How to Bear Stresses of College Admissions

Georgetown Current
March 12, 2008

By Teresa S. Gionis, Current Correspondent

A couple of weeks ago, the worried mother of an area 10th-grader emailed educational consultant Steven Roy Goodman with a burning question. Should she quit her corporate job in order to devote herself full-time to the process of securing her daughter a spot in a top college? She felt that many parents in her child’s school were already doing so.

“This is not an unusual question,” says Goodman. “And it speaks to the kind of stress that families often have around this issue.”

Goodman is in a position to know all about this topic. He has just written a book on just how stressed out college-bound students and their families feel in these days of increased competition for fewer slots.

College Admissions Together: It Takes a Family,” which Goodman co-authored with family psychologist Andrea Leiman, examines the college-hunting process not as an ordeal — but rather as an unexpected opportunity to bond as a family.

At a recent book signing at Politics and Prose, Goodman and Leiman shared nuggets of wisdom from their book to an audience comprised of anxious parents and a smattering of curious educators.

“This book offers a unique take,” said Leiman. “It is not a ‘how to get in’ book, but gives strategies on how families can work together to come to the right decisions.”

Taking turns at the lectern, Goodman and Leiman sketched out the sometimes-grim reality of today’s college admissions landscape.

“There has been a dramatic sea change in terms of how competitive it is to get in to college,” said Goodman, who over the course of his 18-year career has designed strategies for over 1,500 college and graduate school applicants. “Schools such as Boston University and Syracuse University are now turning down more applicants than they accept. These are good schools, but this was never the case before.”

“High school students are incredibly busy,” he noted. “To be a good student with three AP classes is just not enough now.”

He also mentioned the current phenomena of grade inflation: “More than 40 percent of all grades given now are A’s.”

This tough environment means students need all the support they can get, the authors said. Families must be understanding, patient, helpful and loving throughout the process — and hold back any judgmental, harsh or critical tendencies.

The authors divided the presentation loosely into three sections: the importance of family communication; managing different expectations; and making it a bonding process, not an ordeal.

Often, they said, admissions center around college visits, and because the number of these visits will necessarily be limited, knowing the forces driving that process is crucial.

The authors brought up the example of a family that made a pricey visit to a college campus — only to have the student refuse to get out of the car, totally certain he was not in the right place. “This kind of thing happens all the time. Sometimes it’s a balancing act,” said Leiman. “You have to figure out exactly what it is you want, and at what point you push an issue and at what point you pull back.”

“When it comes to college, not every family, not every parent and child, wants the same thing,” said Goodman. Some families are interested only in the name schools or parents’ alma maters, while others want to find scholarship availability, and still others look to stay close to home.

To manage the expectations of the entire family, it’s important to get a firm handle on just why the student is going to college to begin with, they said. Are they looking for a fun time? Do they desire an intellectually stimulating environment? Are they after a pre-professional degree?

“Families must have these discussions, acknowledge there are differences, and do the bet they can,” said Goodman. “By listening hard and being flexible, we believe the family can thrive.”

In response to a question about how to deal with the more competitive landscape, Goodman gave a pointed answer. “People are so concerned with getting into the ‘name’ schools, they forget what their real needs are,” he said. “Don’t let the tail wag the process here — the real issue is what are you as a consumer looking for from a school, not what is the school asking you to give them. You are the consumer. It is hard to drown out all the extra noise, but your absolute focus should be on the needs of your kids.”

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