It’s not where you land that matters.

I don’t usually write about about things that happen in my personal life in this space, but I thought it might be worth mentioning the journey our family –in particular, my 17 year old son — has been on these past few months. For you see, our eldest son has applied to colleges for next year, and through that and with that our family has gone through one form of an existential angst or another over these past few months…and the fun is not over yet.

[Before I begin let me say that I realize that in the grand scheme of things we are very lucky. We have the opportunity and the ability to send The Kid to college and he has the opportunity to have choices. We live in a part of the country where college or an education beyond high school is not an option for many people. We are grateful for what we are able to offer our kids for their future, and wish more kids could have similar opportunities and possibilities]

This week is the week in which the regular admission answers come in the mail. You know the drill: Thin envelope? Fat envelope? All will be divulged by April 1, and then, hopefully The Kid will have some choices to make.

It is truly fascinating to be an employee of a “highly selective liberal arts college”, and also a parent of a kid applying to highly selective colleges (including the one where The Kid’s mom works). Fascinating might be too kind a word, actually. Anxiety-provoking? Angst-ridden? Perplexing? yeah that’s more like it. I thought working in this environment would offer me a better perspective on all of this. Actually the opposite has happened: somehow by working in Academia, the application process seems
even more strange and strained.

The mechanisms by which we decide what constitutes a “good” school are curious. Is a school “good” because it has name recognition? Is it “good” because US News and World Reports annual survey ranks it favorably? Is it “good” because of the grades students give it on College Prowler? Is it “good” because it is selective (which in layman terms means it rejects more than it accepts)? Is it “good” because it has figured out how to use the Web and social media to get itself known?

I feel for the 17 year-olds there, my own included. The voices around them are telling them that this is a HUGE decision, and one that will determine your FUTURE. Suddenly their education is no longer about the learning, but about the GPA, and how that GPA will be determined, and how one person’s GPA stacks up against another, and about the STATUS of the place where studied and on and on. Standardized tests have influence, and woe be to the individual who does not test well. Your work, your story, your achievements, your passions are suddenly boiled down to a paper portfolio that will be read by strangers. Suddenly, you have a new definition of the word helplessness.

In no particular order, these are some of the things we have learned along the way as The Kid applied to various 4 year liberal arts colleges around the country:

1) Colleges truly want you to come and visit, but its not always about your visit, but about the data your visit provides. Colleges are happy to send you mail. They are attentive and charming and welcoming. Some go out of their way to give you interviews. This is The Courtship Period, and it is sweet and fun and full of expectations, glossy pamphlets, tours, teas, and hopefulness. For the colleges, the more people they court, the more mail they send…the better their numbers become. (Having sat in faculty meetings I know how important these numbers indeed end up being… one of the key indicators of our “value” is our ability to weather the uncertain economic storms based upon the total numbers of mailings, visits, interviews, inquiries we receive).

Alas some Courtships end up as lopsided infatuations and unrequited love. During the selection process, those high number of inquiries are whittled down into the admits and the non admits. The fewer the admits, the greater the selectivity. Many schools like to see themselves as selective. One school where The Kid was rejected said he was a great candidate but as a rule they had decided they were only taking 12% of their applicants, so he was cut.

2) You can’t control it. You can’t figure it out. Don’t even try. Even though you work in the Academy, don’t think for a minute that you will be able to understand how your school or other schools make their choices and why. Everyone looks at a dossier differently, no matter how you would like for it to be seen. One school looked at The Kid’s transcript and saw him as in the top 40% of his class, while another school, also selective, saw him in the top 10% of his class. Same numbers, same info…. but remarkably different ways of seeing things.

3) While on the one hand admissions people are choosing a class and deciding upon the complexion and complexity of that group of people, they are also generating revenue. Admissions is a financial transaction. This is the “business” of schools and the major means by which schools get income. Our 17 year olds, who apply and are accepted during the regular decision round, will witness the hard sell up close and all too personally. One of The Kid’s friends was accepted to a prestigious school in the New England area. They called him, on the phone, on a Sunday morning, two weeks before the acceptance letters were to be mailed, to tell him he was one of their top 100 applicants. They -know- he has apps at other equally prestigious schools, and wanted to get the jump on all of them. If that is not hard core marketing, I dunno what is.

4) It is excruciatingly hard to watch people judge your kid. Part 2: It is really hard to watch people mis-judge your kid. Part 3: It is really hard not to go ballistic and Mama Bear on Admissions folks who look for things to critique in your kid’s dossier vs things to celebrate in order to whittle down their pool. I find it telling that some of the “wicked” selective schools will not even let you call their Admissions offices for two weeks after the decision is out. I think they are hoping the sedatives will have kicked in for the parents by then. I also find it refreshing that some schools will check in with you periodically during the process and let you know what is missing, if anything, and what to expect next. Yeah, that could be seen as a form of marketing as well, but it helps to know that there are people on the other side…yes, it does.

5) There is no replacement for the F2F. The Kid is on Spring Break in California as the letters tumble in. The Kid wants to see what the envelopes say, but he doesn’t want us to open them first nor does he want to open them alone. We devised a system in which my colleague Justin scanned the letters into pdfs and then sent them to me via email. I forwarded them to The Kid without opening the attachment.

My husband (who is also blogging about this) and I, via the wonders of Gchat, watched as he opened the files and got the results…some good, some not.

Web 2.0 parenting is wicked hard

Web 2.0 parenting is wicked hard

When the news is good, you can celebrate long distance. When the news was not so good (see above) you just want to be there and hold your kid. Ouch.

6) The best piece of advice I got during this whole process was from one of my own students. She said “It really doesn’t matter where The Kid lands. What matters is what he makes of it once he gets there.”

And in the end, I realize, she is oh so totally right.

Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!


  1. Steve · June 10, 2010 Reply

    Thanks for the frank and hopeful post. We’ll be going thru this next year!

  2. Debbie · January 15, 2012 Reply

    Great post! I have a few years before going through this with my first, but yours is a very well-rounded perspective!!

    • Barbara · January 15, 2012 Reply

      Thanks. Almost 2 years later I am happy to report that he is doing well (thriving actually). His younger brother is about to begin that process, and I think we all are approaching the College Admissions dance with a better perspective. On the one hand it is hard to see your children be rejected, on the other hand these are important moments for them to experience.

      It is gut wrenching to see your kids being “judged” in a way neither you nor they can control. Our intentions do not always match someone else’s perception…. and that is an important lesson to learn early in life.

      Good luck!


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