College Confidential, founded in 2001, used to be a sober place for students to get expert advice about college. Over time it has grown into something much wilder: a vast forum of worriers, show-offs, trolls, and anyone else with something to say about higher education.
In this chaos, there’s one group that tries to keep everyone in line, all while enjoying the spectacle.
They are the parents — mostly mums — of College Confidential, many of whom have kept reading and commenting long after their kids left home. , and they embody the best and worst the site has to offer.
Bea Wade has been a College Confidential mum for the past seven years, and she continues to check the site nearly every day.
A former high school speech pathologist, she discovered the site in 2008 when her daughter was applying for college. She felt compelled to try to help students because “the [high school] guidance counselors were really swamped.”
Going by the username auntbea, Wade doesn’t mince words.
“Lose the ‘I’m better than the rest of the students.’ You’re not,” she told one student who asked about his chances for getting into UC Berkeley. “For every student who thinks he is the best, there is always someone better. Your arrogance stands out like a sore thumb, work on it because it will be picked up immediately in your college essays.”
“Your tests are killing your chances. Any way to get those up?” she told another Berkeley hopeful.
Wade says it’s what some students need.
“It’s kind of tough being realistic to these 17-year-olds but you kind of have to be,” she told Tech Insider.
Wade also provides valuable information to dozens of students every year, serving as a virtual guidance counselor with years of acquired knowledge but no professional training. Earlier this year, she helped a student chose between UC Davis and the University of Wisconsin. Her daughter attends Davis, so she was able to provide detailed information about Northern California weather and the procedure for changing majors. The student chose Wisconsin, and she thanked Wade for her advice.
“Thank you so much for your answers!!! They are quite helpful to me because I used to think Davis is always warm and you introduced me the real Davis weather. Thank you!” the student replied.
Always signed on
Anne Hinkle — username BrownParent — tells us she “always has a [College Confidential] tab open,” even though her daughter graduated from high school in 2005 and then from Brown in 2009.
Hinkle still logs into the site “pretty much every day,” she admits, saying she helps students decide how to frame their essays and even edits some of those essays through private messages on College Confidential.
Hinkle is proud that she and other mothers have helped students sort through admissions jargon and financial aid complications. When an applicant’s parents filed for divorce in the midst of his application process, he turned to College Confidential for help. Hinkle helped him sort through the tricky details of determining a custodial parent and updating financial aid forms.
Hinkle confided she has “certainly been guilty of the snark and piling on that sometimes happens.”
“Please do not pile on another letter. You already overdid it,” she told one cocky Harvard applicant, who was talking about adding letters from his mum and a teacher to his application. ” This is good advice! But she needles the student: “Have you not heard ‘the thicker the file the thicker the student?'”
“Stop this craziness. Calm down and stop making everything complicated,” she told a student accepted to University of Rochester who was worried about paying $US3,000 out of pocket. Hinkle suggested that student get a work study job, and she offered a few links to where he can find one.
An incredible constellation of bright individuals
One of the most devoted mums on the site is Jym626, who has authored more than 40,000 posts since creating her account in 2004. She declined to share her real name with Tech Insider.
Jym626 told us College Confidential is “an incredible constellation of bright individuals.” And it’s clear that she has treated the site like a social network from the early days.
Back in 2005, she got in a discussion in the “parent cafe” over words with ambiguous meanings. After several commenters complimented her observations, she nominated herself for a writing award in a new category: “How about clever witticisms??? mindbenders? mental calisthenics? anything to keep from doing the laundry?”
“Not facing that tomorrow is my s’s last day of classes — his freshman year is already over!!!” she added. “I just can’t accept that. Rather think about other things.”
Jym626 also does her part to police the online community. In 2010, when a student at Rice University impersonated a Rice admissions official and told another user that a certain post jeopardized her chances of admissions, Jym626 sprung into action.
“With a little further checking, it appears that you are perhaps an incoming Rice freshman,” she wrote. “I might just continue to read through your past posts, figure out info about your identity and report you to the Rice Admissions office. How would you like that?”
Mums gone wild
Not everyone likes what has happened to College Confidential, which was bought by education services company Hobsons in 2008.
“When I look at it today, I think, My God, what a monster,” cofounder David Hawsey told the Chronicle of Higher Education last year. “There’s all this ‘mine is bigger than yours’ stuff. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of very good comments on the message boards, but they got way, way out of control.”
“It’s college bitchfest,” Hawsey told Tech Insider recently.
Yet many people like the site for what it is. There are, of course, the College Confidential mums and dads, but there are also readers around the world. The site has around 2 million monthly unique users, up more than 200% over a year.
At least some of those students are thankful for that parental guidance.
Richard Ruiz started visiting College Confidential when he was a sophomore in high school. When he was deciding which school he wanted attend, the site’s army of parents rushed to his aid.
“I was definitely impressed by their depth of knowledge regarding admissions, college life, and especially life after college,” Ruiz, now a freshman at Duke University, told Tech Insider by email. “A lot of what the parents (mums) say contain years of wisdom beyond college.”
Perhaps the most important mother on the site is Sally Rubenstone, who was hired by College Confidential about eight months after the site was founded. With 16 years of experience as an admissions officer for Smith College behind her, she was one of the advisers behind the paid services that Hobsons ended up slashing.
While Hawsey left after the acquisition, Rubenstone stuck around. She remains a paid employee, writing a column called “Ask the Dean” and handling media relations and “miscellaneous other projects,” she said.
Rubenstone believes that College Confidential does more good than it does harm. While the information shared there isn’t always completely accurate, she says students who visit College Confidential need to “bring a little bit of their own common sense and intuition to the process.”
“You have to take what you find on the Internet with a block,” she pauses, “with a grain of salt.”
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