Christian Homeschool Resources & Homeschooling Advice

The Three Q's About College

  • Contributing Writer
  • 2005 9 Sep
The Three Q's About College

The typical list for getting young people prepared for college these days includes: get good grades, study like crazy, score well on the SAT, and then start applying. But, does this list serve your child's best interests and really help him/her prepare for and be accepted by the best colleges? We consulted with Jonathan Reider, former Senior Associate Director of Admissions for Stanford University, and asked him which type of education he thought would best prepare a child for higher education?  His answers may surprise you.

Q: How do I prepare my child for college?

A: Jonathan Reider: At Stanford, we tend to be tolerant of variety in types of education and curriculum as long as we can have some assurance that the school or education is rigorous and challenging, and that the program has some degree of breadth. We would be reluctant to admit a student who has taken only Math or Computer Science, but no foreign language, or vice-versa. I sometimes suggest to families who consult me about the best "education" to help their child gain admission to Stanford, that they pretend that there is no such thing as college. I know it's a farfetched thought experiment, but it's worth trying. Imagine that they go straight into "life" after high school. In that case, what educational setting will best give them the tools for lifelong learning, which one will stimulate their curiosity, provide some realistic competition and honest feedback? That's the right "education" and preparation for that student, and that will be the best choice.

Q: What do colleges really want to see?

A: Jonathan Reider: Most of our applicants have demonstrated through their high school records and test scores that they could do respectable work at any good college. The challenge of the admissions office is not to select the qualified from the unqualified, nor is it simply to select those with the finest quantitative records. A computer could do that easily, and in fact most public universities use some numerical formula to admit many, if not all, of their applicants. It is still true that fine quantitative records (i.e., consistently high grades in the strongest courses available and high test scores) receive positive attention and are more likely to be rewarded by admission. But this is not the point of the exercise.

Many applicants and parents believe that colleges use subtle formulae of race, geography, gender, socio-economic diversity, and activities (debate, music, athletics, etc.) to compose a class. All of these traits can influence an evaluation, it is true, but collectively they play less of a role than many people believe. Admission officers simply want to enroll the strongest class they can. I am frequently asked about the importance of these factors: what is the average SAT? GPA? How important are good AP scores? Or being a star ballerina or champion debater? And the answer is always the same: it depends on the overall strength of the file relative to others in the applicant pool. Admittedly, this is frustrating to hear when the parent wants at least some sense of the chances of admission, even if they know they can't get a guarantee. But this is the truth. It all depends.

What I am rarely asked about, however, is the importance of intellectual depth, imagination, creativity, or vitality. Yet, at the major national admission conference several years ago, a session on "Evaluating Intellectual Vitality" drew an overflow crowd. This is something all admission officers hunger to find, and most parents do what they can to encourage it in their children, yet somehow it gets lost in the crowd of "factors" or hooks and special interests. We may not be able to define it, but I am reminded of the famous Supreme Court decision on pornography a generation ago, when Judge Potter Stewart said that he could not define it, but he knew it when he saw it. We know intellectual vitality "when we see it." It's the student who takes personal pride in learning, not just in getting the highest grade. We don't give numbers to this quality, and neither the SAT nor the high school transcript measures it. But it's no less real for being unquantified. As I said, we all know it when we see it.

We learn about intellectual vitality from both the student and the recommendations. And we are looking to see how all the pieces fit together. Does the way the student describes himself fit the portrait painted by the recommendations? Do we have a whole person or fragments? Obviously, honesty, sincerity, and insight play major roles in writing a convincing set of essays. Gimmicks, trying to figure out what we want, usually result in bland, uninvolving, boring applications.

Colleges are interested, like the Greeks, in the "examined life." We don't expect an 18 year-old to have all the answers. Which adults among us have all those answers, by the way? We want to see what your questions are, what your passions are, what you care about enough to invest yourself in, what you are moved by. At some point, it is too late to do much about your grades and your test scores. They take on permanence like your genotype. But it's never too late to start leading a reflective life. It always astonishes me that more applicants and their families do not understand this.

Q: How do I pay for college?

A: Editor, Are you aware of the real costs of higher education? Unless your child is a star athlete or you started that invest-early-and-often college savings plan at their birth, the following estimates may hurt.

The average price tag for a diploma from a four-year private college is $102,000, and that is just tuition! Things like food, room and transportation are not included. You can expect that even at your local State U you will invest approximately $38,000. But, there is help.

Below, we have listed several suggestions that can help you financially prepare for your child's outstanding college experience, without the six-digit price tag.

Community college isn't what it used to be:

Attending a junior college or community college was once considered a second-rate option, but with the rising cost of higher education, community colleges have become a smart way to go. Attending a community college for two years and then transferring to a four-year university, not only cuts the price of a four-year degree in half, it gives students a chance to improve their GPA. In some states, community college transfer students are given first priority for admission into universities.

What about a virtual education?

There is nothing virtual about the B.A. you can get online. Virtual colleges and distance learning programs are relatively new and a viable option in today's world of technological advances.

Excelsior College Examinations (, the oldest correspondence school in the world and America's first virtual college, is a great place to earn a B.A. for about $2,000 without leaving the comfort of your home! With billions of dollars being poured into online learning, millions of students will have degrees from virtual colleges. Although virtual colleges will not replace their brick and mortar counterparts, they are a very attractive option for working adults and students that don't think an on-campus college experience is essential.

Financial Aid can be found, if you look for it:

There are two general categories of aid, outright gifts and inexpensive loans. Sources for these come from federal and state governments, private industry and fraternal and religious organizations. Because this is such a huge subject, it pays (literally) to read several books, and delve into researching on the web. The books and web sites listed below are a great place to start:

"Don't Miss Out: The Ambitious Student's Guide to Financial Aid," by Robert and Anna Lieder. (25th Edition) Today, nearly everyone is eligible for some sort of assistance when it comes to paying for college. With clear prose and irreverent humor, "Don't Miss Out" explores grants, loans, scholarships, and tax credits.

"Bear's Guide to Finding Money for College," by John and Mariah Bear. Did you know that are organizations that exist to solely give money away for college? Want their phone number? John Bear has it for you, as well as hundreds of other resources and suggestions for making your child's college dream come true.

"Financial Aid" [ ] was established in the fall of 1994 as a public service. This award-winning site has grown into the most comprehensive annotated collection of information about student financial aid on the web. This is the best place to start your search on financial aid.

"" For more than a quarter-century, Sallie Mae has been helping students achieve their dreams of higher education by providing funds for educational loans, primarily federally guaranteed student loans originated under the Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP).

Books about college and "un-college":

"And What About College?: How Homeschooling Can Lead to Admissions to the Best Colleges & Universities," by Cafi Cohen. Cafi Cohen,'s Teen and College advisor, answers the questions parents new to homeschooling would ask about college and discusses some of the advantages homeschoolers have over conventionally-schooled peers. Loaded with resources and advice.

"The Average Family's Guide to Financial Freedom," by Bill & Mary Toohney. Whether you consider your family to be average or not, Money Magazine's "Best Personal Finance Mangers in America," Bill & Mary Toohney, share how they were able to provide their daughter with a complete college education for $7,000-including food and lodging! A smart, engaging, "real-life" book about how any family can become financially fit.

"Bears' Guide to Earning Degrees Nontraditionally (13th Edition)," by Mariah P. Bear, John Bear Ph.D. A must read for anyone interested in distance education. John Bear has once again (this is the 13th edition) written an essential reference on alternative education. Virtual colleges, foreign medical schools, degrees from Duke, Stanford and more are listed in this book! Read this before making any college plans!

"The Uncollege Alternative: Your Guide to Incredible Careers and Amazing Adventures Outside of College," by Danielle Wood. Not sure college is the right path for your children? Join the Uncollege revolution and learn that you can create a profitable, exciting, creative, and amazingly successful future without a college degree.


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