Dear Human Responsible for Guiding a Kid Through the College Application Process:
Okay, are you ready?
I know you may be feeling a bit anxious about the whole ‘getting into college’ thing.
Maybe you’ve heard or read one too many stories about the kid with the 4.0 GPA (19.5 weighted) who applied to 264 schools and didn’t get accepted by one.
Maybe your cherub had a bad freshman year and you are completely panicking because you still believe that one ‘c’ (or ‘d’ or ‘e’ or ‘f’ or ‘g’) once they hit 9th grade will follow them around for the rest of their lives.
Perhaps your kid forgot to sign up for Habitat for Humanity… when they were four.
You’re freaking out.
I get it.
Here are the things you knew you were supposed to do, but somehow didn’t get around to it because, you know, you have a life.
- Create an activities resume for your child, heavily weighted toward community service acts – preferably with orphans…. in a foreign country.
- Gathered proof of anything good and charitable and achieve-ish and leader-y that your child has ever done (Everything notarized).
- Piano. Shit. Now that your kid is a sophomore, it is way too late to create that differentiating prodigy before the Ivy League applications are due (probably).
- Force your cherub to define his or her entire career path pre-high school… okay, maybe in the first year of high school… okay, definitely by the time they apply to college.
- Purchased or signed up for every ACT and SAT prep book, prep class, and/or private tutor-age possible… beginning in middle school (scratch that… pre-K.)
- Politic your way to your kid being on every single preferred sports team, with the preferred coach, attending the preferred college showcases… oh! And don’t forget, it’s captain of each team or forget it. Leadership matters, people.
- Make…er… encourage the young one to sign up for clubs. Robotics Club, Biology Club, Art Club, Music Club, Drama Club, Math-letes, Elks, Rotary, and Free Masons…. So many more clubs.
- Okay stop.
No, I’m serious.
You are a grown-up.
You have survived this long, probably through mortgages, death, taxes and even a bad home perm or two…
You can do this.
No really. I’ve been through this three and a half whole times.
Let me tell you a story.
When we were getting ready to look at colleges for the first time, Mac was a wreck. She was telling me all the things she needed to have done, and been, and should be (but didn’t, hadn’t, and wasn’t).
I wondered if I’d made a terrible mistake. I mean, we tried to raise her as a well-balanced kid, good values, hard worker, caring, kind… and yet all I could think of was, “Why oh why didn’t I send her to North Korea to negotiate that peace treaty? That would have looked so great on her application. Oh! And if she had just addressed the world’s potable water issue…”
All around us, kids and parents were fixated on grades and AP exams and exactly what community service and club and sports stuff looked best on an ‘activities resume’. Oh my Gawd it went on and on.
I looked at Mac, and she looked at me, and I realized that not only was she surrounded by crazy-ass competitive kids, I was surrounded by crazy-ass competitive parents, all of whom were not only worrying about their kid getting into a college, but their kid getting into the right college. And I started to wonder, ‘The ‘right’ college for who?” (because I didn’t use grammar rules, otherwise I would have used ‘whom’).
And we knew what we needed to do.
Mac and I had to peel ourself away from the madness, or we were goners.
I realized that I was wrapping myself in anxiety’s itchy blanket based on the parenting opinions of people I purposefully hadn’t mimicked (I liked my weekends with my family, didn’t want to drive two hours to a travel team baseball practice when they were, like, eight) and I was buying into the mad rantings of a media that earns an awful lot of money scaring the frack out of the general public on a daily basis.
I googled, I called people I trusted, I bought books like Colleges That Change Lives by a guy named Loren Pope, and learned things like, ‘there are 4,168 colleges in the United States alone’ (huh), and that, even during the Vietnam War when college enrollment was at an all time high as people were attempting to avoid the draft, there were beds open at most colleges (huh, again).
I learned that private colleges, because they often have higher endowments than public schools, are often more affordable, after financial aid and scholarships, than in-state colleges and universities.
I learned about flexible deadlines, test-optional schools, and even how a lot of great colleges were pretty up to speed on learning disabilities.
I looked up and googled and thought about different types of schools for different types of kids, and found myself totally in sync with those who wrote about the first four years of college are about figuring out who you are, and who you are going to be. I knew that. I had said that to my own kids for years.
The personality of the place my kid spends four years at?
It was going to matter.
I learned that a lot of the big research schools tend to give the good stuff – the research-y stuff and the most access to the professors – to the grad students. After all, grants are where the big bucks are for the college, and the glory is for professors. Undergrads are taught, much of the time, by TAs in very large lecture halls with two or three hundred students.
What would work for my kid?
Because, sure, I am all about what it says on the sweatshirt and everything… but wait… no I am not!
If they want to go to a big name college because it fits them? Totally cool.
If they don’t… because a different school fits them better? Totally cool, too.
I also researched a little bit about a fearsome fantasy creature who has haunted the parents of college-application-age-kids for, like, centuries. I call it…
‘The Checklist Kid’.
You know that beasty. All the right activities, and sports, and classes and community service stuff and summer science seminars…
I talked to admissions people (you can just call them up – Go figure!). I learned that they can spot a Check List Kid a mile away.
And that it is not necessarily a good thing!
Every single admissions counsellor I spoke to said they wanted to know the real kid, not the perfect resume kid.
My research took me a few days, during which Mac and I declared a moratorium on college chat (though she did come home one day in tears because one of her more jerky friends said she should be all done with her search by now).
Then we sat down and I outlined what would become the approach we took with the other two and half kids who came after.
I told her we were done panicking, done with the sleepless nights.
We were starting fresh! From now on, we were interviewing the colleges for how they fit her and not the other way around.
We talked about general stuff over a bowl of popcorn… size of the school, majors offered, size of the classes, city vs. suburbs vs. country vs. cornfields…
And then we pinky swore on one thing – literally locked pinkies on it…
This was gonna be fun.
Oh my Gawd, the tension just ran away.
Then we came up with “The List”. Like, of the really important stuff. The ‘personality’ of the school stuff. These became her interview questions for every school she visited.
My fave: “Christmas is big for me. I don’t want to go to a school that is so politically correct that you don’t decorate for Christmas. What are your Christmas traditions?” (I am telling you, admissions counsellors had a field day with that one (one actually sent her a link to a video of the professors caroling to the students!).
She met with an admissions counselor at every single college we visited, regardless of whether there was an interview required, just to show Mac that these were not the formal scary interviews she’d heard about. She used her list, and asked her questions (which helped her with any anxiety, because they had something to talk about every time). And we took the tours, and met professors, and we spent time hanging on campuses too.
Every visit was different, and every one gave us at least one good (or great!) story.
We met with her Guidance Counselor when she had narrowed down her schools to six, and he was so impressed at the schools she had chosen (many of which other parents or kids had never heard of, but the Guidance Counselor had, and he practically tripped over himself with joy that Mac had discovered them). He was so excited about how she approached the process that he asked her to sit on a panel for the Big College Night Presentation. So Mac did.
Next to the admissions counselor from Harvard.
When Mac was done talking about her own college search, how she did it, and why (she even mentioned “Check List Kids” and caught my eye when she said it so we got to laugh and then lots of other people relaxed and laughed too).
After that, the woman from Harvard leaned forward and said, “I wish every student and parent could hear that and really believe it.”
And then she turned toward the nervous parents and kids in the audience and said that admissions counsellors can pick the Check List Kids out right away. Then she said, “That’s not what we are looking for. We are looking for the kid with the paper route who loves his robotics club, the student who balances school with the very real life duty of taking care of an elderly relative. Of course, if it is your real passion, do Habitat for Humanity, but we will be able to tell if it is your passion, believe me. We want to know who you are as a student and a person, not just your transcript and a list of the ‘right’ extracurriculars. Athletics often takes a great deal of dedication. Tell us about that. Holding down a job, along with being a student takes a lot of time management. We want to know about that …”
And she went on and on, and said Harvard was not the school for everyone, and that they know that, and that we should all know that too.
Which we kind of did.
Side note: It actually was the school for one of Mac’s friends. Harvard admitted her even though she did not apply for membership into the National Honor Society because the application was too time consuming and she thought the teacher advisor was kind of a jerk that year. (Totally true).
I have now sat through countless… well, not countless… let’s see 1, 2, 3, … 16. I have now sat outside – or inside in some fun instances – sixteen different college admissions ‘interviews’.
Every single one of the counsellors has spoken along the same line as that Harvard counsellor did way back in 2009.
‘Be who you are… we want to know you.”
It really does come down to being a good human, as well as a good student, at so many of the schools out there.
Go find those schools, and go meet the people who work there. Believe it or not, they want good humans to go there. They really do.
And in the mean time, make a pact with yourself (and your kid).
Tell them that, sure, it’s a process… but it’s also a great adventure.
Take a road trip on the cheap.
Stay in strange places, meet new people, try new food (fried green tomatoes are awesome, by the way).
Laugh your ass off if you end up at a university that begins with the letter “F” (because FU on a sweatshirt is pretty freakin’ funny, and yes I know this first hand).
This is a chance to crack yourself up and create some great stories for sharing ’round the Thanksgiving table this year.
It’s also a chance to find the right place for your kid to spend the next four years discovering who he or she is, and who and what they want to be.
It’s not about your neighbors or friends or family or other kids’ parents.
It’s about your kid.
And my guess?
You know him or her better than anyone else (hell, right now they are teenagers, you probably know them better than their hormone-addled brains know themselves).
This is about them.
And it’s all gonna be fine.
Go forth, have fun, and make it happen.
Thanks for readin’.
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