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Ultimate College Parental Primer: College admissions advice and know-how for both parents and students

Oct 12, 2016 02:00PM ● By Cate Reynolds

Making the Grade to Get In

Author, Gary Jobson, shares practical and insightful advice gleaned from experience and research on how to go about choosing a college with your children and the application process.

By Gary Jobson

The process of applying to and being accepted to attend a college is an exciting, emotionally charged experience for high school students and their parents. Our three grown daughters each now have both undergraduate and master’s degrees. My wife, Janice, and I feel great satisfaction that they were all able to attend their first college of choice on their respective lists. For me, the months spent with each daughter, looking through brochures, attending college fairs, meeting with guidance counselors, and visiting colleges were some of the most rewarding days of parenting. Along the way there were equal amounts of hope and anxiety.


Let there be no doubt that it is hard to get into many colleges. Adding to the complexity the trend today is for high school students to apply to multiple institutions. This puts a strain on admissions staffs because of the large number of applicants compared with the number of students who eventually attend. My advice is to focus on three to five possible colleges, and then work hard to provide a compelling application to encourage acceptance for admission.

With so many colleges being “very selective,” every piece of information is important if you hope to stand out among other students from around the country. To help me understand the modern day process I spent some time talking with Gary Sherman who serves as the Vice President for Enrollment Management and Dean of Admissions at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. (For the record, I have been a Trustee at St. Mary’s College since 2004). When asked if there were any secrets to gaining admission Gary told me, “Understand the college you are seeking admission to and showcase your attributes in the application materials to address, not only how you will benefit, but how the college will be strengthened, by what you bring.” Customizing your essay and application specifically for each college will be noticed by the admissions board. Every part of the application should be filled out accurately and on time.

There are many criteria for selecting the best college for you. These include academic offerings, size of the campus, available sports, geographic location, student life, religious affiliation, reputation of the institution, tuition fees and other costs (more on this in a moment), scholarships, quality of housing, and the ability to get a good job, or acceptance to post-graduate program following graduation. Sherman says there are three stages: emotional, rational, and emotional decision making. For a high school student it easy to be influenced by a single factor like a big time football team, or a great location. I believe every factor has value, but using the college experience for your ultimate career should be the highest priority.

The cost of attending college today is astronomical. This became shockingly apparent to me when I woke up at 3 a.m. one morning worrying about paying for college. The girls were very young, all under five at that point. I sat in the kitchen calculating the cost to send all three to college using a four percent inflation factor. The result was horrifying. That night changed my priorities over the next 15 years. At that moment I stepped up the pace of my career, and started saving. I gave up on the idea of having a big house on the water. Instead, the college fund was my focus. We set up 529 accounts and additional savings plans. While not everything has gone perfectly in my career, as I look back, that night was a defining moment. When the girls went off to college we were prepared. Today, all three have their own families and careers, and no college loans to pay off. I have told them that, they too, should be saving now so that when their children head off to college they will be ready to pay for it.


While the campus visit is not required by many colleges, I believe it is absolutely essential. My oldest daughter, Kristi, and I were touring colleges between Annapolis and Boston for a full week during Spring Break of her junior year of high school. When we were in Boston, we visited Tufts. I suggested that we stop by Harvard on the way and visit Brown in Providence. Kristi said at the time, “Oh Dad, they will never let me in there.” I responded, “Well, we are here, and I would like to see the campus.” Since I had the car keys we went for a tour. Two hours later Kristi surprised me by saying, “I didn’t think this was right for me, but after being here it is the perfect college.” Inside I suddenly had a sinking feeling that this might lead to disappointment. Happily, Kristi was accepted early, and went on to graduate from Harvard Law School. Three years later her younger sisters, Ashleigh and Brooke were accepted to University of Maryland and New York University.  Both were their top choices. They also went on to earn graduate degrees.

If you do visit a campus take the time to sign up and do an interview with an admissions officer. This is an important time to sell yourself to someone who makes the decision of who attends. Be sure to dress appropriately for the occasion. Yes, good grooming still counts in this age of casual living. Have a list of questions ready to ask, even if you already know the answers. When the interviewer speaks, listen carefully and follow up with additional questions that might come to mind. A back and forth exchange is appreciated and noted by the admissions official. Learning to ask good questions is an important attribute in any career.

Colleges are academic institutions, therefore good grades and high test scores are important. To prepare for college boards, Gary Sherman recommends tuning into the online prep program offered by Kahn Academy. Individual tutors can also be helpful. He also recommends taking Honors courses in high school, as well as taking Advanced Placement exams, but cautions, “Over stressing with a course load that is too much of a stretch will not be in your best interest. Remember you are more than just the grade in a class, and a balance between your extra-curricular undertakings and academic life must be struck.” Using St. Mary’s as an example Sherman continues, “We are looking for the quintessential student who is well-rounded and thoughtful, who has demonstrated the desire and ability to expand their world for the better. The key is well rounded, so I recommend keeping up with accomplishments as they happen, to become part of your college resume.”


Being a skilled athlete can help gain entrance. Coaches often have the ability to give an admissions office a short list of names of highly motivated athletes that will represent the college well in competition. Sailing helped me get into my college many years ago. I was also the editor of my high school newspaper, and later became the editor of my college newspaper. Little did I know that a career in journalism as a television producer and writer would become my calling. The seeds of a career are sown early in life, even if you don’t recognize that fact at the time.

Learning about a college from alumni can be a valuable resource. I was influenced by two All American sailors who attended the State University of Maritime College ahead of me. I was inspired by their stories about how they improved their sailing skills, and how it helped them with their careers in the maritime industry. Alumni can be helpful by writing letters of recommendation. Before someone writes a letter on your behalf take the time to talk about your strengths and aspirations. See if you and the writer can come up with a narrative that sets you apart from other applicants.

Most applications require at least one essay. Take these seriously and make sure your work is absolutely original. A famous writer once told me that the trick to good writing is “re-writing.” Anytime you can cut 10 words down to four you are making progress. The essay topic can be almost anything, as long as it is creative and well written. Daughter Kristi wrote two essays for Harvard. Both dealt with the feeling you have when everything is working to perfection, and what it takes to achieve that. One essay talked about dancing on stage and how good it felt to be making all the correct moves in sync with the music and with the other dancers. I could see her moving on stage through her words. The second essay was special for me. The summer before I had chartered a sailing ketch for a one-month cruise in Canada. One day we were off Nova Scotia in a strong breeze. I set the mizzen sail and the jib, with no mainsail. Kristi and I worked to get the sail trim and helm in perfect balance. We did not touch the wheel for two hours as the boat sailed a perfect course to our destination off New Brunswick.


As a senior nears graduation there is a tendency to slack off in the final months. Colleges review grades at the end of high school. If they see a sudden downfall an acceptance letter can be rescinded. Most colleges have a long waiting list and will gladly accept someone who continued working hard. For younger students preparing for college, working to earn good grades needs to start early. Sometimes young people don’t realize the power they have to set themselves up for productive careers when they are young. Mentors can be an inspiring influence.

Once the application process is over, and hopefully a student has been accepted to two or more colleges, it is time for the big decision. Gary Sherman advises, “The final decision should ultimately come down to where you will receive the best preparation for your future: academically, socially, or spiritually. You want to have the chance to fulfill as many interests as possible, and be challenged to explore new opportunities. Your college choice must prepare you for the next chapter of your life.”

Be Socially Conscious

Social media is popular with young people today, but a word of caution here, students should be careful about what they post on the Internet. Unflattering pictures and inappropriate comments are easy to find and can be the reason for disqualification from college admissions. Behavior is something colleges care deeply about because it reflects how you potentially might act as a student.


Gary Jobson is a world-class sailor, television commentator, and author based in Annapolis. He is the pre-eminent ambassador for sailing in the U.S.