The Parent's Guide To Surviving College Applications

This article is more than 9 years old.

Remember when your children were very small? And so were the neighbor's kids?

And the neighbor's baby rolled over at 3 months? And was speaking in full sentences – what was it, the next month? And by the age of 3 happily dined on Oysters Rockefeller, and also used her napkin? And skipped training wheels? And was elected captain of the kindergarten soccer team while still, technically, a pre-schooler?

What I'm saying here is, surely by now you are used to this.

Of course Neighbor Child has finished her college applications.

And, of course, your child has not.

This is the way of the world. There is always a Neighbor Child.

If someone in your family plans to start college next year, then at this very moment you are swimming in a sea of nothing but Neighbor Children. Maybe mostly the ones who've spent summers rebuilding hospitals in Africa.

Never you mind.

Climb out of that sea of unproductive comparisons, and don't look back. Look, instead, into the eyes of your own high school senior, who needs you. You can tell he needs you by the way he rolls his eyes every time you gently inquire about where things stand on the college app timeline. Especially when an artist's rendering of your gentle inquiry would be a ringer for Munch's “The Scream.”

This is natural. You are aware of the dwindling number of days left before he needs to click “submit.” He, conversely, seems aware of ... not much. But, almost always, his passivity is an act. You’ve heard of playing possum? This is his relatively sane reaction to the ludicrous frenzy of college application season in the privileged communities across America.

Hard to believe as it might be when midnight deadlines loom and Neighbor Children skew your perspective, but all that must get done will get done – with time to spare. Seconds being a unit of time, mind you.

Your high school senior is going to finish that essay. He is going to revise that finished essay. He is going to delete that finished revised essay and start from scratch with an essay based on a history paper he wrote last week that made that one girl in class laugh.

It will be OK.

It's possible you'll doubt the efficacy of his tactics. You might, with furrowed brow, and calendar in hand, approach the prospective college freshman in his lair. He will give you that look. He will say, “Chill.” He will say, “I got this.” He will say, “I KNOW WHAT DAY IT IS.”

And he does.

He will fidget and groan, but he will muddle through the circle of hell that requires him to describe the influence a fictional or historical figure had on his life.

He will shrug and procrastinate, but he will eventually devise short answers to the prompts that pass for “fun” and “quirky” on the distant airless planet of admissions officers:

“What's your latest discovery?”


“Explain the best thing about last Tuesday!”

“Name your favorite amusement park ride; how does this reflect your approach to life?”

He will stare at the part of the application seeking information about his Awards and Honors, and he will come to make peace with the large, empty, white space on the screen. A beautiful island of white, if you think about it. Let the Neighbor Child sully that with verbiage.

As the clock ticks toward too-late-to-apply, he will take forever to finally fill in the basics on the boilerplate sections you’d advised him to get out of the way in August.

You won’t say I told you so, but he might not notice.

These interludes of cajoling and reminding and red-penciling can get a bit chippy. But when isn’t life with teenagers?

And just when you least expect it, your own regrets might careen around the corner of the Common App. If, that is, you're anything like me.

As the mom of a high school senior, I would get caught up in deadline fever – pressing the kid to pick up the pace, urging him to work a little harder, pushing him to polish that punch line to perfection – and then suddenly I’d want to slam on the brakes as I accelerated into sorrow.

I felt like an accomplice to a crime. The relentless facilitator of my own bad dream. That’s overwrought, of course, and melodramatic. In other words, that’s me.

But as I sat with my son and forced a smile and maintained the urgency – “You can do it! Just one last extracurricular bragfest and one last click and you’re officially a college applicant!” – my heart clenched. I am shoving my baby into the path of the future that will whisk him away from me. We are moving way too fast in the wrong direction. I’m not ready for this. He can’t possibly be ready for this. The wail of George Jetson pounded in my brain: “JANE, STOP THIS CRAZY THING!”

Deep breaths. The Jetsons are a cartoon. This isn’t crazy, it’s life. Life is change and change is a gift and gifts are good. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be; that’s more or less been my job since he’s been born. My son is just as ready, whether he knows it or not; that’s his job from here on out.

So, here you are, where I was. Good luck from a veteran to the whole new crop of college applicants and parents. Good luck to the frazzled, the skittish, the sad. The perpetrators of misplaced modifiers and the proofreaders who save them. The determined, the proud, the minute-til-midnight daredevils.

And yes, you too, Neighbor Child. Good luck, whether you need it or not.

Although, er, as aforementioned, we are all mostly trying to, um, ignore you. No hard feelings. You understand.

This program aired on October 19, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.



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