Advisor Clients Often Think Their Kids Are A Shoo-In For Entrance To Elite Colleges, But Good Grades And A Legacy No Longer Are Enough Hot

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Say your client’s child has great grades, tons of “Advanced Placement” credits, high SATs and SAT IIs, went to all the right summer camps, and has legacy 10-ancestors deep at an Ivy League school.  This child also has a list of extracurricular activities that runs two-pages, single spaced, and includes music, theater, and Habitat for Humanity. And the kid spent last summer volunteering in a refugee community in Africa. In short, your client’s child seemed to have it all, but now the whole family is devastated because somehow all of that was not enough to get into a dream school. How could that be? Here’s what’s going on. 


Elite colleges are swamped with applications. Last year Harvard received 35,000 applications. And it’s getting harder and harder to get in:  In 2003, Harvard accepted 9.8% of applicants; for Fall 2012, they accepted only 5.8% of them. Why is it so competitive?  Every student applying to the top schools has the same academic profile and access to the same activities. Many of them come from families that can afford to pay money to provide their student with a volunteer experience where they simply have to show up.  So your student needs something that is going to set her apart from the crowd and beat the competition. 


These colleges are seeking someone special. They are seeking great thinkers, great doers, and great leaders.  They want to see initiative and spark. They want to see that the applicant understands the mission of the college to which she is applying. (It’s on their website, and you better read it.) You must understand the college and how your child relates to it, i.e. does it emphasize sustainability (Vassar), or ethics and social concerns (Swarthmore). 


These colleges want to know that the applicant has read the degree program information in the catalog, including course descriptions and faculty research areas of focus, and that she is able to relate her own experience and interests directly to that information. 


A client of ours who ended up attending Harvard this year – and was admitted to many of the most elite colleges in the country – had a high school record that was stellar but very similar to many other students who are high achievers. As amazing as he is, this student was unable to express his complex interests in a coherent way that related to the college’s individual offerings.  It took getting his parents to stop interfering (however lovingly) in his thought processes. It took months of introspection and research into each college to be able to prep successfully for his essays and his interviews, the latter of which cannot be faked and usually reveals to the interviewer how much the student is not a good fit for the school. 


This underscores the importance of starting early on college preparation. College prep is not simply paying oodles of money for the best SAT tutor.  College prep is about your client encouraging her child from as early as 8th grade to work towards recognizing areas of strong interest and skill. Students need to develop those areas of interest and strength early through substantive experiences that will offer leadership opportunities by the sophomore and junior years of high school. For example, a student we are working with has all the raw material to get into an elite college:  He has a strong political and social understanding and strong leadership in state politics at the student level. This leadership opportunity and steady personal and intellectual growth has given him real experience to use in his college and scholarship essays and personal statements (of which there are dozens).  This student does not have perfect grades or SATs, but he is a great student who presents himself extraordinarily well. He is going to get into an elite college -- the right elite college -- and go on to be a great leader.


As former admissions directors, we know what it’s like to dig through piles and piles and piles of applications and numbers, all of them virtually interchangeable. It’s exhausting and dismaying.  “OMG, another kid who played violin and thinks he's special.”  No.  Music is fundamental to a solid education, but not special. Organizing a group of New York City high school students to travel to Washington, DC, to meet the Supreme Court Justices, as did one young woman we know?  Now that’s special.


Most of your clients probably send their children to private prep academies, where they promise outstanding college advising. However, most prep schools offer between 2 and 4 college advisors for hundreds of students, and often only one 12th grade advisor.  And usually that individual – however well meaning – has no experience in higher education admissions.  We visit prep schools all the time, and it’s sad how many times we hear counselors talking about how they don’t have the time for their students, or they have to pull students in from the hallway once a year to have a conversation, or the parents are overriding the student’s needs and desires in pursuit of a success that has more to do with the parents’ own self-image.


So how do people like your clients find genuine, effective college prep and search help for their children? 


Educational consultants are everywhere, and like everyone in any industry, they vary in quality and intention. In some markets, education consultants with no college-insider experience charge upwards of $20-40,000 per child, “guaranteeing” that a student will get into an Ivy League college. But as anyone with a college admission background knows, there is no guarantee of getting in to any top college. Often, consultants without inside admissions experience simply don’t know what it’s going to take to make a student admissible to an outstanding institution.


Second, the student may not be suited to the kind of teaching that is done at an elite college, which can create emotional, social, and academic crises, so the effort to get that student into a rigorous academic environment can be a disaster for your client’s child. We see it all the time. 


Third, many times these consultants are focusing on the wrong effort. The effort must be to match the spirit and aspirations of the student with the offerings of the right college or university, because not all elite college academic departments are created equal.


For example, if your client has one child who is interested in weather forecasting and one who is interested in journalism, they need to know this: Two of the top 10 Journalism and Meteorology programs in the country with 100% placement in those respective industries are at a small college in rural Vermont. Within those vast and complex industries, they are not looking for Yale grads. They are looking for Lyndon State College grads.  If your client’s daughter is interested in engineering, engineering is not “one size fits all”. There are extremely important distinctions in engineering degree programs at all of the elites, and those distinctions must be sorted through with your client’s child, working with experts in order to have the best long term outcomes. 


As a financial advisor, you are often intimately familiar with your client’s personal and family challenges. Teenagers can present a wide variety of confusion to themselves and their parents, from behavioral symptoms that impact their performance in the classroom to social issues that prevent them from succeeding outside the classroom, or worse, they display no symptoms of adolescence at all, which can be trouble hiding in plain sight. Your clients that are faced with these challenges are fortunate to be able to pay for rehab and tutoring, among other means of assistance. However, when a student gets to college and on their own, it is often these students we see who struggle with social and academic stress and learning how to make their own healthy choices.


It is because of this that we believe every kid needs a great team from the get-go. We are in a unique position to be part of the team that helps your families at the beginning of their college prep years. Just as you provide a kind of preventative medicine to help your clients assure healthy financial outcomes, we provide a similar kind of preventative medicine to help assure their children’s success and the continued success of the family through generations. And we don’t charge $20,000 with a guarantee of an Ivy acceptance. We charge $7000 (on average) with a track record that assures the best possible unique outcome for your client’s unique child. This fee provides your clients with highly effective, individualized baseline prep, college search, and college application assistance. It also provides these very busy people with stress relief.


Some families require lots of hand holding. Others simply want to know someone is there to answer their questions when they arise. Either way, you rest easy knowing that your client’s family is being taken care of through one of the most stressful times in their lives.

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