Thinking About College: Activities Adults and Teenagers Can Do Together

Thinking About College: Activities Adults and Teenagers Can Do Together

Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

Featured Articles: Recent reporting on the college process from The New York Times

Note: This is a special edition of our Lesson of the Day. We have invited Jacques Steinberg, a journalist at The Times from 1988 to 2013, and the founding editor of its 2009-13 college admissions blog, The Choice, to write a guest post for us. Mr. Steinberg has recently authored a book, “The College Conversation: A Practical Companion for Parents to Guide Their Children Along the Path to Higher Education,” with Eric J. Furda, the dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania.

For adults seeking to guide young people through the college search and application process — whether in the role of counselor, teacher, parent or mentor — moments and milestones that can be fraught under the best of circumstances have been made all the more unnerving this fall. This may be the case for high school seniors who will soon push “submit,” as well as high school juniors contemplating where they might apply next year.

In this guide, students work with an adult in their lives to make sense of the college process. You will begin with a broad conversation on your hopes for college, then read some practical articles from The Times together, and, finally, co-create a to-do list to manage the next steps.

In The College Conversation, we offer more than a dozen activities for parents and other adults to do together with would-be applicants. To the extent that those exercises have a common thread, it is this: We encourage adults to ask their students questions, and to then listen carefully to their answers, before supporting them in incorporating those reflections into the college process.

That advice was echoed in a recent article, “How Parents Can Support Teenagers in the Pandemic College Process,” which points out that with college admissions significantly altered this year, parents, or any other adult involved in the process, must pay special attention to what their student wants and needs.

In the article, the author and pediatrician Dr. Cara Natterson says, “Listen to what your kid is saying — really listen — before delivering a lecture.” She adds, “And then, maybe skip the lecture.”

Here are some questions that we invite adults and teenagers to first think about individually, then discuss together. In our book, we suggest that each of you consider grabbing a few index cards as a way to record some of your early, individual responses, with students answering for themselves and adults answering from their knowledge of the student. After you’ve each spent a few minutes jotting responses to these prompts on the cards, compare notes.

  • What aspects of yourself do you think you might want to explore in college, or in any other higher education setting?

  • What interests and ideas do you have now that you think higher education can help you explore or develop? What subjects might you want to study? What inspires you — and how might you act on that inspiration in college?

  • What kind of college do you imagine you might like to go to, ideally? Free associate some attributes of that institution, using some details or key words or phrases that can make it start to come to life. Describe it in as much detail as you can. What would the community there be like? What might the curriculum look like? In what settings — rural, suburban or urban — or parts of the country might it be located? Why?

One piece of advice: At this early stage of exploration, don’t cite the names of individual schools or describe a school in a way that is so specific that its identity is obvious. That discussion can come later. This exercise is about reducing the college experience to its barest essentials.

If you are applying to college this fall, the pandemic has disrupted several aspects of the process for at least some applicants — but certainly not all aspects for all applicants.

Below are excerpts and links from Times articles that can help with specific parts of the college process, accompanied by a few questions for further discussion.

Adults: You might consider inviting your student to review these links, and lead the conversation about which topics they would like to discuss with you at this stage, as well as how and why.

On Standardized Testing and Admissions

While hundreds of bachelor-degree-granting institutions long ago made the SAT and ACT optional for most applicants, in an acknowledgment that the exams can benefit the most advantaged applicants, most schools that still require such tests have struck those mandatory policies, at least for this year’s admissions cycle. Many students have struggled to take such tests amid lockdowns and other restrictions related to Covid-19, while others have simply not felt safe doing so.

And yet, those applying without such scores — either because they choose not to submit them, or were never able to take the tests — worry that they will be at a disadvantage. Here are two useful articles that can help you with those concerns.


Questions for discussion:

  • Emma Goldberg asks, “Is all of this anxiety and effort even necessary?” How does she answer? What do you take away from her article, as it applies to you? Why?

  • Times editors ask Jeffrey Selingo, an expert on college admissions, “Does test-optional really mean test-optional in admissions?” How does he answer?

  • In light of the de-emphasis on standardized testing in this year’s college application process — and with the future role of standardized testing in the process unknown — what are other ways that you can demonstrate to a college or university your academic interests and accomplishments, and how you might carry them forward in a college environment?

On Financial Aid and the Pandemic

For all the differences in this fall’s application process, many aspects remain largely intact, and will be familiar both to families who have children who have been through the process before and to high school counselors.

The Times’s “Your Money” columnist recently published a two-part primer on this subject, with the first part focused on merit aid and the second on need-based aid. Together they can walk you through this year’s landscape.


How to Predict Merit Aid in a Strange College Application Season, by Ron Lieber

What a $300,000 College Might Cost a $200,000 Family, by Ron Lieber

Questions for discussion:

  • What are the definitions of “need-based” financial aid and “merit” aid, and to what extent might those financial aid options be relevant and helpful in the particular case of our family? What are other ways to reduce the cost of a higher education?

  • For parents to answer in discussion with students: What is the rough sense and range of how much money you might be prepared to spend each year, including from earnings and savings, on your student’s college education? How much might you be prepared to borrow?

  • For students to answer in discussion with parents: What is a rough sense and range of how much you would be prepared to contribute, such as earnings or savings from a summer job? What is your willingness to take on a part-time job while in college as well as loans for which you would be responsible after graduation?

On the College Essay

As in years past, applicants should use their applications as a vehicle to introduce themselves to admissions officers, including to explain who they are, what they value and what fires their passions — and to make the case for what they would add to the university community.

Here are two articles that give a wealth of practical advice. The first was published this fall; the second comes from 2009. But Martha C. Merrill’s advice from 2009 is as wise this fall as when The Times first published it, and further underscores the notion that this year’s admissions process will still have much in common with the many cycles that preceded it.


Applying to College During the Pandemic? Here Is Some Advice From Admissions Officers, by Judy Mandell

Tip Sheet: An Admissions Dean Offers Advice on Writing a College Essay, by Martha C. Merrill

Questions for discussion:

  • What part of Douglas Christiansen’s advice is the same now as in a nonpandemic cycle? How do you think it applies to you?

  • What tips does Martha Merrill offer students that resonate with you? If you have started your essay, do you think you have been able to incorporate some of her advice? How? What specific lines or sections in your draft essay do you think are most effective in reflecting her advice? Does she offer additional tips that you would like to follow?

  • Every writer needs an editor. To whom might you show a draft of your essay to offer some feedback — not to impose their voice on yours, but to provide perspective on how clearly you have articulated and supported your ideas, as well as to read behind you on basic grammar? A teacher, counselor or parent? Another adult? A friend or other peer?

As a final activity, adults and students might work together to create a to-do list of basic next steps — as well as an indication of which of you is responsible for those steps — and a basic timeline. A college counselor can be invaluable in helping inform those steps and how best to approach them.

In “The College Conversation,” we suggest young people and the adults in their lives consider using index cards or notepads to keep track of these activities, or an Excel sheet, Word document or Google document. Whatever format works best for you.

We also suggest organizing those conversations into five phases, centered on a student’s self-discovery, college search and application, as well as the decision phase (the colleges’ and then those of the applicant), followed by the transition to college.

While it all may seem overwhelming, we want to close on a note of reassurance. Access to an affordable college education, one that aligns with a student’s dreams and ambitions, is a goal that is eminently achievable, especially for students (and the adults in their lives) who are willing to keep an open mind and do their research, looking inward as well as across the higher education landscape.

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