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Thoughts on College Planning for PG-lets

by Carolyn K., director, Hoagies' Gifted Education Page,
with lots of help from Trindel Maine, Aimee Yermish, Leslie, and the kind folks of the gifted mailing lists...

Throughout life we have to make choices, usually without adequate information and in the face of a variety of constraints that differ for each of us. Fortunately or unfortunately, its usually not clear either in advance or in hindsight which was the better path or even if there is any meaningful metric of 'better'.  We like to feel good about the choices we made, but its also very easy to blame current problems on having made poor choices in the past.  In reality most choices both effectively met a real need and created a few problems that we are still dealing with.

College planning for exceptionally and profoundly gifted children is one of those times when both kids and their parents often feel ill prepared.  Gifted children, who often arrive at college planning earlier than other teens, find themselves needing to decide what they want to study, and what kind of environment they want to study in... often coming from the same schools that have ill served them most of their lives.  College counseling is no exception.  It's the rare high school counselor that has more than a passing knowledge of the differences in campus environment between well-known state universities and the Ivy League schools, or nationally known technical colleges and the Seven Sisters.

Gifted kids, like all kids, need to figure out what they want to study, what kind of environment they want to study it in, etc, and then they need to do some serious research as to which colleges will provide what they're looking for. That introspection and research  is often better done with the assistance of a grownup, who can provide a  lot more perspective and background knowledge.  While you don't need to narrow down your major before admissions, you need to narrow down a broad area, such as "the sciences" "some kind of engineering,"  "something in the humanities" "something involving human services as a career," to get some sense of your preferred college environment.

Remember at the same time, that a fair number of students have radically changed their mind on the subject of their major subject after a year or two of college.  It can be really hard to make that kind of decision based on a typical high school background!  As Trindel Maine says, "Recognizing that was one of the reasons I decided not to apply to Cal Tech, I was pretty sure I was math/science type, but couldn't get out of the back of my mind that I might change my mind, and Cal Tech would not be a good place to be if I did radically change course."  Trindel also notes, when considering college majors, "Subjects where I was somewhat challenged in high school therefore tended to look good to me, and subjects that were taught at too low a level got an unfair bad reputation not based on the subject itself but the poor fit for me in the high school classroom."

Of course, if you don't know what you want to study, then perhaps what you need to be doing is taking general liberal arts and sciences classes, learning more about different fields of endeavor and career paths and about yourself as a human being, before you make a decision.  But where to conduct these general studies?  Some suggest this might be best done at a inexpensive local community or state college.  Others recommend you do this at a college or university that offers a compatible peer group, often found at the big name schools that so often appeal to our gifted kids.

The size of the college or university can make a huge difference to the unique student.  A larger school might offer more variety of subjects and specialties, but a smaller school might offer classes taught exclusively by professors, rather than teaching assistants and graduate students.  While a larger school might have more research opportunities, a smaller school might allow bachelors students to participate in the research they might only have been able to watch in a larger university.  And there's something to be said for a school where the professors know your name!

Remember, particularly our "underage" college bound kids, can consider internships, volunteer work, traveling, or otherwise finding intellectual stimulation and a chance for self-improvement and self-discovery, before heading off to college.  As Aimee Yermish points out, "There's no rule that says that you have to go to your ultimate 4-year college and choose a career the minute you're qualified to do the work."

Some gifted kids, especially early entrants, find that they can attend a local state university or other less prestigious college for undergraduate work, and save the dorm experience and high profile school for their graduate experience. 

College Essays, by Leslie

There is a wonderful book about college essays, Accepted! 50 Successful College Admission Essays by Gen and Kelly Tanabe  

Admissions officials want to see two things: how well you write and what kind of person you are. Assuming your child writes well, don't worry about that part.  The harder task is for a student to get their personality to shine through their essay.

I have had a great deal of experience with this because my high school interns have asked me to review and edit their college essays over the years. Of course, each one was different. A big mistake that students make is that they think colleges want them to review their accomplishments. They don't. Those are someplace else on the application. A second mistake is the "Why I Want to...." essay. That is usually trite. If the student can get something into the essay that tells something about themselves and expresses their passion about something, the student has done well.

A scholarship essay often asks for something specific to be addressed. If the character and passion can come through the writing, that will make the essay stand out.

I would recommend that the student not be too general in their writing, but get some specific stuff in there.  One rule of thumb, if the essay could have been written by someone else, it probably doesn't reflect *you* enough.

BTW, I had a much more difficult time helping my daughter with this than with any of my students. First of all, she had a hard time identifying what she was passionate about. Secondly, she had a hard time getting to things specific about her. It took a great deal of brainstorming. Once she landed on the idea, things went quickly. I would say spend as much time on brainstorming as you need.

Even if failings are discussed, make sure that the essay basically shows the student in a positive light. A few years ago, I had a student who wrote her essay about how her experience volunteering in a nursing home transformed her into someone who enjoys elderly people. She showed me her so-called finished essay. It began with a paragraph explaining how and why she had not liked old people. It was interesting and creative, but it gave me a negative impression of her right off the bat. I explained to her that if I was an admissions counselor reading that essay, I would have decided at the first paragraph that I don't like this person. She revised the essay to reflect her transformation in a more positive way. That student is now in her senior year at Columbia.

Realize that it doesn't matter if you leave things out. Some kids are sticklers for detail, and feel they need to cram in everything in order to write truthfully. It makes for a very boring essay. It's better to think of the essay as if you are telling a story.

More resources...

College Planning for Gifted Students: Choosing And Getting into the Right College Recommended by Sandra L. Berger (or from Amazon)
Everything you need to know and do, starting in 7th and stepping right through 12th grade, to plan for college for your gifted student.  Why don't the school counselors tell us this?!  Timelines, checklists, and more
Cool Colleges: For the Hyper-Intelligent, Self-Directed, Late Blooming, and Just Plain Different Recommended by Donald Asher
Thinking about college? Looking for the 'right' college for yourself, or your child? This book is for you! Also available from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.ca


Last updated December 01, 2020

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