More intense than ever: The college application process

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

In spite of innovations like Naviance and the Common Application, meant to make the college application process more stream-lined and accessible, the entire process of applying to college has a challenging learning curve for parents raised in different times. Essay prompts, financial aid forms and a never-ending stream of information on-line have only added to the stress.

For OPRF parent Lori Malinski, the change in generations is remarkable. "I went to college in the '70s, and it was a hugely different process. We didn't have counselors to help us and a lot of the time, our parents hadn't gone to college."

She applied to only one college and was never really happy with her choice. Her only son didn't want to make the same mistake, but as he neared his senior year, Malinski was unprepared for how much the process had changed.

During his junior year, she attended a financial aid presentation at Percy Julian Middle School but says she left early because the information was so intimidating. "We're lucky at the high school that there are a lot of resources, but it's too much. It's overwhelming."

One of the best resources for her family has been the OPRF Parents' page on Facebook. Hearing from other parents going through the process was extremely helpful.  On the other hand, she says social media can be negative. "Over the summer, everyone was going on college trips. Not everyone has those means. It can be better to stay off Facebook for a while. It can add to the pressure."

Jeana Reisig says the process was eye-opening with her first son. "The first one, we were like deer in headlights. The high school does a really great job, but you don't know what you don't know."

She describes her first son as a gifted student with National Merit recognition. He received plenty of unsolicited literature from colleges, including one that offered an easy application, no fee required. He returned it but expected he would end up at another school, possibly in the Ivy League. When that didn't pan out, that easy-application school ended up being the best fit for his engineering studies.

For Reisig, who was the first generation in her family to attend college, the emphasis today on test scores was surprising, as was the financial aid process.  She calls both, "a really big deal." 

OPRF resources and a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) meeting at the Oak Park library helped, but she says she and her husband weren't quite prepared for reality. "We really thought our kid was so smart that he'd get a free ride. He did get some offers like that, but those schools weren't the right fit."

Reisig's husband lost his job in between filing the FAFSA forms and her son's enrollment in college, which added a level of stress. Her son ended up with a combination of scholarships and loans at a school that she describes as a great fit. "Because of his A.P. credits, he may be able to graduate with his masters in four years."

Kyra Tyler, senior director of Bright Horizons Education & College Advising, College Coach, says more families are hiring private counselors to help with a process that can seem overwhelming. "We work with super star students to kids who are struggling to get to college to everything in between."

The Forest Park resident says a professional counselor can make a difference in many situations. In families without a history of college attendance, she says, "College can be a step in changing your life and getting a student on a better path."

 On the other side of the equation are people familiar with the amount of work involved in getting a child to complete the applications and essays on their own, and they turn to professionals for guidance or because they don't want to argue with their kids for the months-long process. 

Tyler emphasizes that each child is an individual. Some need help choosing where to apply or to prepare a portfolio or audition for an arts-based program.  "We have a wide breadth of school knowledge and can think about schools where you will be successful."

A private counselor can ease the stress, but Tyler notes that families without the financial resources to hire someone can navigate the process with free resources.

A first step for all students? "Really connect with your school guidance counselor. Let them know your intentions -- that you are on the college path. If there is an opportunity for parents to join this conversation, they should."

She notes that there are almost 4,000 colleges in the country, which can be hard to winnow down. "The state of Illinois requires every student to take the SAT. After you take that, schools will start sending you information. Have an open heart; take a few minutes to go through this information. This is low-hanging fruit."

She recommends attending college representative visits, which most high schools host in the fall and spring, and says that organizations like the National Association of College Professionals (www.nacanet.org) also offer free fairs.

The internet is also a free, key resource. Big Future (https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/) an arm of the College Board includes helpful tools, and almost all schools have virtual tours and a wealth of information on their websites. Kahn Academy offers free test prep for the ACT and SAT.

Mary Matas, mother to a senior and sophomore at OPRF, notes that at the end of the day, even with all of the resources at hand, the process will be stress-inducing for everyone.

"The whole process is a little crazy. There's so much pressure to have great test scores, do activities, work a part-time job. There's so much pressure that we didn't have 30 years ago. The high school does a great job of helping you, but a lot of it you just have to do yourself."

Reisig agrees, but says it gets easier the second time around. Her younger son, now a senior at OPRF, absorbed some of the stress his brother's application process created. He applied for early decision to his favorite school and early action to another school, which has already offered him acceptance.

Reisig says that going through the process the first time was a learning experience for the whole family. "We realized most kids are happy where they end up. The kids, they find their place and they're more chill about it than we are."

SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY).

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