Ep 143: The Do’s and Don’ts of College Applications

Episode Summary

Cynthia Clumeck Muchnick and Jenn Curtis, authors of The Parent Compass, share their wealth of knowledge on the college admissions process and parenting in the late teens.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Let’s be honest–the pressure of the college application process is enough to drive anyone crazy. Both you and your kids might find yourselves losing sleep and shedding tears over the endless rampage of SAT scores, personal essays and scholarship applications. It’s so intense that celebrities are willing to bribe schools and admissions officers with thousands of dollars just to get their kid’s feet in the door!

Although you just want the best for your kid, it’s easy to get caught up in the competition of it all and become another expectant force breathing down their necks. You might find yourself so obsessed with whether or not they get in that you forget to notice all the hard work and character growth they’ve exhibited throughout the process. 

To understand how we can guide kids through college apps and other teenage chaos, we’re sitting down with educational consultants Cynthia Clumeck Muchnick and Jenn Curtis. Their new book, The Parent Compass: Navigating Your Teen’s Wellness and Academic Journey in Today’s Competitive World, is a guide for parents who are feeling uncertain about the application cycle, phones at the dinner table, and more!

In our interview, the three of us discuss the definition of a “parent compass” and how to help kids navigate the tech filled world they’re growing up in. We also dive into how we can help teens reevaluate goal setting, especially when it comes to college admissions.

What is The “Parent Compass?”

Although the “parent compass” might sound like an object, it’s actually a movement! It’s goal is to help parents take a step back, and make sure they’re not getting so caught up in all the crazy that they lose sight of what’s important: encouraging teens to be their best selves. If parents can reevaluate and take time for self reflection, they can be certain that they’re headed in the right direction, Cynthia and Jenn explain.

Cynthia and Jenn’s book opens with questionnaires for parents, asking them to think about the way they were raised and prompting them to question their own biases. There’s also one for teens, which requests that they think constructively about how they’d like to be treated differently. Jenn and Cynthia suggest inviting your teen to do these questionnaires–or have  productive discussions of a similar nature–together. In doing so, you can show them that you care about being the best parent you can be.

Now, that’s all easier said than done, of course! There are so many complications and points of contention you and your teen might get stuck on. One concept we discuss in the episode is the idea of encouraging teens to follow their passion. Is that something we can realistically suggest if we’re practical parents? In our interview, Cynthia and Jenn touch on how it’s almost as important for teens to discover what they don’t like as it is for them to find activities that excite them.

Another common area of disagreement for parents and kids is technology: how much screen time kids should get, whether or not phones can be out during certain hours…the list goes on and on! In the episode, we touch on how you can use your parent compass to find harmony with tech in your home.

Teens and Tech

One of the biggest tips Cynthia and Jenn have regarding devices in the home is to create a distinct plan. They suggest you set rules, limits, and allowances for how much time teens can spend online, and what they can do when they log on! By having a system in place, it’s easier to avoid arguments down the line. Instead of begging them to log off every night at 6 o’clock to start their homework, they’ll know ahead of time that there are certain hours for playing fortnite and others for studying physics.

Along with the plan, Cynthia and Jenn recommend putting measures in place for when the plan is violated. If kids know what punitive measures are coming, they’re not likely to break the rules. And in these uncertain, pandemic-centric times, Cynthia and Jenn suggest checking that parent compass to evaluate when to be flexible. For many kids, playing games online and chatting over social media is one of the few ways they’ve been socializing since they haven’t been able to go to school or even just hang out at the park!

In our interview, we also discuss the notion of putting away screens entirely. Our interviewees bring up a powerful method practiced by some of their colleagues, in which 24 hours is spent, as a family, away from technology! While this idea may sound terrifying, it can have a multitude of benefits. In the episode, we talk about how disconnecting can really help you and your teen shed anxiety and gain creativity.

As educational consultants, Cynthia and Jenn have a lot to say on college admissions–more than any other topic! In our interview, we break down how to handle the ups and downs of applications, acceptances, rejections and everything in between.

Erasing Admissions Anxiety

For teens waiting and waiting for that acceptance letter, the pressure can be overwhelming. When parents add their expectations on top of everything else, it’s even harder for kids to handle it all. Teens often need us to remain stable, not add turbulence to their already rocky journey. How can we be kind, supportive guides instead of just turning up the heat ?

According to Cynthia and Jenn, the key is to focus less on the result and more on the impressive effort kids are putting in! They do so much just to get to the finish line, that we should be cheering them on when they press submit, not waiting until they get in. 

When we focus on the result, Cynthia and Jenn explain, we teach kids that things are black and white, separated into success and failure. This discourages them from taking risks or setting lofty goals. Our guests believe it’s better to bring kids into a growth mindset, where they see a path towards improvement instead of unstable ground.

Cynthia and Jenn explain how teens can apply this kind of thinking to all of their goals. To help teens get into a growth mindset, they emphasize the value of setting specific objectives, or steps they can take to make progress towards their goals. This brings our lofty ambitions closer to the ground, allowing us to really see what we need to do to achieve our hopes and dreams. In our interview, we also talk about the importance of adjusting goals once teens set them, as life always brings new and unpredictable obstacles.

In the Episode…

Cynthia and Jenn bring us buckets of wisdom from their 30+ combined years as educational counselors. In addition to the topics above, we discuss…

  • How teachers react to overbearing parents
  • Why 3:00 PM is the best time to talk to your teen
  • How paying kids for grades can backfire
  • Why you should refrain from posting college acceptances on Facebook
  • What happens when you write your teen’s admissions essays

Parenting is no easy task, but Jenn and Cynthia can help us develop a compass that allows us to  make it through the wilderness. Thanks for listening, and don’t forget to share and subscribe!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Get your teen to do a self-development exercise with you:

“Okay guys I want to be a better parent–can you just give me ten minutes and let’s answer these questions together here’s your list, here’s my list. And then let’s talk about it.”

Cynthia Clumeck Muchnick

2. Profess your desire to be the best parent you can be:

(Members Only)

3. Check in to see what time is best for an important discussion:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: What is a parent compass and where did the concept come from?

Cynthia: The parent compass actually sprung out of originally the Varsity Blues scandal was really the catalyst that made Jenn and I pick up the phones and call each other when parents were behaving so badly that they were being picked up by the FBI to go to jail for cheating their kids into getting into colleges on this kind of side door program. And we’re not writing about Operation Varsity Blues in our book, but what we are writing about and what we’re trying to do to teach parents of tweens and teens how to do things better and how to appreciate their own teen, who they are and the book provides tips, strategies from not just us.

Cynthia: en and I are both educational consultants who’ve worked with teens for a combined, probably 30 years. I’m also parent of three teens, actually two that are now out of the teen years and two that are in, so actually two in, two out. And we really wanted the book to be a tool kit for parents. We interviewed all sorts of thought leaders, authors, psychologists, heads of school, teachers, students, et cetera. We use lots of examples of students we’ve worked with in the book so that parents can learn how to stay on the right side of things and how to preserve that, what can be a pretty touchy relationship during these challenging years.

Jenn: I think it’s important to understand too, that beyond Operation Varsity Blues, we weren’t necessarily seeing such egregious behavior in our lines of work but we were seeing so many kids who were just so stressed out and so burned out and really kids who lacked motivation because of all of the over parenting and all of the pressure. But at the same time, we were also getting so many parents who were asking us for these tips because there really wasn’t anything out there that broke things down in a practical way. And in fact, one of our readers reached out to us and mentioned that she felt that our book was the new parenting Bible, because she felt that it just provided these practical strategies that she couldn’t find anywhere else to help her better relate to her teen in this hyper-competitive academic world that we’re experiencing.

Andy: Okay. But what actually is a parent compass? It’s something that’s going to help guide me and point to my true north somehow? And where do I get one? And where does it point?

Cynthia: Jenn and I actually wear a compass around our neck as our tangible reminder to follow our parent compass. Today, we both are not wearing ours, but really what a parent compass is, is really a movement. It’s a movement toward doing a better job and not being caught up in the frenzy of competitive parenting of the things that are causing damage to our tweens and teens right now. They’re already feeling enough stress, enough angst, enough overwhelming feelings of their own, just going through these hormonal and challenging years. Our job is not to add to that, but actually to support and walk beside them. And so the book breaks down into 10 chapters or 11 chapters, ways that parents can approach technology with their teens, ways they can approach the college admissions process, ways they can approach relationships that the parents may have with the teens and their school.

Cynthia: And it asks the parents right off the bat in the very first chapter, to take a deep dive look at who the parent is, who they are and how they were parented and how they grew up and how they may have been as a student and how they are applying their own biases to raising their own teens. We have a detailed questionnaire at the beginning for parents and even a detailed questionnaire for teens, just to try to get to open up that dialogue there.

Cynthia: And I tried it with my own kids, we had lots of friends try it and I said, “Okay guys, I want to be a better parent. Can you just give me 10 minutes and let’s answer these questions together. Here’s your list, here’s my list and then let’s talk about it.” And when your kids hear you say, “I want to do better. I want to be better for you. I want to improve for you. I know I’m not perfect,” something kind of makes them, their corners of their mouth turn up and smile a little bit. I think they’re almost amazed by the fact that you are human and realize that you may not be perfect too. And so we just try throughout the book to keep getting that message through using real examples and using scientific research to help parents create what we call their own parent compass.

Andy: It’s something that we need to develop or kind of get in touch with a little bit.

Jenn: Yes. And we recognize too that the strategies in the book, not every single strategy is going to work for every parent. And we point out our own flaws as parents and there are many of them and we just, we dive into those as well throughout the book. But what we want parents to do is to try on some of these strategies, see what works, see what maybe doesn’t work for their family and really kind of tailor it to your children’s needs.

Andy: Talk to me about passion. Is passion overrated? Is that just one of those woo woo kind of out there concepts for the hippie parents of the world who want to go do finger painting with their kids and sing campfire songs? Or is this something that everyone needs to worry about? And if so, what do we do about it?

Jenn: I’ll be really honest. We struggled when we wrote the book with our exact wording when we were talking about helping kids to explore the things that interest them. And I think we really, we espouse parents helping kids to find their purpose. What we want parents to be doing is to really be seeing their kids for who they are and going back to what Cindy said in that first chapter in the book where we’re asking parents to take a deep dive, look at how they were raised and who they are. So often, I think as parents, we can put our own interests and quote, passions, onto our kids. I was a swimmer growing up and I’m not going to lie, my kids are on swim team because that’s what I know. But is that their passion? And am I willing to look at what they’re interested in and help get them exposed to the things that they get excited about?

Jenn: Are they interested in engineering? I didn’t grow up knowing a lot about engineering, but I’m sure going to make sure that I help my kid get exposed to things where they can explore engineering. I like to say too that when our kids are exposed to different activities that help them deepen whatever their interest or their purpose is, I think finding out that they don’t like something is just as valuable as finding out that they do like something. I’ll have kids who will come to me and they’ll be like, “I am certain that I want to be a doctor.” And I’m like, “Great. All right, well, why don’t you start out by volunteering at a hospital and make sure that that’s really the path for you.” And often they’ll come back and be like, “Whoa, nevermind. I hate blood. Can’t do that.”

Andy: That’s what that is?

Jenn: I think that that can also be just as valuable as finding out something that you do like.

Andy: I was curious if there was anything that you guys found while writing and researching this book that was surprising to you or that was kind of not what you thought was going to be when you first started out?

Jenn: Yeah. I’ll be really candid, I did have one surprise in the actual content of the book. I did. In writing The Parent Compass, we didn’t want this just to be a book where we were preaching at parents all the time. We wanted to be interviewing thought leaders, heads of school, deans of universities, administrators, researchers, educational thought leaders. And we did that and we had a robust response. And in particular, one of the surprising things to me that I had assumed was that teachers in our parent questionnaire to them, we asked them more or less when a parent overstepped, when a parent was too overbearing, did the teacher then take that out on the student? Did the teacher treat the student differently? And frankly, I had assumed that the answer would be yes, because when we’re annoyed by someone, we might take it out on the other person.

Jenn: But the answer was resoundingly “no.” Which I felt was A, just such a testament to teachers in general, but just was just a really interesting finding to me personally.

Cynthia: I think Jen, that’s such a good point to make. I have to make kind of a shout out, as we all do to teachers, because especially during this crisis time, there have been a handful that have saved the year. The drama teacher at our school just saved the eighth grade year I would say single handedly was able to pull off a musical performance outdoors, socially distant, prerecorded audio so no droplets were flying, et cetera. With every single obstacle put in his way, he was able to bring together a community of kids who really needed theater in their lives. And we haven’t had theater in a year other than virtually. And so to me, that’s just heroic, but it doesn’t have to be a heroic example. There’s lots of little examples to me where my daughter has felt appreciated and seen and connected to by a teacher who has helped move along a difficult experience in school.

Andy: The teachers help a lot during the day while the kids are engaged in school and all that but a lot of issues with teenagers, I feel like happen in the afternoons when they have lots of free time and are not so supervised and all of this. What do parents need to know about sort of navigating that time in the afternoons and the evenings and how to make that go more smoothly?

Cynthia: We have a chapter in the book called Navigating Life After 3:00 o’clock. We actually address that one head on. And obviously because more kids are coming home right after school, as opposed to doing their extracurriculars outdoors or because they were up until now, there’s a different kind of connection or a larger amount of time that parents and teens are under the same roofs. In fact, I love my kids and hopefully they won’t listen to this, but I’m frankly pretty sick of them too, for all the extra time we’ve been spending together. It’s a blessing, but it’s also, it’s you have to draw some of those boundaries. I think our bedroom door has just become a constant entrance, exit hangout room. And we’ve had to put a Post-it on the door saying, “Please do not enter.”

Cynthia: That being said, that life after 3:00 is really a time when I think we can have the best conversations with our kids. And I think sometimes they need to just unload and vent and get things off their chest. And so one thing we teach for example, is teach parents about not just jumping into fix our kids’ problems, but to be better listeners and to kind of sit beside them through these difficult situations so that they can self soothe and navigate through whatever the complexity or issue might be. And sometimes their kids just need to get it off their chest and we’re the easiest receptacle. But anyway, that’s one example. There’s also an example about having family meals together and what that looks like and how to make family meals productive with or without technology. And I guess the jury’s still out, some people support using technology in small ways at the dinner table when there’s a photo to be shown or a fact to be looked up or something and others say absolutely not, baskets off the table and you know, we’ll just have face to face conversation.

Cynthia: We espouse more of the latter, but that being said, I think that that time after 3:00 is a key time to feel out your teen, when is an appropriate time to connect, especially around food, whether it’s the snack or whether it’s the meal and family meals can happen at breakfast, lunch or dinner or they can just be a snack. They don’t have to involve every member of the family. But that time after school, I think is a key time to look for those opportunities to engage and also to show empathy, because this is just a hard time. This is nobody’s first choice. Kids are giving up a lot of things that have made them happy and are having to pivot in new directions.

Jenn: I did want to piggyback on what Cindy was saying and really point out something that we talk about in the book as well, which is when we’re trying to have those important conversations, I think it’s so easy for us, many of us are home right now all day doing our work or whatever it is that we do during the day. And when our kids get home, I think it’s sort of human nature to kind of, worst doing about maybe something that we need to talk to them about or something that’s on our agenda and so when they come in the door, I think it’s easy for us to be like, “Oh how,” kind of bombard them with whatever we felt that we needed to talk to them about.

Jenn: And so I think it’s really important to take a step back and make yourself ask your teen, “Okay, I have something really important to talk about. When is a good time for you to do that?” I think that that’s a really important piece to this, that yes, we need to be talking to them, but we also need to be giving them the space to let us know when is a good time for them. And then in doing that, we know that they are going to be present, we are going to be present and that’s when the best conversations happen.

Andy: You were talking a little bit in there about technology, whether or not to use technology during meal times and I think this is one of the big issues that a lot of parents are dealing with right now. What are you seeing from parents that are, where’s the stress right now around technology? And what are parents struggling with when it comes to regulating tech usage?

Jenn: I think right now, and you have to understand that we are also seeing this through the lens of what we do, which is college counseling. In my world right now, one of the biggest problems I’m seeing related to tech is related to college admission decisions. And frankly, I had a student text me, this was an incredibly hard year for college admission, a really ugly year and a year with a lot of sadness for a lot of kids. Sure, there was a lot of excitement and a lot of happiness, but there was a lot of disappointment for kids. And personally, I think that that is made so much worse by social media, by all the celebration videos and all of the photos of where I got in and where I’m going and amidst the sadness of other kids it’s really difficult.

Jenn: And I had a student text me the other day who said, “You know what? I had to give up Instagram because I just can’t, I can’t go on and I can’t look at these celebration videos. I am personally so sad and it’s just too much.” And I actually really commended her for recognizing that, understanding that it was a trigger for her and saying, “You know what? I’m just not going to take part in this right now.” I think one thing that I would say is for families, parents to really take a step back when it comes to what you put on social media. We actually say in the book, it’s hard to articulate it because you actually have to see it. But we say to post with intention not in tension, like tense. And I think what we mean by that is whatever you’re putting on your social media, particularly as it pertains to your kid, make sure that it’s intentional, make sure that you get their permission.

Jenn: We use the example of, you wouldn’t like it if they snuck in your room and took a picture of you as you’re waking up and you’ve got drool all over. Make sure that what you’re posting is okay with them. And honestly, my opinion is to stay away from the celebration videos. Celebrate in your home. Absolutely. Do your happy dance and jump around and yell and scream and that’s fabulous, but it’s not necessarily something that needs to be for public consumption. We talked to a lot of experts about tech, because we will both honestly say that that was the heart. It was one of the last chapters that we wrote mainly because we put it off. It was one of the hardest chapters for us to write, because right now it is such a hot button issue, but there are so many different opinions out there and it’s such a difficult world to navigate.

Jenn: But in all of the interviews that we did do with so many different tech experts, one of the biggest pieces of advice that we have is to really establish a tech plan in your home. You can call it a contract, you can call it a plan, but whatever it is, it should have clearly articulated and delineated rules for how tech is going to be used in your home and then also specific consequences for what’s going to happen when those rules are broken. And also built in how your child can earn back the tech when those rules are broken. I would say that that’s probably our biggest tip, but there’s a lot more about tech, an entire chapter in the Parent Compass.

Cynthia: Yeah, I think I would just add to that, the idea that that tech contract or tech plan should be revisited every couple of months, because it is kind of an organic contract, things change. And right now, with the amount of screen time our kids are having just in school, I’ve sort of advised a lot of my parents and parent friends to be much more flexible with the amount of extra screen time they spend off screen off school, because it is the way that they’re connecting and socializing that is safe, as long as they’re not doing inappropriate things online. I just think that to set a time limit right now is probably not the best choice because we ourselves as adults can’t even really set a time limit for ourselves. But there are some excellent resources in that chapter and also some excellent books out there and something Jenn and I tried last month, actually two months ago, it was pretty hard for me was a disconnection diet of 24 hours of no tech.

Cynthia: There was a world disconnect day that was advertised on social media and I sort of put it out there that I was going to try. And we have to determine, does that include television? Does that include everything electronic? You have to determine for yourself where you draw that line, but there’s a wonderful book out.

Andy: Can I make a toast.

Cynthia: Yeah, by an author named Tiffany Shlain, who wrote a book called 24/6 and for the last 10 years, she and her family unplug every Friday evening at sunset and they plug back in every Saturday evening after sunset, they do what’s called a tech Shabbat. And she’s talked about how liberating that discipline has been for her family and that some of her best ideas and best conversations and best moments in her life occurred in that time when technology was physically removed from her home. And I greatly admire that effort. I don’t know that I could have that amount of discipline, but to try it from time to time, even for a day or half a day with your family. Even on the weekends, could be worth a family activity. You’ll get some pushback, but it could really work.

Jenn: And interestingly enough, she argues in her book and we spent a lot of time talking with her as well in preparation for that chapter. And one of our questions to her was, “Gosh, do your teens go kicking and screaming when they have to give up tech for a whole 24 hours every single week?” And she said, “Absolutely not. They actually look forward to it. They think that it’s a break as well. They understand how intrusive it is in their lives and it’s a welcome thing for the whole family.”

About Cynthia Clumeck Muchnick

Cynthia “Cindy” Clumeck Muchnick is the co-author of The Parent Compass. Over the course of her career as an expert in the college admission process, Cindy has written numerous books including The Everything Guide to Study Skills, Straight-A Study Skills, The Everything College Checklist Book, and Writing Successful College Applications

Cindy got her start in higher-ed admission before opening a private study skills and college counseling business in Southern California, which she ran for over fifteen years. As an Assistant Director of Admission for the Illinois Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago, she screened and reviewed over three thousand applications, interviewed prospective students, and served on the admission committee to evaluate borderline applicants and appeals cases. Then, as an educational consultant, she helped hundreds of high school students navigate their academic journeys, including course selection, study skills, time management, and college applications. Since closing her private educational practice in 2011, Cindy has focused on public speaking to student, parent, school and business groups on a variety of education-related topics. Some of the twists and turns in her multifaceted career include her stints as a campus tour guide and volunteer student coordinator for Stanford’s Office of Undergraduate Admission, and a tenth grade history teacher at The University School, in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

Cynthia lives in Menlo Park, CA, where she resides with her husband and two teens. She is the mother of four: a middle school, high school, a college student, and a college graduate.

About Jenn Curtis

Jenn Curtis is the co-author of The Parent Compass. She owns FutureWise Consulting, an educational consulting company in Orange County, California. She has guided hundreds of high school students through all aspects of the college admission process. Her passion lies in empowering students to navigate their high school years with confidence, emphasizing self-advocacy, grit, and intention.

Jenn speaks to parent organizations and schools about education, college admission, and parenting. She has been interviewed on a wide variety of radio shows and podcasts and serves as the expert college admission guest contributor for a variety of blogs. She developed a college and career readiness program for first-generation students that has been implemented in a local elementary school for over 8 years. 

At the University of California-Irvine’s Child Development Center, Jenn researched treatments for learning disabilities, co-authored a published study on a novel diagnostic tool for ADHD, and supervised and trained undergraduate researchers. After earning a master’s degree, Jenn worked in psychiatric rehabilitation, assisting clients with severe and persistent mental illness. She also served as the Director of Grant Writing for an international university, was an editorial assistant for a forensic psychology academic journal, has edited several books, and coached graduate and doctoral students in developing effective writing skills. 

Jenn resides in San Clemente, California with her husband and two daughters.

Want More of The Parent Compass?

Find Jenn & Cindy on their website, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.