Time, time, time... Advice on Squeezing it All into the College Application Years

If experience has taught me anything about these waning years of hands-on parenting it is that there is very much a time and a place for parents to help. The area where parents can do their kids the greatest service is in time management.  Even the most mature teens would be hard pressed to recognize at the outset the huge demands on their time as the wind through the final years of high school.  Our role, I believe is not to do things for them, but to help them envision the process, its demands and how they will squeeze it all into their busy lives.

Here are some suggestions to help them on their way:

1. Help your child plan out their academic life

Sit down with your 9th grader or 10th grader and their high school course catalogue and plan backward from 12th grade. Together, think about what they hope to accomplish academically over their high school years. Help them pick the most challenging classes they hope to take in the subject areas they enjoy. Have them look at the prerequisites for these classes and the paths they are going to take to reach their goals. Granted interests change and so do school schedules, but but kids with a plan have goals for themselves.

2. Ask your child to select one activity in which they will try to excel.

High school is about finding yourself and your interests yet colleges insist they want to see depth and leadership in a student’s activities. The answer? Help your child reflect on what activities they enjoy the best and enjoy the greatest success. Urge them to pick something they love and envision sticking with throughout high school. It doesn’t matter what it is — music, art, community service or a sport. During the course of high school they can add and drop other activities as their interests change, but they should select one interest about which they remain constant.

3. Study for the SAT early, starting perhaps in the summer before 11th grade.

The school year is overrun with demands so as a general rule anything that can be moved into the summer break helps reduce this pressure.  While your child will not have reached their ideal intellectual maturity at the end of 10th grade, once school begins, they will never again have this much time to focus on the daunting task of standardized test preparation. They may not yet understand all of the demands that will be placed on their time, but you do. Whatever your preferred method of study, get them started before the chaos of junior year descends.

4. See if your child can get help from an English teacher on the college essay.

The single best person to help your child write their college admissions essay is not you, the emotional parent, nor is it a paid consultant. The best person is an experienced high school English teacher, preferably one who has taught your child. A teacher will ask all the right questions and help move the process along (“Is that what you mean to say here, it is not clear to the reader? Do you have more details you can add to bring your story to life?”) but will not write the essay for your child. Your child’s essay should be read by one dispassionate, knowledgeable adult and their English teacher might be the perfect person.

5. Don’t visit colleges until the middle of junior year.

Much has been written about the pressure on high school students as they enter the college process. The easiest way to reduce the pressure is to shorten the process.  Parents should ban conversation about college and, particularly, premature college visits until the middle of 11th grade. Most of these early conversations and trips are time wasted because teens change so much over their four years. If kids concentrate on their studies, activities and standardized tests, they will have done themselves a favor once the process begins in earnest. Tell them that until the middle of 11th grade their job is bringing their best efforts to high school, not worrying about college.

6. Read the fine print.

Parents need to be involved in the application process. This is a complicated process with multiple essays, recommendations, supplements and more. One of my kids almost missed an application deadline because the art supplement needed to be submitted in October. Another son almost did not get a recommendation from an employer because he missed a small asterisk describing the circumstance under which additional letters were allowed. They were studying for exams, writing essays, doing sports and activities… I read the fine print.

7. Be ready with an ear and a shoulder.

The most important thing a parent can do for their high school junior is continue to offer support and a listening ear. Even the
calmest of teen will hit rough patches when angry rants or tears of exhaustion emerge. Being there to listen, console and offer counsel is the single best thing a parent can offer as help in guiding them through this tough year.

Lisa Endlich Heffernan is one of the voices behind Grown and Flown: Parenting from the Empty Nest. She has an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management and worked as a Wall Street trader before becoming an author of three books including New York Times Business Bestseller, "Goldman Sachs: The Culture of Success." 


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