An Interview With Sandra Berger

Sandra Berger
Author of College Planning for Gifted Students By Lacy Elwood
Why do you feel a particular connection to helping students get into college?

More than a decade ago, when I answered phones for a USA Today hotline on gifted education, most of the parent questions dealt with college planning. These parents reaffirmed everything I had been hearing from my children and their friends: High school students experience college planning as a finite process that begins with SATs or ACTs and ends arbitrarily and abruptly with acceptance or rejection. My children and their friends were intensely frustrated with the college planning process. Local teachers and counselors acted as though these students would make it on their own and didn’t need help or guidelines.

Why do gifted students in particular need to be concerned with the college planning process?

Gifted students have a much more difficult time selecting a college and career than most students. Aptitude tests and career planning tools that are appropriate for most students are not appropriate for gifted students who like everything and are good at everything. As one student put it, “I can be a nuclear physicist or a plumber. How do I choose?” In addition, gifted students experience a lot of pressure to “go to Mom or Dad’s alma mater,” or go to a brand-name school where they may be intensely unhappy. Most people believe the myth that gifted students can manage on their own and need less help than other students. However, the truth is just the opposite—they need more help. For these students, college planning should be seen as a process where they “discover” themselves and match what they have learned to college offerings.

Why should their parents take an active role in the college planning process?

Parents are often confused about how much guidance they can and should provide. They may teeter between withdrawal and taking over the process, not knowing how to strike a balance. Parents have an important role—becoming an informed consumer, and setting clear and realistic goals that reduce the pressure and keep things in perspective. When parents take time to learn about college planning and how it differs from their own experience or that of someone they know, they can truly make a positive difference.

What are the most important things students should keep in mind as they begin the college planning process?

The college planning process is part of a life development process in which there are no right answers. The process is different for every person because the goal is to make a match between a student’s strengths and interests and college offerings. The college that is perfect for some teens may be totally wrong for others, even when their grades and coursework are similar.

What are some of the biggest mistakes you’ve seen students make as they’ve planned for their college education?

Some parents and students believe, falsely, that getting into a brand-name or specific college is the only route to success and happiness. They abandon common sense and make choices based on very little information. Some may blame the education system when the end result is not positive. Some students let the results of the college admission process affect their self-esteem.

What do students (and their parents) need to remember as they prepare to apply for colleges?
  • First, students need to determine what they want from a college—to prepare for graduate school or a professional career? To study with someone famous? To party and then get a job? To stay near home or go as far away as possible? There are no wrong or right answers, but the answers will determine the type of colleges they look at.
  • Second, before sending away for an application, students should consider a college’s location, type, type by sex, size, social life, academic environment, campus environment, religious affiliation, student activities, programs offered, special programs, caliber of students, cost, athletics, financial aid, housing, calendar, and other factors. This type of information is available in college guidebooks from Fiske, the College Board, and others.
  • Third, there is no substitute for visiting a college, absorbing the environment, sitting in on a class, eating in the cafeteria, asking a lot of good questions; in other words, experiencing life as a student on that campus.
What are your tips for choosing a college? What should students be certain to consider when they make their final decision?
  • Before making a decision, students should always visit at least once during the school year when college students are on campus (as opposed to summer).
  • Students should feel as though they “belong.” That feeling may ultimately determine friendships and is known to influence academic success.
  • Students should think about what they like to do when they’re not in class or studying and make sure that the college sponsors activities they enjoy. For example, if they enjoy museums and concerts, a rural campus might not be a good choice. There is more to college than academics and studying.
  • Students should think about the “psychological” and practical matters such as going home for holidays. If a school is so far from the student’s home that a long plane trip is necessary, and if finances are limited, the student might be better off looking closer to home.
Why is it important for students to make sure they are making the right match between themselves and a college?
  • First, college is more expensive every year. A totally wrong match often means transferring and losing credits or going to school for more than 4 years.
  • Second, personal happiness is directly related to academic and career success.
  • Third, most gifted people who have contributed significantly to the world of work, whether it’s the sciences or humanities, began their careers in college. Some Nobel Prize winners had mentors while in college; others talk about playing with ideas while enrolled in classes that were meaningful.
What advice would you give to a student about to start his or her college career?

People who go to college use the knowledge they acquire for the rest of their lives. Use the experience to develop and expand your interests and passions, and to promote a love of learning as a result of developing new interests and passions. In college, learn more about the world, and focus on an area where you are passionately interested. Let yourself fall in love with ideas.

About Sandra Berger

Formerly the “guru” of the Ask ERIC answer desk and the USA Today hotline, Sandra Berger is a frequent speaker on the topic of college planning for gifted students. She also is a yearly presenter at the College of William and Mary’s career day. Sandra’s interests in gifted education expand beyond college and career planning; she also studies the topics of girls’ success in science and math and the use of technology in the classroom.

About College Planning for Gifted Students

College Planning for Gifted Students: Choosing and Getting Into the Right Collegeis a must-have for any gifted or advanced learner planning to attend college. Sandra Berger, a nationally recognized expert on college and career planning for gifted students, provides a hands-on, practical guide to college planning in this revised volume of the best-selling College Planning for Gifted Students book.

Berger focuses specifically on helping gifted students discover who they are, and how that discovery corresponds to finding the perfect postsecondary endeavor. The author also provides useful, practical advice for:

  • writing college application essays,
  • requesting recommendation letters,
  • visiting colleges, and
  • acing the college entrance interview.

To read more about College Planning for Gifted Students, or to order the book, click here.