College Admissions Cracked

Saving Your Kid (and Yourself) from the Madness


By Jill Margaret Shulman

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How to help your kid navigate the college admissions process — from scheduling standardized tests to writing essays — month by month, girlfriend’s-guide style.

So, your child is a high school junior. You’ve heard other parents with kids older than yours whisper the word “college” like it was a terminal disease. You’ve seen their taut, maniacal grins as they try to hold it together. The process of weathering and conquering the college admissions process with a teenager is a daunting affair for many. Advice will pour in through friends, your child’s guidance counselor, and your mother’s neighbor’s cousin.

Thankfully, Jill Margaret Shulman, a college admissions coach, application evaluator, college writing instructor, essayist, author, and empathetic parent, is here to be your fiercest ally. She’ll guide you through the entire crazy ritual that college admissions has become, month by month, breath by deep, cleansing breath, until you drop your kid off at college where she will ignore your phone calls and texts.

Come as you are — whether chill or roiling with anxiety — and Shulman, along with a platoon of experts and fellow parents, will help you maintain your strength and sense of self-worth, so easily lost somewhere between your teenager’s screaming, “I hate you! You’re ruining my life!” and typing your credit card number into the College Board’s website for the twentieth time.

You’ve got college admissions cracked, and now, this book has got your back.


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So, your child is a high school junior. You’ve known for a long time this day would come. You’ve heard other parents with kids older than yours whisper the word “college” like it was a terminal disease. You’ve seen the taut, maniacal grins of those parents trying to hold it together, and you’ve heard tell of the category five hurricane headed your way. Weathering and conquering the college admissions process with a teenager is a daunting affair. Maybe even the thought of it is daunting for you; maybe not. Regardless, very soon, advice will pour in through friends, your child’s guidance counselor, and your mother’s neighbor’s cousin, if it hasn’t begun trickling in already. The minute your child takes her first standardized test, glossy college catalogs will bombard your mailbox the way hundreds of Hogwarts invitations jetted through the Dursleys’ fireplace at the beginning of Harry Potter. You’ll feel the atmospheric pressure change when the seniors submit their college applications. Their parents’ faces will soften and relax, and the flaming torch will be passed to you. That’s where I come in.

Please put your hands where I can see them. Whether you’re sporting a fresh manicure or your fingernails are bitten to the quick, it’s okay. It’s all okay here. Now slowly, put that torch down—yes, snuff it out right there in the water bucket. You have entered the safe space of our support group, and I am your facilitator. I have decades of experience as a college admissions evaluator, college essay coach, professional writer, college writing instructor, and parent. I have gone through the college admissions process with my daughter, and we both came out the other side. Now my son is a high school junior, like your child. Like you, I’m busy working, shopping for food, cooking it (or begging someone else to cook it), making sure everyone’s where they’re supposed to be on time, managing who needs the car, paying bills, filling out school forms and tax forms and medical forms, taking out the trash, and feeding the dog. Life doesn’t leave me much time to navigate one more thing, but here I am. Here we are. I’m your highly credentialed ally and resource who needs this support group as much as you do.

Look, you may have pictured yourself as a nucleus of calm with all those other crazy parents swirling around you like electrons when this time came. I did too, but I’ve learned that you cannot be that parent all the time. There will be moments when you find yourself with your toes dangling off the edge of Anxiety Cliff, where this process has driven even the sturdiest among us. My goal is to talk you down, arm you with information, and keep you laughing, even if it sounds like the laughter of an insane person. I’ve deployed backup in the form of an adolescent psychologist, college admissions counselors, and other parents and students who have survived college admissions just like I have (and you will). In the sanctuary of these pages, we are all here to help you maintain your strength and sense of self-worth, so easily lost somewhere between your teenager screaming, “I hate you! You’re ruining my life!” and typing your credit card number into the College Board’s website for the twentieth time.

You’ve got this, and now this support group has got your back.

• Mom = Dad = Great–Aunt Agnes = You

• Daughter = Son = Gender Fluid Grandchild = Any Minor You Majorly Love

• College = University = Institution of Higher Education

• Wine = Double Espresso = Beverage of Choice (This is a judgment-free zone.)




1. That perfect baby you held in your arms sixteen years ago was only temporarily abducted and replaced with the moody, aloof, or melodramatic teenager who inhabits your house right now.

2. Just because you heard yourself say “SAT II, ED, EA,” and “demonstrated interest” in a sentence does not mean you are that parent you vowed you’d never become when it was your kid’s turn to apply to college.

3. You are not behind everyone else just because you have no idea what “SAT II, ED, EA,” or “demonstrated interest” means.

4. You are not alone in this craziness. You have us (and your beverage of choice).

5. This too shall pass.

Chapter 1

The College Search Prequel


You meet for coffee (or wine) with a mom friend, whose son is a high school junior, just like yours. She ticks off all of the colleges her son has visited, or is planning to visit, or are of interest to him. Your friend, who previously spoke English, is now dropping word bombs like “superscore” and “Coalition App” and “FAFSA” (?!) and using familiar words like “ranked” and “yield” in unfamiliar ways (see Glossary of College Admissions–Related Terms You Can Never Un-Know). You have taken your son to visit exactly zero colleges. You hide behind your coffee mug (or wine goblet), sipping (or chugging) with abandon, trying to hide your expression of concern (or terror).

Your friend’s perfectly lipsticked lips are still moving, but her voice fades away, and your internal monologue takes over with something along the lines of… Should my kid have already begun visiting colleges, or taking tests, or doing SOMETHING for college admission, and if so, what should I have been doing to help him all along, and what should I be doing right now instead of sitting here with this person who has her life totally together, lifting this cup of coffee (or wine) to lips I haven’t bothered to lipstick, but maybe if I were a mom who bothered with lipstick, I’d be on top of this college thing. Am I behind? Is it too late?

News flash: You are not behind.

You are right where you should be. You are so far from alone that I created this support group for you—for us. That other mom was just as nervous as you were. As a defense mechanism, she shored up as much information as possible to make herself feel more in control. That’s just how she rolls. By expelling that information into the air between you, she didn’t mean to make you feel like a teeny-tiny cowering bug of a parent. She was merely building herself up to boost her own confidence that she’s been a good mother for sixteen years, good enough to handle this situation, which is less about college admissions and more about the gradual, painful, deeply emotional process that lurks beneath the entire act of parenting: letting go. Your friend applied that lipstick because when you proceed into the world perfectly coiffed with a red lip, you know for sure that despite any obstacle that may get the better of you, at least you started out the day doing something to arm yourself against it. Maintaining composure begins with a little self-care and a big dose of demystification of the college admissions process, which this book will provide.

The Cardinal Rule of Our Support Group: Forgiveness

No matter how weird it gets, forgive other parents their trespasses, as you would want them to do unto you, and always forgive yourself.

You will employ your own defense mechanisms during this time of upheaval, and they may not be pretty. You will make egregious parenting mistakes, as you have all along, and your child will survive them, as he always has. You’re gearing up for a series of decisions you and your child will make culminating in the quarter-million-dollar question (literally, that’s what four years of tuition can cost nowadays): Where will my baby land in the next stage of his life?

Let’s start at the end of this whole process before we circle back to the beginning because, hopefully, it will make you feel better. At the end of all this college admissions brouhaha, your baby will be okay. He will get into college, leave home for real, and you both will wean yourselves from your daily collective worries and joys.

I recognize that right now you might only see a mourning period on the horizon. However, on the bright side, the time you spend carting your child to the doctor’s office, or perpetually shopping for snacks to accommodate his teenaged friends’ voracious appetites, will be freed up so you can finally try your hand at watercolor painting, or hang gliding, or learning to prepare tortellini from scratch. And your child will finally be liberated from the confines of the curfew you set when he was in middle school that—let’s face it—he’s grown out of (not that his curfew was ever unreasonable).

The scariest part is that at this moment, you can’t picture this place where your child will land. Neither can he. The mystery of it is enough to freak anyone out. Some days, you might picture him tossing a Frisbee on a New England quad beneath autumn leaves exploding with color. Other days, you might picture him clicking on a keyboard in a sleek, chrome, state-of-the-art computer lab reflecting a row of palm trees. In both of these scenarios, the faces of those around him are redacted, their voices camouflaged, as if they are anonymous sources on a TV talk show. You can’t picture the new friends he’s yet to meet any more than you can envision his new habitat with any sense of accuracy. The one thing you know for sure about this picture of your child’s near future is that you’re not in it. I know how scary that is to contemplate when stress, longing, and worry are amplified by the unfathomable depth of love you feel for your child who will soon be spirited away from your home into a mysterious, dangerous alternative world. I know.

All these churning feelings can temporarily transform you into someone you’d rather not be, but even at your craziest, we’ll forgive you. And we’ll continuously remind you to forgive yourself. That’s what we’re all about.


I grant you permission to trust your instincts on this.

Some of your peers, both professional and amateur, will insist that all parent involvement is inappropriate. They will encourage you to unleash your sixteen-year-old to make every decision all by herself about this next (expensive) stage of her life. Yes, it is her life, but in my estimation, the operative part of that sentence is sixteen-year-old.

Would you permit your sixteen-year-old to decide and pull the trigger on buying any other big-ticket item, like a house or a family car? No matter how brilliant she is, her sixteen-year-old cerebral cortex, the part of the brain in charge of decision-making, is not yet fully developed. Yours is. This is scientific fact.

It’s entirely appropriate for parents to become involved in certain aspects of the college admissions process. After all, you have a lot at stake in this decision, starting with your bank account. I’m not advocating for you to micromanage. I’m encouraging you to help your child get started in a realistic way by applying your grown-up perspective to this upcoming transition barreling toward your whole family with the force of the Indiana Hoosiers’ offensive line.

How far away is it realistic for my child to go?

Some kids love the idea of traipsing across the country for a big college adventure—in theory. The reality of actually living twenty-four/seven in that mythical place called college is harder for the only partially developed sixteen-year-old brain to process. You know your child. Go ahead and perform some reality checks on behalf of both of you:

• Is she someone who might be lost if she left the area?

• Honestly, would you be lost if she left the area?

• Is either of you willing to see each other only a couple of times a year?

• Have you factored the cost of plane flights into your budget for college expenses?

• What’s the longest car ride that seems reasonable before motion sickness sets in?

Do I want my child to apply to my alma mater? Seriously, do I?

Over coffee (or wine) with your friend, you might have said, “I don’t care where my son ends up in college, as long as he’s happy.” Chances are that comment was disingenuous if you’ve decorated your entire home in your college’s colors and emblazoned the school’s logo on your dining room chairs. I am not shaming you. The Latin “alma mater” translates to “nurturing mother,” after all.

I loved college and dragged my children to my college reunions every five years as if they were religious pilgrimages. I mortified them more than once by accosting strangers in the airport security line just because I saw my college’s name silkscreened onto their T-shirts. Somehow, though, I truly believed I was not pushing my school on my kids. I brought them on tours of similar colleges and patted myself on the back for my evolved parenting. Later, I realized I had subtly (and not so subtly) pushed my beloved college on anyone who would listen, including my children, since the day I graduated. If you went to college and you’re having a light bulb moment, you’re in good company. Rest assured, you have not permanently damaged your kid.

You may have heard that if your child’s a “legacy” of a particular college, she’ll have a better chance of getting in. If her aunt and uncle met there, or your second cousin’s daughter attends, that does not count as legacy. If a parent or grandparent attended, your child’s application may receive a closer look by admissions staff. That does not mean she’ll definitely be admitted, nor does it mean it’s as great a place for her as it was for you. So back to the reality check: Do you hope your kid will apply to your alma mater? If so (here comes the tough love), it is not acceptable for you to push it on her just because she might have an edge in admissions. It’s her turn to own her college choice—you already had yours.

On the flip side, if you did not have a good college experience, have you been intentionally or unintentionally steering your child away from your alma mater? I aim to awaken your feelings about your child applying to your beloved (or reviled) college, not to control or judge them. Your feelings are always legitimate, and I validate your contemplating them in your own way. I will save you a bundle in therapy with the following message: If your child isn’t as gung-ho about your alma mater as you are, or if she is excited to apply, this is about her, not a statement in favor of or against you or your parenting. I swear this to be true.

What can we afford?

I know you have big dreams for your child. We all do. I’m sure you’ve heard that big dreams can come true at myriad colleges. Yes, so true, you may be thinking, but people only say this sort of thing to the disappointed soul rejected from her top-choice school.

Not necessarily.

Sometimes a student is admitted into her top-choice school, but she receives devastating news from the financial aid department that makes enrolling there impossible. Then her parents end up in the nightmare role of dream-shatterers. You can escape this fate by assessing affordability now. Please have a seat in front of a computer, and let’s get started.

• First you need to know that by law, every college that receives federal aid (most colleges) offers a Net Price Calculator on its website. If you plug in the numbers from your latest tax return, the calculator will spit out an Expected Family Contribution (EFC). That’s an approximate assessment of your true sticker price for each college your child considers.

• If she’s not considering any colleges yet, I repeat, you are not behind. Pull up the websites of one large state university and one small private college. Any will do. Then type in the numbers they request from your tax return, and use their cost calculators to find a ballpark figure of what college might cost you.

• Of course, variables abound. If you’re an independent contractor whose income varies from year to year (or week to week), the numbers from your last tax return will still give you a sense. Improvising and estimating are all I’m suggesting here.

• Look for the phrase “covers full demonstrated need” on those websites. An often overlooked fact: A name-brand college with a hefty endowment can turn out to be cheaper for you than the state school if you can prove “need” on the financial aid forms you will fill out fall of your child’s senior year.

• Even if the college makes no financial promises, if your child applies to a college where his academic credentials are tops in the college’s applicant pool, the college may offer a generous scholarship to lure your kid into attending. Many college websites will describe the scholarship awards they offer and what it takes to qualify for them.

• “Regional reciprocity” means that your kid might be eligible for an in-state tuition rate at an out-of-state university in the same region. For example, if a student from Arkansas wants to study nursing at the University of Kentucky, she only needs to pay in-state tuition due to the Southern Regional Education Board’s tuition savings program for students interested in health professions.

• If you’re divorced and there’s an income discrepancy between you and your ex, some schools require financial information only from the custodial parent. If you can file for financial aid using only the tax forms of the parent earning the lower income, it could save you thousands (and thousands) of dollars.

• Don’t forget that the savings incurred when you have one less family member at home will somewhat defray the cost of tuition. You’ll save on expenses like gas to and from hockey practice forty-five minutes away, plus all that equipment and ten boxes of Honey Nut Cheerios per week.

If you thought your kid’s tsunami of emotions was bad once she hit puberty, try telling a hardworking student that you can’t afford her dream college, where she’s just been admitted. It can hurl a family over the threshold from bickering to full-scale mortal combat. Do as much preemptive damage control as possible now, so you won’t be forced to sell your home and live in your car while your kid’s off enjoying college.

Is my child a contender for the most selective colleges?

We parents see unique and wonderful qualities in our children, including strengths that they often cannot see in themselves. They have so much potential, and we have spent their entire lives cheerleading for them to reach it. That potential reveals itself in various ways to the outside world. The student with the high school transcript so stellar you kind of want to frame it may be abysmal (and miserable) on the baseball field. The student who earns average grades may be a superstar on stage dancing in The Nutcracker.

There’s a saying: Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by his ability to climb a tree, that fish will live his whole life believing he’s stupid. Let’s call the tree Harvard College. If your child ended up at Harvard, would he embrace his new habitat like a monkey swinging happily from branch to branch, or would he become a beached fish there, putting on a game face as he stares up at those leaves but secretly dying inside?

There are more than 4,600 four-year college and university habitats in the United States alone. The Ivy League includes exactly eight of them. Maybe thirty-eight more are labeled “most selective” by one of those college ranking systems. (You can jump ahead to here, The Toxic Impact of College Rankings, if you’re ready to descend down that rabbit hole.) Statistically, it doesn’t make sense only to consider 0.17% of colleges and universities in the nation and leave almost 100% of them out of the running.

To provide some perspective on just how selective these schools are, when Harvard advertises that their admission rate was 4.7% in 2017–18, that does not include 4.7% of all college-bound students in the nation. That means 4.7% of the students who applied. That kid who barely passed chemistry at your child’s high school last year did not apply to Harvard. The class valedictorian might have applied, and it’s the valedictorian who had a 95.3% chance of denial.

I do not mean to bring you down. Your kid will find her habitat. You will help her find it! We parents must bolster ourselves to answer some difficult questions so that we can determine whether or not an uber-competitive college has the potential to become the healthiest, happiest environment for our children.

• Think about all those nights of homework in your child’s past. Did you nag, wheedle, and monitor that homework every single night? Or did your child nag and wheedle you into letting her please stay up just a little later to study for her social studies test?

• Did your child do her thing and earn a variety of respectable letter grades on her report card? Or is she a straight-A student obsessed with perfect test scores?

• Was your child content hanging out with friends at the local pond last summer by day and binge-watching Game of Thrones by night, or did she set her sights on an academic summer program and read fifteen classic novels?

• Now muster one more ounce of courage and answer this question: Is applying to a name-brand, highly competitive college your child’s dream, or is it possibly your dream?

This is the part where I reassure you that whatever you answer is okay. Within the asylum of these pages, you are supported no matter what. Based on your answers to the questions above, I think you know in your heart whether or not packing your suitcase and embarking with your child on an expedition to tour all eight Ivy League colleges over spring break would be a useful exercise for your family. If not, then visiting the Harvard campus on a beautiful autumn day, trailing after a charming tour guide, will ultimately not do you or your child a whit of good. For you, maybe permission not to aim for a stiffly competitive college like Harvard for your kid was what you needed today. Permission granted.

If your heart suspects the Ivy League and the like would be just your kid’s thing, I wish you safe travels. Hey, 4.7% of applicants are admitted to Harvard, after all, and your child could become one of them. Only promise me that upon return, you won’t unpack your bags just yet. Dream schools are easy to identify. The important work of the college search is to locate “foundation” or “safety” schools where the odds are in your child’s favor to—first of all—get in, and then feel intelligent, encouraged, and inspired as she transitions from a teenager into a full-scale adult.


Posing the Icebreaker Question: Big or Small, Urban or Rural?

Ultimately, your child will take her own sweet time to start talking to you about exploring college options. However, the “Big or small, urban or rural?” question can help launch the conversation. Let’s troubleshoot. If at the dinner table one night, you scoop up some mashed potatoes and say casually, “So, about college, are you thinking of a big or small, urban or rural campus?” you will likely encounter one of two reactions.

The Active Volcano Response

If your child is a high-achieving, type-A student and hangs out with similarly academically ambitious kids, her reaction to the “Big or small, urban or rural?” question might resemble the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. If brilliant red creeps up her neck or epic shouting begins, this means that all your child hears all day long is college, college, and more college while she’s just trying to get through AP Biology and, at this moment, dinner. (If steam begins spouting from her ears, seek immediate medical attention.)

The Oblivious Child’s Response

If your child is completely oblivious to the fact that this behemoth of a thing called “his future” is about to transpire, when you ask, “Big or small, urban or rural?” he might look at you blankly. If he uses words at all to respond, the sentence might begin and end with the word “Huh?”

This bewildered reaction means your child has not spent one second thinking about college. Either he does not hang out with others thinking about college, he’s very talented at ignoring anything that doesn’t happen within his abbreviated event horizon, or he has assumed all along that his future would just automatically happen for him, the way his clean, folded laundry has always magically appeared on his closet shelves. (I’m not suggesting you’re a bad parent if you still provide laundry service for your teenager. No law says we have to turn every household chore into a “teachable moment.” See here for my take on this.)

The One-Size-Fits-All Solution: Schedule a College Visit

Make an appointment to take your child on one zero-stakes college visit as a remedy for both the volatile and catatonic responses. The point of the outing is to show (instead of tell) your child that getting started on her college quest will not hurt. It’s not like you’re taking her to the doctor’s office to have her blood drawn. Here’s how to plan it:

1. Log on to a college or university website. Big or small, urban or rural does not matter. It can be a local college your child has no intention of attending or a college convenient to an establishment that serves your beverage of choice.

2. Click on “Admission” on the menu, and then “Plan Your Visit” (or some such directive).

3. Sign up your child for an “Information Session” (commonly referred to as an “info” session), during which an admissions representative will treat you to an hourlong presentation, mostly consisting of talk, but usually with some audio-visual enhancement.


  • "As a fun, practical, and, best of all, panic-free guide to a common rite of passage, Jill Margaret Shulman's College Admissions Cracked could not be more timely. Why our society insists on taking what should be just another step on the road to adulthood and turning it into an agonizing gauntlet is perhaps a question for another time. For now, take heart: if it is possible for a book to be a chill pill, pep talk, and roadmap all in one, this lively work certainly fills the bill."—Madeleine Blais, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and author of In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle
  • "Into the breach of the college admissions mania steps Jill Margaret Shulman with a game-changing guide to navigating and surviving the process. It packs the insights and strategies some pay a consultant thousands for into an all-encompassing, easy-to-follow plan. As comforting as it is comprehensive, it's the closest thing to a support group you will find. A must-read for parents wanting to help their college-bound student, while not losing their minds!"—Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise an Adult
  • "Shulman's book is an invaluable resource for the parents and guardians of college-bound kids. In addition to practical, step-by-step considerations of the research, application, and financial aid processes, she offers a sanctuary of sanity in the often chaotic and stressful ethos of the world of college admission. Readers will benefit from her strategic tools, clarity, and good humor as they work to successfully support their children's best fit for college. It is the one book every parent embarking on the college journey with their child should read."—Katie Fretwell, Former Dean of Admission and Financial Aid, Amherst College
  • "Sharp, wise, and witty, College Admissions Cracked is the crystal clear roadmap through chaos that you have been looking for and the welcome relief that you didn't realize was possible. If you have a kid who's on the path to college, this book is indispensable."—Daniel Lerner, coauthor of U Thrive

On Sale
Aug 6, 2019
Page Count
320 pages
Little Brown Spark

Jill Margaret Shulman

About the Author

Jill Margaret Shulman is the founder of In Other Words, a college essay coaching service. She has spent nearly a decade shepherding high school students and their parents through the college admissions process and reading and evaluating applications at Amherst College and Williams College. Jill has also taught writing at The New School and City University of New York and written for the New York Times, Family Circle, Parents, Good Housekeeping, and O, The Oprah Magazine, among others. She lives with her husband and two children (whenever they are home from college) in the higher education mecca of Amherst, Massachusetts.

Learn more about this author