Parent to Parent:The College Search
Students involved in the “craziness” of the college application process get lots of sympathy and advice. Receiving less attention and care are the parents; those cheerleading adults who share the rollercoaster ride are variously depended upon or kept out of the loop and, ultimately, are required to accept their child’s independence and college decision. Coming to the aid of anxious and frustrated moms and dads, Jennifer Delahunty, dean of admissions at Ohio’s Kenyon College, has put together an anthology of 27 personal essays by those who have been through the process, titled “I’m Going to College — Not You!” Sharing their experiences, parent to parent, the writers give the encouraging message that, in the end, “Everything will be all right.” Rather than a “how to” manual for parents, the book is about “how to survive.” The essays are wise, often witty, sometimes poignant, and delightful to read. While each story is as unique as each student, readers will recognize aspects of themselves, their children, and their families in these tales. The authors are a stellar assemblage that includes novelists, poets, playwrights, journalists, educators, and a hefty dose of admissions counselors and directors. The group boasts an Emmy- and a Pulitzer Prize-winner, a New York Times columnist, the author of an Oprah Book Club selection, and a reporter for Education Update. But, most important, they are all parents.
Delahunty reminds us that college choice is a big business generating billions of dollars annually. Test preparation companies (e.g., Kaplan, Princeton Review), testing agencies (College Board, ACT), and independent counselors thrive in this fiercely competitive, unpredictable reality. “A meritocracy it is not,” states Delahunty. “The mysterious nature of the process frustrates and infuriates.” Millions of dollars are available in financial aid, but a specific amount is not offered until four weeks before “a major purchasing decision must be made.” College choice coincides with the tense time in life when a child seeks independence and parents want control. “It is the last great act of parenting,” advises the Kenyon admissions director, comparing it to letting your child drive a car on his or her own even though you know you have more experience. Compiling a “list” (usually 10 to 12 schools) is the first challenge. Should it include a parent’s beloved alma mater? How far away? What if proximity to a high school sweetheart is insisted upon? (See essay, “When Love Gets in the Way.”) College visits can be helpful, but can also produce seemingly irrational observations and reactions. While some applicants have the advantage of being “shoo-ins” (legacies, development, top athlete or talent), most are “hopefuls” and must find an angle, or “hook.”
At a recent reading from “I’m Going to College — Not You!” at Bloomberg headquarters, 10 contributors shared insights. They described strong needs for teen independence, dissimilar experiences with different children within a family, and summers and holidays devoted to college visits. A mother of a special-needs son spoke of bringing medical records to college interviews and the anguish of rejections. Laurie Kutchins, who accepted the role of “Application Coach and Deadline Enforcement Officer,” remarked, “It is a powerful and indelible moment when parents catch a first glimpse of mature adulthood emerging in their teenager.” Sean Callaway, the father of six home-schooled children, learned that, “quality without salesmanship is just another word for oblivion,” and took a job counseling high school students about college as a result of the search experience. Lisa K. Winkler, mother of three, noted eloquently, “The college hunt taught us that we should listen to our kids. … We learned about each child in ways we never may have otherwise.” Anna Duke Reach admitted it wasn’t until the college search with her third child that she finally “got it” and realized her parental role was like Sancho Panza to Don Quixote: “listening hard and believing the impossible until I share a vision of each child’s dream.” In the book, Anna Quindlen, who went on to become a trustee and chair of the board of her alma mater, Barnard College, spoke of being very unhappy as a freshman, but “growing into the place.” She suggests it is not always best to feel at home immediately because comfort allows no room for growth. She advises, “College should be aspirational, designed not to reinforce who a student is but to elevate her to the point at which she dares to be the best self she can become, intellectually and personally.” The book’s underlying message to anxious parents: Be helpful, but do not interfere. The search does end..#