Workshops, Moraga, Joanne Levy-Prewitt, (925) 376-0831; joannelevyprewitt.com.
Princeton Review, (888) 955-4600; princetonreview.com.
Study Smarter, (510) 350-8444, P.O. Box 21068, Oakland; studysmarter.com.
Y-Scholars (free college prep program), YMCA-PG&E Teen Center, 2111 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Berkeley, (510) 542-2130; ymca-cba.org/teen-center.
The Berkeley Book of College Essays, by Janet Huseby
The Best 377 Colleges (Princeton Review)
Colleges That Change Lives (Penguin Books)
The Fiske Guide (SourceBooks, Inc.)
The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College, by Jacques Steinberg
The Insider’s Guide to the Colleges, by the Yale Daily News Staff

The Time Is Now

Freshman year
Explore interests of all kinds — academic, athletic, and outside the classroom. Try out for a sports team, audition for the school play or orchestra, join a club, run for student council. Maintain good grades. Some students consult a college counselor during this year. Parents look into financial aid.

Sophomore year
Fall: Take the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT) as a practice for the PSAT and the SAT in junior year.

Spring: Consult high school counselor about application-enhancing mix of classes for junior year.

Summer: Participate in community service projects, travel, volunteer, act in summer theater, etc.—or get a job. Prepare for SAT or ACT test-taking through classes (traditional or online) or private tutors.

Junior year
Fall: Register for and take SAT and ACT. Consult high school counselor about goals, academic achievements, course selection, enhancing talents or interests like violin, karate, art. Athletes register for National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) if interested in being recruited for a college sport.
School vacations: Tour colleges.

Spring quarter: Take SAT and ACT again if appropriate.

Summer: Get coaching help with college admissions essays and begin to write.

Senior year
Fall: Narrow college choice list, check application deadlines, and begin to apply to colleges. Most regular apps and financial aid applications are due mid-January. (For a top-choice school, apply for early admission, usually in November, or early action, usually in early January.) Have high school send transcripts to colleges.

Faces of the East Bay