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Guest Column: Self-arresting on the slippery college admissions slope
Letting go is not so easy
Allison Johnson

The recent nationwide college admissions scandal has hit close to home. My son is a high school junior and, over the past six months, we’ve landed on what at times has felt like an increasingly slippery and panic-loaded slope. In real life, I couldn't self-arrest on the side of an icy mountain to save my life, but in this metaphorical world, I have flipped over, jammed that ice ax into the snow and am clinging to that handle of sanity for dear life. For those parents who think early child-rearing is hard, hold on to your hat. This is hard. It requires you to forego all those nurturing and protective instincts you’ve cultivated and shove your child out of the nest.

While there’s no excusing the illegal actions of the parents and adults in the much-ballyhooed recent college admissions scandal (including some with ties to Aspen) who bought their child’s way into college, I can relate to the anxiety that may have driven those decisions. Parents are pummeled to buy into the college admissions hype. And it’s not just the parents. When my son took the PSATs last year, he made the mistake of checking a box saying that he wanted to hear from colleges. Ever since, his email in-box has been flooded with messages that make these institutions sound like telemarketers or needy girlfriends. “Is this still you?” “Do we have the right email address?” “Don't you want our special ‘get into college’ brochure?” “Won’t you come visit us?” “Why haven’t we heard from you in a while?”

In high school, the opportunity to indulge in the furor is endless. Bump up the AP classes or take classes you actually enjoy? Hire a college counselor? Hire a college test prep tutor? SAT or ACT? How many SAT points translate into scholarship dollars? Are you active enough? Are you a leader? Can you game your class rank with that weighted class? Does that college take it weighted? Unweighted? Superscored? Parents are supposed to learn an entirely new vocabulary and expected to tour the whole goddamned country to show “demonstrated interest.” I’ve been on two campus tours now, and the idea of more is simply torturous. But it’s not about me, I’m told. This statistic isn’t about me either: kids are being asked to write upwards of 20 essays or more to get into their top choices. And when they’re done with those, they can start on the scholarship applications. It’s no wonder we’re all being driven into the dark heart of madness.

Research, however, increasingly tells us that where you go to school, especially in the STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Math) fields my son hopes to pursue, may not matter as much as what you do when you get there. But the choice of a college can impact a student for a lifetime. Case in point: me. 

In high school, I dreamed of becoming a novelist. I got into two institutions with prestigious writing programs. I also was accepted into the top liberal arts college in the country, where I was a legacy student. Although I wanted nothing more than to pursue a career in fiction, I chose that liberal arts college with no writing classes, buckling under the pressure of my legacy parent. I have regretted the choice ever since. The impact of parental interference, even when it’s well-meant, can derail a life, and I am determined to defend my own son’s right to choose. 

Last year, my father began imposing on my son the same kind of logic he used on me — that it’s better to get a great general liberal arts education than to pursue a particular area from the get-go. Ultimately, that logic hurt me, and it may not be right for my son, a tech kid who has always wanted to pursue aerospace or computer science. My father disagreed vocally and repeatedly, and the building frustration culminated in a screaming match in the middle of a bluegrass concert in downtown Prescott, Arizona. Although there’s some validity to my father’s point, I’ll be damned if I let anyone tell my son what to do. And that includes me.

After a dozen years spent advocating for his unique learning needs, I have found myself in the strange position of having to retrain myself to step away again. When he recently asked for some help in writing a letter to a senator — part of a requirement needed for an Eagle Scout merit badge — I refused. He fussed for a while and then got down to business. The resulting letter was fabulous.  

The same goes for his college essays. While my writer instinct knows exactly what hook I would lead with, I will bite off my tongue before telling him. Ultimately he’s got to figure out that magic on his own. And to my delight, he is. The other morning, I woke up at 6:30 a.m. to find him typing away on his laptop. 

“What are you doing?” I asked groggily, coffee in hand.

“Working on the first draft of my college essay,” he said. 

I don’t even know what he’s writing about for his school’s college prep class, but I believe it’s going to be good.

Since English majors like me aren’t generally the best judge of STEM programs, we have slipped down that mountainside a little by hiring a private college counselor to thin the college choices. My son told the counselor what he was looking for, received a list of 30 schools, and narrowed them down on his own. 

We’ll take him to visit any college he genuinely wants to see, but we put our foot down when that included a mid-winter tour ranging from Rochester, NY, to Philadelphia that would have cost upwards of $5,000. I don’t care if that’s what junior families are supposed to be doing on spring break. That’s not what our family will be doing. Checks and balances, dip in, dip out, support and push away. Provide structure but not opinion. Engage but don’t invest. Cultivate some distance. It’s the only way to stay sane in this fraught new world he's entered. I can only hope that, when he leaves home in another year, he’ll be heading to a place he truly loves and is in full ownership of that choice. He’ll be better prepared to make future big decisions as well. 

When my grip on that ax handle has weakened and I’ve felt myself tempted to step in, I have forced myself to answer this question: What is the worst thing that can happen to him? Following that thread to its logical conclusion reminds me that there is no worst case scenario in the end. There’s only learning and growing on both his part and mine. We can choose to buy into the college madness or not. As we head into full-blown college season, I’m trying my damnedest to choose not. I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m just saying that’s how I want it to be.

Allison Johnson covers schools for the RFWJ.