College Race 3.0

We’re about to join Daughter’s search for the perfect college match as we head out on a family trip to far-flung campuses over spring break. It will be our third (fourth if you count Younger Son’s transfer) and last send-your-kid-to-college adventure, and it isn’t getting any easier.

I know I’m not alone when I say …  STOP THE INSANITY!!!

Our virgin voyage began six years or so ago when Older Son hit his junior year of high school. Husband and I were quickly traumatized when we realized we could never get into the colleges we attended if we had to apply today. Then we went to College Night and learned that the competition had become so fierce that some parents in our community were refusing to divulge the details of their search lest some other kid sneak past theirs in this new zero sum game.

Welcome to life through the looking glass.

Suffice it to say we made it through that first time with a few scars, leaps in knowledge about the process, and a kid who got a decent education that turned out to be more about what he put into it than about the name brand.

But you’d never know it if you’d dropped by our house one of those late nights as we argued about every last bit of punctuation in his essay. Were we over-involved? Sure. Did it make one bit of difference? Doubtful.

Two years later we got a chance to improve our game. Different kid. Younger Son was more self-directed and has always needed less poking. I’m not sure we ever saw the completed essay, much less weighed in on the placement of semicolons. He knew just where he wanted to go and what it took to get there. Mission accomplished!

We congratulated ourselves on our hands-off approach and looked askance at parents who spent wads of money on private college coaches and took anti-anxiety drugs to deal with the wait for those thick acceptances. Weren’t we surprised when it was our kid who came home at winter break and told us that in spite of his admirable GPA, this wasn’t the right school. He was going in a different direction. So much for hubris.

Now we’re starting round three and I’ll admit I’m more confused than ever. Daughter is one of those kids who’s the real deal. She absorbed the lessons of her older brothers and spent her high school years choosing a wide range of activities and courses based on what seemed interesting at the time with zero regard for what it might look like on a college app. She’s a great candidate for any school (if I do say so myself) because she’s authentically who she appears to be.

At the same time she’s a typical teen who believes she ‘s got it nailed and has a picture of the ‘right’ college that will make her happy and the ‘wrong’ college that won’t. Anyone who’s gone through the process knows the teen-craziness of this fantasy.

Any of this sound familiar?

The college tour at Whatchamacallit U. is led by a kid who rubs yours the wrong way. OMG he’s sooo preppy/nerdy/snooty/lame/fill in the descriptor of choice. That school is immediately crossed off the list. It’s the Bad Tour Guide Syndrome.

You arrive at Whosiwhatsis U. in a driving rainstorm. You’re all drenched and shivering, especially your student who decided that flipflops and a sleeveless top would work well in Portland in March. The next two hours are cold and uncomfortable. Another campus X’d.

Irrational, you say? Yes, but it’s a gut reaction that’s almost impossible to combat. Those schools will never make the cut with your teen expert, no matter how many plusses they have.

Recently I read (well, honestly just skimmed) Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College, by Jacques Steinberg, and I knew my trip through the looking glass was headed straight down the rabbit hole.

This book is part manifesto, part strategy guide, designed to critique the college admissions process on one hand while revealing the secrets of its navigation on the other. In other words, here’s what’s wrong with the system and here’s how to manipulate it to make it work for you. And isn’t this the heart of the problem?

The parents (and, oh by the way, students) who complain the loudest are the very ones most seduced by the secretive allure of these hothouses for the privileged elite. There’s something wrong with this picture. Let’s consider a quick reality check:

Students (read parents) paying tuition are customers buying a product — and it’s one that has some real quality control issues. The product is overpriced, and at the time of purchase it’s difficult to assess its value. A large percentage of buyers get questionable return on the dollar (don’t learn a heck of a lot).

And yet we line up and fight for a spot to buy like it’s the latest Apple iproduct and we’re getting it at 1/2 price. Why?

Because we love our children so much, and want so badly to launch them into a college/career/future/life that will make THE difference. We need to believe that when we nudge them out of our nest and into the next stage (Perfect U.) it’s the right one that will set them up for a happy life. Like it’s within our power. Not.

But here’s the thing. The college search experience does have real value for parents and kids, just not in the way you might expect. Your relationship is about to change forever whether you like it or not. Chances are this is one of the last intensely shared projects you will do with your child, at least while that word still applies. So enjoy it … every frustrating, annoying, gut wrenching minute of it.

Go on those campus visits and sit through the information sessions (even after they all start to sound the same). Laugh at the tour guides together. Share your impressions about the student culture and bite your tongue ’til it bleeds when they share theirs. Be the sounding board they need about this pro and that con and feel free to question their assumptions (with respect).

At the same time, step back. Mothers and fathers, step away from the nitty gritty details of the applications and let them own it. Consider it your first opportunity to practice letting go for real. This isn’t your process and the school they choose won’t be your decision, so start loosening your grip while staying connected. Easier said than done, I know.

We’re all headed for parts unknown. For our family it’s Chicago and Boston: 8 schools in 5 days. Then, right here at home in just over a year. The times they are a-changin’.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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