Parent Interview: Brown University

Mark Smithivas
Oct 13, 2021

Wednesday, October 13

Hello everyone,

I hope your Seniors have begun the application process for college, or wherever their journey will take them. October 1st was the beginning of FAFSA filing season, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The online form qualifies students for potential need-based financial aid and is used by colleges to determine tuition and other awards, so please complete the form if you haven't already. For those who do not qualify, such as Dreamers or other undocumented students, there are alternative forms to complete. Please talk to a school counselor for more details.

Below is a transcript of the first of what I hope to be ongoing interviews with parents about colleges. First up: Lane parent Betsy Koch talks about her son's journey to Brown University. Going forward, these will be stored in our online community library. You can join that for free by clicking the button below.

You can read the full interview in Google Docs or pasted below.

In a future update, we'll delve into the Common App essay questions for 2021.



Betsy Koch interview: Brown University

Mark: Hello everybody. My name is Mark Smithivas, and I am the parent college network volunteer at Lane Tech. I am here on this Saturday afternoon with Betsy Koch. Betsy is a mom whose son, Robert, recently graduated from Lane Tech. And this is something new that I'm trying. I'm hoping that by connecting with parents, we can share some information and knowledge and help us all get through what can be a very stressful time for all of us senior parents. So we are talking on Saturday, October 2. Yesterday, October 1, the FAFSA recently relaunched for the fall. My wife and daughter worked on it this morning. Unfortunately, they didn't finish it because there was some computer glitch, and they got kicked out. So I know a lot of parents this weekend are logging in, and the website is I think under a lot of stress right now. We are all under a lot of stress right now! We're very anxious about what's ahead for our kids. So I thought I would spend a few minutes with you Betsy because you've gone through the process with your son, Robert, and he is now a sophomore at Brown University.

Betsy: Yes, he is.

Mark: Great. How has he been doing with the start of the fall school year?

Betsy: He's doing fine. He’s a sophomore now so he thinks he really knows the ropes. He's absolutely doing fine - he loves the academic breadth available to him at Brown. That was a lot of the reason that he was interested in going there. Brown has what they call an open curriculum, so he's able to take a wide variety of courses - he happens to be a computer science major well prepared by Lane. I think many parents will find that Lane has an amazing Computer Science program, so he's been really comfortable in computer science there. At the same time, he also really loves history, social studies, and political science, so he's taking computer science and math but also history, archaeology, and Asian Studies, so he's just getting a wonderful blend. So he's great and socially doing fine - very happy with his roommates and his friends.

Mark: Congratulations. Brown is definitely a top tier University. So I'm glad to hear that he's doing well. You mentioned earlier when we spoke about being an empty nester - how does it feel just personally as a parent to have your child be across the country?

Betsy: I think it's a lot harder on me than it is on him. I think he's absolutely fine. He's the kind of kid who wanted to explore another part of the country. I think one of the fundamental questions as we go through this discussion is, how do you decide where to apply, and for him one of the fundamental questions was, do you want to be close to home or do you want to be someplace far away? He wanted to be far away. I come from the northeast and have family there, so he was very comfortable there. It was comfortable for me because I have family around him in case things happen. I think it's harder on me than it is on him. He's doing absolutely fine. He’s a pretty independent kid.

Mark: I can relate because my daughter, she's an art school major, and we're looking nationwide and some of the schools on her list are California, New York City, and Rhode Island. Personally as a parent, I'd love for her to stick closer to the Midwest.

About the FAFSA, any thoughts? I know you said you're not an expert but when you went through it was it pretty straightforward for you?

Betsy: Well, I'm not sure the FAFSA is straightforward for anybody! I found it fairly complicated. I would definitely refer people to some of the resources that Lane did a great job of bringing in…I think we just tried to make our way through it and follow the directions,  There is that automated link where you can pull in your your tax information automatically, and we did that to make it as simple as possible. I think it's just something that you have to get through and it took us several tries - we couldn't do it in one sitting.  It wasn't a computer glitch, it was more our own glitch, and the whole FSA ID issue took me a little while to figure out. 

Mark: I was already hearing on day one some parents who started first thing at 6am and they were done in 20 minutes. Other parents got kicked out, or said the website froze on them. 

I want to switch now to talking about your plan or strategy. You mentioned that Brown was his number one choice and you decided to go early decision? 

Betsy: Yes, we did - he did. I shouldn't say we did. I really left the decision up to him. I think one of the most important pieces of advice that I got during this process was (and it came from another parent at Lane) don't have a "dream school". That was probably the most important advice we got because you think that if a child is applying early decision that the school must necessarily be his or her dream school.

However, I think it's important to feel as though you have a number of schools that your child could be happy at. That's really the approach that we tried to take. My son ultimately decided to apply early decision, but he viewed it as sort of "going for it" - that was the way he put it - I think this is where I want to go, and I think I'm just going to go for it.

We were fully prepared for him not to get in. He applied to other schools because he assumed he was probably not going to get in. I said okay, if you don't get in, you're going to have other choices. I can't stress enough that it's important not to have a dream school, but rather to have a set of schools where the child thinks he or she can be happy.

Mark: With early decision, what was the deadline for application? Did you recall?

Betsy: I'm quite sure it was November 1.

Mark: And then how soon after that, did he get an answer?

Betsy: Oh, I think it was December 12. That was the day we remember.

Mark: Were you notified by letter in the mail or an email?

Betsy: It was an email.

Mark: And why Brown over other colleges?

Betsy: I think a lot of it was about, as I mentioned earlier, Brown's open curriculum, so he's able to have a real liberal arts experience.  He is taking courses across the breadth of computer science, math, history, social studies, poli-sci, all these things that he might not otherwise be able to do as a computer science major.  He wanted a true liberal arts experience. 

We also paid close attention to - I’m not sure exactly what it's called - the happiness index. We looked for that kind of information, because I really think that how happy the kids are at a school is an important indicator.  Brown did very well among the Ivy’s. Brown is known to be a school where kids are really content. He also looked for school cultures that encouraged moderation around competitiveness. He wanted a more collaborative environment where kids were not cutthroat. I have a family member whose son went to a school like that, and he was very unhappy.

Mark: And because you went early decision, I imagine it was very stressful, because there were some deadlines. I mentioned FAFSA opens in October, so you basically have a month to get all your materials in, including the essay. What was that month like for you?

Betsy: It was very intense. We really tried to encourage him to start early. Robert had some rough ideas for essay topics in early September.   He was working with a college counselor outside of Lane, and that person was very helpful to us. He established a schedule. It was very, very helpful to have that counselor involved. 

The last week was probably the most intense.   One of your questions is, what would you do differently, and I think the main thing is we should have started earlier, and we should have had earlier drafts of essays. We were down to the last few days. He had some applications that he finished a few days ahead of time, but he was working on the Brown application right until the end. 

I would highly recommend starting as early as you can, and writing early drafts, and then doing repeated editing with a couple of trusted people.

Mark: Any last words of advice?

Betsy: I would say brainstorm a lot of topics, because you're going to need supplemental essays. I think it's good to show the breadth of your interests. If you're a computer science kid, don't write all your essays about computer science. You want to show the broad interest that you have - take the opportunity to do that in the supplemental essays. You want to tell a story. Make it as realistically compelling to the reader as you can, while still sounding like yourself. It really has to be in your own voice. I think that's incredibly important. And make sure you're answering the question. On the personal essay, it's such an open ended question that it doesn't really matter, but on the supplemental essays, make sure you're answering the question, while also highlighting parts of yourself that you want to come through.  

Mark: Does Brown use the Common App? I assume Brown had supplemental essays specific to them?

Betsy: Yes, they did. As long as you have some core essays, you can pull pieces from other essays, from other schools.  

Mark: Finally, how much did mom review and edit his essays?

Betsy:  I did edit, but I felt very strongly that it needed to be his work and his writing.  If I read something in the essays and it just didn't ring true for me as sounding like him, I said, it's not going to come through well. So I absolutely did not write the essays in any way, shape, or form; I was very adamant about that. I was there to help him and support him and do what I would call "fine tuning". But it needed to be his work. It needed to be him coming through. I feel very strongly that there are many situations where we as parents become too involved. I think it's important to be a supportive presence for the child without imposing yourself.

Mark: I know because I'm a writer, and it's hard sometimes to distance yourself like that. And you have to realize they are 17 year olds, right? They don't have the benefit of decades of a life lived to answer questions like, “Who am I? What do I want to be?” Betsy, thank you so much for making the time to speak with me and share your story.

Betsy: Yep, happy to do it.