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Does It Matter Which College Your Child Chooses? Probably Not

In this photo, Kim Pollock, 17, facing center, goes through college materials, as her sister Lindsay, 15, back left, watches, in her bedroom in Bedford, N.H., Thursday, Nov. 11, 2010. (Cheryl Senter/AP)closemore
In this photo, Kim Pollock, 17, facing center, goes through college materials, as her sister Lindsay, 15, back left, watches, in her bedroom in Bedford, N.H., Thursday, Nov. 11, 2010. (Cheryl Senter/AP)

Between now and April 1, parents of high school seniors will be eagerly trolling their mailboxes, hoping to spot fat, cheer-worthy college acceptance envelopes. We long to see proof that everything our kids have done so far is paying off: Sports practices! Theater rehearsals! Debate teams! Chess clubs and robotics!

Alternatively, we're seized by anxiety at the sight of those slender envelopes containing rejection letters saying our kids didn't make the cut. Those letters tempt us to feel like our kids are failures and we are, too.

It's natural that we feel this way, I suppose. After all, we know the college admissions process is competitive because the colleges keep telling us so, in all of their glossy literature trumpeting their supposedly unique features, like “hands-on learning,” “cutting-edge facilities,” and “award-winning faculty.” College enrollment jumped 32 percent between 2001 and 2011, with the number of full-time college students rising 38 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

As someone who is both a veteran of the college application process -- I'm playing the waiting game with our youngest of five at the moment -- and as a freelancer who writes college admissions materials, I wish I could give every parent of a high school senior a chill pill. I want them to know what I do: that where your child ends up at college will probably matter a lot less than you think it will.

Sure, it's nice to get a tony degree from an Ivy, if only for the bragging rights. Or from a school with deep endowment pockets so you don't have to break the bank. But the reality is that there are about 5000 colleges and universities in this country and nearly every one of them has lots to offer.

In my work, I'm often asked to interview administrators, faculty members and students to determine how to put that school's best foot forward. Inevitably, I find what I'm looking for: passionate professors; study abroad opportunities; career counseling; caring coaches; and top-notch kids who not only do well academically, but go out and do good in the world. Oh, and lately I'm seeing campus fitness facilities, housing and dining halls that rival world-class hotels.

Childhood isn't meant to be a race to the college finish line. It's meant to be a formative part of life. So is college.

Yep. Every college, from the smallest under-the-radar school to the biggest university, has cool things for your kid to learn, eat and enjoy.

“You must be so nervous,” a friend said recently. When I looked puzzled, she added, “About where your son's going to get into school.”

Um, no. Not really. I don't care where he ends up. What matters is that my son is happy and can continue following his passion for science and engineering as he makes new friends, maybe has a chance to run competitively and check out a few different jobs so he can keep honing his interests and applying what he learns in the classroom. My son will be happy and fulfilled at any of the colleges he applied to — despite the fact that his list of eight schools includes everything from one small city Ivy to one of the nation's biggest rural state universities.

My son knows this, too. He has watched his brothers and sisters thrive, despite each of them taking a different educational and career path. Of our four, only one was admitted to his top choice: a small, New England independent college. (You know: brick buildings, liberal arts, lots of snow.) He graduated with an English degree and got a great job as a writer at a social media company. Having a degree helped him land the job, but not as much as the freelance writing he'd been doing for web sites while he was in school.

Our other son chose a medium-sized private college in Pennsylvania. He hated its rural location and transferred sophomore year to a city college. His biggest passion in life has always been movies;  he majored in film studies and went to Hollywood after graduation, where he's now a set designer and art director. Is he successful because of his film studies degree? Partly. But he got his foot in the door because he had spent summers working with a carpenter and knew one end of a hammer from another. Being able to actually build sets meant he could work on them and meet people who gave him a leg up.

Our oldest daughter wasn't admitted to her first choice college — an Ivy — so she ultimately decided to grit her teeth and attend a state university to save money. She hated it at first, then found her niche in the natural resources college. She got a job immediately after graduation with an environmental engineering company in California and is now in graduate school in Oregon, studying forestry.

Our other daughter wanted to study in Paris, but transferred to a women's college two years later in search of more competitive academics. After graduating with high honors, she needed a break from academics and worked as a waitress, saving up enough to travel through Brazil. Now she's happily working in a yoga sanctuary.

It's a parent's dream come true to have kids who not only make it through college, but then support themselves doing jobs they love. This dream is achievable no matter where your child goes to school.

It's a parent's dream come true to have kids who not only make it through college, but then support themselves doing jobs they love. This dream is achievable no matter where your child goes to school. What matters more than any academic pedigree is that your children pursue their passions outside the classroom — through field work, freelance writing, summer jobs, internships, study abroad programs — and accumulate the necessary skills and direction to pursue careers that engage and fulfill them.

Everything your child has done for the first 17 years of life — from playing tag to National Honor Society, from ballet lessons to video games — has been important simply for the experiences themselves. Childhood isn't meant to be a race to the college finish line. It's meant to be a formative part of life. So is college.

Your child will get into one of those schools you're waiting to hear from. And, if the school turns out to be a bad fit, it's not tough to transfer. Whatever institution your child ultimately graduates from, what you must hope for is that the education isn't only about academics or athletics, Greek life or community service, but about educating the whole person in a way that inspires lifelong learning.

Related:

Holly Robinson Cognoscenti contributor
Holly Robinson is a novelist, journalist and celebrity ghost writer whose newest novel is "Folly Cove." She is also the author of "The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter: A Memoir."

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