Parents’ Guide to College Admissions

Center for Family Engagement Logo

Subscribe for Updates


Notes from the Backpack banner

Episode 56: Parents’ Guide to College Admissions

Wednesday, Mar. 2, 2022

Subscribe on your favorite podcast platform:

Apple Podcasts Google Podcasts Stitcher Spotify Tune In

Listen now:

Show Notes

Ffiona Rees

The college admissions process was stressful enough before the pandemic, now it’s more confusing than ever. Ffiona Rees, board chair of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC), joins us to answer all of your questions. Listen to discover her top tips for supporting your teen as they navigate through the college admissions process.


Keep the Conversation Going

Like this episode? Share your thoughts with us via social media @National PTA and by using #BackpackNotes. Be sure to visit for more resources from today’s episode.


Helen Westmoreland: Welcome to today's episode. I'm Helen Westmoreland.

LaWanda Toney: And I'm LaWanda Toney and we’re your co-hosts. Today we're talking about a topic that can be stressful for teens and parents alike, college admissions. A lot has changed since you and I applied to college, Helen.

Helen Westmoreland: Oh man, LaWanda, it seems like forever ago, but I am curious what has changed. It certainly seems from the outside looking in more expensive, more competitive, and we know that the current COVID-19 pandemic has also led to some major shifts in school, and I would imagine college admissions too. And that is why I am so thankful to have a very special guest with us today to talk about all these topics.

LaWanda Toney: Yep. That's right, Helen. We're excited to introduce Ffiona Rees, the Chair of the Board for the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, an organization dedicated to serving students as they make choices about post-secondary education.

Ffiona Rees has served in the college admission profession for over 20 years and is currently the Deputy Director of Admissions at UCLA. Before UCLA, she worked at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Ffiona has two degrees from George Washington University, a BA in Geography and an MBA. Welcome to the show, Ffiona

Ffiona Rees: Thanks so much for having me. It's great to be with you.

LaWanda Toney: So tell us a little bit about yourself and the work that you do.

Ffiona Rees: I will start off by saying, as I'm talking and I say things like 'talking' and 'classroom' that I grew up in the UK, so I say things a little bit funny occasionally. And when I was looking to apply to colleges, I didn't really know what I wanted to study. So I ended up looking to come to the US because it's great for sort of liberal arts backgrounds, and you can study a lot of different subjects.

And like most people, I don't know that there's many people that you will meet who will tell you when they're 13 years old, I want to be a college admission officer. So I got to college, needed a part-time job, started working in the admission office, and for all intents and purposes never left.

So I worked for 15 years as a professional at GW in DC, and then moved westward to UCLA about a decade ago. And given the weather here in January, I'm very happy I made that switch.

Helen Westmoreland: Before we hit record, you also said something that I think our listeners should know, which is you and your team read, over a hundred thousand applications yourselves.

Ffiona Rees: UCLA is the most applied to university in the United States. And I guess the key thing for people to know is even with our volume, which last year was just about 140,000 freshmen applications, and about 28,000 transfer applications, is that every single one of them was read in in its entirety, by humans.

LaWanda Toney: Wow. That is crazy and super impressive. The commitment to read all those applications.

Helen Westmoreland: I know, right. I was like, we have to get that on record.

Ffiona Rees: Well, students put a lot of time and effort into their applications and it's, it's what they deserve. And every student is unique. Every student has a unique academic trajectory. They, there are so much more than just a number of their GPA. And you really need to delve into the application to get to know who they are.

LaWanda Toney: Fiona, we wanted to ask you about the college admissions process, and what it looks like now compared to when we are, even when our parents did it.

Ffiona Rees: Back in the dark ages. Yup. Right there with you.

Helen Westmoreland: Like, I don't know about you, but the big things where the SAT, like the classes you took, extracurriculars, I guess other leadership stuff, but are those still the same things, Ffiona? Are there other things colleges are looking for now?

Ffiona Rees: No, I think it's still very much the fundamentals are the same. I think what has radically changed and I'm totally dating myself here, but I remember when I was applying to college using the big old thick guidebooks that would list what the various majors were.

And yes, you maybe had college guidance counselors who could steer you, but you would fill out one application and you mailed it into each college that you were applying to. So as a result, you were applying to a much smaller group of colleges. And now you've got organizations like the Common Application where students fill it out once and then they can submit it to hundreds of colleges if they so choose.

So while the fundamentals have stayed the same, I think what has changed is this, that students are applying to a lot more colleges. So it's become much more unpredictable. It's become more unpredictable for, for colleges and universities to know who's likely to enroll. There's a lot more in the public press. So it's become a little bit more of a high stakes conversation within, within our society.

Helen Westmoreland: Yeah, thank you. That's helpful. And could you elaborate on that a little more? Like when you say 'high stakes', I feel like parents today and the pressure on parents seems higher. But talk to us a little bit about like what's behind, students sending out so many applications now. Is it concern? Is it the thing you recommend as a college counselor that you do apply to a lot of schools? How does that jive with what you would advise for families?

Ffiona Rees: I could probably go down a rabbit hole for the next hour on that one, but I guess the short answer would be that there's a lot more media attention and you can't singularly say it's the media, but that is part of it. It's a rare month when you're not seeing something in one of the major newspapers, something online, headlines about record breaking applications. I think unfortunately where the message can sometimes get lost is that a lot of attention is focused on a pretty small number of colleges and universities. There's a lot of attention paid to probably 20, 30, maybe 50 colleges. There's over 3-4,000 different colleges. And I think a lot of families and students focus on selectivity and essentially take that as a proxy for quality. And that is absolutely not the case. There are so many great colleges and universities out there that are not getting the same type of media attention.

There's a lot of focus on students who are, applying early decision, early action. And again, there's a lot of universities that will get to May 1st starting into the summer and they're still accepting applications. So my advice for students and for the parents is really look broadly and don't get caught up in the frenzy. It's very easy to say and incredibly difficult to do, but know that that this actually should be a good learning process, both for the students and for the parents. It's an opportunity to get to know your child in a slightly different way as they're entering adulthood.

LaWanda Toney: Ffiona, that's great advice. To follow up with that, when should the college selection process really start?

Ffiona Rees: I don't know that there's a specific timeframe. Again. I really think it's going to be dependent on your child and where they are. I also think that it's really important that parents have conversations with their child fairly early on in the process about what are the boundaries, what are the limitations? What are your expectations for them?

You need to let them know how much you can afford, what you can't afford, what you're willing to pay, what you're not willing to pay. You don't want your child to get super excited about going somewhere, and then you suddenly find that we can't afford that.

Same thing with, with geography. How far do you want them to go from home? Is the sky the limit? Is it really that you need to stay at home because that's a way of saving costs? And these are not conversations that that parents often will have with their children, especially when it relates to finances, but it is an important one. I think at the beginning.

There are some high schools that might have conversations as you're entering high school about course selection and rigor and activities and getting involved. And if that's the type of school that you go to, great, that's certainly something to keep in mind. But I also wouldn't panic if you get to end of junior year, beginning of senior year, and you're just now beginning to talk about college, because as I said, there's also really great options for all students across all levels of selectivity.

Helen Westmoreland: I want to shift a little bit. So for many families and kids, this has been an awful learning experience. They've fallen behind. They don't have the same opportunities. They are perhaps sliding in grades. For a few other families and students, it's actually been a great pivot and a great fit. How are college admissions offices thinking about that varied experience, and what are some of the changes that are happening just in light of the pandemic?

Ffiona Rees: It's always been an important piece and in context is one of the free bingo words that I will often refer to in admissions we’ll say it depends in context. And context has always been important, but it's become even more important in light of the last few years. To some extent you would think it's a global pandemic, everybody has been impacted, but we also know that that is not the case.

Everybody's been impacted a little bit differently. And it could be through simply what state you're in, and how quickly you were able to get back to school. What was virtual? How long were you virtual versus being in-person? Activities have been quite dramatically changed in some cases and in others, not very much at all.

And then you get into the increased inequalities that have really been highlighted through COVID of students who have questionable Wi-Fi and internet access, and maybe there's one computer that's being used by all the different family members. You have students who are having to take care of younger family members or older family members, so focusing on school has been incredibly difficult because their parents are essential workers and they're in grocery stores. Not to mention the funding for schools and how easily teachers could do a pivot to teaching online and even what the online class time is going to be. So there there's a huge disparity and there's a huge spectrum of where students are.

So one piece of advice I always give to students and families is make sure you're talking about where you were and how you were impacted, or not, in the admission process. And this is a good time, I think for self-reflection, to be aware of if you're somebody who's been doing well and that there's some privileges that go with that and acknowledge that, but also acknowledging that it hasn't been like that for everybody.

There's been some positive changes to, and when everybody went into lockdown in March 2020, colleges had been doing some type of virtual programming, visit programs. But those really had to ramp up and they ramped up very quickly.

So if you are a parent and you had a child who was applying through the process three or four years ago, it's going to look very different than it actually is right now. There's a lot more opportunities for students and families to quote unquote, visit colleges without actually having to leave their home to get a sense of what professors are like, what students are like. There is just a tremendous variety of online programming to really see if this is the kind of college and university that you might be interested in. And then finally, I would say you need to mention standardized testing SAT, ACTs.

Helen Westmoreland: Some schools paused using the SATs at all, didn't they?

Ffiona Rees: Yeah.

Helen Westmoreland: What do you think about that?

Ffiona Rees: Correct. A fair number of, in fact, the vast majority of colleges and universities, if they hadn't already, for the entering class for Fall 2020, they were optional. Because again, depending on where you were in the process and where you were in the country, many places were not able to safely offer standardized testing. So since then, more universities have come out and extended that certainly for this admission process. It is changing on a daily basis at the moment, different colleges coming out and saying, we're going to be test optional or test free for the next several years, and some have even actually said that it's a permanent adjustment.

And I think part of that too is there's a realization, that you could say, Let's see if the students are successful once they enroll, but the fact remains they're enrolling in a global pandemic. They're enrolling, having missed school. They're enrolling having missed social opportunities of growth for the last couple of years. There's a lot more mental health challenges.

Helen Westmoreland: Having a different set of needs, totally.

Ffiona Rees: So you can't really say if they're going to be successful or not simply because you have testing or you don't, because that that's really excluding the vast majority of what's happening in the world.

LaWanda Toney: So based on what you've seen so far, especially with the changes during the pandemic. Are people forecasting, what admission processes may look like in the future? Like, my son's nine. How will it change by the time he's going to college?

Helen Westmoreland: You trying to get a leg up with Caleb?

Ffiona Rees: Well, the good news is he's got a few years. So I'm certainly happy to look into my crystal ball, although I will admit that my crystal ball is often incredibly faulty. So a few things, I've already talked about the testing. I'd be very surprised if we go back to the way it was a few years ago. I think there's a lot of conversation, especially when the current job market being pretty good about the cost and the value of education. How much do you want to pay?

What's the value of that? I think as a society, we're beginning to grapple with that as well of really beginning to, to come back around to the idea that education is a public good. And what also goes with that though, is funding and then how you're funding both K through 12, as well as colleges and universities and how, how does that play out?

So I would hope that that continues to be a conversation. You can't put the genie back in the bottle when it comes to virtual learning. And again, I think there's been some huge strides that have gone with that. So I would hope that the traditional college model will continue to grow and evolve to perhaps include different ways of, of using virtual learning that is very successful.

And to your nine-year-old, and I think even about students in high school, We're almost at the point where this is, this is all that they know, this is what they really remember. This is how they've been learning. But I also think we've seen the tremendous advantages and the needs that the children and college students have for social engagement. The mental challenges that they've gone through. So we're going to continue to need to do more I think students are feeling far more comfortable talking about the mental challenges that they're having. They're realizing that they're not alone in this and in fact, they're there with the majority.

And then I think my final thing would be hoping, this is more hope, but that we will continue to truly address the inequalities that are existing in the process. And I think the last couple of years have really shone a light. And we're still continuing to use that searchlight into the way that the process actually is inequitable. And what should we be doing to make it more equitable?

Helen Westmoreland: Yeah, that's such a good point. That's one of those rooms I'd love to be a fly on the wall. Cause, I do feel like more than I was ever really aware of, like you said, over the past few years, the fairness of, whether it's the varsity blues scandal, or just thinking about like who can afford and go to college and who can't and what's the outcome of selections, right? Not just the process has been in the media more now. What do the conversations look like with you and your colleagues around that Ffiona? What are some of the things, things you're wrestling with, when you think of sort of that ethics and fairness and equity question in college admissions?

Ffiona Rees: Yeah. I think there's a lot of banter back and forth and a little bit of chasing your tail because the problems are so big and so ingrained. You can point to certain aspects and say, okay, well that's something that we know is more inequitable, but then you get back to, well, here are the advantages as far as funding and costs and institutional benefit and going to my point of public funding and education as a public good. It's a give and take. So at the moment, we're in a bit of a zero sum game where something needs to shift. And I don't quite know what and how that something is going to be, but my optimistic side is at least we're talking about it and at least we're beginning to identify really what we should be talking about.

And then we can figure out how we fix it. And it's tough, because you and your families know, we talk about, let's just use the simple thing of, of grading. Well, every high school is different. Do you go to a school that is going to offer 30 APs and you can start taking them in your freshman year of high school?

Do you go to a school that says we philosophically don't want to teach to a test? So we're not going to offer any APs. So you can't just automatically look at rigor. You can't just look at how many A's a student has because There's one school that, that I think of where if I said to you, okay, the student has a 93 average, you would probably do what I do think 93, that's an A-minus. That's a pretty good, that's a pretty good grade. Well, their grading scale goes out of 120. And if you have a 93, you're actually in the bottom 10% of the class. So we can give, you can give A's B's and C's, but you could just as easily say, well, they have three rhinos and two giraffes and five elephants.

Because again, that's where the context really does begin to matter and, and we have to pay attention and then you get into the application process. And there was a lot of conversation over the last few years about the inequities of standardized testing. So I'm not going to replay all of that, but now you're starting to look at other factors. Well, I've just talked about the complexities of grades and rigor in high school. Then you get into, are there essays that are required? Well, dependent on the resources that you and your family have, you might have more assistance and guidance when you're writing those essays, than other students. So there's a lot of inequities that are built into the process. And how do you try and balance an uneven playing field before you even begin is the tough conversations.

Helen Westmoreland: Yeah, absolutely.

LaWanda Toney: Ffiona out of everything that we've talked about, what's one thing you hope families can walk away understanding from today's episode?

Ffiona Rees: I've got about three things.

LaWanda Toney: No worries. Then what are the three things?

Ffiona Rees: I guess I'll go in a few different directions. One is I'll start with some fairly practical tips. I've already talked about needing to have those conversations about expectations with your children. But I would also say you need to set some expectations about the college process. It could become an all-consuming conversation and is going to be not a fun one, if that's the route you go down, for anybody. So I would say set up some time. It could be that we're going to talk about it once a week. And that's the only time that we're going to talk about it. Set boundaries, especially with family members, especially around holidays.

I always feel for students who are in their senior year, when they get together with family members for Thanksgiving, it's the traditional like, oh, how's the college process going. And that's just adding more stress to, to an already stressed individual. I would also say as far as practical skills, part of the application process is that you are teaching your child life skills.

They have deadlines that they need to follow. They need to make sure that they are keeping on top of their deadlines. So make sure that you're not doing it yourself. And then making sure you're setting them up for success when they go off to college. And that they're prepared to be making good life choices when they are, off on their own. They know how to do their laundry. They know how to change their sheets, all of those very practical things.

And then my next set of advice is more philosophical and remembering that whenever surveys are done, that ask students sort of what their main influence was in the college process. They always come out and say their parents. That is by far the number one influence that they will point to. So with that, remember that you're setting the tone and just like when they were children and they would inevitably stumble and fall, they would look to you and they would look to you to see how you were going to behave. And if you swooped in and said, oh, you poor baby, you must have hurt yourself. They'd immediately burst into tears. Whereas if you looked at them and said, you're fine, nothing's broken, they'd pick themselves up and they'd waddle off. And part of the college process is just like when they're looking at jobs, there's going to be some denials along the way.

But making sure that they know no matter what, that you're proud of them. And if I asked parents to, to write down what were the top three or five things you would ever want from your child in their life? It would be things like love, someone for them to love somebody who loves them happiness, health. It's not going to be the name of the college that they end up enrolling in.

So keep those things in mind, and it's really easy to get sort of caught up in the emotion of this college said no to me, they're rejecting me. And I would actually say, try and steer away from that and do the that's their loss, that there are plenty of good places who want to celebrate you and want you as part of their community. So focus on that piece of it.

LaWanda Toney: Those are great, great tips. I'm going to have to record it and put it on my calendar for like 2030 or something. So I'll remember not to stress my poor child out.

Helen Westmoreland: Send a reminder. Yeah.

LaWanda Toney: Yeah, absolutely. Those are really, really great.

Ffiona Rees: Well, I would say they're there, hopefully things that you're doing anyway, when they're trying out for the sports team or the play or the choir or whatever it is. Some of it it's going to be successful in some of it isn't. Same thing with, with academic subjects, some are gonna come more naturally than others. And it's those life lessons that are really the important pieces.

LaWanda Toney: I totally agree.

Helen Westmoreland: So Ffiona, if our listeners want to learn more either about college admissions or about the work you do, or about the National Association for College Admissions Counseling.

Helen Westmoreland: Where should they go to check it out?

Ffiona Rees: So the, the National Association of College Admissions Counseling is an organization of about 25,000 members. Who are individuals like me, who work on the college side, individuals who work on the high school side, individuals who work within community-based organizations, independent councils. So there's a fair number of resources, specifically geared towards the professionals. But there are also information for, for some families and students that you can get there. There's plenty of opportunities, as I said, either virtually to connect with colleges and universities. There's a number of national fairs, that the association will run in, in key geographic areas. What, just gives you exposure to lots of different colleges?

Ffiona Rees: So the website for NACAC or the National Association for College Admissions Counseling is, and then if you go straight to that website, you can see all of the various social media, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and those are just very easy ways to, to be able to follow and see what the latest news is.

LaWanda Toney: Awesome. Thank you so much, Ffiona, for sharing that with us, we'll make sure that we have them in our show notes and on our website as well. To our listeners, thanks for joining us for this final episode of season 5. As always, you can visit for more resources related to any of our episodes. If you enjoyed this season, we encourage you to visit our apple podcast page and leave a rating or review.

Helen Westmoreland: And we are also looking for your input on future episodes! What topics do you want us to cover? What guests would you love to hear from? Please take a couple of minutes to complete a brief survey to share your thoughts. You can find that link in the show notes and on our podcast page.

LaWanda Toney: Yes, we’d love to hear from you!

Helen Westmoreland: Thanks for listening. Join us again next season!