The Ides of March

March 15, 2017

It’s that time of year again – undergraduate admissions season. This year, I’ve got a personal stake in the game: My youngest, Hanna, is a high school senior anxiously awaiting the results of a process that started over a year ago. On second thought, make that three years ago – from the moment Hanna started high school, admission to college is the goal she and her classmates have been working towards.

In the interest of full disclosure, Hanna goes to an independent school that she has attended since Kindergarten. Our oldest, Caitlin, went there from grades 7 – 12; we chose it for her because of its reputation for providing an excellent, progressive education, and her experience was so positive that we selected it for Hanna when she was 5. The school has been around for 250 years and its history is an important part of the curriculum, especially in the lower grades. It’s a wonderful institution, one with which we’ve been very happy for many years.

But in the upper grades, there’s no denying the importance of the college admissions process. Hanna’s school is assuredly more focused on this process than most public or parochial high schools, and the pressure is intense. At her incoming freshman meeting with the dean of students, mention was made of Hanna’s “college portfolio” and “curriculum vitae.” I was thirty years old before I knew what a CV was, and at the age of 52, I still don’t have a “portfolio.” I was a little put off that even though Hanna was only 14 at the time, we were already talking about the “c” word. In the hope of diffusing some of the inescapable and ever-present emphasis on college, we encouraged Hanna to focus on her schoolwork and activities she enjoyed, to make friends, and to have fun. She did all of those things.

When it was time to begin the process for real, neither Hanna, nor we approached it with the level of zeal of some of her peers and their parents. We didn’t hire coaches to work one-on-one with her to study for the SAT, we didn’t discuss her grades with her except to commend her for her hard work, the progress she showed from quarter to quarter, and the persistence she exhibited when confronted with an especially challenging junior year chemistry class. We were happy that she found a few activities that really mattered to her, ones she threw herself into with enthusiasm and passion. She wasn’t president of the class, she didn’t take a mission a trip to Honduras to build a school for underprivileged children, and she has never been the type of kid that screams “high-performing leader.” Her grades and test scores are far better than either mine or my husband’s were, and her curriculum has been unquestionably more rigorous. The “college resume” she ended up putting together is impressive, mostly (to me, anyway), because it indicates a serious and conscientious student who has continually pushed herself to excel and who has never taken her foot off the pedal, even as a second semester senior with two acceptances under her belt.

But there are eight more decisions to come, and the tension in the O’Connor Household is palpable. We don’t talk about, because she’s thinking about it pretty much 24/7, and discussing it at this point only makes it more stressful. When all of the decisions roll in, there are bound to be disappointments, and we are hopeful that they won’t be big ones. We’ve repeatedly told Hanna that she’s the consumer, and she’s the who will ultimately be making the choice of which school deserves the commitment of her time and our money.

For kids like Hanna, however – kids with parents who have made their children’s success in everything, from t-ball to tae kwan do, the central focus of the family – those disappointments, if and when they come, are bound to be the biggest of their lives so far. Nothing truly awful has yet happened to these kids, because we parents have made it our mission in life to ensure that our kids’ existence is safe, enriching, and underpinned in every respect by a deep and abiding love. Add to that the message with which they are besieged on an almost daily basis, by their teachers, their peers, and well-meaning relatives and friends of their parents, that where they go to college is the MOST IMPORTANT DECISION OF THEIR LIVES, and you’ve got a recipe for almost certain disappointment. Thus, when they don’t get into the college of their dreams, it’s heartbreaking. It shouldn’t be.

Every year around this time, I read at least one article written by a college admissions officer who attempts to convey to those who are feverishly checking their portals every fifteen minutes that neither rejections nor acceptances are a referendum on a student’s potential or ability. We are reminded of the stratospherically high number of applicants, which continues to increase every year. Statistics tell us that the chances of getting into a highly competitive school, even for students with “toll-free test scores” and 4.0 (or 4.2, or 4.4) GPAs, is unlikely. Of late, Ivy League colleges are accepting a mere 8% of applicants, most of whom, at least on paper, look like they should be shoe-ins for admission. With so many applicants and a finite number of spaces, though, 92% of those stellar applicants aren’t going to make the cut, notwithstanding that they are likely as capable of successfully completing a four-year degree as those who did get in.

The statistics are daunting even where less competitive schools are involved. These days, students with high grades, test scores, and a laundry list of diverse activities may find that the “safety schools” of the past are today’s “target,” or even “reach” schools. With so much out of our control, we try to believe that no matter where our kid ends up, it’s not a statement about them as scholars, or about us as parents. It we’re being honest, however, we all think about how good it would feel to say, “my kid’s going to Yale,” because everyone knows what that means – that we’re good parents who raised our brilliant, accomplished kids right.

The thing is, most of the people I know (including me) didn’t go to an Ivy League college, or even a school that ranks in the top 10 of a US News and World Report list. Most of my closest friends and colleagues went to “good schools,” but not ones that are hyper-selective or universally acknowledged as the standard bearers for academic excellence. What’s more, most of those same people (again, including me) also got rejected by their first-choice school. Neither Caitlin, nor some of her closest friends, ended up at the college they thought they’d die if they didn’t get into, but you know what? Somehow they managed to survive. Somehow, they ended up loving the second- or third- choice school they ultimately attended, and after a mere semester there, couldn’t imagine themselves anywhere else.

What I’ve concluded from all of this is that many parents and kids hope to be admitted to the “top colleges” because they think it’s proof that they’re smart and gifted and are going to be successful no matter what career path they choose. Most, however, are going to have to be happy with a “not an Ivy school, but probably still capable of providing a quality education,” and the thing is – they will be. Regardless of how much we might like to believe that getting into one’s first choice is the key to a happy and successful life, the reality is, whether or not you have a happy or successful life has less to do with where you go to college and a whole lot more to do with what you do once you get there.

We’re going to try to relax over the next few weeks and let what is going to happen, happen. In a few short months, Hanna will graduate, and a few months after that, we’ll pack her up and drop her off at college. No matter where that ends up being, come Thanksgiving, I have a feeling she’ll be regaling us with tales of all the wonderful experiences she’s having, and she won’t even remember which other colleges she applied to or whether she got in.

So all you high school seniors out there – and all you parents, too – take a deep breath. It’s going to be okay – I promise.

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