Book Review: 4 Keys to College Admissions Success

By Pamela Donnelly (Morgan James Publishing, 2014) 4.5/5 Stars

Upon diving into Donnelly’s dense little guide to college admissions success, one quickly realizes that this book is actually a comprehensive guide to parenting and preparing your child early on for success in high school, college, and beyond. Donnelly takes a total approach to college preparation. The “4 Keys of Success”—Cognitive Independence, Emotional Independence, Physical Independence, and Spiritual Independence—are in fact the keys to whole personhood: mind, heart, body, and spirit. Donnelly dedicates a section with a few chapters to each key and covers different facets of personal growth for both the child and parent, ranging from more ephemeral discussions of emotional growth, mental wellness, and teenage rebellion to practical matters of campus safety, grooming, and finances. She then concludes with several addendums that address the devil’s advocate to her entire premise: Is College Necessary Today? In these addendums, Donnelly walks the talk: she takes a critical approach to her work. Donnelly successfully points to the shortcomings of education as it stands and the ways in which we as parents need to supplement a system that often fails its students through a one-size-fits-all approach without undermining the majority of her writing. She relates teaching back to its purest raison d’etre: the work of fostering students as future citizens of the world. In doing so, she reinforces her holistic approach to parenting, which is ultimately what makes this book successful.

The First Key, Cognitive Independence, begins with the hard-hitting “here’s what the college admissions people want to see from an entrance essay” discussion, and from there each chapter essentially delves into the various elements that make up that well-rounded, ideal but still real and individual student. Donnelly concludes each section with a “here’s what we covered” checklist that sums up her points. Each section also features a “Bonus” essay from a guest writer/expert on a topic pertaining to that section. Some of the guest essays are better or more useful than others, of course, but overall, the book is a generally complete road map and easy read with Donnelly’s even and patient counselor tone guiding us from page 1 to 208. Mainly, where it excels is also the book’s drawback: in the abundance of directions, suggestions, and reminders, it can be a little overwhelming and scary to a reader/parent to realize how important it is to start juggling all these factors in life. While these come, as we all know, day by day, it can be easy to feel that we have lost some of the benefits of the book if we did not start on Page 1with our children on Day 1. Donnelly’s warns us at least; in her “How to Not Screw It Up” introduction, she reminds parents that we all go through these struggles and also primes us to be more present as we do.

At worst, what Donnelly advocates is an overtly hands-on, soccer-mini-van-mom approach that assumes a certain amount of privilege and agency in the lives of her readers (and to be fair, her praises in the review section are sung by a demographic of obvious means). This is not an overt problem, as this is the demographic most likely to search out her book and advice anyway, but it could make the book less accessible, in practice, to some parents. At best, Donnelly provides readers with an arsenal of tools for understanding the big picture and how all these little moments and components of the day combine to create the person their child is becoming. The structure by section means that this book can also be read piecemeal in sections and chapters that stand on their own.

A particularly strong piece is the chapter on “Grace”, where Donnelly addresses the spiritual dimension of self. She does not proselytize –and in fact discusses how this can be alienating to a teen—while she also, via referencing John Newton’s Amazing Grace lyrics, reinforces the importance of developing a spiritual practice of some sort early on. In this, she reminds parents that we teach by example and by direction, but that ultimately we can only guide, rather than determine, our children’s spiritual paths. The point is that they should have one. Donnelly reminds us that it is not so much the what or which of religion, but the why that is important: that our kids should learn to meditate or pray or make a study of different religions to choose which appeals to them because ultimately, an emphasis on spirituality will enable them to develop an inner strength and sense of connection to the world around them.

Having a rock to hold onto, especially during a time of such internal turbulence, can make all the difference for a teen facing so many life changes. At worst, religious ritual can be a divisive and empty-feeling practice for teens; at best, a spiritual practice can allow them to cultivate an intrinsic sense of selfhood, purpose, and desire to do things out in the world. Similarly, Donnelly reminds us, parenting is about finding balance between bearing all the weight of the child’s personhood and providing plenty of love, but just enough support to give them a solid foundation upon which to grow and change. The best moments in this book come down to that: these little bits of distilled wisdom that we can use ourselves and impart to our children to help them find their footing. We don’t have to give our kids all the answers: just the keys.