Best of Both Worlds podcast: College applications, choices, & more with Laura Clarke

Our children are getting older! Sarah and I have been recording Best of Both World for over five years now and so, naturally enough, the kids are five years older than when we began. My eldest started 10th grade this morning. So we are branching out into more teen-oriented content.

Today’s episode features Laura Clarke, a college admissions expert and owner of Clarke College Insight. I was drawn to Clarke’s work because she looks at any data sources she can find from colleges as she figures out her advice. If you’ve got a kid applying to college in the next few years, there are a lot of practical tips in here, including looking at the Common Application years before your kids actually apply, making lists of activities/awards/etc. so you don’t forget things, and advice on how to think about activities. First and foremost, your kids should do what they love. But from an admissions perspective, it’s often better to go deep on a few things, and perhaps slightly off-beat things, and be a leader (or do independent projects in these) than to be “well-rounded.” Also, she is not big on SAT courses/coaching — finding that there are better places to invest that time.

As Clarke stresses, no one has to do any of this. Most colleges are not highly selective. If your family is choosing to pursue the highly selective college route, though, it’s good to know how these things work.

In the opener, Sarah and I discuss applying for college many, MANY years ago (one more year ago for me than her, it turns out). In the Q&A we tackle the evergreen topic of kid-spacing. If a listener wants three kids and just had her second, should she go for it now or wait? Please give the episode a listen and let us know what you think.


17 thoughts on “Best of Both Worlds podcast: College applications, choices, & more with Laura Clarke

  1. Very interesting episode and timely for me, as my kids are both in middle school and fast approaching those high school (and beyond!) years. I have always struggled some with the whole “extracurricular” thing. My kids have always been active and involved in lots of things- quite a bit of various sports and some music, mostly, though this past year they dabbled a little in drama club too. But especially with my older son, he’s just not the outgoing type who wants to be president of a club!! I never wanted to hold a leadership role, either, at that age, and to be honest, I still don’t really have a desire to be a manager or big wig leader in my job today!! ha. So although my kids are busy and engaged and healthy and active and I think pretty well-rounded, it kind of bugs me that despite this, they still might not have the “right” things to list on a college application. I mean, my son has taken piano lessons since he was 4, but he’s not a concert pianist or leading piano club (if there were such a thing…) or anything. He just…takes piano lessons! And goes to soccer practice. And he just got a part-time job at 14 (valuable in a different way, too). And he reads a lot. Etc. Feels just right for him at this point, but whenever I think ahead to college, it’s hard to not feel like he should start thinking about either adding things or changing things up, and that frustrates me a bit about the system! I guess it is what it is. I understand they want to see things that make kids stand out, or experiences that demonstrate future leaders, but in reality, not all future jobs require the same things, you know? Someone might be a quiet genius who HATES leadership roles, but might be the one to figure out the cure to cancer. 🙂 Anyway, I enjoyed the episode, even if it did stress me out a teeny bit. 🙂

    1. I had this problem when I applied to colleges, as I was a bookish, introverted kid. I played the game enough to get into some good colleges and receive scholarships. However looking back I wished I had done something to highlight my particular skill in Latin – I could have done a project at the local college in the classics department or something similar. That would have been more enjoyable and probably more impressive than a leadership role in a club that didn’t matter.

      1. @Kersti – I totally agree that the “special project” concept is a smart one – it shows initiative. You don’t just like like writing, you wrote a collection of sonnets and published it on a poetry website or…something. You don’t just like to dance, you choreographed a number that was performed as part of the spring performing arts group show. It shows just as much as a leadership role, and possibly more.

    2. Hello and thank you for listening! I’m so sorry that the episode stressed you out! Colleges’ expectations can be very frustrating.

      I think there are great options to tweak your son’s enthusiasm about the piano into something that admission officers would eat up. Apart from leadership, he could also adjust this interest a bit to show intellectual curiosity or help marginalized people. Does he have any interest in composing? Is there a volunteer organization near you where he could teach piano lessons, or maybe accompany a kids’ choir?

      Also — not that you need any validation from me! — activities like piano and reading can be the start of fulfilling lifelong hobbies. They’re valuable for themselves, even if they’re not the admission-optimized approach. I wish I could play the piano! 🙂

      Please let me know if there’s anything I can do for your family; I’d be delighted to work with you.

    3. Absolutely agree with these observations and need to be careful to understand that most of the episode was geared towards selective colleges. I struggle with this narrative at times because it truly does not apply to everyone and there are plenty of colleges that don’t require these rigorous considerations. I hate to force something on kids that is not naturally themselves to fit an expected mold.

  2. I am really enjoying the content for families with older children. It is so hard to find. My oldest started HS yesterday so the timing was also pretty incredible. My kids attend a school that takes college admissions seriously and we’ve already been talking about a lot of these things, but it helps to hear it from multiple sources and from different perspectives. I guess I was a little frustrated to hear that excelling at extracurriculars got so much emphasis. My son is an okay soccer player. He’s on the JV team and he LOVES it. He is never going to play at the college level. He likely won’t be the captain at the HS level, but he devotes a lot of time to it because he really enjoys the game. It seems silly to leave that to do something else just because he might be better at it…oh well.

    1. @Gillian – we aim to do older kid content. The issue to be careful about is that our kids are their own people and don’t necessarily want to be talked about anymore! But on soccer…I think the suggestion might be to do something with that love that would make him stand out – work at a summer soccer camp, for instance, coach a youth team somewhere, or develop some interesting content related to soccer that he could showcase somewhere…

      1. @Laura He started refereeing soccer games last year (you have to be 14 and he started the course to referee practically on his birthday). I think this is an experience he could do something with. He has to deal with adult coaches and parents which I think has been great experience. He has also been attending the same sleep away camp since 4th grade and has been given some responsibilities there which we hope will lead to him being asked to stay on as a counselor. His camp actually only has former campers as counselors (they actually call them “cabin leaders” because they don’t counsel campers they lead them) and you have to be asked to become a Leader-in-training. Luckily we will know if this is a possible path for him the summer after his Freshman year.

        I totally get the difficulty of talking too many specifics about teens/tweens. My back to school pictures only feature 3/4 of my kids because the teen doesn’t want me to post his picture on social media. I respect that.

    2. Hi Gillian,

      Thanks so much for listening! Academics are more important than extracurriculars, which I hope gives you some peace of mind! It’s wonderful that your son enjoys soccer so much, and Laura’s suggestions about how to tweak that interest a bit to fit admissions officers’ preferences are excellent ones.

      Also, as you suggested, playing soccer because he enjoys it is reason enough to do it! Even if it isn’t the admission-optimized choice, it is still a great one. I played three sports in high school, none well enough to play in college, and cherish memories of track meets, bus rides, etc.

      I’d be very pleased to explore more extracurricular options, either in the soccer vein or other things, with your family!

  3. This episode kind of stressed me out! Ha. And I am not even close to this stage of parenting. I think I may have this reaction because this process is so different from what I experienced personally. I came from a middle class family with 5 kids and my parents very much pushed us to go to college, but when it came to selecting the school, they said we could go wherever we wanted but to keep in mind we would be paying for it ourselves. So I only looked at in-state schools because I did not want to take on a ton of debt. I looked at 3 college on my own, but I think 2 of the college tours were part of a class trip, like a physics trip to the Univ of ND where I ended up going. I think I only applied to 1 school – I knew I’d get in since it’s a state school, and I had a great ACT score/GPA. I never considered applying to like Harvard or Princeton – nor did I personally know anyone who went to a school like that. It all worked out for me, though, but my college education most certainly does NOT stand out on my resume. My degree (math) does, though, especially since there are not many female math majors.

    Our kids will have a different path, though, and it’s been interesting to watch my 2 coworkers navigate this process with their kids. I think one coworker is disappointed her son didn’t do better on tests and doesn’t know what he wants/where he wants to go, and I get the sense that he would not be receptive to a checklist of things to do… The other coworker’s son was extremely driven and receptive to guidance from his parents/guidance counselor, etc.

    But all that said, I don’t know where I aspire for our kids to go… Neither my husband or I went to prestigious schools. My husband went to a small liberal arts college in Minnesota. We both have had successful careers. But it does seem like there is way more emphasis on where you went to school v when we entered the workforce, and that emphasis may vary by area of the country? I want them to be challenged in HS (I wasn’t – I was so bored most of the time) and I want them to have as great of a college experience as my husband and I did, but it will be tricky to navigate how much to push them towards a certain type of school. But I’ve got about `10 years to figure that out. 😉 We plan to send our kids to public school, though, as the schools in our area are quite good. But there seems to be a big difference in how college prep is handled in public v private. I guess that is part of why people are willing to pay for private school.

    This is such a long comment already! But thinking about this is also calling to mind a section of a book by Malcolm Gladwell where he talks about how well you are doing among your peers can lead people to opt-out of a degree. Like if you are in the middle of the pack of a class at Harvard, a kid thinks “I guess I’m not smart/good at this” so they change degrees. But if they were at a different school, they might be in the top quartile and would then think they were smart. But they have a different benchmark, and the Harvard benchmark is likely not representative of their talent among the general public… I think that essay kind of supports your husband’s thinking on where to go for undergrad if you aspire to attend grad school.

    1. @Lisa – you have a long time to figure this out with your kids! We don’t want to stress anyone out, I just thought it was interesting. But yes, someone has to be in the bottom quarter at Princeton – probably kids who’ve never experienced being in the bottom quarter of anything. No doubt a fascinating experience!

    2. Eek I’m sorry I stressed you out! Clearly you are already taking an admirably thoughtful, measured approach to your own kids’ educations.

      What I aim to do is to offer the full buffet of admission-optimized choices, so families can pick and choose what makes sense for them and what isn’t worth the expense, hassle, or worry. Just options, with no pressure!

  4. Loved this episode. We are in the height of college application planning with the unexpected twist of now having a homeschooled high school junior. She’s taking 5 classes at the local community college as a dual enrollment student but all of the usual metrics for entry into Texas colleges (top 10% of accredited high school classes get auto admit to A&M ) don’t apply. Hiring a consultant was on my to do list!

    1. Hi Calee! Even though the 10% auto-admit (or 6%, for UT Austin) won’t apply for her, all those community college classes will look great. I’d be delighted to strategize with your family!

  5. This was really helpful, thanks! My 6th grader is a great student who is into arts and crafts and is not athletic (the exact opposite of my husband and I). She loves sewing so I think we will help her combine her passion with some leadership/charity projects (and maybe start a sewing club) that may help her be a bit more competitive if she ends up applying to selective colleges. We will definitely be in touch in a few years.

  6. In the thick of it with two high school seniors this year (twins). No sugarcoating, the whole college admissions process is ludicrous and I think that most non-Americans think it is as well. Few times in life do you have to lay yourself bare on paper – “your essays should reflect the REAL you”, “you want the admissions officers to get to know you as a person” – and then rejections basically mean you are rejected as a person. Engineering extracurricular activities so that you can demonstrate achievement, leadership, and commitment is the opposite of a hobby and doing things for fun. That said, I have tried to re-frame the process to maintain mine and my kids’ sanity. They have made the most of high school by contributing to the high school COMMUNITY. Taking advantage of the academic opportunities, forming relationships with teachers, making friends for life, doing activities has enhanced their experience of high school and hopefully, elevated the high school environment for everyone there and in our city. Applying to college then means showing admissions committees that you will bring the same energy, talents, and enthusiasm to the college COMMUNITY.

  7. Thank you for content for those of use with older kids. I loved the podcast. I have one in college and a high school senior. Enjoyed hearing the tips and thought (though, in reality, all too late for us). I did laugh though at the contrast between advising parents to keep a spreadsheet of kids activities starting in middle school (?!), encourage Latin and other entrepreneurial/ unusual projects, taking the SAT and multiple APs, etc while at the same time emphasizing that we don’t want to stress our kids out… right. Also, the idea of giving money to your college with a hint that more may be to come if your kid gets in may be strategic, but it’s also a little gross.

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