Start early and avoid college application mania

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Seeking help from a professional, whether a private counselor or in a high school’s College and Career Center, may ease the stress of the college application process.

I read a funny comic, Zits, that sums up students’ feelings about college applications and essays. The boy is complaining about the weather. His mother suggests that he work on his application and essay. The boy replies that after he finishes, he will then work on learning the U.S. tax code – probably one of the most boring topics to a teenager. I first laughed and then realized that it was not so funny.

What are we asking of our children and students?

We want to make our children look as good as possible on paper. We want them to understand how important the “right college” is for their future. We want them to fill out an application that might have gaps in it. We want perfection. We want to do it for them. We want to write that essay so that the admissions committee will have to take him or her.

My advice to parents: Stay calm. Start early. Don’t fill out their applications for them. College admissions people know who wrote that essay and who filled out those short answers.

Following are tips for taking the stress out of the college admissions process.

• Download a copy of the Common Application – used by more than 400 colleges and universities – as early as when your child hits the eighth grade. It can be useful in directing academic course selections in high school.

• Choose any five schools your child may want to attend and download the supplement.

• Encourage your child to keep a notebook of events that happen to him or her – a record of even minor, small events may prove valuable as the admissions process approaches.

• Urge your child to discuss all aspects of the application with you. It is less daunting if he or she has some idea how to begin to answer the questions.

• Start a list of possible schools.

• Visit my website to access a college application matrix.

• Seek help from professionals, but be careful – there are no laws or guidelines for those hanging out a shingle. Be sure to check credentials and references. If a counselor tells you that his or her students are accepted into every school to which they apply, run the other way.

• Set reasonable goals. Maybe ask to see the first three pages of the application done by Friday night dinner. Do it in pieces.

• Procrastination often means that the child is scared, not lazy. Think about what we are asking children to do – fill out an application that will change their lives. How excited would you be to do this? Remember, they are all talk and show – they love you and their cocoon.

Seek help from a professional if you think your child needs it. Don’t do it yourself – especially because you may not know what should be written.

The application is not about recounting all of your child’s activities. It is not about what you think is important. It is not a brag sheet. It is an essay that will show who he or she is. Let the admissions officers uncover who your child is. In short, don’t hit the admissions people over the head.

Elaine Sigal is a Los Altos resident who has been an educator for more than 35 years. She is founder of MindLaunch, a tutoring, academic advising and college counseling company. For more information, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or visit

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