A mom's guide to college admissions

No diplomats or Nobel Laureates in your family? Don't despair, your kid will get in somewhere.

Published January 30, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

For a full year after my daughter took the SATs, faithful correspondents from every state in the union saw to it that my mailbox was never empty. Institutions of higher learning, many of which I'd never known existed, sent daily bundles of hope in the form of catalogs, applications, financial aid information, videos, holiday greetings, campus tour schedules, parent association newsletters, invitations to slide shows and requests for our presence at high tea.

Most remarkable was how much of this stuff was addressed to me, not my daughter. My own parents' involvement in my college plans consisted solely of their requiring that I attend a state school, to keep costs down and to keep me fairly close to home. I spent four glorious years at the State University of New York at Buffalo, which was as far away from Long Island as I could get and still meet my family's requirements. But parents of my generation have so obsessively monitored -- and manipulated -- the intimate details of our children's lives that perhaps it's natural for colleges to assume we'll want to manage this process as well. Starting in kindergarten our children needed appointment calendars to keep track of the lacrosse practices and cello lessons we arranged for them. In the name of Good Parenting, we invented the diaper-changing dad and put "soccer mom" in Webster's. Recruitment gurus on college campuses have got our number -- not to mention our home and e-mail addresses.

One of the first events in the Getting Ready for College competition was Parents of Seniors Night at my daughter's high school. I felt a little sorry for the college advisors, who did their best to offer practical information about the process of applying to college and how to keep expectations realistic. Unfortunately, many parents saw the evening as an opportunity to advertise the stellar achievements of their extraordinary offspring. One mother interrupted the proceedings to ask for advice on how to be diplomatic with the admissions directors at Princeton and Harvard, who had been relentlessly pursuing her daughter since nursery school and would, of course, be devastated when they learned of her child's plan to accept a full scholarship to Yale. A couple identifying themselves as "proud parents of a son who is in his second year on full scholarship at MIT but he's an athlete too and a daughter who can't make up her mind which college's honors program she will grace next year" wanted to let everyone know they understood all too well the stress we were under and we could call them for support any time. I finally left the auditorium after hearing a parent confess that choosing an appropriate topic for the college application essay was going to be tough for his child, who, at 17, had already starred on Broadway and established a soup kitchen for the homeless.

Speaking of the obligatory essay, you'll do well not to react when your child laments having been born into a family devoid of diplomats or Nobel laureates who could have provided unique experiences with which to capture the attention of admissions committees. The same rule applies when your child brings home wild tales of students actually accepted at the finest schools on the basis of essays on the most mundane of topics: "Mom, her essay topic was 'How To Survive a Bad Hair Day,' and I swear, she got accepted at every college on six continents!" Except for issuing a gentle reminder to check spelling and punctuation, just stay out of the fray.

You'll probably find that many of the glossy college catalogs that hit your mailbox will get tossed unread into your recycling bin. One Midwestern school (YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE) won our household's Faithful Correspondent's Prize -- it seemed we (and most other families we spoke to) received something in the mail from them every day for about six months running. Despite the school's credible academic standing, my daughter and her friends decided the place was probably "for losers."

Just for laughs, you may want to go ahead and watch some of the videos that show up on your doorstep. I especially liked the ones from the more obscure schools, with names like Geyser State, that somehow manage to round up multicultural, politically correct casts of students who earnestly praise the school's commitment to diversity. My daughter and a friend became the Siskel and Ebert of college videos, viewing them only for the chance to criticize the hokey scripts and dated music, screaming with laughter at the colleges' clumsy attempts at being cool. In the end, it won't matter what the schools say about themselves or what you say; your student will wind up applying to a handful of colleges based on wisdom culled from high school counselors and, most important, the peer grapevine. Neither your sage advice nor the colleges' slick marketing campaigns can compete with the folklore of high school seniors: "Mom, you don't understand how things are these days. Everyone knows that only (jocks, dorks, Republicans, lesbians) go to that school." Beyond being permitted to inject realistic financial considerations into the choice of school, expect that your opinions will go unheeded.

Once the applications are sent off (including the fees of $30-50 a pop), prepare for inevitable bureaucratic snafus during the waiting period. The schools will lose paperwork. Their computers will mangle your kid's name, address and Social Security number, so critical pieces of mail will get waylaid. A congratulatory welcome letter from the chair of the fine arts department may wreak havoc on your household if your student has applied to the engineering program. We had a memorable experience with one large state school that sent my daughter a beautiful note signed by the head of the admissions committee, letting her know that her essay was exceptional, and that only a tiny percentage of their 25,000 applicants would be receiving such letters of praise. The following day, another letter from the college appeared with news that after careful review of her application, the school could not accept her outright, but was advising her to attend one of their small "branch campuses" for her freshman year, where she could receive extra help with some critical skills -- writing, for example.

Another college sent my daughter both acceptance and rejection letters, which arrived on the same day, just as Christmas break began. The college was closed for the break, so there was no hope of finding out which letter to believe. I still shudder in recalling the high anxiety that ensued, but suffice to say, I was tempted to look up the home address of the admissions director who had signed both and ship my child to his house for the holidays.

Happily, we have survived. My daughter left for college last fall. The treks to the six campuses we visited, the harrowing application procedure, the frantic daily race to check the mail for skinny or fat envelopes (the fat ones usually, but not always, contain good news) are fading from memory. What remains is the hope that my daughter will enjoy college as much as I did, and my concern that in four years she might want to go to graduate school, and Geyser State and all the others will still have my address.

By Teri Rosen

Teri Rosen is a writer living in Philadelphia.

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