As a high school junior, Amanda Palmer was one of those teens who knew exactly what she wanted to study in college and what she hoped to pursue eventually as a career: autism research. Her grades were stellar – but she and her parents, Amy and David Palmer of Birmingham, knew that wasn't necessarily enough to get her into the perfect college program.
They also knew that finding the right fit for Amanda, both in academics and environment, wasn't going to be easy.
Who would do all that research? Vet the different schools? Find out what she should do to fortify her transcript and increase her chances of acceptance?
A friend had a recommendation: Meet with Jane Williams, owner of College Admissions Consulting in Birmingham, who has 20 years of experience helping teens and parents navigate the college application process.
The Palmers met with Williams during the summer before Amanda's junior year at Birmingham Seaholm High School to begin gaining an understanding of how to proceed. Working with Williams and private ACT tutors to glean test-taking tips and strategies, Amanda eventually applied to – and was accepted at – Vanderbilt University in Tennessee on a full academic scholarship to study her passion. Now a junior there, Amanda is thriving.
The college odds
Looking back on the application process, the Palmers feel that while they certainly could have helped their daughter to navigate the process without outside aid, Williams was invaluable in saving them time, helping to develop a strong college list and keeping the family on track with deadlines and deliverables.
"I can imagine parents spending 40, 80 even 100 hours looking at colleges, identifying each school's individual deadlines," says David Palmer. "It's a tedious process."
According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, or NACAC, approximately 3.28 million students graduated high school in 2010-11 – up from 2.5 million a decade prior. And, the U.S. Department of Education notes, the total number of college students is expected to increase an additional 13 percent between 2009 and 2020. The sheer volume of college-bound high school graduates is one significant reason why the college admissions scene has become more competitive than ever.
According to Williams, other factors like The Common Application – an online app used by 488 colleges and universities across the country, including the University of Michigan, Albion College, Alma College and Kalamazoo College – makes it much easier for students to apply to multiple colleges by using the same application.
Jason Whalen, a counselor at Clarkston High School, notes that technology in general has contributed to the increase in the number of colleges and universities to which students are applying.
"In the past, colleges mailed all of their marketing materials to kids, which is so much more expensive," he says. "Now, it's not only less expensive but easier to market electronically. Kids' email boxes are inundated where our mailboxes used to be. As a result, colleges from all over are reaching out, and students are drawing interest from faraway places. Three kids from Clarkston High School ended up at the University of Alabama last year.
"Kids simply are exposed to more and are applying to more schools."
A result of this combination of circumstances is stiff competition for spots – and what can be an emotional and often stressful journey for students and their families in securing one.
Thanks to the advice of friends with kids a few years older than her own, Cathy Lambert of Livonia began thinking about the college application process well before her eldest son Ben's senior year at Livonia Stevenson High School. Beginning his freshman year, any time her son completed community service hours or earned a certificate for volunteering or leadership activities, Lambert tucked those away in a folder that she dusted off when it came time to begin the college application process.
In addition, when Ben was still a junior, Lambert attended the free workshops and college nights offered by the high school to begin understanding the process – including things like early admissions, rolling admissions, deadlines and other details. Later that year, she accompanied her son on campus visits to his top two schools of interest: the University of Michigan and Michigan State University.
"It was these campus visits and the college nights at the school that really helped us understand timelines, options and what we needed to do to help Ben position himself well for admission," she says. "I highly encourage parents to start early like we did."
On that note, as soon as the applications for both schools went live on Aug. 1 before Ben's senior year, Lambert and Ben went online to get started.
"Once senior year starts, a million activities begin for these kids," she explains. "So I encouraged Ben the first day that he could to take a look at the application and the essay questions and just to start thinking. I stayed on top of him, so that he got his applications in before the chaos of senior year began."
Lambert was familiar with independent college consultants and knew people who used them. But she didn't feel it was necessary to get one for Ben, who had a grade point average above a 4.0, highly competitive ACT scores and, on paper, all the criteria seemingly most important to his two schools of interest. Turns out she was right. Ben was accepted to both universities and is currently a freshman at MSU.
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.
"I and my team strongly believe in the high school counselor," says Williams, who was formerly one herself. "Counselors know a student from a social and academic perspective within the whole high school climate. One of the first questions we ask our young clients is how well they know their high school counselor. If the answer is, 'She wouldn't know me if she fell over me,' I would say, 'Then that's your fault.'
"Students need to go in there and introduce themselves and develop that relationship with their counselor, because he or she is so important to the whole application process. Advocating for a student is really the counselor's role."
"If I knew back in high school what I know now, I would have spent a lot more time in my counselor's office," Whalen says. "We're networking with admissions people regularly when they visit the high school and at events. If I feel the need to advocate for a specific student, it means something to the admissions person that we already have a relationship."
For his part, Ambrose says such calls from high school counselors are welcome.
"In fact, we wish we got more of them," he says. "Counselors can help us understand why a student's grades may have slipped during a certain semester. Perhaps there was something going on at home or in their personal life that we need to know about."
Where it can become challenging for many students is the amount of time they are actually able to get with their high school counselor – given the counselor's often heavy case load. Whalen is the counselor for a little more than 400 Clarkston High School students, and he is responsible not only for college counseling but all other counseling on students' personal, social and emotional issues – as well as academic scheduling.
At some schools like the University of Detroit Jesuit High School, where Whalen worked prior to joining the staff at Clarkston High School, college counseling duties are separated from school counseling responsibilities. Whalen handled the former during his eight years there.
"I strictly provided college advice, wrote recommendations, reviewed applications and attended networking events," he says. "I had more time to visit college campuses and attend conferences."
The American School Counselor Association recommends an ideal student-to-counselor ratio of 250-to-1. However, according to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2009-10, each public school counselor (including elementary and secondary) on average had responsibility for 460 students. In Michigan, the ratio was 660-to-1. NACAC estimates that under current ratios and time-on-task allotments, students in public schools can expect less than an hour of postsecondary education counseling for the entire school year.
"At some large public schools, counselors may have 750 students who they're working with," notes Beth Fagan, an independent college counselor based in Bloomfield Hills who works with students all over metro Detroit. "If you multiply that by all the paperwork, it's a lot. So I work in conjunction with guidance counselors. I am another avenue to help facilitate the college application process."
Fagan personally finds satisfaction in being able to help children who may be experiencing personal problems at home that influence whether, where and how they apply to school.
"Sometimes the school systems are not aware of what is going on inside a home," she explains. "I am there to help be these kids' advocates. That is my passion. If you are very bright and have strong parental support behind you, you'll be just fine. But sometimes there are kids that need additional help for personal reasons or because they have a learning disability, and my heart lies in helping them."
Test prep books
Looking for a few additional resources? Try these on for size:
- Cracking the ACT by The Princeton Review gives a comprehensive guide to preparing for the ACT exam. Includes access to three full-length practice tests with detailed answer explanations, specifics of what you need to know for all five test sections and test-taking strategies.
- Cracking the SAT, also by The Princeton Review, is likewise a comprehensive guide to preparing for the SAT exam. Includes access to five full-length practice exams, a "Hit Parade" of vocabulary appearing most frequently on the SAT, drills, explanations and thorough review of all SAT topics.
- The Real ACT Prep Guide, by way of ACT.org contains insider test-taking tips and strategy, practice and insight from the makers of the ACT.
- The Official SAT Study Guide, by the College Board includes 10 official SAT practice tests created by the test maker and more than 1,000 pages of test-taking approaches, practice questions and critical concepts.
- Great College Guides College Board College Handbook 2012, also by the College Board, provides objective information on every accredited college in the United States.
- Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think about Colleges by Loren Pope is a college guide introducing 40 of the best colleges you've never heard of. Includes a chapter on how students with learning disabilities can find schools that fit their needs.
- Cool Colleges: For the Hyper-Intelligent, Self-Directed, Late Blooming and Just Different by Donald Asher highlights schools that may be a good fit for students identifying as any of the adjectives in the title. It includes info on what the Ivy League is and looks for in students, universities that don't give grades, schools that don't require SAT scores and data on the highest-paying majors.
- Fiske Guide to Colleges by Edward B. Fiske provides an insider's look at more than 300 colleges and universities. The book is updated and expanded every year and looks at the academic climates and social and extracurricular opportunities at each school profiled.
- The College Board Book of Majors, again by the College Board, describes college majors and lists which schools offer them. A comprehensive guide to academic programs offered at four-year and two-year colleges.
- The K & W Guide to College for Students with Learning Disabilities by Marybeth Kravets and Imy F. Wax is a guide for students with learning disabilities and their families to approaching the college search process.