I suppose that if the Huffington Post didn’t have a seriously-efficient archiving system, I could pretend I’ve never before written about college admissions. “No, must’ve been another Bryan Behar.” “What’s that you say? The article referenced Encino, Sephardic Jewry, Lexapro, macaroni salad, more Lexapro, resisting Trump and Fuller House— well huh, that’s a colossal coincidence?”
Okay, save the sodium pentathol cocktail, I’ll come clean. A year ago, I wrote a piece for this same publication that sought to demystify the college admission process called “Who Cares Where Your Kid Goes to College?” It was well-consumed and much discussed. In fact, there was only one real flaw in my pedantic slaw:
I hadn’t yet gone through the process. Technically, that should read “my daughter hadn’t yet gone through the process.” But now having spent the last year immersed in its relative horrors, I’m comfortable saying “I”, “We”, “They” or “Y’all.”
I mean, sure I went through it myself as a student in the 1980’s. Which is basically the equivalent of writing sitcoms for radio and wanting to be staffed on Atlanta. Or considering myself NFL-ready today, when having last played in the leather helmet era.
This was akin to trying to write about your time on an exotic deserted island the year before your plane crashed there. You may be able to sketch some general things. But you could never know about the smoke monsters or tropical polar bears or mysterious hatches. Even the mysterious Richard Hatches.
Having now literally just completed the process, I can attest the whole thing is like an emotional rollercoaster. But not like from Knott’s or Six Flags. But one of this rickety coasters that isn’t close to being up to code, where the guy who may or may not be on meth, may or may not be checking wristbands.
There were highs and lows, screaming and shouting, tears and tantrums. And that was just me. My kid also got occasionally emotional, too.
And I won’t even touch on the rampant hypocrisy of purportedly not caring where my kid goes to college. This being the same weekend I posted everywhere exactly where my kid is going to college. Oh me.
In my defense—notice I’m now defending myself against withering attacks that I’ve made against me and you’ll see how my mind “works”— a year later, I still stand behind the basic premise of the first piece. Namely, that there is no perfect college that will magically insure your child never has a difficult moment from 18 on. There is no golden ticket that opens every door and heals every wound. And while going to a highly-selective college can be a terrific experience, it’s still no match in life for hard work, confidence or having a rich parent that owns a privately-held real estate development firm.
The parts that ring less true from the original piece are all the smug, sanctimonious cautions against getting emotionally enveloped by the process. Like death, aging or addiction to online candy games, it’s going to happen. The sooner we accept it, the less shocked and miserable we’ll all be.
In the piece, I strongly suggested that becoming obsessed with the college application process was something that happened to other people. Weaker people. People of lower morals and higher likelihood of posting their ski photos from Gstaad. Turns it, college mania is for everyone. And even if you’re a holdout, there’s a good chance your child will bring you into it kicking and screaming. I even tried yelling “but I’m a holdout!’ No such luck.
For a year (4 really), it seems to be the only topic kids talk to each other about. It’s what parents talk to parents about. Kids to teachers. Teachers to parents. And every possible mathematical permutation. Maybe social media has made it more pronounced. But it does seem like there’s no substitute for good, old-fashioned yenta-ing.
All that said, here are a few of the things I’ve noticed now having gone through the process as a reluctant-then-all-consumed parent. I’m not sure any of it passes as ‘wisdom”, but it has to be better than merely guessing. Like I did the year before. I hope. We’ll see.
Unlike in previous generations, don’t put all your eggs on the 8 Ivies. I only consider 5 of them to be true Ivies anyway, but I’m a monumental snob. (Calm down people, I’m kidding. Or am I? Yes, I’m kidding. Or am I?) The point being that there are now a ton of exceptional schools that qualify as highly-selective. All can educate your children. All can educate your children well. And all cost just as much as the Ivy League.
Similarly, remember this: nobody gets into Harvard. And if they do, one instantly smirks and assumes either the kid is a legacy or the parents built a library wing or both. It’s also possible the kid is a super-genius, which in its own way is as easy to snarkily dismiss as having billionaire parents. The fact is, gone are the days when a normal, smart suburban kid could work pretty hard, pad their resume and end up at the absolute top. There are 300 million people in this country, qualified foreign students from around the globe, near-geniuses sprouting everywhere and class sizes at highly selective schools haven’t grown since the 1950’s. My point, lower your expectations. This isn’t like when you applied to school. I promise.
Let’s see, what else? Don’t apply to the same schools as everyone else at your school. While it may be fun to compare admissions with your buddies (or potentially rub their nose with a rejection), your chances are diminished by applying to one of ‘those schools.” Because those schools will still only take a finite number of students per grade, per school. I recommend finding a few liberal arts gems in out of the way places that no one at your high school has thought about. You may not end up going there because, ironically, no one else at your school does. But it will potentially give you a few more options in the end. And conceivably even the one.
Don’t apply to 15 schools, if only four or five would actually bring you joy. Sure everyone does it now. Sure there are common apps so it doesn’t necessarily cost a fortune. And sure it’s nice to have some safety schools and get into a bunch. But having a stack of admissions, none of which actually make your kid happy is a waste of your money, their time, the schools resources and a fourth thing I haven’t thought of yet. But primarily, if they’re not actual, legit candidates, they don’t help narrow down the process at all. They just make other kids around the country sweat on the waiting list longer, which doesn’t seem like the most menschy thing. Even within this decidedly cut-throat, non-menschy process.
Don’t listen to random grown ups. First of all, who cares what some dad at volleyball thinks? Find a school that’s right for your child. But also bear in mind, people are generally idiots with strong opinions. But the truth is, most don’t know the difference between Wash U., Washington and Lee, George Washington, University of Washington or Washington State. And if they do know George Washington, there’s a forty per cent chance they’re thinking of Georgetown or George Mason or George Peppard. People don’t know anything and it’s not your obligation to impress them.
Don’t let anyone tell you that scores don’t matter. It’s definitely something parents and counselors say to encourage hard work and extracurriculars. And not to bum out good honest students when a stoner who’s never opened a book gets a 36 on his ACT and offers flow in. But the truth is, test scores are the one objective measure that eliminates factors such as the relative ease of different schools.
Mind you, these are just my observations. I’m not an educator or a counselor. I’m a joke writer who’s been on every failed sitcom since The Ropers.
But what I’ve seen in the last year is that college admissions is a harrowing, depleting, all-consuming process. It’s like taking a patrol boat upriver. Not only is Colonel Kurtz a mad man, who speaks in comically-haunting whispers. But you can take the entire journey and never even lay eyes on Colonel Kurtz. That labored metaphor wasn’t meant to describe Apocalypse Now and college admissions. Even I wasn’t clear if I was being clear.
It’s a long way of saying the process isn’t always fair and isn’t always a meritocracy. People with inferior credentials may get in over your kid for “some reason.” It’s not a computer making the choices. It’s still a human reviewing other humans. Which is the same as it’s ever been. Though for some reason I just made it sound like the tagline to some dystopian, science fiction thriller.
But while a young adult may not get into this one choice or that one choice, odds are he or she will get into the schools within the proper range. If a student applies to 6 comparable schools and is rejected by all 6, it’s probably the collegiate universe’s way of saying “you’d probably do better one step below.”
So even after all of this, I still stand by original contention that the prestige of a school doesn’t matter that much. That it’s more important to find a place that’s right for you.
But I will offer one caveat. Or is it an addendum? And that is, while a school’s prestige isn’t everything, what you would ideally like to see at the end of the process is this: You want to see a kid feel that they got in somewhere that is commensurate to the effort they put in. Not that it has be their first choice. And it obviously has to be realistic. You just hope that at the end of all of this, that the process seemed fair. That putting in the time begat a proper result. Of course, that isn’t always the case. And that itself becomes another life lesson these kids will either learn now or later. But hopefully most members of the class of 2021 can head off to school somewhere, proud of their achievements, a little nervous, but really excited for the possibilities that the next four or so years will bring.