There's No Rejecting the College Admissions Game

t was easy enough when the applications were floating in cyberspace, but once the first rejection came in, I was surprised by how quickly I was consumed by embarrassment and doubt, how disappointed I felt in my child for being human.
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College Admission Office sign
College Admission Office sign

Like most parents of high school seniors, we've been waiting all week to hear the news from the colleges our daughter applied to. We beseech thee, college admissions officers, to see the bright side in our eldest child, to find beauty in her imperfections, to regard the blemishes on her report card as marks of individuality and authenticity. Did she travel to the moon? No. Was she state champion in pole vault? Nope. Did she pen the novel that marks the definitive work of her generation? Not yet.

She is just a kid. Even Lena Dunham didn't find her groove until she'd graduated from college.

My husband and I have long resisted what feels like crushing cultural pressure to choreograph our kids' resumes to match the whims of the all-powerful College Admissions Officers. Heartened by the advice from child development experts like Madeline Levine, who urges parents to relax about college and provide support and boundaries above all, we've proudly adopted the mantle of sanity, dismissing the 'B's on our kids' report cards as insignificant blips, brushing off the lazy summers as opportunities for personal growth. We're not those crazy parents, doing our kids' homework, pestering teachers for higher grades, or calling coaches to complain about playing time.

Then it's senior year -- junior year, even! -- and suddenly, everything changes. The only subject worthy of discussion is college, in all its predictable permutations: large or small? Rural or urban? First choice? Safety schools? SATs, APs, subject tests, applications, interviews, letters of recommendation, and on and on and on. The college process feels like one of the brutality cascades David Brooks described, where otherwise well-intended people are forced to adopt ugly norms in order to stay in the game."In certain sorts of competitions, the most brutal player gets to set the rules," he writes. "Everybody else feels pressure to imitate, whether they want to or not." Even worse, I smugly believed that I could see past it, that I could transcend the silliness, that I would be able to keep my balance while all around me others were losing theirs.

Let's just say I got pretty wobbly up there on the beam. It was easy enough when the applications were floating in cyberspace, but once the first rejection came in, I was surprised by how quickly I was consumed by embarrassment and doubt, how disappointed I felt in my child for being human. What I had proudly celebrated as my daughter's refusal to conform now felt decidedly like inadequacy. You start to resent your kids for not being more than they are. More motivated. More conscientious. More athletic, impressive, creative, charming, inventive, unique, more everything. You are let down by their failure to measure up to the imaginary perfect ones, who we know don't exist, but who seem to saturate the in-boxes of admissions departments at every elite college across the land. Who are these kids? And why does mine still need to be forcibly extracted from his bed in the morning and want nothing more than to stay current with The Walking Dead? College becomes a referendum on your kid, and by extension, you.

My mind insists that this is foolish and insane, erroneous and unfair. The college admissions officers are not oracles. For all we know, the person reading your kid's app might have had an iffy chili taco at lunch, his dyspepsia tainting the prospects for everyone in his pile. And who says that attending an elite college is even the best outcome for our little darlings? They'll graduate thinking the world owes them something, at minimum a decent job, when in all likelihood they'll be lucky to work as office temps or unpaid interns, and disillusioned ones at that.

Anyway, I've always found the long damn slog required of kids and their parents aiming for the Ivies to be too exhausting. In any event, we were too selfish or weak to compel our children to stick with activities they despised just for the sake of building an extracurricular base. I vividly recall my then 3-year-old daughter burying her head into her body as she lay on a dance studio floor, unwilling to hop and prance like the other aspiring ballerinas in their adorable tutus. That was the end of that. I like to think that throughout her growing up we helped her figure out who she is meant to be, not the fictional person we imagined she'd become.

Yes, but the ego wants what the ego wants. And nothing screams "We Won" like a new sticker from Georgetown or Penn. It takes a conscious act of will, a deliberate flexing of superego muscle, to force that ugly ego into submission. Because defining winning is actually rather tricky. Yes, acceptance from a top college is a visible sign of something: perhaps brains, maybe artistic or athletic talent, a little luck, and possibly a gift for doing what's expected of you. But it does not guarantee a happy life (duh), nor does it suggest the hard work is over. In my experience, college marked the beginning of genuine intellectual exploration, and an introduction to the complex, mushy work of figuring out how to live. But if we only look to the visible, ego-boosting measures of success to mark our progress, then we'll end up like that runner in the New Yorker cartoon who gallops across the finish line into the pearly gates of heaven, arms up in victory. I did it! I'm finally dead! Triumph and defeat, those mere imposters, distracting us from living while we're here on earth.

The Sturm und Drang of recent weeks, when our daughter's future seemed to depend perilously on second trimester grades, has finally subsided. The other night she went on-line at 8:00 to get the word from one of her favorite schools. I hovered in the background, trying to act nonchalant, waiting for the news. "Well?" I finally asked. She looked up from her phone: "Oh, I got in," she said, matter-of-fact, trusting herself when all had doubted her. We melted with relief.

But only for a minute. My 17-year-old son overheard the exchange. "Tomorrow I get my SATs," he said. Before the unforgiving cycle begins again, we'll celebrate with cake.