What’s a Parent To Do?

I’m going to stay on the topic of parenting (and my mother) for one more blog post.  And discussing parenting vis-à-vis the college process seems timely at this point in the month; Early Decisions have been released all but one of the phone calls I have received have been parents asking why their son/daughter was deferred or denied.

For some parents, particularly those who have been able to secure every available opportunity for their kid, college admissions represents one of the few times when they haven’t been in control.  (Of course, the entire transition to college by itself represents a significant loss of control for parents.)

I often think back to my own experience as a prospective applicant and particularly to a trip to Pennsylvania that I took with my mother.  We drove south in my grandmother’s car.  It wasn’t a particularly fancy car, but it was brand new, and that new-car smell added to the anxiety of driving out of New England, particularly because it was just the two of us.  I remember a particularly anxious crossing of the George Washington Bridge, with the looming New York City skyline to our left.  These were pre-Giuliani days where a charred metal frame of a former vehicle wasn’t an uncommon sight on the Cross Bronx Expressway. Each one we passed intensified my mother’s fear of Manhattan and everything it represented.

We eventually made it to Pennsylvania and our first stop, an idyllic liberal arts campus complete with oak trees.  I explained to my mother that I was going to handle everything, that she should wait in the car. Looking back, it seems preposterous that she allowed me to direct her.  To this day I feel guilty for not including her (it was a long drive, after all).  But the college world was not my mother’s realm.  I’m not sure how she passed the time that afternoon, but I suspect she dutifully reclined the seat and took a nap or read a magazine, while I interviewed with an admissions officer and was escorted around campus by a member of the cross country team.

I was pretty confident in myself; far more confident than I should have been.  This was my backup school. Despite my lack of sophistication about college admissions at age eighteen, I was savvy enough to understand that unlike the other institutions, this college sent weekly postcards; surely they were eager to enroll me.

Two years ago, I chaperoned a college trip and returned to this particular campus.  Other than those tall oaks, I recognized nothing. I realized I had only one memory of my initial visit, and that was the moment when my host walked me back to my grandmother’s car.  I introduced him – awkwardly, I’m sure – to my mother, and the two of them talked for ten minutes or so.  This student, a sophomore, lived locally and was a science major, I think.  He was also extremely polite and humble.

The more powerful memory is that from that day forward, my mother always talked about this particular school. Throughout my senior year, during the infrequent times we would talk about my college applications, she would always ask in a wistful tone, “what about college X?” (in the same tone she would ask about a former girlfriend whom she clearly preferred).

I’ve always thought that my mother’s interest in this school — and her frequent mentions of its name — had to do with the fact her goals for me were simple.  All she really wanted for me was to grow up like the kid who hosted me on that fall day.  She would be perfectly happy if I emerged from college a polite and humble person.  (Something I think I still resist.)

Now that I am a parent, I wonder now if my mother’s agenda wasn’t far cleverer and far more complex.  She, too, must have had awareness that this was my safety school, and that by regularly mentioning this school, she was reminding me that college admission wasn’t the most important thing in the world. She was reminding me that choosing a college shouldn’t be about a ranking, or the size of the school’s endowment, or the number of volumes in the library.  She was, I think, suggesting that education in itself represents a treasured opportunity, and that her sincere hopes for me weren’t wrapped up in a name-brand. The only reputation that really mattered was what I was very much in control of.

My hope for the parents I work with is that they too can give their kids a gift much like the amazing gift my mother gave me during the college admissions process.  It was a free gift.  It was a simple gift.  And it was a gift I wasn’t entirely ready to accept at the time.  However, by loving my backup school and regularly reminding me that I should value what that school had to offer, she affirmed her confidence in me.  Sadly, as an eighteen year old, it was drowned out by my desire for forthcoming independence.

Stepping away from my typical role as a college counselor, I’m thinking more deeply about what the role of the parent is in the college process.  Certainly ours is significant because we mediate and maneuver between the desires of teens and the dreams parents have had for their offspring.  As counselors we can help parents appreciate how much students still have to learn, and help students appreciate the many gifts (both subtle and overt) their parents have given them.

To you and yours, happy holidays.



Filed under Uncategorized

Silly Questions

Growing up my mother was famous for saying, “ask a silly question; get a silly answer.”  I now know that “silly” was her euphemism for “stupid” and this was in direct contrast to others telling me “there are no stupid questions.”  (Just for the record, my growing up was full of stupid questions.)

As an educator, I now have a keen appreciation for the importance of questions.  Not only do good questions from prospective students help them better understand the nuances of a community – get those questions ready before you visit campus – but also good questions on the part of the admissions committee yield a far more interesting college application.

In my last post, I mentioned the supplement and I won’t leave that topic….yet.

One question I was initially hesitant about was the very first one of the supplement:

  • 1.  There is a Quaker saying: “Let your life speak.” Describe the environment in which you were raised—your family, home, neighborhood, or community—and how it influenced the person you are today.

Frankly, it seemed a question ripe for trite answers.  After reading ED applications, however, I’ll admit that I was impressed at how artfully this question was answered by applicants.  I was surprised that students so often acknowledge the parental influence on their lives.  And I was also touched how their two hundred words kept circling in my brain, long after I had read their application. During my commute, while on a run, or as I was falling asleep, their responses had me thinking about successful parenting.

For example, I kept thinking about the student who appreciated the fact that his parents told him they were giving him “a long leash.”  In contrast, another prospective Tufts student wrote, “I wandered as far as I could on my short leash.” A silly question: what’s with all the leash talk?  Are current high school seniors representative of the child leash generation?

Another applicant had me laughing when he admitted that growing up, whenever he told his mother she was mean, she always had the same response: “Thank You.”  He ended with “If I ever become a father, I hope I am every bit as ‘mean’ as my mother was to me, so that I can trust my children to be as responsible as my mother trusts me to be.”

Is there a magic formula for good parenting?  I’ll leave that question to Tufts’ world-renowned Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development.  But if you ask the ED applicants, many will credit their academic success to their parents’ insistence on setting appropriate limits. These included mandating piano practice, emphasizing storytelling, turning off and/or banning the television and video games, and insisting on the importance of nightly family dinner.

I read what seemed like countless paragraphs from students describing how they were just the right blend of their parents’ very different qualities. It seems there is a lot of opposites attracting out there, and clearly – as my colleague Becky has suggested – this question has taught the admission committee how a Punnett square works – for better or worse.

Maybe because I am a parent now, often struggling to find the right approach to helping my kids develop into happy, appreciative, and thoughtful individuals, these responses resonated with me.  No matter the reason, I’m convinced that the admissions office is asking good questions and that the quality of responses indicates that Tufts is getting the best applicants to apply (if it were only easier to choose from so many fine students!).

Most importantly, I’m also convinced my mother was right.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Supplemental Thinking

Here we are: mid-December. For a college counselor, it is likely the most challenging time of the year, the perfect storm.  Deadlines demand a slew of outgoing documents – letters of recommendation, transcripts, profiles, etc. – and incoming are most of the seniors and often their parents.  What makes this week even more intense is the added emotional charge of Early Decision Round 1 students receiving their decisions from colleges. Tears of joy (because an institution said yes), tears of sadness (because an institution said no), tears of confusion (because they still haven’t heard from their Early school, but all their friends have heard from theirs), and tears of “Ugh, on top of exams, family commitments, and the holidays, I have a whole lot more work to do to complete these applications.” This final set of tears is particularly painful for the deferred student because they sense they came relatively close to being done with applications.

During this one week of the year, life IS unequivocally better on the admissions side of things.  (As one counselor at a neighboring school advises: “Seniors: don’t check your college news on your iPhone in front of all of your friends in the dining hall.  College news is better received in the privacy of your dorm room.”)

Common Application supplements become an easy target for frustration. And despite encouragement to work on supplements in October, busy high school lives mean they are often left to late December.  And a meatier supplement – like the one Tufts requires – is often particularly vilified. Why do admissions officers care about the answers to these questions?  Why is this supplement so long?  Do I really want to apply here?

The Tufts application supplement is made up of one 50 word answer, two 200 word answers, and an optional essay.  Let me write that last part again.  Optional Essay.  Yes, these are truly optional.  Last year, the acceptance rate of those who wrote an optional essay was equal to those who chose not to.

Applicants ought to think of the supplement as an opportunity. It is also an indicator of how important “voice” is in our evaluations – it allows admissions officers to advocate for students who might otherwise not stand out.  When students approach the questions in the right manner there is often a genuineness that reflects positively on the applicant.  Reading ED applications, I was not alone in being impressed by the student who took a new approach to a question that tended to generate conventional answers. On the other hand, I was also frustrated to see a hastily composed or pithy response to a supplemental question.

Speaking of standing out – or is it outstanding? – recently CNN published a list of the top ten off-beat application questions and it shouldn’t surprise you that a few prompts from the Tufts’ supplement were included.

Could Tufts get rid of the supplement and therefore generate more applications?  Sure.  It might even earn us a stronger Useless Snooze and World Distort ranking. However, Tufts had decided that isn’t the top priority, instead employing the supplement to figure out which applicants are eager to be here, and therefore pick from the best applicants for the university.

Counselors, despite the fact that it is mid-December, take heart:  it can only get better from here.  Keep those Kleenex boxes handy.  And if you get a chance, implore your students to be thoughtful about their supplements.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Ga Ga for Radio

When Vince Garcia, a former colleague from my days in Los Angeles, asked me to be on his radio show, quickly agreed.  Radio?  In LA?  The idea conjured up memories of my LA commute, listening to Larry Mantle and Chumbawamba, zooming home along a sunny Mulholland Drive. Wow: the radio.  Sure the time-slot was Sunday at noon, Pacific Time – not exactly prime time – but his was my very own dream deferred:  didn’t I apply to college hoping to have my own radio show?

Vince thought it would be interesting to discuss my time at Tufts and what I’ve observed on “the other side of the desk.” (Full disclosure: I’ve never liked that phrase “the other side of the desk.”  To me, it seems to rest on a broken metaphor and makes me wonder why most all the desks I’ve ever sat at have faced a wall…..)

To prepare for the show, I visited the website.  I had full confidence in the hosts, Elsa and Vince, experienced college admissions professionals in Los Angeles.  Their weekly show features guests from all corners of the admissions process.  I felt honored simply to have my name listed next to some of the former guests.

I went to my office and called at the arranged time. The familiar and comforting voices on the other end helped calm me.  And despite the fact that the phone I was using had some very odd feedback – I kept hearing myself talk with a one second delay – the time flew by.

If you’re interested, here’s the URL for the show.  However, I want to even more strongly suggest you listen to the podcasts of some of the other guests.  One of the more recent podcasts features Marc Meredith from Otis College of Art and Design.  Another includes the wisdom of Ted O’Neil at the University of Chicago.  And don’t miss Thyra Briggs of Harvey Mudd College and Terry Kung of the Oakwood School discussing the college essay.

As I returned home, I reviewed the randomness of my responses and realized that I’m a full-on rambler.  I began to wonder what the world record was for non-stop college admissions talk. When I got home, my wife told me that she listened to the show for a few minutes.  She informed me that I was “boring” and that she’d heard it all before.  (She always tells me that her frankness is one of the main reasons I married her….)

And on one hand, she’s right: was I saying anything new about college admissions?  Has anything changed in college admissions? And is anyone listening about how important access to higher education is? What is being done to address the outrageous lack of counseling in many public schools?  How many more times can we hear that (according to the California Department of Education) the average student to counselor ratio in California is 945:1, and nationally the number is 477:1.

Of course, Elsa and Vince ARE making a difference. Broadcasting an internet radio show on the topic of college admissions gives anyone with a computer a chance to learn about new developments in the field.  Bravo, LA Talk Radio!  Bravo, Elsa and Vince!


Filed under Uncategorized

The Work of the Work

Last week I enjoyed a mid-week movie. It may be my last for a few moons. Yes, reading season is here again. We began last week.

Lee Coffin fondly calls application reading, “the work of the work.” Reading applications is the essence of what we do, and perhaps this is why reading season is twice as long as travel season. And this is only Early Decision, a warm-up for what will await us on January 2nd. Nonetheless, there is my first pile of blue folders on my desk – blue indicates ED, the manila folders are reserved for the regular decision applications.

For those of you who haven’t been battle-scarred by reading admissions applications, there is a sentiment in the office that this is the time to balance our checkbooks, fill the freezer, and sharpen our pencils. We will soon lose contact with the wider world. Shakespeare comes to mind, specifically, the third act of Henry V: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.”

OK, admittedly equating application reading with battle is a bit heavy-handed. While application requires a good bit of stamina, it is often fun and interesting. At least when I was 25, reading season was my favorite season of the year. I have memories of reading in my pajamas, the cat at my feet, as I sat on a sunlit back porch. (This was Southern California after all, and somewhere I have a picture of this idyllic scene, a picture I made into a postcard and sent to an admissions colleague mid-winter. I believe I received a return postcard containing only two words). Back then each application offered the anticipation of a new biography, a new short story.

Now life isn’t so simple. When I was 25, I had few outside obligations. Now, with a family, a boarding school, and community endeavors, I’ll have to make a special effort to be diligent about my reading. When I invoke the admissions gods my supplication will be for stamina, for focus, and for a strong sense of fairness and consistency. Wish me (and us) luck.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Why College?

Sometimes, most typically on mornings when I’ve chosen the right breakfast cereal, I have fleeting moments of confidence where I allow time for questions at the end of an information session. Recently a parent asked me: “So what advice will you be bringing back to your students at Concord Academy?” His question was a good one and although I’m not sure I’ve formed a fully satisfying answer yet, I’m certain of one thing: the central question “why go to college?” needs to be considered more often and more deeply by prospective students. This question may very well deserve hours of consideration.

Many of today’s students have been forced to think about college since day one. Have you ever seen college-themed baby books? Scary! And just yesterday my wife – while ordering a book for each of my 1st and 2nd grade kids through scholastic books – got me a book, too: Judy Moody Goes to College. (Man, does my wife love me or what?) And what’s with that new Olive Garden commercial that shows parents visiting their daughter at college and taking the roommates to dinner? Is our society obsessed with college? Perhaps college – particularly for the upper-crust of our society – is simply considered a given.

As I’ve been traveling for Tufts, I generally begin my presentations by posing this question. Please pardon my sweeping generalization, but the students at the preppiest of the Preppy McPrepster schools and those from the affluent public schools often struggle with this question a bit more than those from the inner-city and/or magnet schools. Is college-going (how’s that for an awful word?) simply discussed differently in the latter communities? Is there an assumption in well-heeled communities that college is going to happen, so the focus becomes “getting in?” and therefore the question of “why college?” is confronted less aggressively?

When pressed to answer this question in sessions, students usually respond with the following:

  • to continue learning
  • to earn a credential
  • to get a better job
  • to leave home, experience a bit more freedom before the (scary) freedom of “real” life

If I really press them, students will admit that going to college might also be fun. That “fun” is one of the main reasons they are looking forward to collegiate life. And how can it not be? Isn’t college the last chance you have to live almost exclusively with others your age? That is, of course, the last chance until you reach the retirement home. And that’s where the fun really beings…..

My challenge is that students need to be honest with themselves. If they are able confront this question with integrity and thoughtfulness, they might emerge from senior year with a reasonable set of goals, a reasonable set of priorities, and a reasonable idea of what they intend to accomplish.

I intend to have my students ruminate on this question regularly and with more depth than they have in the past. I want them to better appreciate the privilege of a college education. I want them to prepare to make better use of their time when they get to college. I want them to understand the economic term opportunity cost, and have them appreciate that the cost of heading immediately to college includes the opportunity cost of forgoing a gap-year opportunity.

Additionally, I hope students will think a little more deeply about the debates that have long engaged college faculties, those such as what is the value of distribution requirements. Many of my students are more than eager to learn in an environment where the institution tells you what to study. A lack of distribution requirement sounds great, but what are the real costs of surrounding yourself with like-minded students studying the same subject?

When I say the question, “why go to college?” deserves hours of consideration, perhaps I should help my students mired in the chaos and demands of senior year find more time and more space to simply think. Perhaps I should encourage more journal writing on the topic. Or maybe, just maybe, I can convince a few to start a blog.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Houston, there’s no problem….

A few weeks have passed without a post and my sincere apologies to my (three) readers (Hi, Dad).  No, I haven’t taken one of those late September vacations I’ve always dreamed about, but I have been in Houston.

Houston, eh?”  At least that was my initial reaction when I was asked to take a pinch-hit recruitment trip.  Sadly, my previous knowledge of Texas was primarily informed by a handful of airport connections and three trips to El Paso.  Suffice to say the idea of recruiting students in Houston didn’t initially excite me.  Then again – as I always preach to my most provincial students – stepping out of the comfort zone almost always yields dividends.

I left Boston late in the evening Sunday night.  The flight was delayed AND full.  And after navigating an airport under construction and a snaking line in front of the Enterprise counter with one employee behind it, the bright red Chevy HHR that greeted me wasn’t a good sign.  Nor was the fact that my head was hitting the pillow at 1 a.m. and I had an early start the next morning.  I slept fitfully.

The next morning, fortune turned my way in the form of my co-pilot, Dr. Al Potvin.  Al is legendary in the Admissions office.  He’s a 1965 Tufts graduate and (more recently) a retired Exxon/Mobil Engineer.  Most importantly he’s a tireless volunteer for Tufts Admissions, serving as the Texas Regional Coordinator of TAAP (the alumni admissions program) and on the Regional Programs Committee of the Tufts Alumni Council.  Al is so important to Tufts that last year, the University sent Al and his wife to our campus in Talloires, France to train alumni volunteers.

Of course, titles don’t fully tell the whole story of Al. He is particularly proud of his signature haircut and the fact that he is a man of integrity (some of Al’s stature might grow their hair simply to get to the next inch mark on the height chart).  We quickly bonded over our mutual appreciation of NPR’s Car Talk, and I was fortunate enough to ride in “The Potvan” and his soon-to-be-antique 1985 Ford Taurus complete with a Click and Clack license plate frame.

Traveling together for the first twelve stops on my itinerary, Al knew exactly which turns to take, which driveway to enter, and only once did we not enter the ideal door to get to the guidance or college counseling office.  There’s something glorious about traveling with an engineer; it was as if the missing half of my brain were temporarily installed.  Here was our itinerary:

9:00 AM          St. Agnes Academy
9:45 AM          Strake Jesuit
11:10 AM        Episcopal High School
1:00 PM           Awty International School
4:00 PM           KIPP Academy
7:00 PM           Tufts on Tour @ Marriott Hotel

8:15 AM          Duchesne Academy
9:20 AM          Kinkaid School
11:15 AM        St. John’s School
12:30 PM         Lamar HS
2:30 PM           Beren Academy

9:00 AM          HS for the Engineering Professions
11:45 AM        Carnegie Vanguard
1:00 PM           Emery Weiner School
2:30 PM           Memorial HS

10:00 AM        Woodlands College Park HS
11:30 AM        John Cooper
1:00 PM           Woodlands HS

OK, so Houston has few (no?) zoning laws, but I actually found it an exceptionally manageable city to navigate and was more than pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the city.  Maybe this is my eight years of living in LA talking, but Houston enjoys a positive vibe, remarkable diversity, and some very good eats.  (Yes, I am embarrassed that McDonald’s still shows up in my expense report…..)

I was also particularly impressed with the students I met.  From the poise and candor of the three students from KIPP (I wondered if they were grad school applicants), to the large group of intelligently playful seniors at Kinkaid, to the energy the Memorial High School students showed despite the fact that it was the end of the day, the future Tufts students of Houston impressed me greatly.  And I certainly saw a lot of students.  Not once did I experience a high school shut-out (in baseball this is a good thing, when traveling for admissions it can make you feel very lonely and unloved).  And the evening program – “Tufts on Tour” – included nearly fifty prospective students and nearly as many parents and Tufts alumni.

What did I learn from this trip?  Even with Al’s internal GPS, I have a new appreciation for signage (yet, oh, how I dislike the word, but not as much as wayfinding).  When I return to Concord, I will make even more of an effort to direct our visitors with better directions.  And I will rededicate myself to being available for admissions officers.  Yes, the primary focus is students, but my trip was made all the warmer by the five minutes of face time with administrative folks and the guidance and college counselors I met. Southern hospitality was in force and I was particularly impressed that, over the course of the week, three heads of school managed to say “hi,” too.

Additionally, as a counselor, I can do more to help students understand the purpose of the high school visit and to better prepare them.  (I’d like to expand on what Patrick O’Connor posted to the NACAC Listserve earlier this fall.)  Some students were far too anxious of saying the wrong thing.  Others a bit too sycophantic.  And a surprising number had no questions at all.  As counselors we can all make a very conscious effort to help students craft thoughtful questions, perhaps even signature inquiries that they ask every person they meet at a variety of institutions.  It isn’t simply about giving them a list of good questions.

I also would argue that school visits – done well – have great educational value for students.  I hope the students in Houston not only felt that their time was well spent and that they not only have a better sense of Tufts University, but also that I left them with a few things to consider as they navigate their senior year and head off to further studies.  Mostly, I think seniors need to focus a bit less on “getting in” and spend some directed time considering the decisions they expect to be making as a first and second year college student.  After all, those of us who have experienced a bit more of life’s parabola know that while the decision of which school to attend is important, the decisions a students makes once they get to a campus may very well have far more far-reaching implications.

Go Texans!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized