Who’s Applying, Anyway?

It’s the time of year when high school seniors anxiously check the mail (and email) daily for responses from colleges. A large envelope –perhaps with a big “Welcome” or thumb’s up image emblazoned on the cover—usually means good news, while a smaller envelope hints at rejection.
At the same time, these kids are bombarded with tweets and Facebook posts spreading their friends’ happy news.
collegeWhile the process is more automated, and perhaps more competitive, than when I was college-bound, the general idea is the same: kids spend four years of high school shoring up their grade-point averages (GPAs), standardized-test scores (often enrolling in prep classes and retaking the SATs and/or ACTs several times), school-activities and volunteer-work resumes; and writing insightful, provocative admissions essays.
Most apply to three levels of schools: long-shot or “reach” schools, which accept only a small portion of applicants and maintain high standards for GPAs and test scores; “likely” schools that generally accept students with similar grades, test scores and experiences; and “safety” schools that, in general, would gladly admit a kid of that caliber.
So, for many, what arrives in the mail—at least in the kids’eyes—sets a direction for the future, and serves as an important success or devastating failure.
However, we adults know that college acceptance is just the beginning of a long road, not the end, and that rejection is just an opportunity for a different route.
Or do we?
On university websites and college-industry blogs, in magazine articles and college-admissions conferences, and even during the new Tina Fey film, Admission, one frightening theme has become clear: many modern parents take the process too personally, and become excessvely involved in the process and its outcome.
Of course, it’s easy for a parent to feel invested in the college conundrum.
To create nurturing environments, we fill playrooms with educational toys, DVDs and books; we ensure our kids spend minimal time on “screens”; we screen their internet usage, take them to children’s museums and science centers, ship them to stimulating camps and plan remarkable vacations.
Most of us spend 13 straight years (and more, if you count preschool) helping our children get to school on time, with full bellies, clean bodies and clothes, homework completed and permission slips signed.
We literally clock thousands of hours driving them to sports practices and games, music and dance lessons and performances, youth-theater shows, chess clubs, debate competitions, study groups and tutors. Some even pay thousands for college-admissions counselors.
We don’t want to think about how much all of that costs.
So, why wouldn’t we believe that the end product – a smart, talented, high-achieving child – demonstrates the fruits of our labor (in both senses of the word)?
Why wouldn’t we feel that our child’s college search serves as the culmination of our 17- or 18-year training regimen?
In a PopSugar.com blog post earlier this month, Rebecca M. Gruber recounted an interview with writer/director/actress Tina Fey about her latest (and well-timed) film, Admission. When asked about parental involvement in the college-admissions process, Fey replied, “People think it is a referendum on their parenting, [that] it’s about how well they did. It’s a dangerous trap that we all fall into.”
Along those lines, after browsing some of the college-admissions websites and online articles, I came up with some key points:
1.     In most cases, you are not applying to college; it’s your child’s turn. “ ‘We’ are not applying to college,” advises Kat Cohen, an admissions counselor and blogger for the Huffington Post. “While you are significantly involved in your child’s process, your child will get herself into college and she needs to be empowered to do this.”
2.    Not gaining entrance into a first choice or top-tier school does not equate failure for the student. He or she just wasn’t what the school thought it needed to round out its incoming class.
3.    Not gaining entrance into a first choice or top-tier school does not equate failure for the parents. Even if you did a stellar job during the child’s first 17 or 18 years, you are not responsible for the outcome of the admissions process.
4.    If your child is destined for a “highly competitive” college, he or she earned that acceptance. Try not to puff out your chest and think of it as your success. Yes, you should be proud of your child for attaining his or her goal, but don’t lose sight of whose goal it was, and who attained it.
5.    Your child is not necessarily destined for success and happiness if he/she was accepted at the first choice school; nor is he/she definitely headed for misery and failure if forced to attend a fourth or fifth choice. Kids can be unhappy and/or disappointed with their dream schools, and pleasantly surprised by also-rans.
The website College Parents of America (www.collegparents.org) includes spot-on advice. Among the site’s sage tips: “Although, as parents, we always want to make things better for our children, your student must come to his own terms with the news he receives. As difficult as this time may be, this is one of many steps toward independence and maturity that your child will face in the coming years.”
As for my own children, the first two have survived the college-admissions process.
Both sat in the driver’s seat and “owned” the outcome. We encouraged and supported them throughout, and were surprised by their final choices. The first later questioned his decision (which was whether or not to play collegiate football) and considered switching schools, but ultimately decided to ride it out. The second will embark on his college experience this fall.
Both boys are works in process, and we shall watch with interest – and from a slight distance – what the future holds for them.
–      Linda Williams Rorem, 18 March 2013
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Comments

  1. Cannot agree with you more on all fronts! (Thanks for the links to our writing – can you tell that the college hunt is on our minds???)

  2. Jill Simpson says:

    Is it a Freudian slip that you call the film “Accepted” in its first mention?! 🙂
    What Tina Fey said is absolutely true–so many of us do it, despite our best intentions. With a 10th grader as my oldest, it’s a shame to me that I am dreading what should be an exciting process!

    • Ha – thanks for the catch, Jill! (Fixed it…) Your kids will soar through the process. You did, didn’t you? And I’ll bet your parents had nothing to do with it. My advice is to tune out what other parents say about the process, and never reply when another mom asks you for your son’s GPA or test scores. (I can’t tell you how many women asked me that, or hinted as much, in supermarket aisles!)

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