As if getting myself into college hadn't been difficult enough, now I'm embarking on the adventure of navigating my son through the process. I call it an "adventure," because it truly is nothing less -- a roller-coaster ride fraught with sudden turns, unexpected pitfalls, one-mistake-and-you're-doomed scenarios. I'm sure there's a spine-tingling reality show possibility here, something between "Survivor," "The Apprentice" and "Extreme Makeover: How to Survive Getting Your Kid Into College Without Getting Fired and Still Looking Fabulous." You start with 20 Jewish mothers and see who's not in therapy by the time acceptance letters arrive.
Luckily, I know plenty of moms who have treaded these waters before -- many of my friends have kids who are already in college or at least thoroughly enmeshed in college entrance preparation.
"Are you signing Mickey up for the PSAT next month?" my friend Ginny asked. (Mickey is a high school sophomore).
"He just took a PSAT a few weeks ago," I said.
"That was the practice PSAT," Ginny explained.
"There's a practice, practice PSAT?"
"No, a practice, practice SAT."
"OK," I got a pen and paper to draft a quick flowchart. "So, first they take a preliminary test to practice for the Practice-SAT."
"That's right! And then they'll do better on the PSAT, which is important because that one counts."
"But it's just practice. What does it count for?"
"I don't know, but it does. Or maybe it doesn't. Well, it doesn't now, but it will later."
"Does he have to take it now?"
"Then when would he take it?"
"In his junior year, right before the SAT. In fact, he probably should wait because he'll do better on it next year after a year of practice."
"Practicing what? He already took the practice PSAT. If he doesn't take the PSAT, what's he going to practice?" I ripped my flowchart into pieces.
"He'll take a practice course at school."
"Or you'll get him a private SAT tutor."
"If you want him to get into a good college...."
"Hold on," I said. I stuffed three Oreos into my mouth and washed them down with cold coffee. My tentative grip on teenager management was about to come loose, sending me plunging into a deep chasm where all my accomplishments as a mother would wither, and my son's life would unravel, because I couldn't understand the structure of college entrance exam signups.
Ginny could hear the panic in my voice.
"Julie," she said, "you're eating cookies again, aren't you?"
"Uh-huh," I mumbled, trying to keep the chocolate crumbs in my mouth.
"Listen," she said reassuringly, "it's not that complicated. The kids can pick up the information in the college center at school. And I'll tell you what, I'll let you know what I'm doing as I do it, and you can just copy me...."
That was exactly what I needed -- a virtual guidance counselor who could tell me what to do and when to do it. Then I would just cooperate and follow along.
Applying to college was not this complicated 25(ish) years ago. I think I took a PSAT. I know I took the SAT. I took it one time. I did relatively well. I got into UCLA. But times have changed. If I packaged up my high school transcripts and SAT score today, UCLA probably would laugh my application right out of the admissions building.
While everyone agrees that getting into college is more difficult and complex than it was a generation ago, most acknowledge that parents and kids need to step back, set realistic goals and try to relieve some of that SAT trauma and drama.
No one sees more distress over scores than Wendy Gilbertson, a partner with Coast 2 Coast College Admissions, a certified college consulting company.
"Scores are important," Gilbertson said, "but students have much more to offer than just a test score. Most colleges seek well-rounded kids, and they look at many other factors when considering applicants."
If a student is concerned about improving his or her score, then a prep course is very helpful.
"But it's usually best if parents are not overly involved in that process," Gilbertson said. "Kids will be more motivated if they are accountable to a third party and not to mom or dad."
Students should be open-minded when considering where they want to submit their applications. Marc Mayerson, an assistant dean at UCLA, explained that a narrow band of elite colleges, including the Ivy Leagues and several UC campuses, are overwhelmed by the number of applications they receive.
"When a college receives 35,000 to 50,000 applications for only 5,000 freshman spots or even much fewer, the admissions staff must weed out applications with gross measures, and those measures often include SAT scores," he said.
The good news is that there are hundreds of excellent colleges and universities throughout the United States and abroad that do not weigh entrance exam scores as heavily as the larger, more well-known schools that many California kids have their hearts set on.
"One of the biggest mistakes high school seniors make is that they convince themselves that only an Ivy League or a particular university is the right school for them," Mayerson said. "By considering a few more schools, they can alleviate much of the stress and anxiety for themselves and for their parents."
Feel better? I know I do. But I suggest you keep a few packs of your favorite cookies in the cupboard, just in case.
For information on test schedules and other things to keep you up at night, go to www.collegeboard.com.
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