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  • Writer's pictureNathalie Galindo-Lee

The Balanced Parent’s Guide to College Admissions (Part 1)

Welcome to the world of college admissions, a journey both exciting and daunting for students and parents alike. As an independent admissions coach with a background as a Harvard Admissions Officer, I have the privilege of guiding families through this intricate maze. The path to college is as unique as each student, and every parent I collaborate with shares a common goal: to open the doors of opportunity for their teens.

What I've learned through my experience is that there is no universal solution in college admissions. My role as an advisor is rooted in the belief that this process is more than a gateway to higher education; it's a pivotal moment of self-discovery and growth. The college admissions journey in the U.S. prompts students to introspectively consider their identity, origins, and aspirations. It's a rite of passage that, when navigated thoughtfully, can catalyze profound personal development. This isn't just about securing a place at a prestigious university; it's about laying the groundwork for a richer, more fulfilling life.

To assist in this transformative experience, I have compiled a series of tips aimed at helping students and parents approach college preparation in a balanced and grounded manner. The first four tips reflect Sendero’s foundational philosophy for helping families build a strong dynamic when launching their college admissions journeys:.

Tip 1: Embrace Higher Education as a Key to Unlock Choice

When I came to the US after living in urban Colombia, I found myself in the unlikeliest of places: rural New York, growing up with a fisherman step-father amidst Long Island’s wine country. My stepdad defies stereotypes: the son of a Harvard educated lawyer, he pursued a degree in mechanical engineering only to forgo a lucrative corporate career and pursue his first passion--baseball-- and, when injured, his second--fishing. To this day he highlights that education is primarily a tool to help you unlock more opportunities in your life.

College grads inherently have access to more jobs (for better and worse, it’s become a baseline requirement for several positions), and even if they choose a less conventional path, they will always have that credential to fall back on. That’s not to say that returning to traditional paths will be easy, guaranteed, or straightforward-- nor that there isn’t a greater likelihood of returning if you already come from a privileged background. Simply, when you already have a college degree, navigating the road to a conventional career path becomes a lot more manageable.

In a country where the mere fact of having a college degree correlates not just with earnings, but also mental health and even life expectancy, embracing higher education primarily as an agent of choice releases pressure from the college admissions process. Ultimately, for the parents and students wishing to take advantage of the benefits college offers--and for whom it is ultimately a personally relevant path-- choosing to attend college in and of itself should be enough.

Tip 2: Bolster Students’ Sense of Self Through the College Prep and Admissions Process

As someone deeply invested in guiding students through this process holistically, I often reflect on the value of strategic college guidance for students and families. Is college prep coaching significant if higher education simply unlocks choice?

In reality, every student and family needs to navigate their own journey to answer this question. For example, rising cost of college education, the youth mental health crisis, and current economic uncertainties naturally heighten concerns about strategic factors like college and major selection. In my experience, however, students who maintain a healthy perspective during the college admissions process are those who do not let acceptance into an elite college or major define their self-worth or existence. Those who build a strong sense of self, and who build characteristics like grit, gratitude, and beyond, tend to have better outcomes in the admissions journey.

The college admissions journey offers a unique opportunity for students to delve into understanding their backgrounds, motivations, ideals, and aspirations. While the process is often framed around high-stakes goals like building a desirable resume, it's crucial not to lose sight of its broader purpose. As a parent, your role is pivotal in helping your child stay focused on the true value of this experience: developing a deep and meaningful understanding of themselves so they can navigate a changing social landscape authentically.

Tip 3: Understand Achievement as an Opportunity to Enhance Well-being

During my time at Harvard, a standout experience was my engagement in “Introduction to Positive Psychology,” also known as “The Psychology of Happiness,” taught by Professor Tal-Ben Shahar. This course, far from focusing solely on fleeting emotions of joy, delved into the holistic aspects of long-term well-being. It taught me that true well-being transcends just positive emotions; it encompasses Engagement, Positive Relationships, Meaning, and a profound sense of Accomplishment or Achievement. These elements are foundational to a fulfilling life, and this understanding profoundly informs my approach to college admissions. Rather than viewing the college search as a proving ground for worthiness, I emphasize empowering students to conscientiously dream and meaningfully aspire.

This philosophy is at the heart of the personalized approach we adopt at Sendero Education for college admissions. We guide students in making strategic choices, such as creating a balanced list of “High reach, Reach, Target, and Likely” schools, which reflect their individual interests and motivations. Our aim is to help students set realistic yet ambitious goals and find colleges where they can flourish academically, socially, and personally. The objective transcends mere academic achievement; it's about aligning their aspirations with environments that nurture their well-being. This approach transforms the college search from a pursuit of prestige into a journey of self-discovery and personal growth, encouraging students to find colleges that resonate with their unique strengths, interests, and values.

Embracing this perspective, rooted in Positive Psychology, shifts the focus from achievement as an end goal to a means of enriching life's journey. Our role as educators, counselors, and parents becomes one of guiding students towards choices that not only prepare them for college but also set the foundation for a life marked by meaningful accomplishments and sustained happiness. This way, the journey through college and beyond becomes a fulfilling experience, weaving together academic success and personal well-being.

Tip 4: Recognize that College Admissions is University-Centered, Not Student-Focused

In redefining the role of higher education as a gateway to expanded choices, it becomes important to understand how this aligns with college or major selection. This perspective, informed by insights from positive psychology and the realities of college admissions, shifts the focus from a student-centric to a university-centric approach. Jeffrey Selingo, author of "Who Gets In and Why: A Year in College Admissions," encapsulates this idea by stating that a college rejection is more about the institution's needs in a particular year than the applicant's worth. This underscores a fundamental truth about the admissions process: it is primarily driven by the needs and priorities of universities, not necessarily the individual merits of each student.

Universities seek candidates who demonstrate resilience, openness to new experiences, and the flexibility to evolve in their career aspirations. These traits are sought after as they indicate students who are likely to fully engage with and contribute to the college environment. However, it's crucial to remember that gaining admission to a particular university, elite or otherwise, is just one part of accessing the broader benefits of higher education. Each institution, be it an Ivy League university, a state college, or a liberal arts school, offers unique opportunities for growth and exploration. The goal, therefore, is to find a college that aligns with a student’s aspirations, strengths, and values, making the college search a journey towards finding the right fit rather than a competition for prestige.

This understanding reframes the college admissions process as one that is university-centric, but this should not be a source of discouragement. Rather, it's an empowering realization for students and parents, guiding them to approach the process with clarity and purpose. By focusing on finding institutions where students can thrive and grow, the college admissions journey becomes a pathway not just to academic success but to personal choice and growth. This approach enables students to embrace higher education as a means to a fulfilling and well-rounded life, far beyond the confines of college acceptance letters.

Looking Forward to More Balanced Parents' Guidance in Part 2

The college admissions process is much more than a mere sequence of applications and acceptances; it is a transformative journey that opens doors to self-discovery, personal growth, and the realization of one's potential. The guidance we offer at Sendero Education is not just a set of strategies for navigating a system; it's a collection of guiding principles that form the core of our philosophy. These principles aim to empower students and their families to approach this significant phase of life with a balanced and thoughtful perspective, aligning with Sendero's foundational beliefs.

By recognizing higher education as a means to unlock a multitude of choices, appreciating the role of personal identity in the admissions journey, understanding the true essence of achievement, and acknowledging the university-centric nature of the process, we lay the groundwork for a college journey that is both fulfilling and less pressured. These insights help students and parents navigate the college admissions landscape with a clearer, more purposeful approach, focusing on long-term fulfillment rather than short-term accolades.

As we continue on this path, I encourage students and parents to embrace these principles as guiding lights through the complexities of college admissions. Remember, the goal transcends securing admission to a prestigious institution; it's about embarking on a journey that enriches life and fosters comprehensive growth. In the upcoming Part 2, we will explore the practical aspects of college preparation in greater depth, equipping you with the tools and knowledge to successfully navigate this journey. Let's work together to make the college admissions experience a significant and enriching chapter in your student's life story.

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Nov 20, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

So important for high-schoolers and parents to navigate the college admissions process through self-discovery and empathy. Thank you for guiding students holistically and helping them find colleges that resonate with their unique strengths, interests, and values.


Nov 17, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

What an insightful read. As a parent, it's so easy to get caught in the hamster wheel of the college application process. This article broadened my perspectives, and inspired me to take stock of the principles underlying my approach to preparing my child for college, moving more towards empowering her "to conscientiously dream and meaningfully aspire!"

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