Your Identity is Not Decided by the Sticker on Your Car’s Rear Window: Advice for Parents during the College Admissions Process

Last Tuesday night, the Parents’ Association was treated to an evening with Deb Shaver, Director of Admissions at Smith College. As the parent of a son who is in the throes of the college application process, I had a personal interest in this event I was organizing for Stoneleigh-Burnham parents. This is the second year we have hosted Deb and each time we ask her to provide the inside story on admissions and then give advice on how to guide their daughters through the process without nagging, controlling, or being too anxious.

With humor and diplomacy, Deb jumped right in, anticipating our questions and yes, some of our pathologies. Telling her own story of trying to help her son with this process when he wanted no help and only wanted to play in a rock band, she regaled us with her frustrations knowing we would feel more open to expressing our own. She articulated six points we were to commit to memory for the sake of our daughters – and I feel like her advice is worth repeating:

1. Remember the process belongs to your child and not to you. Your role is as an administrative assistant or secretary. Help by keeping charts or spreadsheets if you want, but the choice to go to college and if so, to which college, needs to come from your daughter.

2. Because it is your daughter who is going to college, and not you, remember she is the one who will be accepted or denied. Never use “we” when discussing acceptance or denial with your daughter. In other words, understand what issues you as a parent are bringing to the process. Where she goes to college will not become her identity or yours. Your identity is not decided by the sticker you place on the rear window of your car.

3. The indices on best colleges are all created to sell books and magazines; they differ on what colleges they think are best and their criteria are skewed. With all the wonderful colleges and universities in the U.S. your daughter will have a good choice, so “go for fit and not fame.”

4. College choice will never have the last word in your daughter’s future; so don’t act like it will. Your daughter is under enough pressure.

5. When a rejection letter comes, and it most likely will, keep your own grief under control while you praise your daughter for having the courage to try and acknowledging her disappointment. Encourage her to keep her chin up and remember that other letters will arrive and among them will be one or more acceptances. Then go into your own bedroom and have that good cry you’ve been bravely holding off.

6. Work closely with your daughter’s college counselor, in Stoneleigh-Burnham’s case, Lauren Cunniffe, who really is an expert at helping our girls select appropriate colleges, apply to them and make sure they have all the necessary paperwork together to send off. (Deb had high praise for Lauren.)

As the conversation was coming to an end, a parent asked about the nuts and bolts of how a college makes its decisions. Rearranging herself in her chair and taking care to be as exact as she could, Deb described the Smith College process which she indicated was pretty typical of most small selective colleges. As she explained the mechanics of having two readers for every application, deciding those who would be admitted at the top and who would be rejected at the bottom, arguing in committee over most applicants, I deepened my appreciation for the difficulty of the decisions. She summed it up by saying the process is one part science, one part art and one part “crap shoot.” “Fair? Is it fair?” she asked rhetorically. “No! from a parent or applicant perspective it isn’t all fair. But, as she went on to reflect, “it is as fair as we can make it.” She went on to let everyone know that in committee, there are always tears from her admissions staff. “They, too, fall in love with these applicants and have a hard time accepting the decisions on some of their favorite candidates. So I make sure I have a lot of tissues in my office on any decision day.”

– Regina Mooney, Director of Development & Alumnae Relations

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Filed under College Prep, On Parenting

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