h2. Secrets of college admissions gurus

OF COURSE YOU know how fantastic your child is, but colleges will only see and judge her by what she presents on paper. So we interviewed the admission gurus at a state school; a small, private liberal arts college; and one of the most storied Ivies back East to give us the scoop on what they’re really looking for. Grades, it turns out, will only get your kid so far. —Maura Flaherty

h3. THE IN-STATE SCHOOL

UNIVERSITY OF OREGON
$6,174/YEAR

If your kid wants to be among this Eugene-based university’s 4,748 freshman (65 percent of whom come from within the state), interim director of admissions Brian Henley says she’ll need to have at least a 3.25 GPA and 16 college-prep classes under her belt for automatic admission (see p. 94 to learn about AP and IB courses). If her grades don’t hit the benchmark, don’t despair: The admissions staff will also consider standardized test scores (SAT scores above 1103 beat the average here) and extracurricular activities. A must-do before sending in the application? Proofread it. Henley says he has to laugh when essays tout, “I would love to be a student at the University of Colorado-Boulder!” from applicants who have cut and pasted a generic mission statement into the application body.

h3. THE LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGE

UNIVERSITY OF PUGET SOUND
$31,700/YEAR

About 675 freshmen with an average GPA of 3.6 enter this small, private college in Tacoma, Wash., each fall to pursue a liberal arts curriculum that “encourages critical thinking, discussion and writing.” Assistant director of admissions Carolyn Johnson says that grades are looked at contextually here. If your child doesn’t have A’s, he should emphasize that he chose to take challenging classes. As for the essay, Johnson warns against making the admissions staff groan with another clichéd version of “My Mission Trip to Mexico.” Instead, help your child brainstorm an essay topic that he can make original. And encourage him to be communicative during his required interview—admissions officers want to know if the reason his GPA dropped one semester was due to a bout with mono.

h3. THE IVY LEAGUE COLLEGE

HARVARD UNIVERSITY
$31,456/YEAR

A paltry 9 percent of the roughly 23,000 annual applicants are invited to enroll at this elite institution. Though director of admissions Marlyn McGrath says there is no GPA minimum and no magic way to get accepted, it’s true that perfect SAT scores are not uncommon here and that children of alums get a second glance. However, if your family bloodline isn’t quite that crimson, make sure your child has taken a rigorous four years of the same foreign language (as opposed to the standard two). And while you’ve heard the term “well-rounded,” Harvard notes that they love “well-lopsided” students. So if your child’s obsession with the violin has taken him to the concert halls of Europe for international music competitions, it might also take him to Cambridge, Mass.

h2. SPECIAL ED: What to know

IF AT SOME point in your parental career one of your children is tested for a disability that could affect her learning (you would have consented to the testing ahead of time), you’ll be asked to attend what is called an Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting—regardless of the outcome of the test. You may find out during this conference that your child does not require special education, but if she does, the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires schools to create an IEP that dictates accommodations the child will need (such as longer time to take tests) in order to level the playing field. “Many parents find the process confusing and intimidating,” says Janice Richards, the executive director of the Oregon Parent Training and Information Center, a Salem-based nonprofit that offers free assistance to parents of children with disabilities across the state. If you’re scheduled to attend an IEP meeting, Richards offers the following advice. —Brian Barker

DON’T GO ALONE. Finding out your child has a disability can be heartbreaking, says Richards, so it’s easy to understand why parents can be distracted during an IEP meeting. Meetings can also pack in more than a dozen participants, including your child’s teacher, school psychologists, special education teachers and behavior therapists. Fortunately, the Oregon Parent Training and Information Center will provide, at no charge, a trained advocate to counsel you beforehand and attend the meeting with you, and even take notes so that you can focus on the discussion (888-891-6784; www.orpti.org).

EDUCATE YOURSELF. You are your child’s No. 1 advocate, and to be effective, you must connect with resources. Talk to other parents, and openly communicate with your child’s teacher. And without fail, you need to understand the federal laws that protect your child. According to Richards, if you read just one thing about the laws, this 36-page special-education bible had better be it: the Oregon Department of Education Procedural Safeguards Notice (handed out at IEP meetings and available online at www.ode.state.or.us).