Applying to College

Navigating College Admissions

By Diane Seo ’85 and Mary Vorsino

No doubt, applying to college is stressful, with so many questions and so much information to sift through. We interviewed Punahou’s college counseling staff – director Myron Arakawa ’66 and associate directors Christopher Obenchain and Ryan Scudder – to offer Academy students and parents tips on how best to navigate college admissions.

1. What should be considered when applying to college?

Many students rely on rankings and other people’s opinions, but when students research colleges themselves, their goal should be to identify schools where they are likely to be happy and successful, Obenchain says. Students can start by considering one or all of the following – what they might want to study, where they might want to study and/or the type of people they might want to study with. If parents get too involved and do research for the student, their children start to feel that they have to make decisions that please others. 

Tip: Help students articulate the “whys” and “wherefores” of their research. Go beyond phrases like “good school,” and encourage students to identify what “good” means to them.

2. What’s the best way to research schools?

Search engines on are great. Punahou’s college-planning tool, Naviance, also provides a good starting point, matching students’ interests and goals with appropriate schools.

Tip: Don’t discount a college because you haven’t heard of it (yet). With 2,500 four-year and another 1,500 two-year colleges in the country, there are many colleges worth considering.

3. Are college visits useful?

Visiting college campuses might be helpful during a student’s senior year, or at the earliest, junior year, Obenchain says. But often, when younger students visit campuses, they won’t be motivated to take a meaningful look at the schools. “They don’t know how to assess themselves in eighth, ninth or 10th grade – they’re just not developmentally ready,” he says.

Tip: Visiting campuses across the country can be costly and take up a lot of time. If a family makes a trip to the mainland, visiting three or four campuses is recommended – a large state school, a small private college, a college in the city and one in the country.

4. Is it getting harder to get into college?

It is getting harder to get admitted to the 60 most selective schools in the country. But there are 2,500 other schools to consider, Arakawa says.

Tip: A recent study noted that 80% of students nationwide report they were admitted to their first- or second-choice college. The list of colleges that students apply to should include a range of possibilities. 

5. What type of courses should students take to prepare for college?

Sometimes eighth-grade parents call Arakawa for guidance on how to plan their children’s ninth-grade schedule, wondering whether they should push for more honors courses. “The kids are scheduled into appropriate courses by their deans,” he says. “So, my general response is, ‘Tell your freshman or sophomore just to do really well in the courses that they’re taking.’” 

Tip: Students should make curricular choices that are not overwhelming, but get more difficult each year. Focusing on five core subjects – English, language, math, science and social studies – is the definition of “college prep.”

6. Regarding activities, what should students do if they haven’t discovered their passion?

If freshmen haven’t found activities they love, be patient, Obenchain says. “Keep searching; no biggie,” he says. “You’ll find it when you find it. There’s very little you can do to make a kid have a passion. And to mom and dad, let your children do what they want. Just make sure they’re doing something.”

Tip: Colleges are searching for evidence that incoming students will be active members of their community. Students don’t have to do every activity out there, but they should seek opportunities to participate in high school.

7. Should students decide on colleges based on geography?

“When a student says, ‘I want to stay on the West Coast,’ it’s usually a good fit for them to go to college in that region,” Obenchain says. “Going away and living with new people is going to be a big transition, so, if they want to do that in Oregon, I say, ‘Fine, you’ve got options in Oregon.’”

Tip: Don’t let location limit options in the research phase. Seniors frequently say, “I think I want to stay in Hawai‘i,” or vice versa, when their previous thoughts were in the other direction.

8. Should finances dictate the process?

It’s not the first check, but you’ve got to think about it, Obenchain says. Applicants need to recognize that public schools don’t have much money to give, even if students have financial need. “I think one mistake families make is trying to shield the kid from the finances, and they shouldn’t,” he says. “They need to tell their child, ‘Here’s the budget; this is what we can pay to send you to college.’” But with that said, because of the very intricate way financial aid is awarded, students should apply to colleges of varying comprehensive costs. With opportunities for merit scholarships and need-based aid, students won’t know the final price of each school until after they’re admitted.

Tip: Have a family conversation so students are aware of financial circumstances and parameters.

9. Who should be in charge?

Punahou’s counselors were adamant that students should lead the way, not their parents. Every student’s college selection journey is unique, Arakawa says. “We want kids to take charge of their education and their lives,” he says. “And we try to emphasize to the parents to let the child drive the process.”

Obenchain said some parents go so far as to fill out college applications for their children. “Parents over-manage their children’s lives, but parents who are doing things that their children could do aren’t helping – they’re putting their children at a disadvantage later on,” he says.

Tip: Resist the temptation to review your child’s application. “The message you’ll be sending is, ‘You can’t do it unless I check it. I must rescue you.’ That’s not a good message,” Obenchain says. Even if the deadline for applications nears, refrain from nagging your child about it. “The kids know when the deadlines are, and if they miss a deadline, it’s because they have chosen to miss a deadline,” he says. “It can be a way for the student to regain control of the process.”

10. What does college counseling at Punahou entail?

At Punahou, the college application process begins during the junior year, with a semester-long college guidance class. Punahou’s college counselors also schedule two comprehensive meetings with students during their junior and senior years. Parents are expected to attend both meetings, and are encouraged to share their insights and perspectives. As the college search and application process continues through senior year, the primary role of parents should be like a cheerleader on the sideline, supporting and reassuring their child. “When children start asserting their independence, this new person starts coming out, and it can be surprising and wonderful for parents,” Obenchain says.

Tip: Trust your children, and trust the college counseling process. “We’ll make sure they get the information they need in a timely manner,” Scudder says.

College Guide

Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former dean at Stanford University and author of “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare your Kids for Success,” says while helicopter parenting may be an expression of love, it could put teens at a big disadvantage later in life.

Here are three tips she gives to parents to help their children develop independence and resilience.

Tip 1

Don’t say “we” when you’re talking about your child. Because what you’re essentially doing is speaking for them, providing a crutch, taking credit for their achievements and potentially saying some things they don’t agree with.

Tip 2

Stop doing everything for your teens. They should be doing their own homework, cleaning their own room and managing their own daily calendar.

Tip 3

Give your child the independence (and the responsibility) of advocating for themselves with other adults, including their teachers and coaches. Remember your role as a guide (not a manager).

Here’s a college guide on Encouraging Resilience.

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