Help on the College Application Process for High School Kids
Competition for spots at colleges and universities is tighter than ever. But families are getting an edge with admissions counselors, test prep services and lots of early planning.
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Test prep help
This past fall, when Lambert's younger son Alex went through the application process himself, she felt similarly that his chances for being accepted at MSU were good given his high GPA. She did, however, encourage Alex to take the Princeton Review's $800 ACT prep course over the summer. The intensive two-week class helped Alex increase his score by four points from an initial practice test.
"He knew he would need to get his scores up to get into U of M and MSU, and so he buckled down and did the work," she says. "They did lots of practice tests with him, and he found it very valuable."
Standardized tests are among the top criteria weighed in the decision-making process among most colleges and universities, and students can take the ACT up to 12 times. As a result, prep courses and private tutoring have become highly sought-after services. Informal surveying has private tutoring ranging anywhere from $40 to more than $100 an hour.
Pat Caruana is a tutor based in Birmingham who works with children in elementary and high school; she has seen her ACT tutoring business increase significantly over the years.
"My own kids took the test in the '80s," she recalls. "There was no prep at all. They just went in and took it. Now, it is just so competitive."
Caruana charges hourly for her services and meets with students anywhere from once or twice to weekly for a year or more. The first meeting is always an overview of the test and some general tips and test-taking strategies.
"Even the brightest students have test anxiety," she says. "And this test is so time-pressured. I work on building students' self-esteem and confidence."
Giving an edge
Caruana maintains that she sees a difference in the results among students who take a group prep class and those who pursue private tutoring – favoring the latter.
"I gear my tutoring toward the individual student, working with his or her strengths and weaknesses," she says. "The rule of thumb is that your score will increase three or four points the second time you take the test."
In the competitive world of college admissions, other businesses have sprouted up – including Kim Lifton's Wow Writing Workshop, based in Royal Oak. After decades of reviewing her friends' kids' college applications around the dining room table, Lifton launched Wow in 2009.
"Our company teaches students how to prepare to write their college essay and the essay portion of the ACT," explains Lifton, who launched the business together with Susan Knoppow. "The essay portion of the application gives admissions representatives the opportunity to see who the student really is."
Through an online tutorial or private coaching, Lifton and Knoppow help students find their voice and develop a theme for their essay.
"Often the essays become so edited, so sanitized by too many reviewers that you can't find the child's voice," she explains. "The college wants to know who the kid is – not who their parent or teacher is. It's really important that the essay sounds like it was written by a 17-year-old."
John Ambrose is the associate director for inclusion and strategic planning in Michigan State University's admissions office. He stresses that his team takes a holistic view of each student – which includes his or her GPA, standardized tests scores, rigor of course load and a personal statement.
"All pieces of the application work together to give us a complete picture of who you are as a person," Ambrose says. "The personal statement is a chance to tell us something that all the other data you supplied us with in the application already does not."
High school resources
Acknowledging that an entire industry has been born to aid families in the college application process, Whalen, the Clarkston High School counselor, says that families can certainly help their children find their way to the right college or university without spending extra dollars.
"There is so much information out there," Whalen notes. "Families and students can get it. They just have to be savvy. This is not information that is kept in a vault. It is all public. You do have to dig, though. Students do it on their own all the time with positive results."
And another one of those free and crucial resources is your high school counselor, notes Jane Williams.