In The Thick of It: Helping Your Child Get The College Applications In! By Robynne O’Byrne

I still remember the moment my son Sam pressed submit on his first college application. We stared at the screen for a long time before he finally pushed the button. It seemed as if his entire future rested on that one little motion. We both worried about whether or not everything had been filled out properly, whether or not his essays were good enough, were his academic records and recommendations linked to the Common app..… So many worries!

We held our breath as the beach ball spun around and around and after what seemed like an eternity an error message popped up. The credit card number that we used to pay for the submission had been entered incorrectly. Ack!!!  So we went through the entire process again. When the message came up that the application had been submitted successfully we sighed with relief. It got easier and easier to press the submit button over the course of the next few months.

What didn’t seemed to get easier however was the time in between submitting one application and finishing the next one. This was particularly true in October. There was still so much to do – multiple applications to complete, supplemental essays to write, pre-screens to film – but nothing was really due until November at the earliest. So although I felt the urgency for Sam to keep things moving, he seemed to feel he had all the time in the world!

I felt an enormous sense of responsibility to make sure Sam stayed on track. So I nudged, sometimes nagged him to work on his essays or enter information into the next application. I checked and rechecked the application time-line and the spreadsheet containing all the pertinent dates and deadlines. Over and over again I questioned whether I was doing enough, doing too much or doing the wrong things.

Some time in the middle of October I realized I needed to take a step back and figure out what I could do that was truly helpful to him and what was just getting in the way or creating conflict between us. I had hired a team of people to help Sam, as is often necessary for kids applying for the performing arts, and I decided I needed trust that they were guiding him and keeping him on track. His acting and vocal coaches were working with him on the artistic parts of his applications and my partner Harriet was working with him on his essays. I knew it was important that he have an outside person guiding him here because it would be easier for Sam to take critical feedback from Harriet than from me.

Still, I knew he needed my support. So I finally just asked him – how can I be most helpful to you? He told me that hovering over him, nagging him about dates and deadlines, was very irritating. But he also admitted that he was feeling pretty overwhelmed and that he did need and want my help. To my surprise he said the thing that caused him the most stress was worrying about scheduling his auditions, figuring out how to upload his pre-screens, making sure everything was entered into his applications correctly and just keeping track of all materials he had to prepare for auditions. So we figured out a way for us to work together on these things.

I find that my experience with Sam is not unique. At this time of year I get many phone calls and emails from parents of the students I am working with. They ask me if their child is on track, should the essays and applications be getting done more quickly, what more can they be doing as parents? I empathize with their worries and acknowledge that October is a hard month. If this process is a marathon, October is only the 5th mile. Students are still getting the hang of writing their essays and many are still waiting for their school counselors to do their part to link up the Common App with Naviance. Pre-screens are still being filmed, resumes are being revised and head shots being taken. Most performing arts students are also performing in their fall show. So there is a lot on their plate.

I reassure parents that I am tracking their student’s progress and remind them that the application spreadsheet I create for my students has all the pertinent dates, deadlines and application requirements for applying to each school. I encourage parents to refer to it often to keep track of what needs to be done. I also create a monthly timeline for completing each application and I review it weekly with my students. The “to-do” list I send to my students after our sessions gives them a framework for working on applications and helps to limit the sense of overwhelm that can set in. I also I ask my students to send me essay drafts between our sessions so I can make suggestions. This helps students stay engaged in the writing process.  And I promise to send out an alert if a student is falling behind. I remind parents that most applications aren’t due until at least Dec 1st (though certainly a few are due in November) and that there is still plenty of time, so long as the student is actively engaged with me in the process. I tell them we can work together to support their child.

In terms of parental involvement, I encourage parents to speak with their children, ask them what would be the most helpful. Often they will find that it is the more practical or logistical aspects of the process that their child needs help with. Something as simple as filling out the demographic portion of the application can seem confusing and overwhelming to a teenager.

I tell parents it’s ok to take over some of the “administrative” tasks, like filling out the family information section of an application. I encourage them to think of themselves as the Administrative Assistant, helping to get the ancillary tasks done so that the student and I can focus on the essays and the artistic aspects of the application. Most students are happy to have their parents help out with these sort of tasks and many feel relieved to know that they don’t have to manage them on their own. The process itself is so complex, with so many steps, that most students simply cannot manage it without a great deal of support. I encourage parents to review each application before it is submitted just to catch any discrepancies.

For the most part I find this approach works very well. As long as no one on the “team” is working harder than the student, things have a way of getting done on time. Essays get written, applications get completed and auditions get scheduled. In the few instances in which a student is truly resistant to participating in the process, I remind parents that when students are not able or willing to put in the time to apply to college, then they are probably not ready to handle to responsibilities of being in college.
Fortunately for those of us who have children interested in applying to performing arts programs, their passion for their craft is a great motivator. I find that most of my students enjoy sharing their love  of music, theatre or dance through their essays and auditions.Yes, the process can be demanding and stressful, but it can also be a celebration of all the years of hard work and preparation. Although the next few months might seem interminably long, the end of the process will bring big rewards. In my experience there is a place for every student and every student will find their place. When they do, you will share in their joy, knowing you played a pivotal role in helping them get there!

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Guiding A Child Through the Application/Audition Process for the Performing Arts

On the last night before the Unified auditions, I sat alone in my hotel room, reflecting on what the previous year had been like. I almost couldn’t believe the whole crazy experience would soon be over. Somewhere in the hall my son Sam was filming a silly Snapchat story with one of his friends. As the night wore on, I fought the urge to tell him it was time to come in and get some rest. Eventually I texted him and suggested that perhaps it was time to call it a night. Predictably he sent back a text telling me not to worry, that he “had it under control”. This had been the dance we’d been doing for the last 7 or 8 months. Sometimes he took my advice, sometimes I didn’t give him a choice, and sometimes he would push back hard and I would back off.

If there is anything I see other parents struggle with as they try to help their children navigate this process, it’s finding that balance between helping and controlling, doing too much or not doing enough. Figuring out the “right” way to be involved is tough. Every child is different and what works for one may not work for another. But the important thing is to be involved. Most kids cannot handle all the demands of this process alone. In addition to getting through their senior year, theatre students are also performing in shows and managing the complicated and confusing application and audition process. In order for kids to be successful in this endeavor, they need to truly understand the programs they are applying to and carefully prepare for their auditions. They need to present their best selves and remain poised under enormous pressure. In order to do this they need tremendous support from the important figures in their lives.

I spent a great deal of time considering when and how to be helpful to Sam. I wanted to make sure he was engaged in the process and that it was his process, not mine. I knew that if I took on too much responsibility, or did the work for him instead of with him, he wouldn’t feel ownership over it. On the other hand, I could see how overwhelmed he was becoming as he tried to balance the demands of his senior year, school performances and the application/audition process. So I began to think of myself as a scaffold, there to support him and hold things together. I wanted to make sure nothing fell through the cracks.

I saw my primary role as that of a consultant. I offered him advice when he asked and sometimes even when he didn’t. Occasionally he needed an assistant and I would do the busywork of the applications so that he could focus on his audition material or his essay writing. Sometimes he needed a manager, so on a few occasions I set limits around social activities when I knew there were important deadlines coming up. And sometimes we argued. More times than not I let him choose how he wanted to handle things. When I thought it was really important, I pushed harder for him to prioritize his applications or audition prep. We had countless conversations about deadlines, priorities, preparation, rest, focus, commitment, and many other application/audition related topics. Those conversations didn’t always translate into the action I was hoping for, but more times than not Sam did what he needed to do. I could see that he was learning from his mistakes and even though it wasn’t always obvious, he was listening to me. Together we muddled through and in the end it made us closer.

Supporting my son through the application/audition process was one of the most challenging and gratifying experiences I have had as a parent.  Watching him handle the ups and downs, push past his fears and ultimately succeed in finding his way was exciting to witness and share.  Along the way Sam needed to know he had a touchstone, a steady hand to guide him. This gave him the grounding he needed to hang in there when it all felt like too much or when he felt an audition hadn’t gone well. More than once he said “thanks Mom, I couldn’t have done this without you”.  All children need that steady hand. Exactly how your hand will guide your child may be different than how I guided mine, but with gentle and persistent support your child will also find the way. In the end, you, and they, will be richer for the experience.
My next few blogs will focus on the technical aspects of the application process and how to navigate the many minefields your student may encounter along the way. I will talk about how to make a balanced list of schools, when to start preparing audition pieces and a variety of other important topics that can help you and your student stay on track. Robynne O’Byrne

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Changes are coming to the SAT in 2016! The redesigned SAT will debut in March 2016 and will affect the class of 2017 and beyond. I have asked my colleague Patrick Hennes to break down the changes so that students can make informed decisions regarding their test prep plans. Patrick serves as Senior Director at AJ Tutoring, a group of professional educators located in the Bay Area. He’s been working with students in support of their SAT and ACTs for over 10 years.

Rising seniors (class of 2016) will not need to take the new test. Rising sophomores (class of 2018) will only have the option of taking the new test. Rising juniors (class of 2017) can choose to take either the current SAT or the redesigned SAT, or both.

The 2015 PSAT will be based on the redesigned SAT and will reflect the new format. The last administrations of the current SAT will take place in January 2016.

The current SAT vs. the new 2016 SAT
Score is out of 2400 points total Maximum score is 1600 points
3 sections: critical reading, math, and writing 3 sections: evidence-based reading and writing, math, and the optional essay
25-minute non-optional persuasive essay that requires students to develop their own evidence 50-minute optional essay that asks students to analyze evidence from a source and examine the persuasive abilities of the author
Critical reading includes multiple-choice reading comprehension questions based on passages In the evidence-based reading and writing section, students will have to support answers with evidence drawn directly from the passage
Sentence completion questions include a range of vocabulary, with obscure words in the most difficult questions Vocabulary will be easier and more focused on words students will use outside of the SAT
A calculator is allowed on all math sections Students will not be able to use a calculator on one math section
“Guessing penalty” (-.25 points for wrong answers) No points subtracted for wrong answers
3 hours and 45 minutes long 3 hours long, plus 50 minutes for the optional essay

Which tests should visual and performing arts students in the class of 2017 plan to take?

While there are many testing schedules that could work, most students specializing in in the creative arts should fall into one of three tracks:

  • The “hedge your bets” plan: take the current SAT in fall 2015, the redesigned SAT in March 2016, and the ACT in April 2016.
  • Spring semester testing plan: take the redesigned SAT in March 2016 and the ACT in April 2016.
  • The “SAT only” plan: take the current SAT in fall 2015 and the redesigned SAT in March 2016.

Patrick and everyone at AJ Tutoring are always happy to chat about a particular student’s needs, learning style, and goals to help identify the best plan as a student begins his or her standardized testing.  Please feel free to reach out to AJ Tutoring at (650) 331-3251 or (408) 345-5200 for more information or to discuss a great testing plan and visit their website, You can reach Patrick directly at (650) 331-3251 ext. 704 or

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The College Waitlist: rational advice on what to do next

I know that there have been many articles written about the limbo of being placed on a waitlist. Trying to figure out who gets admitted off the waitlist, how colleges prioritize those candidates and what if anything can be done to get the attention of admissions is an age-old conundrum. I want to cut through the noise and give very practical advice to any student giving a second thought to their position on a waitlist.

  1. Accept an offer of admission from one of the schools that have admitted you by May 1. Don’t just accept the offer, but fully engage. Wear their sweatshirt, join their Facebook group, put down your housing deposit and fully embrace your status as a member of their incoming class. There is a reason that they accepted you and it just may be that they are the best fit for you. Don’t underestimate how important this is.
  2. If you remain focused on a school that has placed you on their waitlist, please remember that this isn’t personal. There are just too many qualified students who are applying to the same schools. You should, however, take advantage of every opportunity to let them know why you want to be considered for admission. Email them, let them know about accomplishments more recent than the data in your application and above all, respond with a “yes I will attend” to let them know you mean business.
  3. A visit to the school can help. Try to make a connection to the department where you want to study and make sure your admissions counselor knows you are there.
  4. Request that your high school counselor contact the school to reiterate your interest and to determine if they can provide any additional information that could support your desire to attend that school.

Trying to predict what percentage of students will be admitted off the waitlist at any given school is nearly impossible. Schools will not publish if they rank their waitlist and the truth of the matter is that they have deeply ingrained reasons for using their waitlist. Sometimes it is to placate alumni. Sometimes it is to manage the demographic of their freshman class. If you really want to find out how colleges have used their waitlist to craft their freshman class, you can Google “X College Waitlist 2014” to see if they publish this information. You can also check the Common Data Set to see if your school has published their waitlist data. You can either search “Common Data Set” on the school’s website or Google “Common Data Set” and the institution name. For instance, you can find out how many students were enrolled from Northwestern’s waitlist in 2013: Northwestern University Common Data Set.

What we do know for certain is that schools put large numbers of students on the waitlist with a relatively few number of students ultimately being offered admission. My final advice is that you do not leave your future to the whims of the waitlist. Commit to the top choice school that admitted you and if a waitlist spot is offered to you then make the final decision that meets your needs. You may just find that you don’t want to take off that comfy sweatshirt from your initially admitted school.



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The Growth of the Creative Economy and a Changing Jobs Landscape

I am speaking this weekend at the Dare 2b Digital Conference here in Silicon Valley. My topic is: The Growth of the Creative Economy and a Changing Jobs Landscape.

The growth of interdisciplinary degrees is proof that educators are looking closely at the benefits of a culture of learning where both right and left-brain thinking are encouraged. The happy result of blending a conceptual and technical education is a student ready to fill jobs new to our economy. As I have written previously, I believe that the skills that an arts-based degree develops are extremely valuable attributes in our changing work environment.

Interdisciplinary programs such as those offered through the BXA Program at Carnegie-Mellon, The Interdisciplinary Computing and the Arts program at UC San Diego and the Computing and the Arts Program at Yale are evidence that colleges are looking to satisfy the demand for integrating a study of the arts with computer science and other diverse fields.

The reason graduates with creative degrees are highly sought after is that hiring managers understand the essential skills that these degrees engender. These attributes are the skills that a valuable employee exhibits:

  • Fearlessness
  • Communication
  • Analytic Skills
  • Teamwork
  • Leadership

The culture of collaboration in these interdisciplinary programs is a predominant characteristic. I am convinced that learning how to solve problems creatively will ultimately play a significant role in our ability to successfully compete in a global economy.  I am not alone in this opinion.  As Thomas Friedman wrote in a recent New York Times column, “Talent can come in so many different forms and be built in so in many non-traditional ways today, hiring officers have to be alive to every one….”

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Will I get a good job after college?

This is a question that is often asked, by both parents and students, as they begin the journey of selecting where they will apply to college and what they will study.

I have written before about why now, more than ever before, a degree in the visual or performing arts has in fact resulted in long-term career satisfaction. More colleges are acknowledging the challenge of offering their students the opportunity not to train for a job they think they want, but in fact to provide the necessary environment for the unintended consequences of a more flexible career path. Do you think the student with a B.A. in Design planned to get a job as an “interaction engineer” doing data visualization? What about the Director of Online Engagement in President Obama’s Office of Digital Strategy? I doubt she stated that as her career goal when entering college.

Consider the fact that the top six jobs today didn’t exist ten years ago. Educators like Mary Schmidt Campbell, Dean of the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU agrees. She recently spoke at a conference “Three Million Stories – Understanding the Lives and Careers of America’s Arts Graduates” She urges educators to be mindful of changes in the job market that are reflected in our economy creating a need “for curriculum reform and a better understanding of what skills an arts degree develops.”

For more information on this topic, listen to an interview that I recently gave on “College Smart Radio” a program that gives advice regarding the road to college on 1220am KDOW, The Wall Street Business Network. I discussed the topic of the value of an arts degree with Beatice Schultz, CFP®, BSc, MSM. Beatrice is the founder of Westface College Planning and a co-founder of Westface Financial and Insurance Services.

Here is a link to the podcast:



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Advice for high school juniors who want to study the visual arts in college.

As a high school junior, I am sure that the chatter about college has begun.  Are you touring campuses? Have you prepared for the SAT? Where do you plan to apply? I encourage you to remember that it is the informed student who ultimately creates the best college application list.

The summer is the best time to do this.  Not everyone can afford the time or money required by most precollege programs.  But, don’t let this stop you.  It is important to consider areas of study that take you outside of your comfort zone.  Perhaps you know you enjoy design, but never considered learning to write code?

I recently attended a presentation by the production crew from the sketch comedy series Portlandia.  The producers, assistant director and production assistants did an excellent job of describing the realities of working on location while trying to solve unpredictable challenges.  At the end of the presentation, the assistant director surprised everyone when his final recommendation to the audience of film students was “If you can, learn to write code.” In his experience, this added ability would open many doors in the film industry.  I think this was unexpected, yet really smart advice.  That is why I urge high school students to research the people whose work they admire. It is often surprising to learn what these professionals studied in college and how their careers took paths that were unpredictable.

Here are some simple suggestions for challenging yourself and in the process perhaps you will discover a new area of interest:

  1. Considering animation?  Look for local life drawing classes.  Most animation programs will want to see life drawing in your portfolio and typically you don’t have the opportunity to sketch nude models in your high school classes. Showing this type of work in your portfolio is proof to schools of your commitment. You don’t have to enroll in a local community college or art school, you might find a resource in your community such as the Pacific Art League in Palo Alto: .
  2. Consider an online course.  Interested in digital media or design?  Brown University offers several online programs.  Storytelling in the Digital Age is one offering that might be suitable.  Check out the course at:
  3. Stanford University offers online courses via Coursera, Check out Computer Science 101 This class can be taken as “self study” without any deadline or pressure to work towards a grade.
  4. offers online courses in animation, design, software, etc.  It is a monthly subscription service that offers a wide variety of tutorials and courses.

It is your job to research student work, courses and then faculty at the schools you are considering. You will be asked why you are interested in a particular program and your ability to articulate your interest is essential.  Look for connections to work or courses that you might have not known were available.  Be ready to talk about why you are drawn to this aspect of the program and specifically what classes/faculty relate to your ambitions for studying art on a college level.  Your ability to communicate these connections will have an impact on whether admissions can understand why you are a good fit.

Remember that the best fit for a student may not be the biggest “name” school. You might be surprised to find the perfect course of study with student work that is stellar coming out of a smaller lesser-known school.  It is your job to find these “hidden gems” so that you have some true options on your college list.

Happy hunting!





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