On my Friday March 25, 2021 story, I shared my daughter’s unexpected struggle with the college application process. That was an examination of the water they are swimming in, but this is a PSA just for the parents. My apologies to those not in this position. I’ll see you next time!
I received a number of questions this week after the high school held it’s annual event called The Secret Sauce. Each year at this time, the college counselor assembles a panel of a dozen or so high achieving seniors to give advice to underclassmen in this brutally competitive environment. He selects a wide variety of students, all with a unique perspective.
My daughter was invited to speak. Jane was her candid self, advising kids not to fixate on any one college, even though on paper they should have had no problem getting in. She had done that to her detriment with the encouragement of her well-meaning, yet ill-informed parents.
At the end, the counselor asked each of them what advice they’d give the parents who had yet to go through this with their child. Jane didn’t hold back.
“My dad got a 1080 on his SAT and got into Vanderbilt. I did way better than him and got rejected. Things are much harder now so parents, manage your expectations. Your own experience may be irrelevant. Just be there for when your kid is crying.”
Now that the process is over, we definitely know what not to do and sure wish someone had told us. Other parents who have been through the process may totally disagree with this list. If you had a different experience, please show up in the comments. Others needs guidance and we are only one set of naive parents. If this discussion helps just one parent pipe down so their kid doesn’t have to cry harder, it will have been worth it.
- Do not take your kid to visit any colleges for the purpose of matriculation. If they go with a school group or someone else, fine. Once you are involved, there’s pressure. If you must tour colleges, be there for some other purpose. An athletic camp, summer program or just to pop in if you happen to be in town. Some schools keep track of applicants’ visits to campus and clicks on their website. I’d rather spare my kid the heartbreak than worry about that so it’s a tradeoff. This advice originated from my friend Hagit who’s genius parents followed it when she applied to school. In this climate, your child doesn’t need to get their heart set on going ANYWHERE until they’re in. My kid didn’t get into several safety schools with her insane credentials. Each admissions office is putting together a class and they may already have one of your super special kid. And some schools may be trying to manipulate their acceptance numbers by rejecting students whose record suggests they are applying as their safety school. COUNT ON NOTHING. Take all the virtual tours you want. Show up in person when she’s got some acceptances in her hot little hand and not one minute before.
- DO NOT give a college handbook as a gift for book night on Hannukah/Christmas/Kwanzaa. Jane’s reaction was, “Oh. Fantastic. The thing I’ve been stressing out about for most of my life, you thought would be a fun beach read over break. THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH FOR THE THOUGHTFUL GIFT.” Perhaps your child isn’t as highly strung and may enjoy it? If so, I have one for you. For the rest of you, just no.
- When your child actually needs to decide where to apply and starts to hyperventilate, then and only then is it time to break out that college book you’ve been hiding in the closet. Casually leaf through the offerings. Your kid can make sure their scores line up with the requirements, NOT YOU. Your only job is to encourage them to think about where they see themselves loving their life, that is also within your budget. Consider what each place has going on, the size, student life, academic offerings, geography, etc. and ask if it seems like a place they’d feel happy. City or out in the woods? Conservative or liberal campus? Screw the places they think they SHOULD want to go. Jane’s friend got into the school he’d planned on since childhood (Penn) and hates it. Anecdotal but you get it. An otherwise well-regarded school might really suck for your specific kid.
- If your kid rejects a seemingly great program for them, their reasons may not be clear, even to themselves. When Jane took the virtual tour of the school she ended up committing to, she said she’d never want to go there. It made no sense to us because we’d seen the beautiful campus, knew about the strong the academics and the geography was spot on for her: fun city with a beach! When it was all over she said she never thought she’d get in that’s why she rejected it, then applied anyway. She doesn’t like to have her heart broken. Who does? Just let your kid vent, say nothing, and encourage them to apply to a wide array of schools where they could see themselves.
- Don’t join their chaos. When the college counselor says some dream-killing nonsense or the standardized test tutor turns crazy, be the rock.* Assure them that everyone is stressed and doing the best they can. No one can predict the outcome. If any one of these relationships aren’t working and you aren’t contractually bound, find someone else and move on. No need to claw anyone’s eyes out even though it would be extremely gratifying. We were actually good at this one thing which was a suprise considering my checkered past as a hothead.
- Whatever you do, do not tell your kid they will have no problem getting into X school. We did this daily. And when the deferments and rejections started pouring in, it became clear that we had committed parenting malpractice. DON’T DO IT. Your instincts will tell you to reassure them because this is your precious child who has worked like a dog and every school should let them in. JUST DON’T. All you may say is, don’t worry, it’s going to work out. You will end up exactly where you are supposed to be.
- Don’t say a word about your own college application experience back in the Stone Age. Doing so will frustrate your kid to no end. This was Jane’s sole piece of parenting advice and it cannot be stressed enough. They will only think you are a clueless moron who doesn’t deserve the academic credentials you now enjoy without a hint of the same kind of suffering. And whatever you do, do not mention your unimpressive scores and lack of AP’s. Mark actually told Jane that Palmetto didn’t have AP’s back then. Oh really. Ask Jeff Bezos, MPSH Class of ’82, if they had AP’s. (For the record, I had enough credits to start school as a Sophomore so I wasn’t the offender in this scenario. Regretably, I did most of the others on this list.)
- Your job is to be a sounding board and to validate feelings. Mainly it is TO JUST SHUT UP. Seriously, most of the stuff I said just pissed Jane off during the process. If I’d shut up more, she would have had one less thing to be upset about.
- If you happen to interview for your alma mater, don’t come home talking about how impressive some other kid is. Don’t ever talk about how amazing ANY OTHER KID is. It’s basically like announcing. “Hey! I found a kid who is SO MUCH BETTER THAN YOU at literally everything.” Don’t. No one wants to hear that.
- Just keep reminding them that it will all be over soon and they will be happy at their college in a matter of months, rid of your inane commentary, and that you are proud of them and love them no matter what.
That is all. Good luck everyone.
When you listen more than you speak, those around you feel seen and then EVERYONE feels like its all going to be okay.
WRITING PROMPT: did you give college app advice that backfired? What about advice that worked? Please share! Do you agree or disagree with this list? Other parents and I would love to hear your experience.
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*It sounds like I am casting aspersions here. To be clear, the Palmetto college counselor did no such thing. The only relationship that proved to be an unhealthy one was with Jane’s standardized test tutor who we were contractually bound to for some period of time, are now rid of and won’t be recommending. If you are in Miami, let me know.