As I watched my friends with teenagers begin the college search process, I quietly judged those who hired a college admissions adviser. Certainly the admissions process is hard, but hiring someone to help your kid through the process? That’s something that “those” parents do, and we were not going to be those parents.
Those are the parents, I assumed, who will spare no expense, effort, or browbeating to get their precious flower into a “good” college. The parents for whom “good college” means Ivy League, or at the very least, Amherst or Williams.
And then it was my son’s junior year, and there we were, writing a check to an advising company. I was more than a little embarrassed. Apparently, we are those parents.
My husband and I have taken pride in not being overbearing helicopter parents. Our son Charlie has made it easy for us. He does very well in school and challenges himself, even without inheriting his parents’ perfectionism, so that we’ve never had to push or hover. He has attended our local public schools and we trust that they have given him a strong enough education and an excellent foundation.
I did get a little nuts when Charlie was a freshman and couldn’t summon much interest in extracurricular activities. There may have been an outburst of “but you won’t be able to go to college!” It wasn’t my finest moment. Eventually he found activities that inspired him: Ultimate Frisbee, Key Club, volunteering at the food bank, balancing a healthy dose of video games and Snapchatting.
When it came time for him apply to college, I assumed we were savvy enough to help him make his way through the application process. We had friends to guide us, and I’ve worked a little in college admissions, so I knew what was what. Charlie was realistic in his plans: an engineering program at a large university. No ivies, no small liberal arts colleges. We could do this.
At the suggestion of a friend, we consulted an adviser on some financial aid questions. That was to be it, but we were quickly wooed by everything the advising company had to offer. This wasn’t a guarantee of an admissions letter to Harvard or Yale. It was guidance in finding the right fit in a college, both academically and financially, so Charlie would graduate on the right track and without significant debt. They clearly knew where our soft spots were.
In spite of our bravura, we had been in denial. We didn’t know what we were doing in the admissions process. I had applied to exactly one college. I knew I would get in, I did, and I went there. There were no college visits (I had been visiting my siblings at the school for years), no application essay and no interview. My husband did the whole shebang: long college road trips, selective private colleges, essays and interviews. He ended up at an excellent college, but it was never really a good fit — too conventional for an eccentric, nerdy artist.
So we have jumped into this advising process to have someone hold our hands and keep us from second, third and fourth guessing ourselves. Someone else can give Charlie feedback on his essay (as a writer, I try to stay as far away from his work as possible), tell him whether he should retake any of the tests, tell him he should take A.P. English rather than regular. Someone else can get him to consider schools he has never heard of, hear him in ways that we can’t, and encourage more self-discovery. More important, someone else can give him deadlines and take over the nudging.
Shortly after we signed up, Charlie had a long meeting with one of the advisers, to talk about his major and career interests, how he learned best, and what kind of environment he liked. In that time, the adviser convinced Charlie that engineering may be far too rigid a major and field for him. Even though he loves math and physics, he is also fascinated with history, politics, economics and world events. This is the kid who started teaching himself German when he was 14, has memorized every world capital, and could talk for hours about the battle of Stalingrad. The adviser suggested international studies. While Charlie was interested in engineering, he is giddy about this idea. Immediately after this meeting, my husband quipped, “I think we just got our money’s worth.”
It is still early in the process. We have to get through many, many visits, essays, applications, interviews, more visits and financial aid forms. When I’ve sheepishly mentioned to friends that we’re working with an adviser, they haven’t judged; they’ve asked for the contact information. I won’t know for a long time (if ever) whether hiring the advisers was worth it, or whether we’ll all come through with our sanity intact.
Then we can decide whether to take this route with our younger son. Fortunately, we have four more years of denial before we have to decide.