Reprinted from the Bronxville-Eastchester Patch
By Renea Henry
October 15, 2010

Katharine Graves

If parents and teenagers can agree about anything, it's the stress of searching for and applying to the right college or university. Now that the school year is in full swing, talk in high school hallways is abuzz with standardized test prep, campus visits and application essays. We decided to get the straight scoop from independent college consultant Katharine Graves of Admissions Blueprint in Bronxville.

Here, Graves answers four questions about tackling the college admission process.

When should parents start talking to their children about college choices?
The fall of junior year is usually the earliest time for parents to begin discussing college choices. Before the beginning of junior year, even the most academically advanced students usually are not ready to discuss college choices, let alone visit college campuses.

As far as initiating college visits, the best time to start is during winter and spring breaks in the junior year.

How can students find schools that are a good fit for their interests?
I recommend using the Fiske Guide to Colleges in conjunction with the Princeton Review's Best 371 Colleges. Fiske starts with a 30-question "Sizing Yourself Up Survey," which many of my students have found to be useful. For each college described in Fiske, there is a highlighted section of "overlap" schools that often appeal to the same applicants. Using any of those schools as a jumping off point, students can cross reference a particular college in the Princeton Review guide and come up with even more colleges that overlap. As a supplement to these two guides, I would use Steven Antonoff's The College Finder, which was compiled based on hundreds of counselors' top choices for such diverse categories as strong programs in creative writing, best colleges for the shy student or colleges for building leadership skills.

How involved should parents be in the application process?
This is a loaded question, and I wish there was a one-size-fits-all answer. Theoretically, the college admissions process is a journey of self-discovery, and the student benefits and grows from taking ownership of that journey, with minimal involvement from the parents. In my experience, however, every student comes to the college admissions process with a different state of readiness. Unexpected things happen during the college process, and even the most academically gifted and well-rounded student with multiple leadership roles may resemble the proverbial "deer caught in the headlights" when it comes to the college process. In contrast, another student may unexpectedly rise to the occasion and surprise–even shock–parents and counselors by taking charge of the whole process with little or no intervention. As adults, it's our job to figure out what measure of involvement might be appropriate for that individual student.

What should high school seniors be doing right now during the college admissions season?
By mid-October, most high school seniors in Westchester County are putting the finishing touches on their first-round applications to colleges with rolling, early decision or early action programs. After hitting the "submit" button on these early applications, many seniors (quite understandably) are sorely tempted to step back and "decompress." Unfortunately, they need to jump right back into the water with Plan B: the applications to all the remaining schools. The college admissions timetable is extremely compressed; if the student is deferred or denied when early decision and early action responses are issued in mid-to late December, there isn't enough time to do a thorough and convincing job on all of the other applications.

In November, seniors should double-check with their counselors to be sure their college lists contain "true safety" schools. When I refer to a college as a "true safety" I mean a school where the student would not only be admissible, but a school that the student would be happy to attend if faced with that choice. Students need to invest just as much effort into preparing the application to each safety school as they would to a reach school. Each year, unfortunately, highly qualified applicants are wait-listed by their presumed safety schools, often because the students demonstrated so little knowledge about, or interest in, those colleges.

In the fall of senior year, students should make every effort to keep their high school counselors in the loop. This is imperative, even if a student is working with an independent college consultant. Not only is the high school counselor writing the student's recommendation letter, but he or she is the point person the colleges will contact if there is any missing information or if any questions arise on an application. It's especially important to keep counselors updated about any changes in the student's college list. And never, ever should a student remove a safety school from the list without reviewing the decision with the counselor!