Seven Things that I wish I would have known before my son started applying to college….

Thursday, January 28, 2016

If you know a mom whose first born is a senior in high school, be especially nice to her right now. Besides the emotional roller coaster that she is going through thinking about the joy and sorrow of her first baby leaving the nest shortly, she (and the baby bird) are likely going through the hell of the college admissions process …

Here are seven things that I have learned so far that I wish I would have known before my son started applying to college.

 1. It is way more complicated than when we applied to college

I’m pretty sure that, in the Fall of 1984, when I applied to the two universities that I wanted to go to, the only parental involvement was writing two small checks for the application fees and actually getting those applications in the mail. These days every college has different application requirements and you literally need to make an excel chart to keep track of who wants what.  

Some schools accept the common application, some do not. Some colleges require essays, teacher recommendations, portfolios and interviews while others just want a transcript and copies of your SAT/ACT scores.   Some schools even want you to self-report your grades on a crazy form that seems like an admission test in itself. 

Lesson Learned:   Don't wait until the last minute. Start getting your ducks in a row during the end of the junior year. Trust me, this will make the fall of the senior year, a tiny bit less insane.

2. “College”  gives you a whole new area to nag/fight about with your child and husband

Depending on your kid and your spouse, the level of nagging and fighting about where to apply to, actually getting the essays and applications completed and where to eventually attend, this time may be the start of World War III in your home. For me, I felt like I was going to a whole new level of threatening and nagging from the second my son arrived home from his summer adventures until the last application was put to bed. 

  Luckily, we all seem to be on the same page about where he wants to go right now, but that can change at any moment. Many of my mom friends are clashing right with people who live in their houses about the college decisions. Teens don’t usually listen to parents about mundane things like what to wear so don’t expect for them to understand that the surfing program at the University of Hawaii is not quite as practical or affordable as studying computer science at Michigan State. 

Lesson Learned: Sit down with your spouse and child and have a serious pow-wow about viable choices for schools and be clear about finances, etc from the get-go. It would be disaster to have to explain to your child that he can't go to a school after he is admitted because you don't feel that it is a good choice for him. 

3. Go on college tours   

I made two huge mistakes last year and you can learn from me. First, we did not tour every place that my son was planning on applying. We figured that we would tour some of our choices after he was admitted.  In hindsight, this was not smart. We toured the first school that accepted him weeks after his acceptance and he was less than enthused. He pretty much stated that he would attend there only if he did not get in anywhere else.  Besides that being a horrible way to go into what should be the best time of his life, applying there just seems like a big waste of time and money to me now.

The second mistake was touring one of the schools on a weekend. In fact we toured at 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning. The campus was lovely but looked like an abandoned office park. We got no read on the “mojo” of the school.  We toured other colleges during times when classes were in session and we were able to see what a typical day was like on campus. Just watching the students change classes or walking through the quad and seeing all the tables set up for various clubs and events really gave our son a taste of what campus life is like.

Lesson Learned: You don’t want any college that accepts your child to be a consolation prize. Every college that your child applies to should be a true possible match. 

4. There is no such thing as a sure thing/safety school

College admissions might be the most illogical thing you’ve yet to encounter as a parent, and you dealt with toddlers.   All around America, story after story are passed around at PTA meetings about students that clearly met the qualifications but did not get into their top choices.  I know some pretty amazing young adults that had perfect grades and scores yet did not get into places where they met the criteria. Things besides the resume are taken into account by admissions officers , many which are beyond your control and may never be known. 

However, there are also plenty of stories where kids got into their “reach” schools but not others that seemed more like a sure thing.   Because things are so competitive, many kids apply to 10 schools, some of my friends' kids applied to 20! Colleges love this, but for applicants, it means that the admission rates are lower than they should be. Even schools that used to be sort of easy to get into now have admissions rates lower than 50% . 

Lesson Learned: There is no such thing as a sure thing for most kids so the worst thing that you can do is let your child get focused in on one school alone. Make sure that she keeps her options open.  

5. It’s expensive, and I’m not just talking about tuition

Before you start cutting those $60,000 tuition checks, the 11th and 12th grade years will give you little hints of things to come.  Barely anyone takes the SAT or ACT just once so start adding up those test fees (around $50 a pop). SAT tutoring courses cost around $600-800 and a good private SAT tutor can run up to $100 or more per hour.  Private college counselors around here run in the $3500-6000 range and applying to colleges themselves run any where from $25 to $90 per application so times multiply that five or ten times.  Add in travel costs for visits to tour colleges and it makes those years where you complained about the cost of karate or ballet lessons seem utterly ridiculous.  

Oh yes, you should also place non-refundable housing deposits at any school that your child was accepted to as soon as you can because you want to make sure your child does not get stuck in the crappy dorm should he end up there. I guess it is like when you were pregnant and you could not sleep and it was supposed to prepare you for not sleeping once the baby came. Here you are getting used to spending all of your money on college! 

Lesson Learned: You might want to put off that big home improvement project, plastic surgery or fabulous vacation for a few years.

 6. Those competitive moms are in full crazy mode

Remember those moms in your mommy & me class who loved to brag about their three year old’s ability to play piano or read at a fifth grade level. They are back in full force during this time period and should be avoided at all costs.  They will lie to your face and claim that their child is handling all of the college application stuff on their own and stare at you blankly if you complain about having to nag your child to complete his college essays.  They will spew out a list of the top ten colleges in the country and explain that their child is certain to have a hard time choosing which one to actually attend because they are all courting their genius.

They will also look at your with distain because your child is considering a solid state school.   My non-scientific research has shown that the less intelligent the mother, the snobbier she is about where her child should go to college. Instead of figuring out what is the best match for her child not only academically but also socially, geographically and economically, she is just walking around with the US News and World Report list as her bible.

Lesson Learned:   Just avoid or ignore those crazies until you run into them at freshman orientation at that solid state school. 

7.  Rejection

Don’t be surprised if you instantly and vehemently detest any college that rejects or defers not only your child, but any our your friends’ kids.  I think that many universities are just plain stupid for not accepting some amazing children and young adults that I know.  You may find yourself saying things to your friends that you said to them 25 years ago at the dining room table at the sorority house like “it’s their loss” or “they don’t deserve such a great girl”. This time you’re not speaking about some dumb fraternity boy but about Stanford.

Lesson Learned: It's their loss. They don't deserve such a great girl (or boy)!  

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