JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: September. Ripening apples, cooling temperatures, longer nights. Homework and football games and getting out the fall wardrobe. And for parents of high school seniors, the start of a frenetic process that begins with English class essay writing and ends in May with the financial aid offers and the ceremonial Writing of the Deposit Check. It took you nine months to get the kid into the world, and it's going to take you another nine to get him into college.
Having had the experience once (oldest daughter safely shot off to Smith,) I am here, my fellow parents, to give you the benefit of my experience, as I prepare to do it all over again with The Boy. Here are some pointers to keep in mind.
1. Your child will come up with some lame-brained reasons for selecting colleges. The Boy has expressed interest in applying for colleges because: he saw pretty girls during the tour last spring; he read it was a great party school (a motivation near and dear to every parent's heart...); they have a good cross-country team; they have a flag football team (a sport he's never actually played, but he'd like to try it!); he loved the town; the campus is close enough to take the train to Boston/New York/Baltimore/Washington.
You'll note academic offerings do not appear anywhere on this list. Do not despair, parent, and above all don't tell the kid, "I'm not paying fifty grand a year so you can have a four-year Mardi Gras!" Cheer up! Chances are good he or she won't get in any of those universities, anyway. Which brings me to my second point:
2. Every school your child expresses and interest in will have a 9% acceptance rate. They all have a 9% acceptance rate nowadays. Since the Common App replaced the laborious typewritten applications our generation had to deal with, every institution of higher learning in the US gets approximately 57,000 applicants for an entering class of 1,200. Your kid will apply to school the way gamblers buy scratch-off lottery tickets. After the 10th, or 12th or 15th college, it all starts to blur. The first acceptance in the early spring will be from someplace neither of you remembers.
Want to better those odds? It's too late to cram in four more AP courses, and if your student hasn't spent the last four summers fighting rug manufacturing child labor violations in Karachi (it looks really good on the resume,) there's only one way to boost his or her chances.
3. Do what it takes to ace those standardized tests. Did you know there are parents out there who get their kids classified as learning disabled so they have extra time to take the SATs? That students in elite public schools are popping Ritalin and Adderal to boost their performances? Are you going to let those cheaters outdo your child?
Sure, you should get the prep book and have your student study it and take the practice exams. Take advantage of any free test prep the high school gives. If you can afford it, there are two-night classes and seven-week classes and private tutoring.
But lets think more assertively here. Do you know anyone who works for the College Board? With the internet, it's easier to find people than ever! Get to know your selected College Board official. Casually drop by his house at odd hours. Express a keen interest in his pets - the ones that roam outside, within easy reach of any passing van on the road. With just a few heart-to-heart chats, you may find your student is guaranteed an increase of thirty, forty, or fifty points on his or her SAT score!
4. Your child may have a strong, healthy sense of self-worth. Squash it. The Boy didn't want to spend the time we (okay, I) had already scheduled for test prep. He wanted to go out for a ten mile run. "Which do you think is going to get you into the US Naval Academy," I asked, "high SAT scores, or making All-State in cross country?"
"Making All-State," he replied.
He's good. But he's not that good. Chances are, neither is your child. So when your student tells you with shining eye and lilting voice that college is in the bag because he or she got the lead role in the musical/ broke 100 on the golf course/ was elected president of the debate team, gently but firmly point out they are living in a fool's paradise. (You may wish to adjust your phrasing according to how iron-plated your 17-year-old's ego is.)
5. Remember you can give help, you can give advice, you can give guidance, but ultimately, getting into college is your child's job. I'll admit this is something I struggle with. When my daughter was in her senior year, I told some friends, "We're taking the SAT for the second time in November."
She took me aside. "We are not taking the SAT, mom. I am." Ouch. But a fair point. So when The Boy interrupted me in the middle of my paean to Williams College and said, "Mom. I don't want to go to Williams. You want to go to Williams." I had to admit he was right. (It has such a great library. And an art museum!) Your kids' college search isn't a do-over for all the things you wish you had done thirty years ago, when you were a senior.
And really, its better that way. I don't know about you, but I'm a wreck if I don't get to bed by eleven. And isn't it nice to be able to afford top-shelf booze instead of having to haunt $1 beer night at the Rongovian Embassy?
So there you are, my fellow parents. By all means, hop on the back blog and share your advice for the Great College Quest. My youngest is only in seventh grade, so I'll be doing at all over again five years from now...