Walking my dogs recently, I ran into a friend, who exclaimed when she realized that my son is a Senior.
“How’s it going?” she inquired, having launched her own daughter, an alumna of my school, a few years back.
“Oh, fine,” I answered blithely, our two older daughters now safely into adulthood. “It’s not my first rodeo, after all.”
“But it is his,” she said.
It is his. Her words stayed with me all day.
It is our son’s first time through the college process, one that can cause stress and self-doubt in even the most confident of kids. Our son goes to a good school, has an excellent college advisor. He knows himself well. He is ambitious. And he is realistic.
Even if I have experienced this before, my son has not
He is thinking carefully about his list, about what he needs to thrive, about where he wants to be. I’m proud of him. And I am powerless. He is in the driver’s seat of his own process, and I cannot determine the outcome. Perhaps my blithe response to my neighbor had been feigned. Had I been so busy pretending nonchalance that I’d ignored how tough it feels for him? Was I so intent on playing it cool that I’d taken his experience for granted?
For a moment, on that walk, I felt a surge of empathy for the legions of parents of the students I advised as a college counselor long ago—in another lifetime. Though this is my son’s first time through the process, it is one I know all too well—and knowledge, in this case, is not necessarily power.
When our son’s older sisters were small, I was the Director of College Guidance at a fine Manhattan girls’ school. It was a great job, offering more autonomy and a higher salary than I had earned as an English and drama teacher. I could walk our daughters to school, work from home some days. I loved the girls; I liked to write. I enjoyed meeting my colleagues from “the other side of the desk,” and looked forward to their autumn visits to our school. I celebrated with my Seniors when things went their way, dried their tears when the inevitable rejection occurred.
My experience as Director of College Guidance at a Manhattan girls’ school taught me a lot
I apprenticed to a legend. By the time I took over, my mentor had taught all I needed. I can still hear her voice in my ear,
Always say yes, Ann, when a college asks to visit the school, no matter how obscure the school is. Even if the college is not likely to be on any New Yorker’s list, the rep from that college may move on to a popular college before long.
NYC college counselor
So true. She taught me never to pad a child’s accomplishments and always tell the truth, but to say all that I could that was positive about an applicant.
My job was let the college decide if the student was a good fit.
There’s no need for you to lessen a student’s chances for admission by pointing out her flaws or damning her with faint praise.
NYC college counselor
Under my mentor’s tutelage, I learned to paint a portrait of each senior that helped the college view her as distinct from the other qualified applicants in her class. Despite the fears parents expressed that no one would get into college after my mentor retired, our girls continued to be admitted to excellent colleges and universities.
Upon being deferred and then rejected from her dream school, a woebegone senior found her way to my office one April afternoon.
“Why did my mother promise me I’d get in?” she asked, eyes damp.
Her mother had been very difficult. She had an inflated sense of her daughter’s chances at a very selective school. She had not listened to my counsel, believing she had an inside track, treating me more like a servant than like a professional. I was not surprised by the rejection—the girl had not been qualified. But looking at her, curled in the overstuffed green armchair that made my office seem more like a den than an office, I said,
“Because she loves you so much. She wanted to make your dream happen.”
We all want our kids to get whatever they want
My student offered a wan smile. More than twenty years later, I felt a pang of empathy for that misguided mother. We want the moon for our children, and not being able to climb right up and snatch it from the sky is hard. The more powerful the parent, the more helpless she feels, caught in a system that is not always fair. The colleges take who the colleges want. You’re an oboe player? Great, except that your dream college took five oboe players last year, and this year, they need a harpist!
I would say to my girls:
Early decision is great for the colleges because they know they are admitting students who want to come and will come. It’s great for you, too, when it goes your way. But it stinks when you get denied or deferred because you have offered yourself to people who do not know you.
They haven’t watched you grow up, seen you score the winning goal or stay long after the Homecoming Dance to clean up. They haven’t watched you triumph in Latin or learn to lead. It’s dangerous to offer them your heart, to believe that their school is the ‘only’ school for you! You can be happy many, many places. And, no matter where you go, some days, it will rain, and your friends may be jerks.
There is no single perfect school for anyone
There is no single perfect school. I’d remind my girls to do the best they could on their testing, with their essays, in their classes. “Control whatever you can control. But after that, it’s out of your hands,” I counsel. That lack of control is hard to endure.
As long as you create a list with schools on it that you like and are willing to go to—one that students with your profile from our school have been accepted to–you will be fine.
But that’s the problem. Kids are susceptible to weather, to food, to a particular vibe. Sometimes, they idolize a particular school for no reason. Harried admissions committees doing the very best they can with too many qualified applicants for each class and not enough time to give every file the time and care every starry-eyed, hopeful applicant deserves.
It doesn’t always go the way anyone hopes it will. There are disappointments and frantic additional applications. There’s a re-adjusting of expectations. It’s a fraught and wearying process—for kids and for their parents. Parents believe the drama is about what college the child will attend, but it’s really about impending changes in the family. There’s a faulty assumption that the bumper sticker on the back of the car is a validation of parenting.
Eventually, the rarified world of NYC college grew hard to bear. I sometimes felt like a voyeur, seeing more of a family’s dynamics than felt right. I grew dispirited at seeing terrific kids feel they had failed when they got into great schools and not others, having, therefore, let down the family.
After ten years as a college counselor I became head of school at a girls’ school
The college process began to feel relentless, and I had aspirations beyond college counseling. I wanted to lead a school. Ten years after my foray into college advising, we moved to the Midwest for me to become head of an illustrious girls’ school.
Our son, born the summer we left NYC for Ohio, is now a senior. He has grown up in my school, though he had to leave after PreK. I, an old hand who knew all the pitfalls and how to avoid them, had been blasé about his college process. I knew not to pressure him about his list. I would not fuss about his essays. I would offer just the right measure of support and care. Surely, all would be well. I forgot, until that walk, that this is his very first time through a process that is unpredictable and strange and challenging. My playing it cool was not necessarily what my son needed.
My conversation with my neighbor reminded me there are no magic wands to be waved, that our son may or may not get in early, that his disappointment—if things do not go his way—will be hard to bear. I also know that he is resilient and will find his way. But I need to pay attention to how he feels, to refrain from being smug in my outdated knowledge, to offer snacks and hugs and encouragement and support, not interrogation.
He’ll get through this process—one way or another. And, so will I.
More Great Reading:
Try to Breathe and Savor the Next Few Months, Head of School Tells Her Seniors
Leave a Reply