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Posted at 07:40 PM ET, 03/23/2011

Parents too impatient in college search

In my life as a writer and speaker on college admissions issues and as an experienced high school parent, one question comes up so often I am tempted to complete the sentence whenever I hear it:

“How can I get my kid interested in the admissions process?”

The questioner is often the parent of a boy. Allegedly, boys mature later than girls and have trouble with the idea that they must start planning the rest of their lives by sophomore year in high school. I nod and say I’ve been there.

But after hearing from a very experienced admissions consultant, Bethesda-based Bruce Vinik, I am wondering whether maybe this is not our kids’ fault, but our fault.

The first-person plural pronoun in the previous sentence refers to us college-obsessed parents, particularly people like me. We think our long and difficult years of passing on our wisdom will be forever defined by what kind of college our child gets into.

Vinik, previously a teacher and the college counselor at Georgetown Day School, has been noticing a disturbing trend. “I have seen increasing numbers of students jump into the college admissions process earlier and earlier,” he said. “It wasn’t all that long ago when the norm was for students to take the SAT or ACT for the first time in the spring of junior year. I now see increasing numbers of 11th-graders taking one (and sometimes both) of these exams during the first semester of junior year.”

I know there are some over-eager youths, as I once was, who want to get a head start on their peers and try out those tests as early as eighth grade. But we know who is most responsible for the rush to the admissions process starting line: moms and dads. Vinik said he has also noticed that “increasing numbers of parents are dragging their kids on college visits in the fall of junior year.”

Let’s take a particularly bad example: me. Ten years ago in the summer before my daughter even started her junior year of high school, we packed the family off to a vacation on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire.

One evening in our rented cabin in the woods, my wife and I oh-so-casually suggested we drive over the next morning to Hanover, N.H., and Middlebury, Vt., to see those nice towns and maybe, if we felt like it, tour the campuses of a couple of colleges named Dartmouth and Middlebury that we had heard were there.

Our daughter went along with it, although there was something in the tone of her voice that indicated we were pushing it. (She eventually chose a college 3,000 miles away from those two.)

She did not take the SAT (the first time) until the spring of her junior year, but she attended one of those high schools where everyone took the PSAT the first semester of junior year. We were fully invested in the process almost two years early.

It isn’t good to take the tests that really count, like the SAT, that early, Vinik said. “With the exception of kids who excel on testing with minimal effort,” he said, “it’s hard for most students to score as well as they should” on the SAT and the ACT in the fall of 11th grade. The tests are designed for second-semester juniors and first-semester seniors.

“As a result, they still need to go through all of the testing in the second half of 11th grade and often have the first part of 12th grade in order to try for the scores they would like to have,” he said. “All this testing wears kids down over time. . . . The risk is burnout during senior year.”

So next time somebody asks me how to get their kids excited about college, maybe the right answer is: Don’t. Let it happen naturally. Modern medicine is doing well; our children are likely to live a long time. What’s the hurry?

By  |  07:40 PM ET, 03/23/2011

 
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