I’ve been through the college application process twice now, and with the recent admissions scandal and its fallout, the pressure and intensity has only increased. The wait for an admissions decision can excruciating, but is especially tense when a child applies to a parent’s alma mater. The nervous apprehension and stress of the situation can create unresolved family conflict and the possibility of disillusionment for both parents and their children.
A year ago, my daughter was waiting to find out from her list of schools. My alma mater was included in the list, and even though I said I didn’t care, I did. In my mind, I could already see her wearing the college t-shirt, just like mine, a mother-daughter photo opp perfect for posting on social media.
As the time for decisions approached, I became nervous and restless, alternating between a firm conviction that everything would be fine and dreading the disaster of rejection. I couldn’t sleep and felt my anxiety mounting as the calendar clicked past. I checked email obsessively, even though I knew she’d see the answer first in her student portals. By comparison, my daughter, the one who had actually submitted the applications, written the essays, made the test scores and grades, and generally stood to gain or lose from the decision, seemed calm.
Maybe it was because she was the one who had done everything for this moment to earn this decision. Or maybe, it was precisely the opposite: she had done everything because that’s what she does, not for the sake of this one decision, but staying true to her innate desire to succeed.
There is no doubt that parents today put far too much stock in the college application process. For proof, just look at the lengths those parents went to in the recent admissions scandal to have their children admitted to the “right” schools. The vicarious bragging rights motivate parents to push kids early to achieve as much as possible as quickly as possible.
Many of these parents attended excellent colleges and universities, then went on to graduate school, and have spent time as respected professionals. Those achievements should be sufficient to fulfill us and our driving ambition, but somehow it’s not enough. We need to feel that our kids are out there striving too. And that’s not what’s best for anyone.
I know parents who plan from toddlerhood where their child should go to school. Baby pictures include tiny sweatshirts with school mascots on them, and children dutifully attend football games and reunions and alumni weekends clad in the appropriate school colors. But the idea of a family legacy no longer seems applicable the way it used to.
We can’t all do the same thing. We shouldn’t. We aren’t the same people. We have our own interests and strengths and passions. Children shouldn’t look to their parents to tell them what to do. Likewise, parents shouldn’t presume to know what’s best for their children to do with their lives. They are not the ones who will be living them.
I think I know my child, and I’m fortunate that she is a pretty great one, but she knows better than I do what works for her. She is the one who will spend the next four years with her peers, learning how to study and how to make friends and have relationships that work and those that don’t, to set goals for herself that matter to her, not only to me.
When the answer came, she took it in stride. We would not be wearing the same t-shirt after all. She moved on to make a decision among several great possibilities, all offering her unique opportunities for growth and learning. My own disappointment surprised me, despite the odds against a positive response. It seemed like the end of something for me, a dream unfulfilled. But as I watched her embrace her decision, I realized it had never been mine to make.
Visiting the campus for the admitted students weekend, she turned to me with a smile.“Let’s go to the bookstore. I need to get a t-shirt.” At that moment, I knew. It wasn’t so much that I wanted her to go to my school, like I’d always thought. Instead, I wanted her to have that same feeling I had enjoyed all those years ago, the possibility of becoming someone new, in a new place, filled with interesting new people who would grow and change together over the course of four years.
I wanted her to have professors and peers who would challenge her to confront what she thought she knew, so she could emerge at the end with more questions than answers about the world we live in, but equipped intellectually and emotionally to keep growing, keep changing, and step up to be a positive force in the world. She wouldn’t wear the same colors I did or know the same songs, but the essence of her experience would be the same.
In her new t-shirt, she will not be the person I thought she should be, but even better, she will become the person she is meant to be.
Catherine Gentry is a writer living in Houston, Texas. She retired from practicing law to raise her three nearly grown children, and her writing has been featured online at Grown & Flown, the “Voices” section of the Princeton Alumni magazine, Literary Mama, and in the Houston Chronicle, as well as on her blog, “Words Count.”