Three years ago, when my older son began choosing and applying for colleges, I was literally a nervous wreck. Normally, I am a calm, steady, not-easily-overwhelmed person—but this process reduced me to frantic tears on more than one occasion.Believe me, the college search experience can turn even the most normal parent into a crazed lunatic. Friends with older children tried to help by dropping off a 50-pound stack of books covering ACT/SAT preparation, writing compelling application essays, and choosing the right major. The books are certainly helpful, but the amount of information one must process along this journey is daunting, to say the least.
This year, my baby is graduating from high school and going off to college. Has the college search gotten easier this time around? In some ways, yes, but in many ways—heck no! The amount of information is still staggering! Based on my experiences, here are some tips I can offer regarding what students and their parents are looking for in terms of content related to academic testing and college admissions.
Revelation #1: Not all high schools do a thorough job of providing this information. My son’s school is great, but as a public school with more than 600 seniors, counselors can only go so far to reach every student.
Revelation #2: Parents usually spend significant time helping their kids with college stuff. Kids certainly need to take ownership of their own futures, but the amount of information is so staggering that it takes a village to digest it all. In my younger son’s case, he goes to school before 7am and finishes with sports after 6pm, and with dinner, homework, and everything else (like sleep), has little time to properly devote to the college hunt. Content creators should realize they are not only writing for students, they are writing for parents. Some websites, like the standardized test site ACT.org, first ask the user who they are (parent, student, counselor, etc.) then guide them to the appropriate content.
College Readiness: In discussions with fellow parents, many parents ponder whether their kids are truly ready for college. Should they start off at a 4-year university, or are they better off getting their feet wet and starting at a 2-year junior college? How do I assess college readiness? A Google search on “college readiness” produces these varied results:
- A U.S. News article stating that 1 in 3 students who took the ACT test were not ready for entry-level college courses in any subject
- A PDF document outlining state requirements (Texas, in my case)
- A link to the College Board’s readiness content (they administer the SAT) that discusses state-specific readiness and SAT preparation opportunities
- Readiness articles from non-profits like highereducation.org and achieve.org
- A university-specific guide to readiness, in this case Rice University in my hometown of Houston
Don’t get me wrong—all of these sites are great, but parents and students are looking for clear-cut, aggregate information containing a background on what readiness is and a quick guide on how to assess it
College Testing: The ACT and SAT sites both do a really good job of outlining their tests, but here are some lessons learned in this area:
- Parents and students want a clear cut comparison of the ACT and SAT to determine which test is best for the student
- Strategies on reporting scores to colleges, and guidance on how many times you can retake these tests
- College Board also administers Advanced Placement (AP) tests, so definitive information on how schools accept AP credit is key. University websites need to do a better job of explaining AP credit for their campus. For example, different colleges within the same university differ on AP credit acceptance; an engineering college may not accept AP Physics or Calculus credit, instead requiring the student to take their courses.
College Comparison: I’m actually immersed in this right now, and for us, this is probably the hardest part. My son is comparing 5 colleges and trying to decide which one to go to. There are numerous books that provide lists or indexes, such as top U.S. colleges, colleges for students with disabilities, etc. But not every student can afford to buy all these books. And there are college ranking sites like U.S. News. Yet it is hard to find good, consistent information that actually compares colleges. College Board has a good automated comparison tool; it looks at size, selectivity of admissions, and cost and available financial aid. Other tools, like the collegeresults.org, present different information such as percentages of minority students enrolled, number of Pell grants given to freshman, etc. There are tremendous marketing opportunities in this arena.
College Applications: While many high schools have college resource centers staffed with volunteers who can help students, most don’t, so students are left on their own to determine how to apply. Most university websites do a fairly good job of outlining admission requirements, but I’ve visited some sites that made me want to scream “GET TO THE POINT!” Universities could greatly benefit from hiring writers to take a fresh look and revamp their content.
Housing and Area Amenities: In my experience, most residential life websites are abysmal. It is hard to determine dorm choices, price, and availability. It is even harder to find off-campus housing information and information about local amenities (shopping, dining, etc.). In my view, there is a big market opportunity to improve and aggregate this content.
As parents, we are not really asking for the “easy button”. We don’t expect an easy process, but we are asking for sites that clearly delineate information and get right to the point, highlighting the necessities and expunging the fluff. Parents and students alike have limited time to process all the information to then ultimately move forward to a decision. My journey is almost over, but if yours is just beginning, I hope you’ve found this blog helpful. As an empty-nester, I don’t know what I will do with all my free time. Hmmm….maybe a backyard bonfire of all those prep books?
5-Star Writer Jacqueline H is a freelance journalist and political blogger. She also specializes in grant proposals, white papers, scientific journal articles, medicine and healthcare, technical presentations, and technical writing in general. Previously, Jacqueline served as the technical lead for the Life Sciences Data Archive, a data repository of NASA’s space life sciences research data.