Book Review: Panicked Parents Guide To College Admissions

Words of Wisdom for Surviving the College Admission Process
Straight Talk from Expert Admission Professionals

Parents, beware. You may have survived glasses and braces, sleep-away summer camps and the purple-haired prom-date-from-hell, but if you haven’t yet taken on the college admissions process, watch out! And, as if this process wasn’t already confusing enough, the ever-exploding number of books on the market claiming to guide floundering families through the admissions maze can be equally daunting. Which ones are really worth buying? Which ones merely fan the admission-anxiety flames?

Admittedly, it may sound like shameless self-promotion here (stay tuned for the disclaimer), but at the top of our must-read list is Panicked Parents’ Guide to College Admissions by Sally Rubenstone and Sidonia Dalby. This wise and witty guide will tell you what to expect at every stage of the college search and application process-from the first time that “C” word comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm-room floor. It provides savvy insiders’ tips on how to make smart choices and on wowing admission officials once you do. However, it also offers reassurances that parents and their progeny really will survive it all-and still be speaking to each other when it’s over (assuming, of course, that was the case at the outset!).

What’s so great about this book (aside from the multiple College Confidential plugs and sage Dave Berry counsel you’ll notice among its pages)? For starters, it’s entertaining and infinitely readable, whether the authors are covering areas like college selection (“Picking a college is, in some ways, like picking a mate. Finding the right match is all-important. Research alone is not enough; chemistry plays a big part, and exploring your options ought to be exciting.”) or the always angst-ridden subject of SATs (“The opening of the score envelope is an excellent time for you to practice keeping your cool. After all, if Junior pulled down some big numbers, dancing around the dining room is still premature-he hasn’t actually been accepted anywhere yet .”).

Moreover, it’s packed with more specific suggestions about the whole college search-and-seizure experience than any guide we’ve seen. The authors are both seasoned admission pros with many trade secrets to share. Sally Rubenstone is a 15-year veteran of the Smith College admission office; Sid Dalby, still at Smith, boasts a résumé that ranges from stints at large state schools to elite liberal arts institutions. You’ll find helpful hints like:

  • If a college on your child’s list does not require test scores, and you don’t want that college to see them, you should find out if the scores appear on the high school transcript. If so, most counselors will agree to remove them from the transcript that is sent to designated colleges, but you or your child will have to orchestrate this process.
  • Don’t let the Common Application (or other generic alternative) be the only thing in your child’s file. Include some indication of special interest in each institution. While a trip to campus and an interview are certainly the best bets in that department, they’re not always possible. Even a brief note asking for specific information (e.g., the name of the Outing Club president) suggests to admission officials that your child has a genuine interest in their school and isn’t merely mailing in a photocopied form as an after-thought.
  • Don’t rule out a college because of a missed deadline. Most schools are more lenient than you might think.
  • Some parents, especially those who did not attend college themselves, may feel intimidated or overwhelmed in an admission office. Relax. We couldn’t find one admission counselor who could think of a single thing that a parent ever did at an interview that botched their child’s shot at acceptance. Neither Mom’s Michael Jackson earrings nor Dad’s John Wayne impersonation will fluster admission pros (though your child may want to vanish through the ceiling tiles), and no question should ever be considered too stupid to be asked.

Especially valuable are the “Questions and Answers” that run throughout the text. You’ll find candid, clear responses to dozens of queries that are probably already keeping you up at night (“My son, Sean, is a strong student and a good writer but so terribly shy that I think he’ll come across far better on paper than in person. He doesn’t want to interview at any colleges. Should I force him?” or “Can applying for aid hurt your chances for admission if you don’t qualify for aid?”), plus many others you haven’t yet thought to ask. (“We’ve heard that there are college visits conducted by private ‘escort services.’ Is this a good way to see schools?” or “Our family owns rental property. How will that be considered when we apply for aid?”)

Likewise, throughout the chapters you’ll find “The Good News” teamed with “The Bad News” about almost every aspect of the getting-in game. For instance:

THE GOOD NEWS: Faculty and, especially, coaches are generally happy to meet prospective students and their families. Don’t feel as if you’re harassing them; they’re glad to encourage a promising candidate to attend their school, and may even put in a good word with the admission office.

THE BAD NEWS: Planning college visits can be more complicated than taking a family of five to Disney World, especially if you expect to see several schools on the same trip. Don’t be timid about changing arrangements if one key person (e.g., the oboe instructor or tennis coach) isn’t available.

These advisories are extremely reader-friendly, informative, and fun. They will also serve to remind you that, for each time you feel the urge to reach for the Rolaids, there may be another moment when you swear you can see a rainbow reaching over the pile of viewbooks and catalogs on your breakfast-nook room table.

Originally published by Simon & Schuster (as College Admissions: A Crash Course for Panicked Parents) and now a Peterson’s book, Panicked Parents Guide to College Admissions has been extensively updated and expanded. There are specific sections discussing athletes, students with disabilities, students wanting to take time off, and other hard-to-find categories.

And now, here’s the disclaimer we promised: You’ve probably spotted co-author Sally Rubenstone’s smiling visage all over the College Confidential site, since she joined our staff this summer. But, we swear we’re not just pushing her book because we need to be nice to her or to make ourselves look good. In fact, the reason Sally is a CC staffer in the first place is because she stumbled on this site while doing research for her book. She liked it so much she asked for our “expert” advice to share with readers, and-when we saw the terrific finished product-we urged her to sign on.

If you’re old enough to be sending a kid to college then you’re also old enough to remember Victor Kiam, the guy who claimed he liked his Remington razor so much he “bought the company.” Well, this was the same kind of deal. Once we’d read Panicked Parents Guide to College Admissions, we knew we wanted more than just a dog-eared copy on the bookshelf. We grabbed the author. You grab this book.

-Review by Dave Berry

CAVEAT EMPTOR:  This book was last revised in 2002. Some information is now out of date (e.g., SAT formats) but there is still much that is timeless … especially when it comes to the important issues such as surviving the college process with as much harmony–and as few battle scars–as possible.