As my daughter enters the second half of her junior year, she/we—I’m really not sure who—have officially entered the College Arms Race. Over the next nine months we’ll be living in an alphabet soup world of ACTs, SATs (old and new), Superscoring (who knew that was a thing?), GPAs, class rank, AP exams, and SAT subject tests. Her friends are spending evenings and weekends with an assortment of tutors, private college admissions counselors, and practicing “bubbling” on Scantron sheets.
Abby, fortunately, is an excellent standardized test taker, which is a key skill right now and has saved me thousands of dollars in tutoring, though I did buy a $20 ACT prep book that she never opened. But doing well on standardized tests is a narrow skill—it’s great to have but doesn’t in any way make her a hard worker, a good student, a caring friend, a loving daughter, or a strong teammate. It just means that for three-plus hours, she can park her butt in a chair, not get distracted, and fill in the right bubbles.
Abby and I have barely dipped our toes in the college admissions water and I already hate this process. Why are wonderful, funny, smart, quirky kids being reduced to their grades, their resumes, and their test scores? Why do we look at our children and silently think “not good enough?” Not good enough for whom? As parents, are we acting in our child’s best interests, or are we trying to keep up with the hypothetical Cohens? I don’t know.
I’ve known three of Abby’s friends since they were middle-schoolers and watched them grow through their formative adolescent years. They are all smart kids. More importantly, they are kind, welcoming, creative, enthusiastic, loving, and hard-working. I know that. Abby knows that. And yet their parents think their kids aren’t good enough, that they’re not trying hard enough, and that they’re going to end up destitute and homeless if they don’t get into Yale or at least a top school as defined by the US News and World Report rankings.
As heartbreaking as that is, what kind of message does that send to the kids? Your “numbers” aren’t good enough so therefore you aren’t good enough. Why are we trying to quantify our teenagers, who by definition defy all logic and should be impossible to label and number? But we do it. Guilty as charged.
Despite the fact that there is life beyond college, the admissions process is an arms race. If your kid hasn’t cured cancer, written a New York Times bestseller, or founded a non-profit at 17, then don’t even bother applying to the top schools. Only taking three AP classes this year? Clearly not enough when kids at other schools start their day with zero period (classes that meet before the start of school today), skip lunch, and are taking seven AP classes. Your kid runs on the school’s varsity cross-country team? Great. But it doesn’t mean anything unless your kid’s times are good enough to be recruited by a college coach. Since Abby has done none of the above, the two months I’ve spent involved in the college admissions process have me wanting to bury my head already.
A few months ago, Abby’s friend, Eliza, who is graduating this spring, warned me about the “chatter.” The “chatter” being all the advice, gossip, rumor, innuendo, and noise surrounding college admissions. It comes from friends, relatives, co-workers, and really piles on more stress to an already stressful situation. So when Abby’s friends were signing up for SAT tutors, I panicked. But I don’t have a spare $1000/month to spend over five or six months. The SAT/ACT studying would have to be DIY only.
Abby isn’t a good enough swimmer to compete at the collegiate level, so she’s not being recruited by any coaches. The “chatter” said “swimming is a waste of time if she can’t do it in college.” Again, press the panic button. I had to take a deep breath and think that this is something she loves, and it’s a lifelong sport; how can I tell her not to swim?
We live in the southeast, far enough that the southernmost Ivy League school (Penn) is a solid seven hour drive away, so the pull of the Ivies is less strong than it was when I grew up in New Jersey (disclaimer: I’m a Penn alumna but it was a LOT easier to get accepted when I applied in the mid-1980s). That being said, the pressure to apply to other top tier schools closer to home (Duke, Duke, and Duke) is just as strong.
Even for in-state schools such as the University of North Carolina and North Carolina State University, the pressure doesn’t let up. Because the elephant in the room is money and the obscene cost of a college education. Abby’s father and I are in the weird part of middle class where my ex-husband and I make too much money for need based aid but not enough money to pay $67,000/year for an Ivy or Duke. While there are many schools out there that might be a good “fit” for Abby, the reality is that I can afford in-state tuition only. So gaining a spot at a state school is akin to winning Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket. Great if it happens, but don’t hold your breath. And maybe buy a few Powerball tickets.
Roughly a year from now, this will all be over. She’ll have her acceptance and rejection letters. The admissions and financial aid officers will have made their decisions and then it will be Abby’s turn to decide. Wherever she ends up, I hope she goes through this process knowing that she’s so much more than her resume and test scores, and she doesn’t need a university to prove it.