Preparing your kids for college
Congratulations! You’ve made it past the potty-training phase, the learning-to-read phase, the first crush, maybe even driver’s ed. However, now is not the time to rest – you’re about to face that mother of all challenges: It’s time to get your child ready to go off to college. We talked to experts in Beijing and overseas to figure out just what you can do to help your child find the way to the right college.
Choosing the Right School
First, according to Hamilton Gregg, the high school counselor at ISB: Back off. “We want kids to be in charge of the college process,” he says. “It’s the first time in a child’s life when he makes his own choice. He needs to choose his own college and find his way to success. We try to eliminate parents, relatives and friends from the process.” In other words, even if everyone else in your family has attended Yale, don’t expect your children to want to go there, and don’t push your own choices on them.
Just because a child can get into an elite school doesn’t mean they should go there. “Parents think that kids have to go to a Top Ten school in order to be successful, but that’s just not true,” explains Gregg. “Kids really need to find a school that allows them to find success. The conversation about ‘fit’ is an important one.”
So how do you and your child figure out which college is a good fit from way over here in Beijing?
If your child attends an international school, he will have the opportunity to meet with college representatives throughout the third year of high school, which is when the process really starts in earnest. In 2007, notes Gregg, over 100 colleges and universities across the globe sent representatives to ISB to meet the students and answer their questions.
Colleges want to attract international students, says Gregg. “US colleges designate a fair amount of money for recruitment of international students. Many schools in the US have a mandate to try to increase the number of international students, to increase diversity. The numbers vary, but most schools nowadays are aiming for 10 percent international student populations.”
Who’s “International,” Anyway?
But what if you’re an American, and your child wants to attend a university in the States? Will he be considered an international student, or is he just another American kid, despite his upbringing abroad?
The answer varies from one college or university to another. Amy Markham, the director of Admission Planning and Special Initiatives at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, says, “At Wheaton, we consider U.S. citizens who are educated overseas [to be]international students in the admission process because of the different perspectives that they bring. We feel that their backgrounds will enhance the academic and social atmosphere of Wheaton. These students’ applications are reviewed with non-U.S. citizen candidates from the same international school, which can help their applications stand out.”
In contrast, Middlebury College in Vermont uses the same application for all applicants, regardless of citizenship, according to Barbara Marlow, associate director for international admissions. Still, she believes students living abroad have an advantage in the application process. “The advantage, if the student brings it forth in the application, is the additional opportunity for perspective that students who have been in the U.S. all their lives are less likely to bring. However, students should never assume that what they have done or where they have lived stands for who they are. To have gone to school abroad does not, by itself, indicate that broad viewpoint. Students from abroad do have the advantage, if they use it, of potential essay topics and out-of-class activities that demonstrate how they have been changed and shaped by their life experiences.”
Marlow suggests asking each school about their admissions policy. “Some schools will ask anyone outside the US to complete a separate international admissions application, and will call all such students ‘international.’ This is a fair question to ask of the schools in which a student has an interest.”
To Visit or Not To Visit
Schools want international students. That sullen kid sitting across from you at the dinner table qualifies. So how do they figure out which school is right when they’re living halfway across the globe? Do you have to scrape together the funds for a summer vacation college tour like the one your parents dragged you on all those years ago?
It’s a nice idea, but not absolutely imperative in the age of the Internet. Gregg notes that “at ISB, we subscribe to a really cool website called ‘Family Connection,’ which lets our juniors compare aspects of different colleges.” Using this website, he explains, counselors can input a child’s GPA and test scores. The site will then spit out a chart that predicts, based on historical records, whether the child will be accepted to a specific college. It also shows the student where he will rank in comparison with other students, which gives a good idea of whether he can excel within that particular group of his peers. After using this tool to narrow the list of potential colleges, students can go online to research each school. Gregg also points to websites such as Campus Tours and Campus Dirt, both of which allow students to get a picture of the school from the point of view of current students.
Terry Crossman, a Beijing-based parent of two college students, strongly recommends that expat kids visit colleges. “Ours certainly did,” he says. “The disadvantage you have from here in Beijing is that you’re visiting empty campuses during the summer, usually. After four or five such visits, it all starts to sound the same.” To make the most of a college visit, he recommends encouraging your kids to “really question the students who lead the tour, and try to get more views while you’re there.” Also, he notes, “a lot of schools have set up ways to talk to current students through the Internet – peer-to-peer – and that’s very important in your kid’s decision-making.”
Peter Tu, an ISB graduate who now attends Harvey Mudd College in California, says nothing replaces that real-life college tour. He says of his own college search days that he “should have spoken to the students personally to [learn]what the actual environment was like. I can read as many reviews, rankings, and information brochures as I want, but I needed to actually visit the colleges and attend a couple of classes.”
Peter didn’t land at his first choice school. But he’s happy at Harvey Mudd, the school he eventually chose from the eight that accepted him. It was “a difficult choice to make with schools like Columbia University, University of Chicago, and Northwestern University having made offers. After comparing various aspects of the different schools, I made my choice based on previous student input, speaking with professors from those colleges through e-mail and financial aid allocations.” Peter was also drawn to the smaller student body size at Harvey Mudd. “From the information I gathered, I realized that I would be more comfortable in a smaller environment where the resources of the college were focused on the undergraduates.”
His advice for the current crop of student applicants is to “make time earlier, long before senior year, to actually attend information sessions and hosted events for prospective students.”
Terry Crossman wants other parents to know that “this is a great opportunity to start communicating with your kids as adults. Provide some guidance, give some suggestions, but also encourage them to go out and obtain information themselves. It’s stressful because it’s their senior year – they already have lots of work and this is like add-on homework. But they need to do it themselves.” He continues, “Let the kids make their own decision, but have them justify it to you.” He also suggests that parents at international schools “work closely with the college counselors, as they really do provide an invaluable service.” The international school counselors are equipped to help students apply to colleges worldwide.
Crossman’s perspective is somewhat unusual, as he also spent several years interviewing applicants for his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. He’s seen it all: the parent who accompanies the child to the interview and stands outside the door the entire time; the child who insists he has a passion for dentistry but exhibits no interest in teeth; even plenty of kids who are so busy trying to impress the interviewer that their true selves never shine through. Instead, he advises applicants, “Don’t be so sure you know what you want to study. I am suspicious of 17-year-olds who say they already know what they want to be. Is that really what you want, or is it what your parents want? Be yourself, and talk about what you’re passionate about.”
After suffering through the application process, your child eventually gets a fat acceptance envelope in the mail. Now your real struggle begins: How in the world are you going to pay for this?
“Ideally, you will have started an educational savings plan for your child soon after birth,” says Wade Dawson, a senior partner at Austen Morris Associates in Beijing. “But even if your child is long out of diapers, it isn’t too late to start saving. Sometimes parents who have not planned ahead feel that there is nothing that they can do if their child is already in his or her teens. However, you can always start saving and investing. For those who only have a year or two to save up, they should invest as much as possible right away in a high-interest savings account or a fixed-term deposit. For those parents with five or more years to save, there is still time to start a savings plan with an initial period of exposure to high-risk – and potentially higher return – investments.”
Austen Morris offers a financial calculator on their website that can help parents get an idea of how much they need to save. With this calculator, parents can enter the ages of each child along with the amount of money they’ve already saved, and the site will tell them if they are on track to save enough money. In some cases, it just isn’t possible to save enough. Says Dawson, “parents may have to make some tough choices. Some parents may decide that their child’s education is their highest priority. In that case, it may mean that the father or mother will have to work a few years longer than planned in order to ensure there are adequate funds for retirement. Other parents may decide that the child will have to pay for the costs of a university education on his own so that savings can be directed towards retirement. Either way, families should sit down with an adviser and openly discuss their priorities so that they can make an informed decision.”
Dawson notes that there are many ways to find the money for college, including dipping into retirement savings, cutting down on other expenses, asking a grandparent to contribute, utilizing equity in a home, taking personal loans, or even paying with a credit card with a low APR. If you choose this last, riskiest strategy, warns Dawson, you’ll “need to be certain you will be able to make the payments as scheduled. Otherwise, you will be penalized with a high APR and late payment fees.”
Of course, not everywhere is as expensive as the U.S., so it’s well worth looking to other countries. Dawson points out that in Australia, a university education costs much less – and a B.A. can be earned in just three years, cutting costs significantly. If your child is interested in learning about schools in countries other than the U.S., high school counselors at the international schools can help them research and apply to such schools.
“Don’t let money limit your child’s dreams,” says parent Terry Crossman, who looked to grandparents to help fund his children’s education. “There are ways to pay for college, even if your child has to take out a loan,” he reminds other parents.
The Next Step for Parents
So it’s finished. Your child has picked a school, you’ve sent the first tuition check, and you’ve put your baby on a flight out of Beijing. What’s next for you? “It was weird being empty nesters,” notes Crossman. “And it was harder on my wife than on me.” But now, he says, the kids come home for vacations twice a year, “and really screw up our routines.”
Crossman doesn’t worry about the distance between him and his kids. “Of course, I have relatives all over the States, which makes it less nerve-wracking. And universities are very good at supporting the kids who are there – if the kids take advantage of their services.” Crossman recommends that before your kids leave for school, you “get them a microphone and set up Skype,” so you can communicate easily. “I talk to my kids over the computer all the time. I’ve even helped my daughter out with papers from way over here.”
So relax. You’ve done the best you could, and now your kids are out there, blazing their own exciting trails across the globe. Maybe now it’s time to find a good deal on a romantic resort in Thailand. After all, you never know: Four years from now, they could be moving back in with you.
Reading List for Parents
Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges
By Loren Pope
Getting in Without Freaking Out: The Official College Admissions Guide for Overwhelmed Parents
By Arlene Matthews
Winning The Heart of the College Admissions Dean: An Expert’s Advice For Getting Into College
By Joyce Mitchell
Looking Beyond the Ivy League: Finding the College That’s Right for You
By Loren Pope
By Jay Mathews