College Admission
Parents

A Family Affair, Part Deux (For Parents)

Let’s go for a ride together. Not a driverless car or a Bactrian camel. Let’s go out on the sea for a bit. Winds, squalls… rudders… you know, sailing.

When you first have kids, you are undeniably the captain of the boat. At the helm you grip white knuckled even when the skies are clear and the seas are calm because you are so sleep deprived you don’t even see the blue or feel the warmth of the sun.

As kids get a bit older, you start to loosen your grip. You let out the sail and occasionally gaze at the horizon. But make no mistake- you are the captain. You are dictating the “ports” (where to go to school, which neighborhood to live in), and when to “come about.”

As your son or daughter enters adolescence, you let them hold the wheel (granted, you still remain within arm’s length). You may even go up on deck to sun yourself and they take the helm (but you never actually shut both eyes).

If you have a high school senior, I implore you to start climbing the ladder to the crow’s nest. This means taking both hands off the wheel to let your son or daughter try theirs. This means occasionally leaving town with no groceries in the fridge to be sure they’re still nourished when you return. This means letting them do their own laundry, even if only for a month.

Climb up to the crow’s nest for the college admission process. Let your student write their own essay (but call out from your perch a reminder to edit, so they don’t include the name of another school before submission.) Let them be the ones that meet deadlines and get their resume to their recommenders well in advance. Climb up to the crow’s nest and yell down a week before the deadline to check on progress. “Iceberg!” “Shoal!” “You can apply to that school honey, but if you are admitted, we are going to need $20,000 in aid.” Or “The prospects for employment in that major are slim. If you decide to pursue that, you have to get an internship every summer.”

Climb up to the crow’s nest. If you do that now, the conversations you have this year will be far more empowering and mutually enjoyable. More importantly when your son or daughter does select a college and begins freshman year, you will have already positioned yourself appropriately (and they won’t mix colors and whites in warm water.)

After all, you cannot captain from 50 or 500 miles away. Climb up to the crow’s nest. You’ll enjoy the view and will be proud and impressed with the captain below.

See you next week as we round out A Family Affair.

A Family Affair, Part 1

It’s taken me over fifteen years working in college admission to realize a basic human truth:  People love their kids. Profound, right? But it’s an extremely important lesson and a statement I continue to tell myself and our staff each year.

People love their kids. That’s why a mother might call pretending to be her daughter in hopes of receiving a password or an admission decision. That’s why a father will be in the lobby at 7:30 a.m. after his son was deferred admission or waitlisted the day before. People love their kids. You’ve been holding them up literally since they were born and even now at 120 lbs or 250 lbs, you’re figuratively still doing just that.

This is why this excerpt from Jay Mathews’ article in the Washington Post a few years ago is so disconcerting to me: “There are few experiences short of death, disease, injury or divorce that have as much potential for trauma for American families as the college admissions process. The first great rite of passage for young humans once was killing a wild animal. That was replaced by getting married, or getting a job. These days it is getting into college.”

Now I realize this is hyperbolic journalism. Regardless, nobody wants to be part of an industry that breeds that kind of angst. However each year we see strained family dynamics, so his sentiments are somewhat true.  I believe there is a different solution– a better way forward. So here is a practical tip for helping your family thrive in the admission process, rather than allowing it to be divisive.

Safe place-safe space

Starting in the junior year of high school and gaining momentum in the senior year, the “college conversation” can seem like THE ONLY topic. So whether you are on the way to church or coming home from a tennis match, or driving two states over to visit relatives, the talk is always about college. “Have you considered applying to University X?” “I hear Brandon is really happy at Y College. You remember Brandon, right sweetie?” “Have you finished your essay?” “Where is your friend Sarah going to go for college next year?” And on and on and on…

If this is your pattern, then the quality of the conversation simply cannot be sustained. Nobody can talk about one subject all of the time and expect everyone else to continue to be interested or engaged.

I propose your family set aside two hours on a specified night each week or perhaps on Sunday afternoons and agree that the conversation will be about college. It’s in this time you open college mail, discuss deadlines that are coming up, look over essays to be edited, or discuss upcoming trips and the logistics of all of this. Everybody agrees to come to that meeting open, potentially even smiling (snacks help) with a willingness to ask and answer questions in the spirit of unity.

If this sounds cheesy or utopian or Pollyanna, then good. We all need a bit more of that in life in general, and certainly in the college admission process (Again, your alternative is what Mathews proposes). Also, no cell phones, no petting the cat, no staring longingly out the window. Just a defined period of time and a “safe place” where these necessary (and hopefully now more intentional) conversations can take place. Outside of that time and place, the college conversation is forboden (a great and all too infrequently used word). So if mom asks about a scholarship deadline on Wednesday at 7:30 a.m.- you can simply reply, “Safe place- safe space.”

At the end of the day, people love their kids. Students- remember that when mom and dad are on your case about this. Parents- remember that when your voice raises or when your patience wanes.

Tune in next week for tip 2 of A Family Affair. 

Let it go!

I have little kids, ages 7 and almost 5. This essentially means that, in attempting to raise them, I say the same things a lot, eat the same things a lot, and watch the same things a lot. It means other things too (like leg hugs) but we’ll just focus on the routine, repetitive nature of young humans.

Not unlike a lot of kids, mine love Disney. I think my current movie-viewing count is approximately three gazillion and my song-listening count is double that. Some of these Disney characters, lines, and themes are now forever emblazoned in my mind. They say when you learn another language you start dreaming in it. My wife recently heard me muttering something about a witch and a poison apple, so it seems I am now fluent in Disney.

Over the last year or so, Frozen has been ubiquitous. Interestingly, as Early Action and Early Decision deadlines approach, I think this movie has a lot to say about the admission process.

As you are probably aware, Elsa, the newly crowned queen, flees Arendelle in an attempt to begin a new, freer life for herself. She sings her passionate and cathartic song, “Let It Go,” as she creates an incredibly majestic ice paradise on the North Mountain.

When it comes to writing your college essays this year, I hope you will remember that scene and phrase.

You will hear supposed experts tell you to “be yourself” as you write. I think that is well-intentioned but dreadfully vague advice. To be more specific: Admission counselors want to hear YOUR voice and understand YOUR background.

All her life Elsa had been controlled and suppressed, and it was not until she left Arendelle that she could truly create something unique and beautiful. (Granted [spoiler alert!], she created an even greater masterpiece when she came back later and saved her kingdom and sister, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

You should absolutely ask others for their opinions and editing suggestions but don’t let them steal the power of YOUR story. Neither course choice nor course performance nor test scores nor extracurricular activities (that’s a lot of nors, I realize) convey you as an individual. Those details and attributes may trace a silhouette, but it’s your essay that colors in the full picture of how you are unique from the thousands of other applicants. Since very few schools interview students, think of your essay as an opportunity for the admission reader to really HEAR YOU.

The other lesson we can learn from Elsa about writing college essays is in her song “Let It Go.”

On the back end of the applications, we can see what percentage a student has completed. So when you finish detailing your extracurricular activities and biographical information,  you may be 70 percent or more complete. But year in and year out, applications will sit at 90 percent or so for weeks leading up to a deadline.

My guess is, the angst and uncertainty revealed by this incomplete status emanate from the fact that the essay is the last thing students can control. Your grades are all but set, your testing and scores are likely done, and you either did or did not join that club or play that sport in your sophomore year. But the essay … ahhh, this you can still hold, continue to massage … and perhaps it’s the magic bullet that will tip the scales.

But the truth is the essay alone will not be what gets you in or keeps you out of a school.

So, here is my strong and earnest advice: Choose a topic you care about, draft, write, edit, ask for feedback, refine — and then “Let It Go.”