Tips for Parents

My high school senior is more than a college application

By Wendy Worrall Redal

Last night at 11 pm when I went down to my daughter’s room to encourage her to get to bed, I thought I’d find her revising her college admissions essay for the fourth time, or toiling away at her physics homework, since these fall-semester senior grades will be critical for merit scholarships at some of the schools she’s applying to.

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But she was doing neither. She was addressing colored envelopes and affixing stamps on notes to friends who are college freshmen. She’d hand-written words of encouragement, choosing a means more memorable than the usual text message.

I could have been irked that the essay revision remains to be done, or troubled that every spare minute isn’t being devoted to the tough physics class. Instead I was reminded, as I noted the flourish with which Bryn penned the names on the envelopes, of her kind and generous nature. Her loyalty as a friend. Her creativity. Her thoughtfulness. All of which are ultimately more important than a transcript or where she spends the next four years.

You’d never know it, though, in the thick of senior year. One blog post I read recently on a site for parents of college-bound students said parents often feel “inadequacy and dread. This is the time in your child’s life when the rubber hits the road. The last 11 or 12 years of school come down to one huge question: what will they do after high school?”

I must respectfully disagree with this perspective.

My daughter has worked hard in high school, doing well in a slate of advanced classes. She’s on track to apply Early Action to every school on her list. But what I want to say to people right now, at this juncture, is that my daughter’s identity is so much more than where she may end up on that list.

I was at a party at a friend’s recently, making small talk with other guests. When I mentioned to a woman I’d never met that I had a daughter who was a senior, her immediate response was, “Where is she applying?”

QuoteMy daughter’s ultimate worth is in her character. And I believe her ultimate happiness will lie as much in these other dimensions of her identity — friend, relative, singer, dancer, baker, outdoors lover, current events follower, person of faith, social justice advocate — as it will in where she goes to college.

In the frenzy of senior-year fall in our driven, accomplished, upper-middle class community, this is The Question, and it’s asked even by relative strangers.

It usually doesn’t spring from a genuine interest in my child. Rather “the list,” and which college a student ends up at, can be a code for inferring things about a student’s ambition and capability, the parents’ status and values, and the family’s social and economic standing.

I reject the notion that my daughter is one-dimensional, or that where she attends college is the most significant hallmark of her identity, or our family’s, so I try to avoid playing along. “Oh, she’s working on pinning down her choices,” I reply casually.

What The Question can’t take into account — a lot like the scattergrams displaying GPA and test score data for admitted students — are “all the other intangibles” that writer Laura Fitzgerald Cooper describes, “those pieces of your child’s intellect — of your child’s heart — that are random, unquantifiable, ungraphable.”

Cooper notes that many parents are “terrified” by the statistics on those “dreaded graphs.” She ponders, as the parent of a new 9th grader, “Must I really let that graph direct the rich years my son and I are entering together?”

No, Ms. Cooper, you do not. We can’t let this obsession with what’s next dominate this precious time we have with our kids still at home. We must not allow our children to equate their self-worth with the names of the colleges that might approve their applications.

Bryn’s peers are stressed right now. When I see them, I don’t bring up college unless they do. I ask them about anything else, and I try to have similar college-free conversational interludes with my own daughter.

Last spring, when Bryn was a junior and crunched between a slew of AP, SAT and ACT exams, I whisked her away for a weekend where we deliberately did not talk about college. We hiked, we had mochas at a cozy café, we browsed in a local bookstore, she ran a 5K with her cousin. It was rejuvenating. And it reminded her that she is more than a grade point average or composite score.

As with all of us, my daughter’s ultimate worth is in her character. And I believe her ultimate happiness will lie as much in these other dimensions of her identity — friend, relative, singer, dancer, baker, outdoors lover, current events follower, person of faith, social justice advocate — as it will in where she goes to college or even what she does professionally.

I’m not suggesting that the choice of a college or university is inconsequential — on the contrary, my own experience at a small liberal arts school remains among the most important and influential elements of my life. My husband and I are prepared to sacrifice so our daughter can have the same sort of opportunity, if she can land a scholarship that will help make it possible. I know there is a lot at stake. But I also know that what is most valuable about Bryn will never be embodied in how she answers The Question, “Where are you applying?”

In so many ways, the best of who she is was right there before me last night: curled up on her bed, writing cards to her friends.

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