Grasping at Sanity as the College Admissions Process Creeps Up

As Published in The Rye Record on November 7, 2014

First day of pre-school, 2001

I always wondered why parents went so mental when their kids were applying to college. I tended to give them a knowing nod, the “knowing” part being that I knew there was no way I was ever going to act that. If I asked a question about where their kid was applying, they would reply with a practiced, “we are not discussing it,” like they were members of a covert ops team. As with all other stages of raising children, you just don’t get it until you get there. From where I now sit, next to a son who is perched on the edge of 11th grade, I admit there’s a good chance I’m going to go a bit mental myself.

I take solace in the fact that the same parents who go berserk during their kid’s senior year are completely Zen a year later. They say things like, “Oh it all works out” and “There’s a great school for every student.” And I notice that their collective hair is starting to grow back where they’d previously been tearing it out. I just want to fast forward to that stage. I want to grab hold of that Zen and cloak myself in it for the duration of my child’s college admissions process.

Unfortunately, I have a history of going a bit overboard. Fact: when I was sixteen and going through the college admissions process myself, I completely lost my mind. I applied to a dozen colleges and sucked up to every admissions officer that visited my school. While I’m being honest, let me just say that cookies may have changed hands. When decision time came, I camped out on the curb waiting for the mailman. The first envelope to arrive was a rejection. From my safety school.

Everything went silent.

And so began a period of time when I questioned my basic worth as a human being, the possibility of my amounting to anything at all, and my right to breathe the air on this planet alongside the “accepted ones.” It’s disturbing now to think of how deeply I internalized this rejection. It was like I could quantify my lack of value based on the politely worded language in that rejection letter.

Long story short, I got into another college and pinned my self-worth on their approval. Phew! That was close!

See, I really did get in!

Recalling this dark time, why on earth would I think I wouldn’t go nuts when my child goes through this process? The sane part of parents knows that our children are wonderful, complex beings, with value that is infinite and separate from the whims of college admissions officers. Our kids will thrive in any number of environments and grow up to be bigger, more knowledgeable versions of who they already are. The crazier side of us worries that this is somehow about us, that our child’s admissions results will be a report card that either rewards us for driving to violin lessons or penalizes us for all those hours spent in front of The Family Guy.

One thing I hope to remember, besides the fact that this is not about me, is the fact that it’s harder now. I don’t know how it’s possible that so many things can be easier when this thing is so much harder, but it is. The ugly truth about my generation is that few of us would be accepted to our alma matters today. I don’t care if your first name’s Carnegie and your last name’s Mellon, you’d probably be waitlisted in 2015.

This adds to our stress because we know that our kids have to be twice as smart and accomplished as us we were. I do alumni interviews for my college, and these kids come at me with their state science award and their orchestra compositions and the import / export business they started while volunteering in Africa. I nod as if to say, “Yeah, I did that too.” And by “that” I mean I went to the beach a lot.

I’m not quite engaged in the college thing yet. I’m looking at it from a reasonably safe distance, clutching the words of those Zen parents like the hand of a child who’s about to run out into traffic. I write this as a reminder to myself and to my children that life is not pass / fail, and that it is so much more often circular than straight. And that the smartest person I know attended a college with a 73{561629be3f96d02978fda61b89c97a8a85b4e3972afa8170615e91208b2c08fa} acceptance rate.

Stay tuned.