My Son Applied to Colleges Alone: A Cautionary Tale

This, my friends, is a cautionary tale. I share it with the intent of helping others survive circumstances that I swore some days would be my undoing. I suffered in silence for the better part of a year because, you see, I let my son take charge of the entire college application process.

And it almost sent me over the edge.

My oldest son attended a private, all-male school in Washington, DC. It was a sacrifice for us in many ways. Not only was it a financial burden, but the rigors of an hour-plus commute twice daily was a scheduling nightmare with two younger children to consider.

University of South Carolina


My son applied to college without my help

His ability to juggle all this in addition to sports and a part-time job made us both a little cocky, I think. To the untrained eye (mine) it appeared the college application process would be a manageable effort for my organized self-starter.

But unfortunately, my naiveté made me overlook two crucial points 1) At 16 his brain was not fully formed, and 2) At 16 he was pretty sure he was smarter than everyone around him (solid proof of #1) which really made me the idiot in this whole scenario.

We started off strong; with junior year spring break spent touring colleges and narrowing things down to a respectable seven applications.  When the time came for the requisite counselor-parent meeting I was pumped and ready.

Except I wasn’t.

The counselor had some great suggestions for my son heading into his senior year and I found myself nodding along enthusiastically. My son, however, was having none of it. He was determined to keep his free 8th period even though admissions officers might view that as lazy. He did not want to take another year of a language although it was recommended for him as well.

In his own words, “Nah, I’m good.”

I got a little light-headed right then, probably from the searing pain caused by digging my teeth into my tongue, so I’m not sure if the counselor tried to change his mind. Either way, I did not. This was my son’s journey and if he wasn’t listening to a trained professional, I didn’t stand a chance.

In his defense, my son did use that free period to meet with teachers, get ahead of homework before rugby practice and participate in a reading partners program with a local school. There is nowhere to explain all that on the transcript, though, so it was just a glaring hole in his academic rigor.

We hit our first serious rough patch when he showed me his essays. As a writer, I was worried that I was going to be overly critical but even an amateur could see that his efforts were bordering on trite. I suggested he get a little more creative but he rejected that idea. His logic was that he was being truthful and each essay answered the prompt given.

Apparently, doing more than is necessary might give the impression that you care. We wouldn’t want that.

So, I did some minor grammar editing and left the rest alone while a small part of my soul died right there in the family room.

He made all the college application deadlines for Early Action and I exhaled a little. That was until I got this gem of a text in early December.

“Guess what the ACT did Mom, they sent my scores to the wrong school. Just got an email from South Carolina and they never got my scores. Now I won’t hear ’til March. Sux.”

Given that administering tests and sending scores is the entire scope of the ACT Board, I was not jumping on the hate bandwagon just yet. The teenage brain reared its ugly head again. Deflecting and deferring all blame whenever possible is like a Pavlovian response for teens.

I mean this couldn’t possibly have been his fault, right? Wrong. He put down an erroneous code from the get-go and off the scores went to South University which anxiously awaited his over-qualified application. I never double-checked his testing registration and apparently neither did he.

We walked through the steps to get the scores redirected and I suggested that he email the admissions person who contacted him to thank her and assure him everything was on its way. I never saw that email but I guess it had more punch than his essays because he got his acceptance from the University of South Carolina before Christmas.

I wanted to take over the entire process right then and there, but I stopped myself. He had to learn to advocate for himself and the importance of attention to detail without me. This time he had dodged a bullet, but I’m not sure he learned a thing.

Damn, why was this so hard? I know my parents didn’t think twice about college applications.

The remaining applications were due in January and I thought Christmas break was an excellent time to get them completed. I mentioned this concept exactly twice out loud. The rest of the time, I would stare at him splayed on the couch or bed and implore him in my head and make crazy eyes hoping he would get the non-verbal cues.


Each college application was turned in on the due date—lame essays and all—with no time to spare or fanfare whatsoever. By January, he had been accepted to two schools and wait-listed at another so I consoled myself with the fact that he was leaving the house in August and not living in my basement eating Chipotle for the foreseeable future.


While we waited until March for the final decisions, I felt my sanity ebb daily. I second-guessed our process and beat myself up for every step. I should have pushed more. I should have made him rewrite essays and apply for more scholarships. What if he forgot some of his activities and accomplishments on the application? What if that 8th period or lack of language instruction came back to haunt him?

I tortured myself every day and lost sleep at night. Let me tell you, people, the first rejection letter was tough but we survived and no one blamed me. He knew deep down that he had led this charge and if he was not victorious, it was on him.

In the end, he picked the University of South Carolina which was my first choice all along; although not his. I fell in love with the school when we were there. Yet, much like the taboo of getting attached to your son’s girlfriends, I had to let nature run its course. He never knew it was my first choice until he accepted their offer of admission.

Staying in the background during this process took Herculean strength but I would do it all again. And with two brothers waiting in the wings, I have about a year to gather my reserves for the next college app circus.

This story proves the old adage, “that which does not kill you, makes you stronger,” even if most days this process saps the life right out of you one submit button at a time.

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About Maureen Stiles

Maureen Stiles is a Washington DC based freelance journalist, columnist and editor. With over a decade of published work in the parenting and humor sector, Maureen has reached audiences around the globe. In addition to published works, she has been quoted in the Washington Post and The New York Times on topics surrounding parenting and family life. Maureen is the author of The Driving Book for Teens and a contributor to the book Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults as well as regularly featured on Today's Parenting Community and Grown and Flown.

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