The working parents' guide to getting their children into Ivy League schools

While children from privileged backgrounds have an advantage to getting into the most elite colleges, there are steps parents from modest means can take to put their children on the path to Ivy League.

Last week, I had a chance to chat with my law partner who lives in the Los Angeles, California area about college prep. Her daughter is 16 and has had the privilege of attending some of the most selective and elite elementary and secondary schools in the nation, first while they lived on the east coast and later the west coast. While we both acknowledged that children from privileged backgrounds have substantial advantages over those who attend poor performing schools with substandard resources, overextended teachers and other deficiencies, we agreed that a family with less means could surmount obstacles and take certain steps to assure a path to the Ivy Leagues for their children as well.  Although the quality of a school, its program, and teachers; and the affluence of a family do a lot to set up a child for success, there are very simple things that parents who do not have much means can do to overcome limitations.

For the most part, success starts and ends with the parents.  Below is a list of simple tips that parents of any socioeconomic status can take. It’s a mistake to think that good genes and a wealthy background are the binding factors among Ivy League students and graduates. There are a host of alums who got admitted, survived and excelled the Ivies via dedication from their parents who did everything in their power to help their kids succeed.

A lot of parents understand the concept of being active in their kids’ academic and learning lives but many do not know how.  Here are a few tips to start and parents who feel they have been slacking can  take the occasion of this New Year to start again anew and recommit to their children.  Even if a child is past any one stage of these tips, like the saying goes, it’s never too late for a new beginning.

Before birth

The moment a mother-to-be discovers that she is pregnant; she can make a concerted effort to read out loud to her baby beginning in the second trimester when her baby’s ear buds have formed and is able to hear sounds from the world outside her mother’s womb. It doesn’t’ have to be Shakespeare but can be her favorite magazine or romance novel.  Several studies support the concept that babies learn to recognize and respond to sounds they hear repeated and can do so before being born even. Similar research supports the playing of music, particularly classical music, to babies in the womb to bolster their intelligence or development. 

California obstetrician Rene Van de Carr says he has observed a 33-week-old fetus pattern his breathing to the beat of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.  Van de Carr, who wrote While You’re Expecting…Your Own Prenatal Classroom and teaches parents how to stimulate their unborn babies through music and other exercises at his Prenatal University in Hayward, California, says because the fetus followed the rhythm of the symphony, it’s obvious he learned something about the rhythm and enjoyed it.  I can testify to this effect. I played Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies from The Nutcracker Ballet Suite for the last two trimesters of my pregnancy while driving to and from work and performing errands.  After he was born, whenever he was fussy, all we had to do was play that tune to get him to settle down. His ears would perk up. He’d turn his head and listen attentively. Obviously, he remembered the song while in utero.

In Childhood. Read to your child for at least 20 minutes a day, from birth to early childhood and beyond. By now this piece of advice is common wisdom, and is advanced by many research institutions and educational societies, such as the Reading Foundation. You can break it up into bite sized bits for younger children with shorter attention spans and eventually increase it to a full non-interrupted 20 minutes. If we think about the time we spend watching TV, on Facbeook, Twitter and other forms of social media, there really isn’t excuse about NOT having time to do this.  At bedtime is the easiest and best way to squeeze in this requirement. If it’s the only piece of homework you do as an adult, this should be it.

Take your children everywhere. Exposing children to new situations and scenarios via outings can help them appreciate a world larger than the boundaries of their neighborhood.  You don’t have to take them to an exotic European vacation either. A 2009 U.S. Department of Education study found that kids who travel over vacation — no matter where they go — did better in reading, math and general knowledge than their peers who didn’t vacation.  If you can’t afford a far-away vacation, a family car trip to relatives in another state can be beneficial.  Beyond vacationing, even a simple car drive through a scenic part of town, a  romp through an annual outdoor festival,  a trip to the local’s farmer’s market to pick out colorful fruits or to the Fisherman’s wharf to look at seafood can be good enough. It’s about getting the kids to see a variety of peoples and locations. Leaving a kid at home, while it may be easier on your nerves, only encourages them to sit around watching television, playing video games and partaking in other mindless activities that may not stimulate their active brains enough. My sister worked with impoverished Baltimore city schoolchildren while she was in college at the University of Maryland at Baltimore. She would share stories of children she taught who thought Washington, DC was worlds away when in fact it was just a short 45 minutes drive from their homes.  Stories like this tells you how limited a child’s prospects could be if he has that narrow vision of the world. It doesn’t have to be, of course.

Take your child to the library

Even if you don’t have the budget to purchase books, public libraries are the best resource for getting your children exposed to many different authors and stories. You can start as early as infancy. I took my young son to my public library system’s storytelling hour. It’s great for early socialization and getting them to listen to words as told in a story versus as part of social speech. It’s also wonderful for getting your children used to the variances in words through the voice of another unfamiliar person. Also, the greatness about being in a library is your child learns to value books and appreciates being in a setting among other children and adults reading for enjoyment. It took us a while to get our kid who was hooked on video games to find a book series he could enjoy. We finally found it in Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and have graduated to other series since then.

Reserve Time After Work for the Children. Carve out the few hours after work just for the kids. Doing this may be forgoing watching your favorite show live, and catching it later on DVR after the kids are in bed. For those who work for themselves, like me, it is tempting to allow conference calls to be scheduled in the evenings times, but it is best if you set up the no-calls rule and abide by it. Use those few hours after work to help your kids with their homework; take them to an after-school activity you enroll them in to keep them away from television and video games or get them to help you with dinner or setting the table.

Replace TV or video games during the school week with puzzles, board games and leisure reading hours.  The First Family has a no television and no video games rule during the school week and so does my family. A 2009 University of Michigan survey revealed that in 53% of households of 7th- to 12th-graders, there are no rules about TV watching.   Some sort of television or gaming limitation may seem strict and your children may hate it at first, but they’d get used to it.  I fear a lot of parents these days want to be their children to also be their friends and may not want to deprive them from any luxury even if doing so is in their best interest.  Similarly, a lot of parents may find it difficult doing this because they themselves like using television to distract the kids while they prepare dinner or unwind themselves.

A 2009 University of Michigan survey revealed that TV viewing among kids is at an eight-year high. On average, children ages 2-5 spend 32 hours a week in front of a TV—watching television, DVDs, DVR and videos, and using a game console. Kids ages 6-11 spend about 28 hours a week in front of the TV. The vast majority of this viewing (97%) is of live TV. It also revealed that 71% of 8- to 18-year-olds have a TV in their bedroom ; 54% have a DVD/VCR player, 37% have cable/satellite TV, and 20% have premium channels.

However, there are sufficient studies that say excessive TV viewing can contribute to poor grades sleep problemsbehavior problems, obesity, and risky behavior. Likewise, Japanese researchers found that playing computer games stunted the development of the frontal lobe of the brain in teenagers, which is a crucial part of developing impulse control.  When weighing the possibilities with a simple rule restricting these activities, hopefully more parents would opt for imposing some sort of limits.

Be active in the children’s school Being active means attending parent-teacher conferences and Parent Teacher Association or school meetings. If possible, volunteer to chaperone field trips or the winter ball. It’s a great way to get to know the other children your kids fraternize with during the school day and on the recess playground. Volunteering also gives you a personal relationship with your child’s teacher and perhaps could encourage the teacher to have an even more active interest in your child. You being active can also push your child to want to do better knowing that you are mindful of and invested in his education.

Enroll your child in activities  There are several low-cost classes and activities provided by the county or city government or by organizations like the YMCA and the local boys and girls clubs. Also, several more expensive programs offer limited scholarships to children from low to moderate income households.  Getting them exposed in activities can help a child’s drive, and motivation.  Exposure to other kids with goals and aspirations similar to theirs, or in a competitive sport may stoke competition in academics among your children as well. Being among poor performers may persuade a child into complacency and low achievement. Therefore, getting your children around those with higher expectations may elevate your kids’ potential as well.

Get your child a globe. At least once a month, spin the globe and randomly pick a location. Go to the Internet and read up the Wikipedia or other entries about that place. Do a Google images search for photos of that location. It can do wonders for expanding a child’s world beyond his own country. Because so much of the media consumed by children places America at the center, it’s easy for children to lose perspective and understanding that the United States is not the center of the universe.  Generally speaking, when Americans travel abroad, they have a reputation of expecting other cultures to cater to their language and traditions, and of devaluing others’ customs. Children who grow up learning of other cultures may better appreciate them when they have the occasion to travel abroad as adults.  Being exposed to the world, even through the window of a computer screen can help a child think beyond the confines of their own social or economic upbringing.

In pre-college prep years

Take standardized tests early. In junior high, get copies of standardized tests and at least one weekend a month or every two months have your child take prep test sections of the SAT or ACT exams.  Courses offered by Kaplan and other professional testing companies can get expensive, but sample tests are available at the local public library for free.  It may seem to be an intense thing to do, having  your junior high or middle school student taking practice tests, but there is no better way to prepare for the testing format of the SAT or ACT than through practice exams and as early as possible. You don’t have to put pressure on them getting all the answers right. The purpose of the test exams is to get them comfortable with standardized testing and the type of questions they will see on the actual exam. Reviewing how your child does in these practice tests can give you clues on areas where they are good in and those where they may need extra help. Rather than discovering these fault areas with one year to prep, you’d have an extra two to four years to focus on those areas simply because you start early.

Get Tutors to help with challenging subjects. Even if a parent cannot afford a $90 per hour tutor, there are low cost programs and even some free peer tutoring sessions available in many school systems. Also, if you are aware of a family member who may be available who is an expert in a particular subject, it won’t hurt asking them to spare a couple hours here and there to go through a topic with your child.  It’s better than having the kid flunk the class and mess up his/her GPA.

Get loads of volunteer & community service hours and aim to graduate in the top 10-15% Since most Ivies look at community service, volunteering, music, sports, theater and other activities that indicate a well-rounded student, you may want to make sure beginning in Junior high or earlier, the kids start building up their resume. Finally, it may be best to go to the best public school where your child would be more likely to be in the top 10 to 15% of his class versus to the best private school filled with bright competitive kids. While coming from a school known in placing graduates in Ivies is a plus, an upward to 75% of their graduates DON’T get in either.

Following these tips may appear daunting, but once you institute some of them in regular practice and family routine, they will become a part of your natural activities.

And on the occasion that your child does get admitted into an Ivy League school, my law partner, Fatima Fofana, an entertainment attorney with The Ghatt Law Group warns, “Parents that have kids who are Ivy League-bound should not be discouraged at the high sticker price.

“There are literally tens and thousands of scholarship dollars that never get awarded. Do your homework and be diligent in your search for financial aid, but remember to start early, no later than the beginning of junior year.”


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Jeneba Ghatt
Jeneba Jalloh Ghatt is a former journalist turned lawyer turned citizen journalist. Currently, she manages her boutique communications law firm, where she has represented small businesses and nationally-recognized civil and consumer rights organizations before the United States Supreme Court, federal courts and the FCC. She also covers the White House and US Congress for the online news site while authoring her own influential blog which is frequently accessed by top policy makers and think tanks, and the investment community. focuses on the intersection of politics and technology and reports on policies and rules in the communications and tech sector.
Before opening her law firm, The Ghatt Law Group, which was the first communications firm owned by women and minorities, Jeneba regulated Comcast and Starpower as the Assistant General Counsel for the District of Columbia's Office of Cable Television and Telecommunications, and at one point was the only communications regulatory attorney in the entire city. She is founding member and policy chair for a new trade association, the National Association of Multicultural Digital Entrepreneurs and provides advice and counsel to new businesses in the tech industry, particularly small businesses owned by women and minorities.

Born in Sierra Leone, West Africa, but raised in the United States by her Catholic mom and Muslim dad, she started her college career creating web content for one of the earliest websites in history while working part time for the University of Maryland's Office of Technology. Following her graduation from the Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law, she founded and co-wrote one of the earliest blogs and since then has gone on to found and author six different widely read and influential blogs. She was one of only 22 writers and bloggers to attend the first White House summit for African American media.
She holds a Certificate in Communications Law Studies from Catholic; a Juris Doctor from there as well, and a Master of Law in advocacy degree from the Georgetown University Law Center where she first taught and lectured as a Staff Attorney and Graduate fellow at that law school's Institute for Public Representation. She later went on to teach Media Law at the University of Maryland at College Park and guest lecture at Yale Law School and Penn State University, College of Telecommunications. She is well skilled and versed with social media and manages several Twitter, Facebook, Linked In accounts and groups.
She sits on the board of several non profits and trade associations.

Contact Jeneba Ghatt


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