March Madness is just around the corner. Thousands will travel around the country to see what their favorite colleges have to offer. Small schools will stage stunning upsets, and big schools will take surprising falls.

I’m not talking about some silly basketball tournament. I’m taking about the process of choosing a college, a journey upon which tens of thousands of Washington area high school juniors and their parents are about to embark.

Spring break of junior year is when the process, which has been on a slow rolling boil since the start of high school (or in some cases before), starts to intensify. There are prep classes for the SAT and ACT, and then there are the tests themselves. There’s the listmaking and burnishing of a high-school résumé. And of course there are the college visits, the pilgrimage to campuses large and small, nearby and farflung.

It’s a time of high tension. I recently heard a presentation by Karen Felton, director of admissions at George Washington University, and she advises parents to take a deep breath. She brought a sense of rationality that I had rarely encountered to topics as wrenching as the number of colleges to apply to or the number of Advanced Placement classes to take. So not wanting to hoard the moment of zen she afforded me, I asked her to share her thoughts for parents and kids on key areas of the college search.

Will my kid get into college?

“So much that you read in the media . . . about the college admissions process is how competitive it is. That relates to what I call the uber-selective places . . . the Ivy League or Ivy-like schools that select single-digit percentages of students who apply. But the vast majority of universities accept most of the students who apply for admission.”

How many schools should my child apply to?

“In general, I would say six to eight is a good number. Among the schools students should apply to are two schools where there is a strong likelihood that they will be admitted — I call these ‘foundation schools.’ There should be two additional schools where there’s a 50-50 chance [of acceptance] based on admission profiles. Then look at one or two dream schools that might be highly selective. . . . There might be some circumstances that dictate [applying to more schools, especially] if a college choice depends on the amount of financial aid you’ll receive.”

How important is taking a lot of Advanced Placement classes?

“We encourage students to pursue rigor, but it has to be balanced with success. I was not a particularly strong math student. My greatest strength is in humanities and social sciences. So I made sure I was meeting the requirements and then pursued additional rigor in an area where I could do well and that met my personal and professional aspirations. I caution families against crafting a curriculum solely for the college process. Craft an experience that challenges a student but also makes sense for them based on their talents and skills.”

What should you look for on a college visit?

“Students need to listen to the still-small voice that they might hear on a college visit that says, ‘This is the right place for me.’ Find out what experiences exist inside and outside the classroom. Students should ask if they want to be a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond. Families should think about fit in the broadest definition. It shouldn’t just be about whether a student can get in.”

How can I help my child without being a helicopter parent?

“It’s always important for parents to remember that this is the student’s process. Sometimes the choices a student might make are different than what a parent might make for them. Make them write their own essays. It’s fine to have someone proofread an essay, but the essay needs to reflect the student and not what the student (or the parent) thinks the school is looking for. . . . Parents can help keep studentson schedule, which is very important, but let the student take ownership of doing the actual work of applying to college.”

Any final words to calm me down?

“I really want families to be assured that it almost always works out. A student almost always finds him or herself at a place that fits them. It may not always feel like that during the process but it always works out.”


Grant, the editor of KidsPost, writes about parenting issues every other week. Read her past columns at