It’s common knowledge how complicated and competitive the college application process has grown for teenagers with ambitions to attend a big-name school. High school counselors are overwhelmed, kids are confused, parents feel inadequate.
It’s no wonder private college coaches have become so common. But coaching has gone way beyond an autumn of guidance for some families, as a friend and I discussed recently. She and I both write about college; we both have bright, high-achieving kids who were accepted to selective universities. We both deplore the big business of college admissions that has sprung up, emptying the wallets of the middle class – but also giving their children a leg up over low-income kids.
Yet our beliefs veered apart in the strangest of ways.
My friend thinks it’s absolutely necessary for most students to start working with a private coach by sophomore year of high school if they want to get into a highly selective university. It’s an ugly game, she concedes, but parents need to find a way to beat it.
I’m inclined to be more slovenly. I did hire a college student for a couple of months to help my younger daughter get organized and on track. Surprisingly, my daughter was at a loss for how to get started with her applications, though she had always managed her responsibilities with calm independence. I was working too many hours to get involved and it didn’t cost much. Besides, if my daughter rolled her eyes at me one more time, senior year was not going to go well.
My friend was operating at a whole different level. “They need a lot more than just the academics and extracurriculars,” she said. “They need to build a resume that makes sense – a story – and the coach helps them find their story and guide them along its path.”
It worked: Her kids landed in Ivy League schools.
Even if I were willing to go to such lengths and spend money I don’t have, as I look back, it feels as though early coaching might have hurt my daughter more than help. During sophomore year of high school, she loved her courses and activities, but had no tidy story about herself, wrapped in a box and tied with a bow. She was as clueless about her future as most 15-year-olds.
In the spring before her senior year, she was invited to join a six-student science team attached to the chemistry course she’d be taking in the fall. That led to a university internship and work with a close-knit group of friends who designed a solar-powered water purifier to use in remote villages in developing countries.
They won two big awards. But most important, the work was inspiring, pulling together the threads of her talents and interests. She had found her “story” and three years later, she’s still fully absorbed in it. That probably wouldn’t have happened if she’d worked the two previous years on creating and building a theme for college admissions officers. She would have had blinders on; the chemistry team probably wouldn’t have fit with the plan.
I can’t help wondering what insight college coaches and admissions officers would shed – if they could be perfectly honest. Surely there should be room and time for kids to find their own stories, and that won’t always happen by college application season.
Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.