It’s May! This is the month to celebrate mothers, Memorial Day and, for some college students, May marks the end of another school year. It seems rather inconceivable that we are already in the place with our middle son to even think about college. Just yesterday he was dressed up in a little suit graduating from Castle Heights Elementary. And what feels like mere moments ago, his older brother was pouring over college applications, stressed out with choices and decisions. Like most parents’ going through such an experience with first born children, we were flying blindly with no clue what to do. Our parents weren’t too involved when my wife and I were seniors applying to schools, so we took a back seat approach to our son Mason, too. Luckily, he’s pretty type A in that he was very comfortable navigating the world of college applications solo. His high school (the Geffen Academy at UCLA) provided what seemed to be strong counselors to assist with deadlines and compiling lists of potential schools. When Mason’s counselor quit in the middle of the process, we probably should’ve found outside help to get him over the finish line but figured he had come this far already, no sense bringing in anyone new at the eleventh hour. And our attitude (as naïve as it may sound) has generally been you’ll get into some places, rejected from others and ultimately end up where you’re meant to be.
Honestly, the whole college game is a racket. The kids we know are so over-the-top qualified to go to any elite school, there’s absolutely no reason why they shouldn’t be accepted at every single one of them. Seeing spots go to students with lesser resumes is demoralizing and depressing and should be filed under the ‘sometimes life isn’t fair,’ column. Then there’s all this language we never had to deal with back in the 1990s: Early Decision, Early Action, Early Decision II, binding contracts, rescinding applications. It’s a whole new world and it’s complicated. Kids today work so hard in high school and then cram their available minutes with volunteer hours, activities, jobs, app developments, charity work and are still faced with disappointment because they have their hearts set on going to one of a few trendy or top-notch schools. I wish I could sit each of these astounding kids down and tell them that in the long run it really doesn’t matter. Their worth or future is not built on what one or two colleges decide.
Mason was deflated when he didn’t get into his top choice after being placed on the waitlist (Wharton). He got into a few schools but then got rejected from even more. This is a kid who never got below an A, had stellar SATs, was president of his debate team and on and on and blah blah blah blah. He still got rejected from top notch schools and was understandably sad, wondering what was it all for?? But at the end of the very long and arduous process, luckily he had two great choices from which to choose (which ironically happened to be the alma maters of both his parents): Wesleyan or UCLA. He ultimately decided to go to UCLA and even though all summer he mourned what might’ve been had he decided to go back east, today he’s the happiest we’ve ever seen him. He loves being a Bruin and is having the time of his life.
Back when Mason was going through this process, and we couldn’t travel due to the pandemic, he applied to schools mostly sight unseen. Now with the pandemic in the rear view mirror, middle son Spencer was able to spend spring break ‘23, touring a bunch of back east schools. Four out of five of us braved the freezing cold weather (shockingly, Mason opted to spend his vacation with the entire UCLA Greek system in Cabo instead, go figure!) and together we visited 10 colleges in five days. It was a whirlwind! And did I mention freezing? But it was great to expose the boys to the beauty that is a small liberal arts education. The campuses were lush and green with ivy-covered buildings, hundreds of years old. I took them to visit Wesleyan and showed them my old dorm and the lawn where I’d sit with my buddies playing guitar. We took tours and saw friends’ kids who are current freshmen at Brown, Tufts and Vassar. We heard enthusiastic tour guides explain why they loved their respective schools. We saw a Red Sox game and remarked how cool it would be to live in a town where you could actually walk to the hometown stadium. We saw beautiful schools with the rose-colored glasses of ‘what could be’ yet also with a slightly cynical eye knowing there’s no such thing as a sure thing.
I guess what I’m saying as the next crop of students endeavor to start applying for colleges (including my fantastic son, Spencer): go easy on yourselves. You are already great and not only does the perfect college not exist, but where you go does not define who you are or the hard work you’ve already done. In many ways the college application process is a lot like being a real estate agent. You work hard, you present the best possible version of yourself or the product you’re marketing but you’re not always going to make the sale or get the listing. It happens all the time and when it does, it feels terrible! But being an adult means you pick yourself up and move on and hope for a better outcome the next time around.
So kids, if you’re listening, keep your spirits up, know you’ll get in somewhere and most importantly: please be kind to your parents. This experience is not easy for any of us!