I’ve Been Through College Admissions But This is New for My Son

Walking my dogs recently, I ran into a friend who exclaimed when she realized my son is a Senior.

“How’s it going?” she inquired, having launched her daughter, an alumna of my school, a few years back.

“Oh, fine,” I answered blithely, our two older daughters 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, which can cause stress and self-doubt in even the most confident kids. Our son goes to a good school and has an excellent college advisor. He knows himself well. He is ambitious. And he is realistic.  

teen boy on laptop
It is our son’s first time through the college admissions process, even though it is not my first rodeo. Twenty 20 (@nina_p_v)

Even if I have experienced this before, my son has not

He is thinking carefully about his list, what he needs to thrive, and where he wants to be. I’m proud of him. And I am powerless. He is in the driver’s seat of his 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 felt for him? Was I so intent on playing 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 and 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 and 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. My mentor taught me all I needed by the time I took over. 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 I could about an applicant positively.

My job was to 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, and our girls continued to be admitted to excellent colleges and universities.  

Upon being deferred and 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 tough. She had an inflated sense of her daughter’s chances at a selective school. She had not listened to my counsel, believing she had an inside track, treating me more like a servant than 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 being unable 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 your dream college took five oboe players last year, and they need a harpist this year!  

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.  

ann klotz

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. 

Ann klotz

But that’s the problem. Kids are susceptible to weather, food, to a particular vibe. Sometimes, they idolize a specific school for no reason. Harried admissions committees do their best with too many qualified applicants for each class and insufficient 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 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 discouraged at seeing terrific kids think they had failed when they got into great schools and not others, having let down their families.

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 grew up in my school but 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 was his first time through an unpredictable, strange, and challenging process. 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, and 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 his feelings, refrain from being smug in my outdated knowledge, and offer snacks, hugs, encouragement, and support, not an 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

About Ann Klotz

Ann V. Klotz is a mother and writer in Shaker Heights, OH, where she leads Laurel School. Her work has appeared in Grown & Flown, Ed Week, Yankee Magazine, and other literary journals. Read more of her writing at www.annvklotz.org

Read more posts by Ann

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