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Gearing up for the great college search
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Gearing up for the great college search

Weighing the cons, and finding a pro, to help pick schools

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

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After years of preparation and immersion in the local culture, my son has arrived at the sacred rite of passage known as Junior Year. 

We have armed ourselves with a viewing and discussion of Race to Nowhere, Vicki Abeles and Jessica Congdon’s 2010 film about the academic and extracurricular pressures put on today’s kids, and carefully avoided the “fundamentalist” notion that certain schools are the best, no matter the student. 

For in this, the beginning of the college application process, as in all religions, there are different streams of thought. 

There are two kinds of fundamentalists: those who believe that only acceptance to their own alma mater will suffice, and those who believe that only an Ivy League school will do for their Precious. For these people, college looms large and must be approached according to specific written and unwritten rules, and any wavering will have an impact on your — and your child’s — standing in the world that lies beyond college.

At the other extreme are radical reformists who reject this orthodoxy, instead arguing that college is a tool of yesterday, rooted in an education system that no longer works, and that, in any case, few can afford it and even for those who can, it no longer helps reap the benefits it once did. 

There are reconstructionists, who follow the rules because they help form community, and because the community expects them to follow the rules. 

We fall, as usual, somewhere in the middle. Call us liberal conservatives, who believe that the right college matters, but that it is only one of many factors that will affect the rest of our children’s lives.

So we will take advantage of the opportunities to study and learn and familiarize ourselves with traditional wisdom, but we may end up with some newfangled interpretations.

We have already taken the first steps, carefully assessing our son’s abilities and preferences and interests, as well as his propensity to thrive in small or large environments.

These requirements have already knocked out my own alma mater. So much for my family’s fundamentalist belief in the University of Michigan, which educated three members of my immediate family. Alas, a large state school, it will not serve the Junior well. No maize and blue for my son. 

The next step, we have learned, is hiring a college counselor. Although I would like to embrace the freedom of dispensing with a professional, I accede to the wisdom of my elders. In this case, my mother-in-law — a retired teacher and a woman who knows how to get things done, and the value of whose advice has proven itself time and again. She has convinced us that a counselor is indispensable. 

The use of college counselors has skyrocketed in the last 10 years. According to a 2009 study by the marketing and communications firm Lippman Hearne, 26 percent of what it calls high-achieving high school students (those achieving 1150 or higher on the SAT scale of 1600 or ACT composite of 25 or higher) acknowledge using college consultants. According to a 2012 survey, part of the most recent report of the Independent Education Consultants Association, one of several national umbrella groups for the profession, there are 5,000 serious professionals and another 15,000 who report they are “dabbling” in the field. It’s currently a $400 million profession.

We are searching for a college counselor who will embrace our approach to the college application and guide us accordingly. We pray she or he will help us find schools that are right for our son for the right reasons: because they value what we value, because they offer the subject areas he is interested in, because they will provide good opportunities and experiences, because they will embrace and appreciate his unique qualities and eccentricities, and because they have active Hillels and at least 10 percent of their students are Jews. 

And we pray that, please God, at least one will accept him! 

(We also ask that the counselor, and not we, will stand over him and make him study for standardized tests, will crack the whip on writing those essays, and will ensure they are all submitted on time.) 

And in the meantime, on a lake in Northwood, NH, he is unaware we have begun the process, as he enjoys his seventh season at Jewish summer camp, where he is doing something much more important: forging his own Jewish identity, one that will carry him through college and into his life beyond.

Coverage of youth and higher education made possible by a gift to the Friends of NJJN Fund from the Florin Family Foundation

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