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College-induced spasms, pains and possible permanent trauma.

If you thought delivering your child into the world was painful, just wait until you have to deliver them to college.......no epidural, no pain killers...... you'll have to do with a good breathing technique – that you have probably resumed practicing with teenagers around the house anyway – and, if you can afford it, a good coach, that is a counselor or an educational consultant.

For us, Italian immigrants, the entire process feels even more overwhelming: we grow up in a system that assigns us to a school and we follow a curriculum and a methodology predetermined by the “experts” at the Ministry of Education (and yes, with the occasional Dolores Umbridge). Not much of a choice, not too many decisions to take aside from the high school type and the field of study in college. In the US the system is very different and while it offers plenty of educational choices and a great deal of variety in the choice of disciplines already at the high school level, it can be overpowering precisely because:

  1. We see education as a gradual process and we tend to think that every choice is going to compromise or constrain the next one and this is partially true in particular for the STEM disciplines. And if your kids are still in junior high don't think you can put it off too long, because they'd better have enough math to do Calculus in their high school years if they want to pursue a career in the STEM disciplines, but also if they want to get into a top-notch economics or business program.

  2. Sometimes the choices are too many or too early and the kids are not ready to take full advantage of them. You can have a specific and effective strategy only if you know precisely where you are going, otherwise you are better off with a broad general strategy that does not limit your choices later on.

  3. The contemporary job market has created some strange academic bed fellows that require unusual pairing of disciplines and it is more challenging to directly link the kind of job to the academic choices. Anthropology and software development? Great for a user experience job! Political Science and chemistry or biology? Great for landing a position in the chemical/pharmaceutical lobby in Washington D.C.

Most private high schools do offer good counseling services, so make sure you take advantage of this service if your child is in private school. And when you are in the process of choosing a private high school, that is a good question to ask and should be a factor in your decision. For example, when I chose my daughter's school we managed to boil it down to three schools and then chose based on the student/teacher and student/counselor ratio. The counselors in her school are fantastic.

Public schools have counselors too, but too often they are overwhelmed by the sheer number of students they have to serve combined with the complexity of the process itself. So, many parents resort to hiring a private college admission consultant. Admission consultants can be very expensive (anywhere between few hundreds to several thousand dollars depending on the hours of coaching), however considering the costs of higher education it often makes sense to hire one if you don't want to dive yourself into the world of colleges (more than 4,000 only in the US), required courses, credits, majors, minors, scholarships, sports, extra-curricular activities, clubs, internships and the gordian knot of financial aid. Don't get me wrong, it can absolutely be done and I know many parents who have successfully delivered their kids to college without even a midwife, but that does not mean it is an easy process or that it is a solution that works for everybody. As we say in Italy, you've got to “know your chickens”. Hiring or not hiring an admission consultant will depend on what kind of child you have, the kind of time you have and your level of tolerance for un-necessarily complex processes and bureaucracy-induced pain.

Some kids know exactly what they want to study and the career they want to pursue and are pretty much self-sufficient as far as figuring out the process themselves. Others don't have a clue about what they want to do and are highly allergic to anything related to completing and sending applications whether it is for college or anything else. Of course in between these ideal-types there are all shades of the rainbow. But this is the first thing you have to figure out, that is what kind of child you have, how much time you have, what kind of parent you are, what kind of school your child is attending and how money you have or are willing to spend. Once you have determined these factors the decision should be pretty straight forward.

An educational consultant is not going to get your child straight into Harvard, but will help your child with deadlines, organization of material, style of writing, strengthening some subject areas for the purpose of admission and recommendations about colleges based on their experience. A good college admission consultant usually has good knowledge about college campuses and can suggest a good fit for your child. One thing that is difficult for families to understand is that colleges admit students based on a variety of factors and you could actually get refused by one college but get admission to a higher ranking one. Understanding the factors that influence the admission process for each college and tailoring your curriculum in order to get to that specific college is where a consultant can really help you out.

However, if you'd rather not rely on consultants for these decisions and are willing to walk the path (or plank) with your kids, there are some very useful and comprehensive tools you can use to help them make choices, file applications and keep track of the process.

I think the standard is currently set by Naviance (by Hobson) and it is the tool that is used by most high end private and public schools. Schools and districts purchase Naviance and they have access to all of their services. It is probably the most comprehensive tool as it offers self-discovery tools for students to find out what career they might be most suited for, then it guides the students through the college choice and comparison, it helps them figure out their chances of getting into the colleges of interest, it offers tips and help with admission papers, financial aid and scholarship application and finally, it automatically transfers their transcripts to the colleges trough a service called Parchment.com. However, no limo service is offered and you'll still have to fly/drive them to the college they made it into and help with the dorm room decor which can be equally tasking even though more fun for creative moms. If your school does not use Naviance you can still find a lot of help online. Indeed, the issue is not the lack of information, but rather the disorganization of the overwhelming amount of information available.

There are multiple sites that offer a combination of articles, interviews, tips, examples of applications and tools for organizing the admission process. I will list the main ones here:

  • BigFuture.com (https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org) is the tool provided by the College Board, the same organization that administers the SAT, AP and single subjects exams. It offers several tools some of which are tied to the SAT and Ap exams but also a lot of information, guidance, samples and organization about the college search and college admission process.

  • ACT is the other company that developed the homonimous test and offers a lot of information and support on their website for kids who are taking the test ( http://www.actstudent.org/testprep/ ). They also have developed a new tool in cooperation with Salesforce and Heroku called ACTProfile and it is free http://www.act.org/profile/. Kids can open an account and use Profile, a self-discovery and networking tool that helps them figure out a good match in terms of career choice and puts them in contact with students who are going through the same process.

  • College Confidential (https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org) is not linked to any specific assessment tool, is organized as a forum and offers a wealth of information, interviews, articles and the possibility to join discussion threads. It covers pretty much all aspects of the college choice, admission, financial aid and application. The design of the site is not great, a bit confusing and difficult to navigate. Some kids find it frustrating and it is difficult to take full advantage of the amount of information provided.

  • NACAC (National Association fro College Admission Counseling - http://www.nacacnet.org/Pages/default.aspx) has some very valuable advice on their site, it is very well organized and it has a section for international students.

  • Linkedin Educational (http://university.linkedin.com) Linkedin is trying to leverage its network of influencers that kids can use as career role models. They are also encouraging high school kids to create profiles and connect with universities. The tool however does not seem to have caught on, kids are not signing up as Linkedin is very adult-professional-cool but not really high school kid-cool.

  • Khan Academy college admission (https://www.khanacademy.org/college-admissions) is the latest tool that this innovative and engaging non-profit has recently added to its amazing website. It gives a wealth of information and guidance in order to soothe the entire cycle of going to college anxiety: college preparation, college choice, application and admission process.

    Now that you have successfully mastered the college application process, managed to tame the anxiety attacks and hopefully saved part of your bank account in between, you may look forward to reading some valuable advice on the empty nester syndrome!!

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