Welcome to 2012 — a year that will be incredibly stressful, tension-inducing, and filled with unbelievable pressures on my time and resources because my daughter, a high school junior, will be applying to college. By the time the next New Year’s Eve ball drops, she will have taken tests — lots and lots of tests — gone on college visits, filled out applications, and written so many drafts of essays that her computer may explode and her fingers fall off. Most importantly, she will face her future, and her dreams. Confronted with this process I fear that I didn’t do all I should have to prepare her, and to give her the best shot at getting into the university of her choice, whichever one that turns out to be.
Too late, I have come to realize that college admissions is an arms race. One student takes a prep class; the next one gets a tutor; the next one gets a better tutor; then one takes classes, gets three tutors, and hires a publicist. And many parents have been planning for years, making strategic decisions about their child’s summer activities, sports teams, and extra-curricular pursuits.
I took a different approach, letting my girl follow her interests and try new things. Over the years she’s played a number of sports — gymnastics, soccer, volleyball, basketball, softball — but this broad approach means she never reached a competitive level in any of them that would get her noticed by a college coach. Of course, we know kids who are nationally ranked in something, were chosen for a Junior Olympic development program, or recruited for a travel team that aims to be the best in the state. I’m not saying these girls don’t have fun focusing on a single sport, but I also think my daughter has enjoyed the variety she’s tried out.
Her summers were wasted having fun at an old fashioned camp in the Adirondacks where she hiked, sailed, swam in a cold lake, and had no email or internet for weeks. I see now she should have been taking academic programs, participating in specialized foreign travel, done impressive internships or held jobs to build her resume and accumulate credentials for her applications.
But in fact, she’s actually the one putting pressure on herself to get into a really great college. She’s seen older friends graduate and move on to prestigious institutions, and as she talks with friends who are setting their sites on the Ivy League, she compares herself to them.
Students have to brand themselves for the admissions process; they must create a theme around their lives that will play well during the application review. They should be a scientist, an athlete, a poet, an environmentalist. I’ve encouraged my daughter to be an all-around kid, a renaissance woman. Artistic, active, and smart, she likes history and science, and reads Russian novels while watching “The Simpsons.” She’s a well-rounded person, which is fine, except that it highlights the ways in which I’ve failed her by not pushing, not programming, not sculpting her with college acceptance in mind.
Of course, as her parent, I’ve made choices all her life — Music Together or Music for Aardvarks? Water bottles or juice boxes? Which will she go to? As thoughtful as I tried to be, I didn’t predict the consequences of every selection I’ve made. I think she’s a great person, and that’s been my goal. I have every confidence she’ll go to a fine school, and do fine in the world. But now that she’s facing her own goals fine may not be good enough for her, and I feel guilty that, in some way, I’ve created these obstacles.
My one consolation is something I heard — that future success is not predicted by who goes to the best schools, but by who applies to them. In other words, if you’re ambitious enough to reach for a great school, your determination and drive will reap rewards no matter where you end up. This makes sense to me; my daughter is stuck with the choices I’ve made for her. Choosing a college is the moment she starts making her own, and deciding what to strive for and how far to reach.
Yes, it’s going to be some year.
Reach Arts Editor Juliet Linderman at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (718) 260-8309.