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Applying To College: Advice from a High School College Counselor

Your Teen asked Terry McCue, former Assistant Head of School and Director of College Counseling for Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights, Ohio—and a former admissions director—for her advice on how parents should approach the college process.

A High School Guidance Counselor Has Answers

Q: Was applying to college different back in our day?

McCue: It was! And it’s so important to understand the difference between admissions then and now. If you went to a competitive college, chances are high you wouldn’t get in today. Those days are gone. When I was applying to college, Middlebury was a good safety school. Now, Middlebury is harder to get into than the Ivies were 20 years ago. The number of applicants has tripled or quadrupled to these schools. There were more than 30,000 applications to Columbia this year. Twenty years ago that number was closer to 10,000. And, the population of applicants is a global one. Colleges want kids from 50 states and around the world.

Q: How should parents approach today’s college process?

McCue: Among college counselors, there is a famous saying: “College is a match to be made, not a prize to be won.” This is not about a bumper sticker or whether your family and friends will recognize the name of the school. It’s about finding a school that’s a good match for your teenager. A place where they can thrive and reach their goals.

Q: When do we start talking about college?

McCue: Middle school is a fine time to talk about college if your child is ready. If your middle schooler exits the kitchen, then they’re not ready. But if your middle schooler has been looking at colleges since the fourth grade, they may be more amenable. You might start with this message: We expect you to go to college, and we will support you in applying and attending.

Q: What else?

McCue: Help your adolescent be a good reader. I can’t emphasize this enough. Students who do well on the SAT are good readers. It’s a vocabulary rich test, and you cannot become a good reader overnight. Read widely, and read for pleasure every night. Foster a love of learning. Let them be exposed to everything that makes us human, including the arts. And—this is a tough one—play an active, but not domineering role, in your child’s education. If you step in to solve every problem your child encounters, the implicit message is, “I don’t think you can handle this yourself.” Of course, sometimes a problem is too big, and you have to step in. But it’s key to find the balance.

Q: The start of high school feels stressful, suddenly college is looming. 

McCue: Yes, and it’s really important not to make high school all about strategizing for college. You’ll hear some parents say, “Well, you should do debate because I read an article in the New York Times that said colleges love debate or whatever.” That’s not a reason to have your teenager join an activity. When I was in admissions, we loved the applicants who did what they loved. Trust me, it’s palpable in a student’s application.

Q: And once the admissions process has officially begun?

McCue: Find your balance. It’s tough. It’s emotional. But start by letting your teenager know you have an unshakable belief that things will work out, no matter what school they go to. I see it all the time that things can work out in unexpected ways. Every year, we have students who went to their third or fourth college choice and, almost without exception, they come back and say, “I love it, and I cannot imagine being anywhere else.” Let your teenager be the leader. Parents who take charge deprive their teenagers of a real opportunity to take ownership. The message, again, is: “I don’t think you are capable of doing this.” Let your teenager own it.

Q: Can you give us some examples?

McCue: When you visit colleges, take a step back. Let your child ask the questions. When you’re on a tour as a parent, you’re at the back of the line. Support your teenager, but do not push your role as the advisor. Do not hijack the process.

Q: What else? 

McCue: Don’t tie your happiness with your child’s college success. This is not a report card on your parenting. Kids cook at a different rate. Some of the most amazing people I know are people who didn’t take the traditional path.

Terry McCue, former director of admissions at Hathaway Brown School in Cleveland, Ohio

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