College Admissions and Service Work

A recent blog in the New York Times’ Education section (, raises interesting questions about the way in which high school students may actually be choosing to do volunteer work (or any other activity, for that matter) purely for college admissions sake.  Indeed, given the emphasis that college applications place on things like community service, it seems logical to assume that many kids do in fact sign up for all sorts of activities with their applications in mind.  But even if this is true, does it really matter?  What are the consequences of such pragmatism?  This is an important and thorny question, and certainly one with which I have often wrestled, as an admission officer, as a private consultant, and as a parent.

I do in fact believe that many students, consciously or otherwise, opt to do community service with their college applications in mind.  And I equally believe it is silly to spend hours doing something after school you care little about.  (Whatever activity a student is doing, keep in mind that countless others are doing the same thing for the same reason, making it unlikely that the activity in itself will impress the admission officer who has, I fear, seen it before!) But I don’t think it is silly to encourage students to see service to, and engagement with, their communities as an important part of passing on their privilege.

So perhaps the answer is that we encourage students to do community service, but we also urge them to be aware and thoughtful about finding the service opportunities that speak most to their own interests.  After all, why feel compelled to dig latrines in another country if you would rather clean up the beach where you surf every day; why think that your job refiling books in the library must have less value than becoming president of the service club at school?

Students can then achieve several crucial things.  They will hopefully learn that good citizenship extends beyond their college applications.  They will also move towards that marvelous and transformative moment when they can see the connection between what they learn from books and what they see in the world around them.  In that sense, they will be well ahead of many others that may only begin to get a glimmer of that in college, if ever.  And pragmatically, students who can show and articulate a critical awareness of how the different elements of their young lives are integrating even at seventeen – intellectually, politically, socially – are the ones with the most interesting applications in the end.

Paying for College

Online presentation on Paying for College 1.14.2010

“Financial Aid Experts Reveal Secrets of How to Pay for College”

on January 14, 2010 at

(Access online between 3:00p.m. and 10:00 p.m EST)

Though we at College Goals cannot guarantee that students and families will gain the answers to all their college financing questions, we’re suggesting that interested parents or students visit the CollegeWeekLive site on January 14 as opportunities to hear directly from professionals in these aspects of college financing are rare. For your interest, we are publishing the official program for this event here on our blog page.

From the CollegeWeekLive website:

This online event focuses on the transition from “how to get into college” to “how to pay for college.” Scholarship and financial aid gurus offer essential information immediately applicable to your financial aid search, including:

  • 3:00 PM Eastern – “How To Raise $15k For College Right Now” featuring Kim Clark, Staff Writer, U.S. News and World Report
  • 4:00 PM Eastern – “Money for the Student Athlete” featuring Dion Wheeler, Author of “Sports Scholarship Insider’s Guide”
  • 5:00 PM Eastern – “Finding Money: A Guide To Financial Aid” featuring Martha Savery, Director of External Relations, MEFA (Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority)
  • 8:00 PM Eastern – “Let Your State Help Pay for College” featuring Dr. Armando Salas-Amaro, Policy Analyst, Florida Department of Education
  • 9:00 PM Eastern – “Ask a Financial Aid Officer” featuring Adam Hatch & Ashley Munro, Financial Aid Officers for Hawaii Pacific University and University of Alaska Fairbanks

Visit virtual booths hundreds of colleges virtual booths, each with admissions and financial aid information!

To attend this event go to You may also register there for their online newsletter.

Home for the holidays: expect the unexpected

Today my younger daughter, a college freshman, returns from college for the Christmas break. It is her second return from college far away as she spent the Spring semester of her senior year at a Canadian university. I am therefore forewarned to prepare myself to ‘Expect the unexpected,’ ‘To go with the flow,’ ‘To take what we get. . .’

It’s strange how parents, who thought they knew it all, find themselves (albeit unwillingly) experiencing much personal growth when their children leave for college, and even more somehow when they return. I found a nugget of wisdom in an unlikely place last Sunday, in the local newspaper’s Weekend Magazine. In an interview, a Baby-boomer dad was asked, “What do parents really want when it comes to their children?”  His reply: “Independence. You want them to navigate the world without having their hands held.”

It’s true. This is what we do want! Reading this answer put things back into perspective for me as I began to anticipate seeing changes in my daughter and to prepare myself for continuing changes in my relationship with her. As an experienced parent having gone through this stage with two other children, I am cognizant that ‘no two children are alike’ and the challenges with each often come ‘out of left field.’ But that’s okay – I do feel I will be better able to adjust if I stay aware that the dynamic is changing. Parenting is, of course, a constant process of adjusting expectations and redefining roles. It’s just harder at this stage as the adult child is doing most of the redefining. . .

For those new to the “home from college for the holidays thing”, and those who have forgotten, here are some useful tips:

  • Stock up the refrigerator and pantry with treats and healthy foods suitable for late night snacking.
  • Don’t be surprised if your child arrives home drained and exhausted. Semesters are intense. The final weeks of completing major assignments and exams at college are grueling. Let them have the unstructured down time they need.
  • Accept that your student’s holiday time priorities are not the same as yours. They will want to go out and visit high school friends also back from college; your plans for the traditional family trimming of the Christmas tree may have to take a back seat. (I have compromised in the past by setting aside the special ornaments for my son to add to the decorated tree!)
  • Expect this to be a confusing and disorienting time, with frequent ups and downs.
  • Resist the temptation to “measure” the results of your financial investment in college by the quality of your interactions with your, apparently, “prodigal” child!
  • Be glad that the transformative process to independent adult is underway – it will take the full four years!
  • Silently give thanks for the behaviors and possible outcomes of the semester that you aren’t seeing.

For these four years, your student will be “in and out of your life”, in fits and starts. You will share in the triumphs and crises. During the holidays, you can remind yourself to enjoy the little moments – the seemingly insignificant treasure – the stuff of memories.

“Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?”

– Thornton Wilder, Our Town

Joe College Goes Home For The Holidays

It is Sunday, and I am back home after driving my middle son to SFO airport at the end of his freshman Thanksgiving visit. It was the first time I had seen him since dropping him off at college in August, and it was wonderful. We chatted about life and about school, and he seemed quite content to hang out with his parents. After years of getting “Nothing much” or “Whatever” in response to questions about friends or school, this was no doubt a testament to his growth and manna to our ears.

For many families, however, that much-anticipated first visit home for Thanksgiving or Christmas can easily sink into dashed hopes and high anxiety. In part this happens because parents and student approach the visit with remarkably different expectations. Parents usually want nothing more than having their child back at home again, just as if he or she was still in grade school and fully under their control. And indeed, this weekend when I looked at my son sleeping, it was as if he was a baby again and I stroked his head with the same unbearable rush of love. But in a corner of their minds, parents also hope that the young child will now come with adult opinions, meaningful conversations about life, and perhaps even thoughtful descriptions of friends and their extracurricular life.

Students, on the other hand, also just want to be back home again – freely raiding the pantry, having their laundry done, sleeping until noon – but together with the added freedom to which college life has accustomed them. Parents of international students have even more to process when they see their child on her visit home from the US. The student talks about rituals of which they know little, expresses herself in a mode which seems distinctly foreign to them, and describes a world they have never experienced.

With an effort to understand the other’s perspective and a bit of tolerance on both sides, families can, however, cope and have a joyful homecoming. As all of us who have ever gone home as adults know, back in your parents’ home you find yourself locked into childhood behaviors that no amount of aging can seemingly overcome. We argue with siblings just as we did when were ten, and our parents annoy us with the same irksome interference they showed when we were teens. Similarly, when our students come home as young adults, we all revert to old ways of behaving that no longer fit with their new status as independent adults.

But for the sake of that warm and homey holiday we all long for, we have to stand back and appreciate that our sons and our daughters are, as Bob Dylan reminded us, beyond our command, even when we still pay the bills and they are sleeping under our roofs. We raised them to be independent and self-sufficient adults, and so when they act as if they are, we have to, as we told them when they were younger, “deal with it.” On the other hand, children should know that as rightly proud as they are of their new independence, as hard as they are working at becoming the newer and better adults they aim to be, there are ways in which they will forever remain fixed in our minds as little boys and girls. And that is not so bad. After all, why else would we be feeding them, doing their laundry, and paying the bills?