With all the Back-To-School nights over and our kids settled into school and their extra-curricular activities, I should be able to relax. September madness is over, right? I thought so, until I went to “Freshman Parent Night” at my son’s new high school last week. I thought it was going to be a presentation on easing our kids through the transition from middle school to the big leagues of high school. And mostly it was. Until they put the PDF file of the “College Handbook” up on the screen.
Instantaneously, I felt a lurch in my stomach. You know that feeling when you thought you had everything under control and then someone throws that curveball at you when you weren’t looking or ready? College handbook? Are they kidding? Didn’t I just wean this kid?!
They weren’t trying to scare us or stress us out, but guess what? They did! They told us to look through the handbook when we had a chance at home. Well, my chance came the minute I got home that night. I rushed to my laptop and quickly pulled up the school’s website so I could click on that PDF file. It was more than I ever imagined – 24 pages! The handbook outlines all the tests, deadlines, advice, etc. that a high schooler needs to know who intends to apply for college. Granted, most of the important dates and exams are not until junior year. So, I’ve got a good two years until the real panic sets in.
But still, I continued to think about that PDF file days later. I have several friends who have already experienced the college application process with their own kids. I’ve heard everything from, “it was the most intense year we’ve ever had” to “it wasn’t that bad at all. There’s a school for everyone.” And then they start piling on the advice: Don’t let them take too many AP classes. Hire a college consultant. Register for SAT review courses. I immediately start taking mental notes and realize my pulse has gone into overdrive.
Perhaps I’m simply freaking out because I am now flashing back to my own teenage years, when I had to apply to college. I recall agonizing over my S.A.T. scores and the dreaded college essay, unsure of who or what to write about. I applied to seven different schools and I think at least four of them required unique essays on different subjects. For one school, I had to write about my hero. I think I chose Neil Armstrong, even though I had no interest whatsoever in space or science. Another school wanted me to write about my leadership skills. I was a shy teenage girl who had two extra-curricular activities – Kickline squad and writing for the school newspaper. I was neither captain nor editor-in-chief. That essay obviously demanded huge amounts of exaggeration.
The application process was also long and arduous back then. There was no “common app” as there is now. And, it was 1982. I had to individually type each application with a typewriter. I think I went through four bottles of “White-Out” before I was finished.
The good news is that my son’s high school claims that 100% of the graduating seniors are accepted into colleges. 100%! Now, those are pretty good odds. But, do 100% of those students go to their 1st or 2nd choice colleges or are they ending up at their “safe schools?” Truth be known, I ended up at my safe school and you know what? Best four years I could have ever asked for. And, I was accepted by one of my “reach” schools, but still chose to go to the safe one. The sad fact is that if I were applying to my safe school today, I don’t know if I’d get in. These days, college admissions are so competitive, it’s like threading a rope through the eye of a needle. Not everything or everyone can fit.
What does that mean for the college application process? It means you better be (or appear to be) pretty damn special. I’ve heard that colleges don’t just want strong grades and excellent test scores. They want community service (and no, those teen tour trips to Hawaii and Europe with a community service component don’t count. The colleges are on to you there). The only community service I did as a high schooler was to help a little old lady across the street once. Really. And, the colleges also want your high schooler to show a passion and commitment for something, whether it’s a musical instrument or a sport. I was on kickline for two years. Not exactly screaming passion or commitment. Oh and did I mention I was too fearful to try out for the tennis team?
I’ve finally calmed down a little since that PDF file flashed in front of me. Because I realized I’m not the one who will be applying to college. I’m the one who has to remain centered and supportive, while my son endures the process. He’s already concerned about applying to college so it’s my job to help him stay focused on the day-to-day. We don’t know what the future has in store for him, and whether he goes to his reach school, his safe school, or takes a gap year, I know we’ll get through it, with or without that PDF file.