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Practical Homeschooling® :

How to Be Your Kids' Personal Guidance Counselor

By Mary Pride
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #61, 2004.

With the help of college expert Andrew Morkes, Mary Pride explores the intricate world of preparing a child for college.
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Mary Pride

"Less than 10 years ago, high school students had to research and plan for college via snail mail, telephone calls to college officials, or through costly and time-consuming campus visits.

"Today, students can use the Internet to find information about almost any college-related topic imaginable. They can use the Web to help choose a major; research admissions requirements; apply for scholarships; and tour colleges via online videos, photographs, and audio recordings. There are Web sits that feature student reviews of professors and schools that are brutally honest in their assessment. Students can even use the Web to apply to college!

"Unfortunately... many "college Web sites" are merely advertisement for fee-based services or offer information that is outdated or too vague... "

Truer words were never spoken, guys and gals. I personally have spent over 1,000 hours trolling the Web while trying to help my husband and kids figure out which college, which major, what it takes to get in, how to pay for it all, and so much more I didn't even know I needed to know ten years ago. Of that time, at least half was wasted searching in the wrong places.

As I began reading College Exploration on the Internet, a new book from College & Career Press, from which the above quote was taken, it didn't take me long to get on the phone and beg its author, Andrew Morkes (pronounced MOR-KESS), for an interview.

It's a small world Andrew turned out to be the former Managing Editor of Ferguson Publishing Company, a name which is familiar to long-time PHS readers. Russ Beck, the vice-president of Ferguson Publishing, was the PHS college-and-career columnist for a year. Familiar as I am with the quality and ease of use of Ferguson's career and vocational guides for high school students, I knew right off the bat that Andrew has the right background when it came to helping high school students and their parents get a grip on the whole college experience.

After a flurry of voicemails and emails, I tracked Andrew down and started asking him questions.

PHS Interviews a College Guidance Expert

Mary Pride: So, do you think it's true that parents can be their own guidance counselors?

Andrew Morkes: Absolutely! There are a limited number of guidance counselors even for students who are in school. The more involved parents are, the better for their family.

MP: What impelled you to write this book?

AM: I talked to a lot of people while I was working in educational publishing who wished "someone" had worked through all the information available on the Internet for them.

I realized there was a lot of college counseling garbage on the Internet. We looked at approximately 2,000 sites for the book, which we trimmed down to 500, which gives you a good idea of the proportion of bad information to good information.

MP: What would you say are the biggest advantages and disadvantages of being your own guidance counselor?

AM: The biggest advantage is that you have a lot more knowledge about, and interest in, your own child than anyone else. It's a rewarding experience making that journey together.

MP: I'd also say, having done this for my own kids, that being able to take the time to do a really thorough job and to check on ideas as they emerge are two other big advantages.

AM: A guidance counselor isn't going to have the time that a parent will for their child.

MP: What about all the books out there that contain similar information to some of these websites? For example, all those fat books with info about 4-year colleges.

AM: Books, to me, are like looking at an encyclopedia. They may give you basic facts, but won't replace looking at a college video online, photographs, a campus map, or emailing an admissions officer or a teacher about your questions.

One of the other nice things is that, unlike these books which don't cover very much, when you get online you can look up actual course descriptions, internships and other opportunities, and so on, that there just isn't room to cover in any book.

MP: How soon should parents and kids start scoping out colleges?

AM: Eighth grade is not too soon to start. An early start investigating your option takes a lot of the pressure off.

MP: Would you say that having a definite goal in mind is a good motivator for kids? Or is that too much to ask?

AM: Goals are great, with the caveat that kids can always change their minds.

MP: What's a good first place to start in planning for college? Finding out college prerequisites... picking a college... thinking about finances... what comes first?

AM: I think the first thing kids should settle on is finding out what major and career interests them. My book lists several websites that offer career guidance testing. There are countless sites that answer the question, "What can I do with a major?"

MP: I'm going to challenge you on that. Wouldn't it be best to start with a solid knowledge of the prerequisites for different types of schools? In other words, there's a baseline below which you aren't going to college at all... or only to a two-year college... right up to what you'll need to take in high school to apply to Harvard.

AM: Once you figure out what your interests are, you can narrow it down to a handful of schools that you really want to go to. Then you can find out what is required to get into them.

If a student is interested in a major such as business, which is offered almost anywhere, then your student will have to start narrowing down which type of school to attend.

MP: Are there any special pitfalls that parents should be aware of when trying to choose and finance a college via Internet research?

AM: One of the major things to avoid are scholarship scams. You could use my book to help you with this, as it directs you to reputable scholarship sites. You should also always check that a school is properly accredited. Just because a school says it is accredited doesn't mean that their accreditation is worth anything. You'll find all the worthwhile accrediting agencies listed in the book.

MP: Do you think it works best for parents and kids to use the Internet exclusively while researching colleges, or might one of those hefty $20+ books be worth the price in initially narrowing down your search?

AM: It's best to use a combination of books and Internet, as long as you buy only one book on a given subject . You don't really need every tome listing four-year colleges, for example. I do like the "top colleges" books. Those make a great start, and you aren't going to find that easily on the Internet.

MP: If you do find that on the Internet, it's just an Internet version of the published book, and it ends up costing as much for your Internet subscription as if you'd bought the book. Just doing a Google search on "chemistry" and "college" won't do it, either.

So what other types of books should a parent plan on buying?

AM: If you are interested into getting into a selective college, I do like some of the books on how to write a successful college-entrance essay. You definitely won't find examples of hundreds of successful essays on the Web! The SAT and ACT prep books can be helpful, too, especially for people who want to get into selective colleges.

MP: What about books about how to apply to college and for financial aid?

AM: If you're applying to a less selective college, you might not need them as much. Often the college website itself will explain everything you need to know about how to apply, scholarships available, etc.

So here is the new official PHS timeline of how best to prepare your teen for college (not including the actual courses, extracurricular activities, and so on, that you are doing for high school, and also not including prayer for guidance, which many readers will want to employ throughout):

  1. Buy a Very Big Book

    Buy one of those hefty guides to four-year colleges at the bookstore or online. For their size, these are usually surprisingly affordable. Petersons, Barron's, and Princeton Review/Random House are just a few of the companies that publish such guides.

    You want this book because

    • It includes all the four-year colleges in the USA (perhaps minus a few Bible colleges - check for some you know to see if they're included).

    • It has tons of basic information about each of the colleges.

    • You can look up colleges by majors offered, thereby automatically narrowing down from thousands to at most hundreds (unless your planned major is Communications).

    • Life is too short to spend waiting for ten thousand Web pages to load.

    It's actually quicker to narrow down your list of college by scanning book pages than by surfing Web pages, which may be incomplete, glitchy, or loaded with annoying and time-wasting pop-ups.

    This book will be your starting point and constant reference on your college journey.

  2. Buy Andrew's Book

    College Exploration on the Internet also will be your constant companion through those pre-college years. It will help you find everything except what you find in the next step...

  3. Learn from Uncle Sam

    Bookmark a site not strongly enough highlighted in College Exploration: the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook at www.bls.gov/oco/home.htm. This is where you'll keep going as you try to narrow down possible majors, which in turn will help you narrow down possible colleges.

    In the website's present form, you need to click on an obscure link on the far right of the top blue bar, where it says, "OOH Search/A-Z Index." This will bring up a page where you can type in an occupation or click on an A-Z index of occupations to find what that type of job actually involves, what your working conditions typically will be, how many people are currently employed nationwide under that job title and where they work (e.g., in offices, factories, labs... ), what exact type of training is required to land a job in that industry, how the job outlook is for the future in that line of work, what you can expect to earn starting out and after you've been at it for some time, plus links to related jobs and links to sites relevant to that type of work. This last often provides a lead to lists of schools that offer degrees or certificates that qualify you to perform that job.

    This site is the best overall real-world look at just about any possible occupation, and the Job Outlook and Earnings sections can keep you from wasting years in undergraduate work and grad school for a degree that may not even get you a job, or at least not one that pays enough to raise a family.

  4. Get a Profile View

    If possible, invest in a career profile for each student. These are personality tests in which you rank your preferences in a number of areas, as well as your known skills and aptitudes. They return a list of majors that should be a good fit for your personality and abilities. One I personally have used is the CareerDirect system from Crown Financial Ministries, P.O. Box 100, Gainesville, GA 30503-0100, (800) 722-1976, www.cfcministry.org. They offer both a paper-based and CD-ROM-based version of their system. Like a lot of websites, you need to know where to go to find what you're looking for. Click on "Store," then in the left margin on "Career & Education" to track CareerDirect down. The CD-ROM version is definitely a better buy. At $100, it costs $10 less than the paper version, plus unlike the paper version, you can buy the right to use it with an additional student for $30. Does this sound pricey? Well, how does spending $20,000 to $40,000 sound? That's what the average college kid wastes nowadays by switching majors and/or colleges midstream, once he figures out his original choice of major isn't working.

  5. Get Busy

    Now you're ready to start going to work! Use your four-year college book to pick which college websites to check out. Then use College Exploration to find sites where students review those colleges... where you can find real scholarships... where you can check out campus safety... find information about specialty choices, such as the military or medical school... and tons more you probably hadn't thought of before. A fast Internet connection will be a big help at this stage.

    This process will pay immediate dividends. Why? Because you make much better progress on a journey with a destination. There is no comparison between the motivation of a student who has a much-desired career clearly in mind and one who "kind of really doesn't know" what he wants to do. You'll be able to fine-tune your high-school courses and activities to maximize your son or daughter's chance of admission to that dream college, and heighten the chance that serious merit-based aid will be available.

    Furthermore, as your child "tries on" various careers, each false step at this stage is actually a huge savings later on. Even the cost of wasted years in the wrong college major pales beside the cost of wasted years, or even an entire life, in the wrong job.

    By going through the process starting in 10th grade (or earlier if the student has a specific career firmly in mind), both student and parent get a much firmer idea of what to expect from college, what the options are, and what the cost will be in academic performance and money. If you're not willing to pay the cost for Dream Option #1, there still is time to dredge up a Dream Option #2.

    While researching film schools, for example, I discovered some DVD courses, seminars, books, and CD-ROMs that teach more about actual film production than you're likely to learn in a $100,000 film school program, plus two sites that for around $8,000 will get you an actual film studio job, complete with course work to complete and a bonus for your mentor if he hires you or gets someone else to hire you. (Look for a future article on this topic.) So extra research can pay off in big time and money savings. This is not possible if it's halfway through senior year and you're panicking about picking a college right now!

Of course, this all still is a serious amount of research and work, even with the help of these great resources. That is why I would like to propose that every local support group consider appointing one member as an official Guidance Counselor. Whoever has managed to get one child into a decent college is a good first choice. That member could then be excused from other duties to concentrate on learning how to use these tools.

Meanwhile, the support group could start building a small library of career books and/or arranging for "job shadowing" and apprenticeship programs for the teen children of its members.

So, can you be your own guidance counselor? Yes, you can. It's time-consuming, but rewarding. As more of us get good at this, some of us may find it becomes a real ministry. And the question people ask us will change from, "Can homeschooled kids really get into college?" to "What did you do to get your kids into that great college?"

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