As teenagers progress through high school, the warnings to their parents about college admissions become an ever-louder drum beat that is nearly impossible to escape. With my eldest child, I braced myself for his junior year terrified at my ignorance on the subject. But anticipating only what we have been conditioned to fear can keep us from realizing a broader parenting experience. I have been through this process twice and our youngest will begin college in the fall. With the admitted benefit of 20/20 hindsight, here is my list of The Good, The Bad and The OMG of college admissions.
I loved the college road trips I took with my kids. Though the info sessions and college tours are now a blurry mashup of dozens of schools, I have vivid memories of dinners we shared and decisions each child revealed while on the road. I may never again have a chance for such prolonged one-on-one time with each of my children as I did while they were hunting for colleges. I was happy when we traveled together and I relied on them for navigation and a sharp eye for the closest Starbucks. I am grateful that on this one part of the process, parental involvement is a necessity.
The learning curve in college admissions is steep and families who are guided along it by experienced professionals are fortunate. I am deeply grateful for the counselors who worked with our kids (and me) and for the teachers who wrote their letters of recommendation. For each applicant this is a unique experience, but for the teachers annually pressed into duty, I cannot imagine a more Sisyphean example of their duties.
We know our kids inside and out and yet, while they search for schools, they will likely cast a net with picks that make little sense to us. From spring of junior year through fall of senior year, kids discover much about the schools and, more importantly, about themselves. As your child gains a stronger sense of her strengths (and weaknesses) and priorities, you have a window into her reasoning skills. Once kids head off to college, we won’t have the same front row seats as we do now.
The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the number of US high school graduates peaked in 2010 and that college applicant growth has slowed, mainly because of a levelling in high school graduation rates. However, if your child hopes to find a spot among the most selective schools, the acceptance rates at those colleges continues to shrink to, in some cases, single digits. Who gets in and who doesn’t begins to seem random. This feeling of having little control over the process causes kids and parents to be misguided and mistaken. It becomes difficult to beat back feelings of frustration and anxiety.
Test prep, test taking, test results dominate time for juniors and are a major source of the college application stress. I was accustomed to seeing my two exhausted kids trudge home after school and sports. Once they refueled, they would bounce back to normal. But when the SAT’s, ACT’s, SATII’s, and APs were loaded on top their regular school work, what they needed – more than 24 hours in a day – no one could give them.
Devil in the Details
Kids have school assignments, tests, essays, sports, and extracurriculars and they work hard to juggle the competing demands on their time. Deadlines can be missed and opportunities slip through the cracks. Even with parents and counselors assisting, the volume and variety of steps needed for each application is daunting.
According to The Washington Post, “For 35 years, women have outnumbered men in American colleges. Federal data show that female students became the majority in 1979 and for the past decade have accounted for about 57 percent of enrollment at degree-granting institutions.” To gauge the impact of gender bias in admissions, reporters analyzed admissions statistics at 128 colleges and universities accepting fewer than 35% of its applicants and found that girls were admitted at a higher rate at 48, but at a lower rate at 64. Along with deciding between large/small, urban/rural, liberal arts/university, girls would be well-advised to drill down in the statistics to see if their gender is a competitive disadvantage.
Kids who apply early decision put substantial emotional eggs into one college basket. If the decision is anything but a “yes,” there is an awful moment of crushed spirits.
A Different Child
When you are on the road with your child visiting a school one day, there will be a moment when you witness him walking apart from you. You will see a different child than the 17-year-old who comes home from school and sits at the kitchen table with you. You will envision your child as a college freshman, independent and, really, quite grown up. At this moment you will do your best to keep from tearing up.
As he goes through the process, he will single out a school as “the one,” his favorite over all others. Although you and his counselor can add your perspectives, this is a decision that only your child can make. It is a very grown up decision for kids, the beginning of many to come that they will tackle independent of us.
Your senior will hold a letter in her hand or will sit in front of the computer knowing the decision for a favorite college has been released. Deep breaths (both of you), letter open, computer button pushed. If the first few words are “Congratulations, you have been admitted,” you will witness a smile that, basically, defines happiness. All the tests, the essays, the hard work in school, the trips, the incessant talking about college now melts away. You have (both) arrived on the other side.