Fat envelopes proclaiming "You Got In" or "Congratulation and Welcome" have been delivered. The finish line is in sight. What a long, strange trip it's been. Let's rewind.
It begins in earnest the beginning of the junior year of high school with an innocuous (seeming) meeting to brief students and their parents on the college application process. For us, this is instantly stressful, as we are told to do the exercises "as a family," which means my new husband and I are separated and asked to work with our respective daughters and our exes. (And yes, my husband and I both have girls who are now seniors in the same high school, although that is not how we met and probably better the subject for another posting). Since my husband and I see eye to eye with our exes, oh conservatively, about one percent of the time, this is the first of many strains that will follow during our "journey to college."
We are told to communicate about big school versus small, public versus private, geography and course of study. We are all mildly horrified when one student raises his hand and questions the importance of attending college at all. Dear god, we think, let's hope this isn't catching. Our children seem so grown up in some ways and yet so young in others. We know they need to be pushed from the nest, but surely they are not ready for "the real world," of jobs and what kind of job could they do anyway with only a high school degree? Also, after years of driving them, literally and figuratively, we are ready to have them out of the house, not living at home while they enter the glorious fast food industry. We start to panic. We remind ourselves to breathe.
Then the research begins. The sheer number of colleges is daunting. If your child, like mine, knows what she wants to study, you can narrow your focus. But for the parents of children with less clear-cut intentions, the search may be guided by such questions as: "is there a hockey team," or even more basically, "can he get in?" A preliminary list is created. Naturally, this list is influenced by the child's desires, the parents' expectations and finances, and if your school has a good college counselor, their input as well. It is funny, and I mean odd funny, not "ha ha" funny, to realize how much of your own college application experience begins to wield its influence. For example, I grew up in New York and don't think I considered a single college that wasn't on the east coast, so have to admit to a certain east coast snobbery in my thinking. Or take my husband's example, he got into Berkeley, but his parents refused to let him go during the tumult of the 1970's and he ended up at Harvey Mudd, so he began the process (and we will circle back to this in a bit) encouraging his daughter to follow her dreams wherever they took her geographically. My ex was told that state schools were his only option, which I am sure influenced his oft stated position that our daughter should only consider state schools.
The next big step: the college trips. Our school sponsored one to the east coast, as many L.A. schools do-- Boston, New York, sometimes Pennsylvania. Or parents take their kids, showing them their alma mater, or the place they wished they had gone, or the places both parent and child feel curious about. As the kids begin to imagine themselves in one setting or another, it becomes more real, which is both exciting and intimidating. Early favorites are declared, the list is refined.
It is in the fall of senior year that things kick into high gear (if not abject terror). Application deadlines must be researched and met, the difference between and advisability of applying early decision or early action debated, common app essays drafted and redrafted, non-common app schools' requirements divined, ACT and SAT tests prepped for, scheduled and taken, all while the student is managing their regular course work and all important extracurricular activities (the things that will distinguish their college application from all the rest). It became a joke in our house that to get into an Ivy League school, a student had to have not only perfect grades and test scores, but also the provenance of having opened an orphanage in Somalia. Sadly, we began to realize this wasn't really a joke.
I will digress here to say that for the last three years I have served on the admissions committee at The University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts where I am an adjunct professor. I volunteered for this committee in part because I had a daughter who was beginning this cycle, and the experience has been eye-opening (albeit in many ways specific to the institution). One thing I can say without doubt though, is that the personal essay is by far the biggest window into the candidate and even more importantly whether the candidate is a match for the school. I have reviewed dozens upon dozens of applications and how the student chooses to present his or her self in the essay reveals more than grades, test scores, resumes, and references combined, and in the case of film school, even more than the required visual and written samples of work. (Luckily in our case, writing is my daughter's chosen path in life and her essay kicked some serious butt.)
In addition to all the work the student is doing, the parent has his or her work cut out as well. Not many of us can easily write a check for the tens of thousands of dollars a single year of college can cost. So we must research financial aid requirements and deadlines, figure out which schools have the largest endowments and therefore can afford to be the most generous, learn how to master the (various and frequently overwhelming) financial disclosure forms required by the various financial aid offices, learn about the differences between need based grants, internal and external scholarships, subsidized and unsubsidized federal loans, PELL grants, and private loans…I am hyperventilating just thinking about it all.
I will digress again to say that in a family of divorce and/or re-marriage, the sheer amount of work involved, coupled with the stress of already labored relationships with exes who may not agree with methodology or choice, puts the process on steroids. Welcome to my world.
Then begins the process of WAITING. The calm before the storm. It seems oddly peaceful in the house, simply because the collective workload has lessened. And then snippets of information about classmates begin to trickle in. Who got their early decision choice and is rejoicing, who was rejected and is sobbing, convinced that life is over. Then, the joy of your child's first admission or the pain of that first rejection.
The stories shared with other parents tell one that different stories with similar markers are being played out all over town. In my own household, for example, there are two radically different tales. My step-daughter has a college fund that will allow her total financial freedom in her college choice. My daughter will need to rely on a financial aid package consisting of scholarship, grants, and some tough choices about loans. My step-daughter is totally convinced she wants to attend a dual BA/BFA program in the heart of Manhattan (a choice her father disagrees with), while my daughter and I are in agreement (at least as of today) that a small liberal arts school on the west coast is probably the best choice. Other families play out their dramas: the girl who got into her first choice, but was so afraid she wouldn't she didn't even apply until the last possible day, fed-exing the application in a flurry of anxiety, the girl who wanted to stay in LA and has only been accepted to two schools, both in New York, the kid who applied early decision to a school that accepted him, but is now regretting his choice.
After the pool has narrowed, comes decision time. More trips to see schools that have accepted the kid, more research about core curriculum requirements, careful reading of course catalogs, examination of semesters abroad programs, distinguished alumni, alumni services, campus "vibe," the list goes on and on. Along with the research comes the collision of parental expectations and the student's desires. Intellectually and developmentally we may know it should be the student's choice, but how do we reconcile our feelings that the child is picking the wrong environment, or settling for a school that won't be sufficiently academically challenging, or making a social decision rather than an educational one (fill in your own blank). Some kids and parents know right away, navigate quickly and are either happily plunking down deposits or figuring out how to pay, some can't decide, the choice just feels too enormous (put my kid in that category), some are debating deferred admission and a gap year.
But by May 11st, all of us will have sent in a deposit check. We as individuals, and as a family, will have jumped over every hurdle, climbed over every mountain, pulled our hair and gnashed our teeth, fought with our kids, our spouses and our exes, held our breath and bit our nails, but ultimately a decision will be made. And than we can exhale, at least for a moment, before we start worrying about how the hell we are going to actually drop them off at the college of their choice and, gulp, separate.
Below are some useful links, (all of which I have visited many times) .