Wednesday, August 4, 2010

On college admissions madness.

JAN: Please welcome Jennifer Delahunty to Jungle Red today. She is the dean of admissions at the prestigious Kenyon College in Ohio, and the author of a new collection of essays about the college admissions process.

Jennifer, a mother of two girls, has seen the madness from both sides of the application. Her essay for The New York Times about the torture of undergoing this process with her daughter. Entitled, "To All the Girls I rejected," was the most emailed article for weeks after publication and syndicated in major papers across the country.

Booklist has given the book rave reviews and says the essays, with include authors like Anna Quindlen, Jane Hamilton, Neil Pollack, the Neurotic Parent Blogger, and myself, range "from hilarious to painful," and are often revealing about what Jennifer calls, "The last dance of parenting."

There's also the "inside" perspective not just from Jennifer, but also from admissions director from Smith and Colby Colleges.

JAN: Why has college admissions become so stressful for parents?

JENNIFER: To parents, the college bumper sticker has almost become the report card on the first 18 years of parenting. When parents call me and ask why their son or daughter didn't get into Kenyon, I'm so struck by the fact that they want to blame themselves.

All of us, parents of this generation, have done too much for our kids and then we whack them over the head with the college search assignment and they have no idea what to do -- and thus the parents step in, once again, to rescue them..

JAN: I know from my own experience that my kids were made crazy by the process. Even before parents got involved. Why is that?

JENNIFER: It's ridiculous! Thirty-five years ago, students applied to three colleges, got into two and chose one. It seemed very manageable. But that's not how it goes today -- we've had students apply to Kenyon and 19 other colleges. Do you know how difficult it is to keep track of 19 different applications -- and to what end?

JAN: But because the process has become so selective?

JENNIFER: What percentage of students do you think get into their first choice college? 75%! You wouldn't think that by reading the mainstream press, which is all amped up over selectivity. The problem is that colleges and the press are both guilty of feeding the frenzy -- the press says "it's so hard to get in" and then the colleges get more applications and guess what? It IS harder to receive a fat envelope.

JAN: How you got the idea for the book?
JENNIFER: I read an essay by Gail Hudson (included in the book) which was in a collection of essays about raising teenagers. It made me laugh so hard -- and this was at the point when my own kids were going through the process. I thought, "I would read an entire collection of such essays."

JAN: Were there any particular anecdotes of crazy parenting that you saw as dean of admissions that inspired the book or that you'd like to share?

JENNIFER: There are too many! The mother who falsified her son's transcript, the mother who forged a threatening letter from Kenyon to her admitted son so that he would button up his work habits and not lose his offer of admission, the parents who write the essays, the parents who say, "We are English majors." You get the picture! This is not about the parent -- it has to be about the child.

JAN: How would you describe this collection?

JENNIFER: The essays are from parents and for parents of college-going students. It's not a "how to" book, but rather, a "how I survived" collection of essays. Parenting a kid through the college search process is confusing, exhausting, frustrating and hopefully, exhilarating. But the ride is a wild one! Each essay illustrates a particular journey of parent and child -- and each one is a unique experience.
JAN: I connected with Jennifer in a global sort of way. I was at a dinner party in Aix-en-Provence, France, where we were trading war stories about our own experiences with our kids. And one of the friends I made there, Cathleen Keenan Church, retold my story to her friend Jennifer, in Ohio. But how did you reach so many high profile authors in gathering these essays?

JENNIFER: Some of the high-profile essays were borne of friendship (Anna, Jane) and some through accident (Neil Pollack, Joe Queenan). Two of the essays I had read before in one form or another. It was very organic, how the essays found their way to me.

JAN: Were there any big surprises?

JENNIFER: I wrote an essay about my daughter's college search and when she read it, she said very politely, "Mom, the writing is good and your concluding point is perfect, but I sound like an idiot." "What's our solution?" I asked, using my best counseling tone. "Let me write what I was really thinking." And she did! And she was hilarious and profound. I was so glad to have her perspective in the book. She translates what many students think for the parents.

JAN: Any last advice for parents or students?

JENNIFER: My basic approach has been to tell everyone to take a deep breath and repeat after me: "It will all be fine in the end." And it will be!

I'm Going To College Not You, will hit the book shelves September first and is available now to preorder at and the on-line independent bookstore,

There will be readings across the country: September 4, in Gambier Ohio (home of Kenyon College) October 2nd in Los Angeles and October 12 in New York City. For times and venues contact: or visit "I'm Going To College Not You" on Facebook.

And please come back to Jungle Red Writers tomorrow, when I'll be talking to a Yoga experts about what postures are the best to unlock your creativity. That's right. Pretty soon you'll be on all fours unleashing your blocked energies before you sit down to write.


  1. I'm so glad that's all in my past! My daughter chose her own school, filled out the application form, wrote the essay (without any editing from parents), and we hand-delivered it for early decision at Smith College. Yes, she was accepted.

    Would we have kicked ourselves if she hadn't been accepted? We lived in a community with a strong school system, where students were sitting around their freshman year in high school strategizing about how to put together an impressive resume for applications. It was depressing to listen to them.

    I don't think hovering helicopter parents do their children any favors. When are they supposed to learn to stand on their own two feet, and succeed based on their own achievements?

  2. Sheila,
    You are so sensible. And so right. I met a woman at a Yoga retreat, where we were all at our most relaxed, who had absolutely made herself crazy about her daughter getting into Dartmouth. It was an only child, and thed's sacrificed to put her into a private school and she told me the college acceptance was pretty much a referendum on all their key parental decisions. She was an incredibly sweet woman, and rational in every other way, but in such PAIN, and no matter how hard I tried, I could NOT convince her this college acceptance decision had NOTHING TO DO WITH HER. And really, what she may have done wrong.

    Jennifer is right. Parents make it about themselves mostly to take BLAME.

  3. I had a player - not from Framingham - on one of my District Select soccer teams and her mother asked me to write an assessment of her soccer ability to help her get into a good college with a good soccer program. This girl was a great player and a great person, and that's how I wrote the essay. The mother asked (at least she asked) if I would take out the part about the girl always calling if her summer job interfered with her going to practice, "because some (college) coaches might see that as a sign that she is less than fully committed to soccer." I said "sure" and the mother said, "That's OK. I'll just delete that part from the Word document if it's OK with you." Like I said, at least she asked. I felt terrible for that girl afterward. It didn't strike me as an isolated incident of mom stage-managing daughter's life.

  4. Hi Jennifer, this sounds like a great book. We're finished with the college years too, but I have to say I enjoyed visiting schools with my stepkids. My husband and I found many campuses that we wished WE could have returned to. Seems to me that a lot of the pain is eased if the kids have a good college counselor. When I hear about parents starting to freak out, I try to remind them that there are a lot of schools their kids could be perfectly happy attending, not just one or two.

  5. Hey Gene,

    Stage managing her kid's life, that's a great way to describe it.

    I can't say I'm completely innocent of over-involvement, but there is something about both youth sports and college admissions that makes parents CRAZY.