When my oldest son was applying to college my mother in law used to repeatedly ask where “A” was going to go to college. As I grew weary of the question I would flippantly reply, “Wherever they’ll take him.” Why wouldn’t X school take him?” she would ask incredulously “He’s such a nice boy.”
Now, I am launching a second son (a junior) into the college search process but since it’s not the first time I’ve done this, my vision is a bit clearer.
If you have a high school junior or senior you’re probably getting mail by the bucket load from colleges, some of which you’ve heard of and some of which are new to you. The first time out, I was secretly awed by this flood of mail. I tried to be cool about it but inside I was bursting. Wow, I thought, they really want HIM. I wasn’t sure how they knew what a fabulous kid son number one was but I just figured someone had let them in on the secret.
Now I know that four years of college is a commodity and this detritus from the colleges is just a massive marketing blitz. Colleges are trying to sell their schools. What exactly are they trying to sell and, more importantly, what are we looking to buy? As I look at the brochures on my kitchen island certain phrases jump out at me. One college says they are, “Leading the way.” Where exactly are we going? Another college, Morris Catholic, tells my sixteen-year old son who has attended Jewish Day School for the last twelve years, “You are the future.” I hope he’s someone’s future but I’m just not sure he’s their future. Other schools are more creative: “Where leaders learn.” or “Arrive Realize Thrive” It’s a morass of pithy, pointless sayings which clarify nothing.
It’s seductive to believe that all these schools know and want your child but let me assure you that what the college actually wants is your child’s application. Think application fees and selectivity. Selectivity is a factor used to raise a school’s ranking so the more applicants, the more rejections, the more selective a school becomes and the school’s ranking rises. It’s not personal. They don’t know your child and admissions is, after all, just a numbers game.
A friend who’s been down this road before likes to remind me of the course catalog as thick as two phone books that her son got from a top ten school along with many other pieces of mail from that school, only to later be rejected by said school. The rejection caused her son tremendous angst but at the end of the day he wound up at the right college for him and later at a terrific law school. After all of the agita, ninety seven percent of my older son’s friends ended up at schools where they have flourished academically and socially.
So, what am I looking to buy for my number two son aside from the pithiest of sayings on the coolest brochure? First, these are the things I know to be true; there is not only one right college for my child, there are many colleges that would serve him well. Second, it’s very hard to screw this up because most kids do really well at the schools where they end up.
The framework of what I’m looking for is a safe, nurturing place for my son to develop from an immature eighteen year old into a mature twenty-two year old, while he learns, decides what the next step will be and makes friends. The details: big/small, sports/no sports, urban/rural, greek life/no greek life…that’s for him to flesh out.
Oh, and where is the line on the application where we tell them what a nice boy he is?