Musings From Mama

by Sharon Rosen Leib December 31, 2011


Parents of high school seniors have one thing on their minds…and it isn’t sex. It’s all about getting our kids into college. I know of what fetish I speak. As a parent of both a high school senior and junior, I’m reporting from the trenches.

Let’s make one thing clear: parents who fixate on their kids’ college admissions can’t claim to be part of the oppressed 99 percent. College admissions anxiety afflicts the privileged few of us who can afford to spend time worrying over whether our kids will be admitted to a “good school” rather than worrying if we can pay the mortgage.

Remember that bright yellow Vietnam War protest poster from the 1960s with a stick-figure sunflower that read, “War is not healthy for children and other living things?” We children of the 1960s who’ve never had to worry about our kids being drafted to fight a questionable war on foreign soil (like our grandparents did about our own parents), worry far too much about something as relatively inconsequential as where our kids will attend college. Our epic anxiety warrants a new emblematic poster that reads, “The college admissions game is not healthy for parents and their children.”

I do worry occasionally about whether Oldest Daughter will be admitted to a college she’ll feel proud to attend. Last week, I woke up with a start, anxiously thinking, ‘What if she doesn’t get in anywhere?’ Then I looked out the bedroom window at the blue Pacific and came to my senses. ‘A world of possibilities awaits, whether or not she’s admitted to one of her top choices.’ Besides, my dear husband worries enough about the whole college thing for both of us and then some. As a counterbalance, I try to keep a Zen-like detachment from admission anxiety. To achieve college calm, I’ve upped my attendance to yoga classes and meditation groups.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked, “Where is your daughter applying?” during the last few months. To be honest, I’ve lost track. One of the admissions game strategies is to apply to at least eight schools. My daughter, at last count, had 13 schools on her list. When asked the college question, I try to remember “the list” but always come up a few colleges short. The asker gives me that what-kind-of-a-parent-are-you look when I tick off only seven college names. I’ll tell you what kind of a parent I am: a peri-menopausal mom who can’t remember shit and tries not to be overly invested in where my kid goes to college.

Because, let’s get real, the college game may be more about us than our kids. Deep down we fear if our kid doesn’t get accepted to a “good school” we look like failures, slacker parents who’ve passed down our dumb/lazy genes and/or been poor role models. Conversely, if our kid makes it into Stanford, Harvard, Princeton or Yale, we bask in the reflected glory of genius triumphant.

What troubles me is by placing undue emphasis on where our kids go to college, we paradoxically run the risk of undermining their self-confidence. How can our kids feel good in the here and now if all we seem to care about is where they go to college? What if they don’t get accepted to a college deemed “good enough?” Is that sense of being somehow “less than” going to haunt them for the rest of their lives?

In my personal quest to put the college game in perspective, I’ve come across some excellent source material. Andrew Ferguson’s 2011 book “Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College” dissects everything from the SAT to college rankings with intellectual rigor and self-deprecating humor. The brilliant, clear-eyed Caitlin Flanagan’s article, “The Ivy Delusion,” in the April 2011 edition of “The Atlantic” discusses how the lack of a meritocracy in elite college admissions drives parents crazy. Finally, and most revealingly, a March 28, 2011, NPR segment, “Behind the Scenes: How Do You Get Into Amherst?” takes listeners inside a meeting of Amherst College’s (a highly selective, small liberal arts school) admissions staff.

Amherst Dean of Admissions Tom Parker says of the outstanding applicants who make it to the final cut, “There is going to come a point where…we’re exhausting the meaningful criteria to separate John from Mary…[and] it’s effectively a lottery.” Dean Parker wants kids to know that receiving a rejection letter isn’t the end of the world. I say amen to that. Teaching our kids perspective matters. College is but an expensive stepping-stone on life’s long and winding road.


2 thoughts on “Musings From Mama

  1. While you make some valid and thoughtful points later in the article, Your jokes about the 99 are offensive and hurtful. Parents of middle and lower incomes worry about their kids futures. They also worry about the mortgage. I work as a college counselor and see families struggle with this. Your attempt to be cute fell flat and, to me, made you come across as a shallow person.

    You view “from the trenches” seems more of one looking at maps from well behind the front lines….

    1. I appreciate your feedback. My reference to the 99% was not intended as a joke. Parents from all walks of life worry about their kids’ futures and whether they will be able to attend college. The top 1% has the privileged luxury of worrying more about whether their kids will be admitted to elite colleges than whether they can pay tuition. I apologize for any offense taken.

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