Summer Steps to College Success: A Conversation with Martha Lyman

Martha Lyman is the Associate Head of School and the Director of College Advising. Before coming to Deerfield in the fall of 1988, she worked for ten years as a member of the admissions committee and Director of Financial Aid at Harvard. Marty holds a BA degree from Mount Holyoke and a Masters in Education from Harvard. On July 1 Marty will turn her attention to designing a summer session for Deerfield to begin in the summer of 2015. Mark Spencer, currently the Dean of Admissions at Brandeis, will assume her duties in the College Advising Office. We asked Marty to share her thoughts on parent strategies for keeping the college process healthy, as well as advice for members of each class–including our soon-to-be graduates–on making the most of their summer preparation for college.

Q. Marty, we parents worry about where our children are going to go to college almost from the moment they set foot on the Deerfield campus. What advice could you offer about how to channel those concerns in ways that are healthy for our children?

A. High school is a time of dramatic adolescent growth and development. Watching and supporting those changes is one of the most rewarding aspects of working at Deerfield. And that development is where parents should focus first. Is my child fully engaged in the classroom? How is he contributing to the community? Is she developing meaningful interests and talents? Rather than thinking about college prospects early on, one might ask instead, is my child blossoming? Be sure to read teacher comments and advisor reports as carefully and objectively as possible and review them with your child. If there are gaps or areas for improvement, talk with your child and his advisor about what steps he might take to improve. Follow up on those at the end of next term.

On the college side, parents should begin to educate themselves about the changing landscape in college admissions. Neither students nor parents should assume that the mere fact of being a Deerfield student assures a particular outcome. Competition for admission to college puts students in an entirely different league than admission to Deerfield in which they are competing with less than 1% of high school students in the nation. College admission is a different story. This year, for example, the University of California, Los Angeles received 80,482 applications. Thousands of highly qualified California residents with excellent high school records were turned away. Tufts turned down more than 80% of its applicants. Vanderbilt, once a “good” regional school, has transformed itself over the last ten years into one of the most selective colleges in the country. Admit rates at Harvard and Stanford dropped below 6%. Parents need to educate themselves about the full range of higher educational opportunities in this country and, possibly, abroad. Begin by looking at U.S. News and World Report’s list of the top 100 colleges in the U.S. If you want to dig a little deeper in order to evaluate what it takes academically to gain admission to specific colleges, search for the common data set that each school is required to publish. That will provide you with information about numbers of applicants, admit rates, average test scores, gender breakdown, etc. Be realistic about how your child’s credentials match up. Think about which colleges might be the best fit given your child’s interests, ability and level of maturity.

Q. As we do our research, how might we gauge where our child fits in the range of colleges out there?

A. In looking at your child’s grades always review where she stands relative to the class median; that will give you a good idea of how your child compares to other students in a particular class. Although Deerfield does not rank, colleges will want to know how your child has performed relative to his classmates. Sophomores take the PSAT in the fall. Ask your child to show you those scores and compare them with information from the common data set. Make sure you understand the rigor of your child’s schedule relative to others.

Q. What if anything would you recommend that our soon to be rising sophomores and juniors do this summer as part of the college process?

A. Again, I would say that the key question you want to ask yourselves is how well is my child developing. Is he empathetic? Independent? Resilient? Taking initiative? Has she developed a deep interest or made a marked commitment to one field or activity? Think about summer activities which allow your child to explore interests, develop talents and gain confidence and maturity. Those might involve finding a paying job, designing a service project or gaining more knowledge or experience in an academic field of interest. In specific regard to college searching it’s important to gauge your child’s interest in and readiness for this topic. As the parent of a rising sophomore you might casually drive through one or two college campuses just to give your child a preview of different types of schools. If your child is a rising junior you could take it a little further by actually doing official campus tours at several colleges. Some students will be ready to do more; some may refuse to get out of the car. But by February or March of junior year even the most reluctant will typically be ready to engage.

Q. What about summer test prep for rising sophomores and juniors?

A. Student buy-in is crucial to its effectiveness. Review PSAT scores with your child (they will take them both sophomore and junior year) to see where they stand. Consider having your child take the ACT as well in order to compare tests and determine if one test is better for him than another. If you have questions, call the College Advising Office or talk to your child’s advisor. But sometimes test prep is not the answer.

Q. I am confused about what you mean by test prep not always being the answer. Would you give me some specific examples?

A. Here are two examples: I worked with a student recently who, as a junior, had a low SAT math score. She was struggling in her math class and lacked confidence in her ability. My advice to her was “learn the math.” Her parents found a highly skilled math teacher to work with her over the summer; she helped her learn the concepts and gain confidence in her math skills. Another advisee was a non-native speaker of English. His parents wanted him to spend hours on test prep. My advice was that focusing on improving his English would be more beneficial than test prep alone. In both cases I advocated learning the underlying material rather than relying solely on strategy and practice tests. Both students saw a nice jump in their scores.

Q. Members of the Class of 2014, our rising seniors, were each assigned a College Advisor in January. What kinds of information does each student already have about his or her performance and possible college choices for use during this summer?

A. Our purpose in working with juniors in the spring is first to get to know them; then to create a plan for standardized test taking; to choose courses for next year; and finally to develop a list of colleges to visit. The list has various categories of selectivity and my plea to parents would be to take the entire list seriously. Oftentimes the less selective the school the more concerned it is with demonstrated interest, and therefore a low rating in “interest expressed” can lead to a rejection. After a disappointing Early Decision in December, it can be an uphill battle for a senior applying to a variety of other schools if he or she has not talked with the schools’ representatives at the College Fair, has not visited the campuses or taken advantage of a campus interview if offered. In these highly competitive days students must explore a wide range of colleges.

Q. What makes for a successful summer visit? And how should parents assess their rising senior’s or their own gut reaction to a school when usually there are not many students on campus?

A. College visits for rising seniors are most effective if the student knows what he is looking for. I recommend the student do research ahead of time about areas of interest at the colleges you will be visiting. During the visit you should check out academic departments of interest. If you’re interested in the visual arts, visit the Art department to see what kind of work they are doing. How does yours compare? If you’re interested in English, go the bookstore to see what they are reading. Pick up their version of Albany Road. If you want to be a chemist, check out the science labs. This kind of investigation will also give the student an idea of institutional priorities and give him a better idea of whether his talents and interests match those of the college.

I believe in gut reactions although you might want to let go of a negative reaction to one tour guide when everything else seems to fit. Parents should ask their child probing questions about a college but try to refrain from giving away their own point of view. When Jeff Brenzel, Dean of Admissions at Yale, spoke to junior parents in May a few years ago he urged a parent mantra of “That’s interesting” as the response to all student observations on college visits in order to allow room for the child to form his own opinion.

Q. Should rising seniors finish their main college essays by the end of the summer?

A. It is a good idea for a student to write a college essay over the summer but it may not be the “final” essay because students continue to grow and mature at such a rapid rate at this time in their lives. The essay written in June will probably not be the essay a student would write in October. That’s okay. Working on the essay is a critical part of the application process. It helps students think about themselves and about what they want others to know about them.

Q. What role should we parents play in evaluating this summer effort?

A. Parents are not typically skilled in the art of evaluating a college essay although they may be very helpful in the brainstorming phase. Because you know your child so well you may understand what he is saying when an objective reader cannot. You might be tempted to edit and, inadvertently, cloud the voice of your child. The essay writing phase is a wonderful time for the student to be in touch with his college advisor. We get to know them better while working with them on essays and, since we have read lots of college essays, we have a good idea of what works and what does not.

Q. What makes for a good college essay? And what if my child is not a good writer?

A. A good college essay is an authentic one. A good essay has something to say and it is written clearly and correctly. The student’s real voice is important and persuasive. For some it is a slow process. Be patient. Most students are highly motivated and, often, surprise themselves (and us) with what they come up with.

Q. How do you feel about students taking a gap year? When is that decision usually made?

A. I am a great believer in the gap year. Students have been uniformly enthusiastic about their experiences. It often helps them focus on what they want to do in college, particularly academically. It is often our most successful students who take gap years because they are more independent and more likely to take initiative than their peers. Some of our least mature students might benefit even more from a gap year; they will need encouragement from their parents to consider such a plan. In terms of timing, most students apply to college as seniors and defer admission. Typically, they begin to develop a plan in January or February, after they have completed college applications. They do not notify colleges that they are considering a gap year until after they gain admission. Few apply to additional colleges during the gap year although many colleges would allow them to do that.

Q. What makes for a successful gap year?

A. The key to a successful gap year is to have a plan, oftentimes three different plans in two to three month chunks. Students can come up with some expensive ideas so it’s important to give them some financial parameters. Often, a student will live at home some of the time and earn money to fund the rest of the year.

Q. Marty, what advice do you have for the parents of the Class of 2013 as our children leave Deerfield for the wider world?

A. Come the fall parents should feel confident that their child is ready for college academically. Most DA graduates have already had some experience living on their own. If I were a parent of a child leaving for college, I think I would be most concerned about the social scene. It’s critical for you to have conversations with your child about how he/she wants to conduct himself/herself socially and sexually. Does your child have fears? What’s his stand on the use of drugs/alcohol? Does she want to reinvent herself in some way? Your child has successfully navigated Deerfield but college offers a great deal of free time relative to boarding school. Some of our graduates find themselves, initially, at loose ends. Talk with your child about how to get involved in his new community. What activities or organizations does she plan to pursue? How will he navigate his course selection? Who will she turn to for advice? One of the aspects of college life which sometimes surprises our students is how few adults are a regular part of their lives there. Faculty members will not routinely seek your child out so talk with her about how she might connect with adults who can be important mentors and guides. And, finally, be sure your child understands that freshman year does count. College days are likely to fly by as quickly as days at Deerfield; they are too precious (and too expensive!) to waste. I know that as I visit college campuses over the next few years I will find members of the class of ’13 thriving. Send them off with faith in their ability to succeed.

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