One mom tells how the college application process nearly drove her and her daughter insane.
Illustration by Jon Reinfurt
In my daughter, Frannie’s college application essay, she compared herself to Lady Macbeth, concluding, however, that her ambition would not ultimately lead to her downfall as it did for Shakespeare’s murderous, plotting queen. Frannie was absolutely right; I was the one who was about to fall into that trap.
I’d always seen myself as an enlightened mother. As the editor of a local parenting magazine, I am considered something of a parenting expert. But judging from the past year, you wouldn’t suspect that. In that time—my daughter’s senior year of high school—I became a stark raving loon, losing perspective and almost doing the unforgivable: forgetting what was best for my child.
This all happened during Frannie’s gut-twisting college admissions process, an ordeal that is stressful in most circumstances. It became even more chaotic not because of any failure on her part but due to her success.
Like many of her classmates, Frannie was an enthusiastic student who drove herself to work hard and get good grades. By the middle of her junior year at Walnut Creek’s Northgate High, she had a 4.4 GPA and had scored 2100 on the SAT. She was juggling all the things we had learned were important (such as athletics and community service) to earn a decent shot at the top UCs, including Cal—her first choice, and her father’s and my alma mater. When people asked where she was going, I kept things grounded, saying, “We’re just trying to figure out how to pay for it.”
But sometimes things happen to steer you off course. Our detour started when Frannie, who has always been self-motivated and competitive, decided she wanted to take the SAT one more time, in May of her junior year. I told her to go for it. Sure, 2100 is a respectable score, but I knew my daughter could pull it up to 2200.
A few weeks after the test, she texted me from school at 11 a.m., in all caps: “I GOT A 2400 ON THE SAT!!!!!!”
A 2400. A perfect score. It’s like pitching a perfect game, bowling 300, scoring a hole in one. She would immediately be invited to the SAT Hall of Fame (on average, only about 200 of every 1 million students who take the SAT get a 2400). In college talk, this means a shot at admission to HYPSM: Harvard-Yale-Princeton-Stanford-MIT.
Suddenly, this college thing was a lot more interesting. I logged on to the College Board website to make sure her score wasn’t a mistake. There it was: 800 in critical reading, 800 in mathematics, 800 in writing. I checked again often over the next few days, afraid that her score was some weird computer glitch, that it would go away. This was the first of many compulsions I would develop over the next year.
Looking back, I should have patted her on the head, said “good job,” and gone back to my life. But I couldn’t. I wanted to share the news with everyone I met. And as she prepared to apply to colleges, I was confident that, because of the 2400, letters of inquiry, acceptances, and scholarship offers would start rolling in.
But like so many things in life, it didn’t quite work out as expected.
Who Said High School Was Fun?
The college admissions game starts for many kids as early as middle school. For Frannie, as with most high-achieving students, it rapidly accelerated during sophomore year, when students make out their junior year schedules. Kids like Frannie load themselves with honors and AP classes, which not only require college-level dedication but breed a subgroup of intense, stressed-out students who look at college as the ultimate prize. I don’t think Frannie went to bed before 1 a.m. any night of her junior year due to her homework load, and at the same time, she was performing in school plays, playing varsity water polo, babysitting—and trying not to feel bad about herself because she didn’t have a social life.
It’s not that my daughter was a troll; she was just a busy kid, with an enthusiasm for getting involved in activities that interested her. That left little time for hanging out or going to parties. When I expressed my concern about her late nights, she would reply, “Mom, I have to. Everyone in my honors classes is up even later, trying to get the work done.” Plus, at least I knew she wasn’t getting into trouble if she was hunched over her computer. Indeed, most of her social life was on Facebook, where she and the other superachievers posted about homework, essays, and SAT prep. She said she would rather sleep than go out with friends, and seeing her hectic schedule, I couldn’t blame her.
Unwittingly, I added to her stress by talking about the virtues of college—telling her what she had to do to be accepted, making sure she was keeping up with her peers, and pushing my own expectations on her. I wanted her to go to a top college. I wanted her branded with the prestige a top college provides. I wanted an “Insert Prestigious College Here” Mom bumper sticker on my car. My years at UC Berkeley had defined my life: It was where I met my life partner, made good friends, and established invaluable job connections—and I wanted that for my child.
I wasn’t the only parent obsessed with her child’s application process. By the end of Frannie’s junior year, the main topics of conversation among my mommy friends centered on SAT scores, where our child might apply, and college visits. Not since the early years of parenting—when poop, breastfeeding, and sleep deprivation held such fascination for us—had all of us been so connected by what was going on with our kids.
Ratcheting Up the Pressure
The SAT results changed both Frannie’s plan and the way we looked at the college hunt. The thousands of dollars she’d surely receive in scholarships made us feel less guilty about taking a summer trip to Europe. Now, schools like Stanford and the Ivies weren’t out of reach.
My husband and I were both public school bred; we’d never thought to pursue the Ivies. But they’d be begging someone with a 2400 to attend, right? Before the SAT madness, a Cal acceptance would have been the culmination of her high school career. But someone with a perfect SAT should go to one of the top five, right?
Of course, I never really considered whether she would even like those schools. I just liked the idea of those schools. And, in fact, Frannie didn’t limit herself to HYPSM. She applied to Harvard, Brown, and Cornell, as well as NYU, UCLA, UC San Diego, and UC Berkeley. The only difference between this list and the one she had drawn up the previous spring, before her perfect SAT, was that now we thought she would get into all of them. She applied early admission to one school: Stanford. She was one of the record 30,428 applicants vying for 2,300 spots in the 2010 freshman class.
The process was grueling. Frannie missed homecoming to finish her Stanford application and spent Thanksgiving night, after dinner, finalizing the UC one. Then, she had the UC website crash on her on the eve of the application deadline because of the number of applications being submitted. She was stressed, brittle. I kept telling her not to worry, but she told me that I wasn’t the one trying to secure a future.
All that work, however, was tinged with excitement. The whole family couldn’t wait to see who would come knocking. We didn’t think we could stand the long wait until spring, when acceptances would start to trickle in.
The Waiting Game
Besides earning superb grades and her perfect SAT score, Frannie played varsity water polo and was deeply involved in her high school drama program. In addition to acting, she directed and wrote plays. She also served as one of Northgate’s Youth Educators, teaching students at Foothill Middle School about the perils of drug and alcohol use. She volunteered entire summers to help young kids learn how to swim and spent three years as stage manager for a local elementary school’s musicals. Swimming and theater are her passions, yet she wants to pursue a career that combines business, technology, and linguistics. She wrote a killer essay and had lovely letters of recommendation.
So it was a shock when she walked slowly out of her room one Friday afternoon in December, shortly before she was to leave to see her favorite band in the city, and said, “I didn’t get into Stanford. They rejected me.”
I gathered her in my arms, and she shed a few tears. I was stunned, but for once I said all the right things, telling her there were better schools out there, and she would find the Right One, and who wanted to go to Stanford anyway?
She handled the rejection with her usual maturity and grace, drying her tears, mumbling it was a relief to get the first rejection out of the way, and trotting off to her concert. She was sad but not about to let it ruin her night.
Meanwhile, I was ready to take a tire iron to the stupid admissions officers who had the gall to reject my kid. I wanted blood. I felt like running down to Palo Alto to plead her case to anyone who would listen. But I had no control. All either of us could do was wait.
By early March, not one college had reached out to her. Meanwhile, kids who had applied to other schools were hearing good news. Some of her friends were offered scholarships at less competitive schools with rolling admissions, such as Cal Poly, University of Oregon, University of Michigan, and USC. Suddenly, I was afraid. We had shot for the moon, and what if nothing came back?
I could tell Frannie was getting nervous because she threw herself into school even more to keep her mind off acceptances and rejections. I, on the other hand, waited by the mailbox and stewed. There were no offers of scholarships, no calls from admissions officers—just the rejection from Stanford and some offers to apply for scholarships at UCLA and UC Berkeley, with no guarantee of admission. Frannie loved that: “I can’t believe I have to complete a huge application for a scholarship to a school when I don’t even know if I’ve been accepted.”
It Starts to Get Ugly
The realization that schools would not be rolling out a red carpet hit home the day Frannie had an interview scheduled with a Brown alum—a common practice for Ivy League schools. She was supposed to meet him at a downtown Walnut Creek café. A half hour after the appointed time, she texted me: “HE’S NOT HERE! WHAT SHOULD I DO?” She waited 45 more minutes, then left. When she politely inquired later that evening if she had the wrong place, he responded via e-mail: no. No explanation, just a request to meet the following week. When they did meet, he spent the entire interview telling her how hard Brown was to get into and how it was good she had backups.
Afterward, Frannie was puzzled, and she grew depressed as the hours passed. “Why would he tell me that stuff if he thought I was good enough for Brown?” I told her he probably wasn’t that experienced, but in my mind, I crafted an irate letter to the dean of admissions. Don’t they know how important these interviews are to kids?
I could see Frannie becoming dejected, sad, even doubtful about her abilities. And I didn’t help matters. One day, after Frannie came home from an interview for a scholarship, I insisted on dissecting the interview. “Did they ask you what you want to major in?” I asked. “Yes.”
“What did you say?” “I said I didn’t know; I wanted to explore college before I made any commitment.” “Oh,” I said, unthinkingly, “they probably didn’t like that.”
She looked at me as if I were Judas. “What? What are you saying?” She started to cry. “I wish I’d never gotten that stupid 2400,” she said. “Now, everyone expects me to be perfect.”
She was right. No one in our world could believe Frannie would be rejected anywhere, for anything. With every rejection—real or perceived—she felt as if she was letting everyone down.
Of course, she was picking up on my lack of composure. I was a wreck. The waiting, the uncertainty, the constant doubts that were plaguing her were multiplied tenfold in me. I was spacey, forgetting appointments, yelling at people, not focusing at work. I was ignoring what my other kids were doing, and I quit taking care of myself. The stress and expectations made me start to think the unthinkable: Maybe Frannie wasn’t as good as some of her peers.
I wondered: Should I have hired a college counselor? Should I have pushed more résumé-stuffer community service activities? Should I have urged her to run for school office in addition to being in a play? Should I have insisted that she write a book, create a revenue-generating website, or invent something? My rational mom side scoffed at these ideas. But my Lady Macbeth mom side pondered if I could have made her more attractive to college admissions representatives.
I started haunting a website called College Confidential, which is, in the right hands, a great resource for information about colleges, testing, financial aid, and college life. Its chat rooms, however, are like college admissions porn. Stressed-out parents and students—as young as 14—post about their chances of being admitted to certain schools, and share their SAT, ACT, and AP scores. I logged on every free minute I had, looking for any indication that Frannie was better, or worse, than any other student. The poor tortured kids on this site measured their self-worth by acceptance letters—and I had tied my sanity to the same standard.
The first acceptance came while Frannie was working on a play, which the whole family had gone to see. She ran up to us in the theater lobby, clearly excited: “I got into UCLA!” The sense of relief was tremendous. Somebody wanted her. The next day, she was delighted to be accepted as a Regent’s Scholar at UC San Diego. But something was still missing. She wanted more.
“I know I should be happy about these,” she said. “But, in a way, they’re my safety schools. Some people would kill to go here, and I can’t even feel that excited about being accepted.”
A perfect SAT score and our soaring expectations had robbed her of the simple joy of being accepted into two great colleges.
Two of the acceptances Frannie had been waiting for came a week or so later, when Cal and NYU said yes. But we couldn’t even relax and enjoy that; in a gaffe typical of a large, impersonal institution, Cal posted the wrong financial aid information for her. She was notified that she had been given a huge scholarship, only to find out that the money was actually for a volleyball player.
“Maybe I should go to a smaller school,” Frannie said.
But the Ivies had other ideas. When they finally released their decisions, she was rejected at Cornell and wait-listed at Brown and Harvard, which wouldn’t notify her of a final decision until June 1, a month after the national college commitment deadline. Schools weren’t tripping over themselves to offer scholarships, either.
She was disappointed, and I was mad. What should have been a wonderful time of her life was filled with worry, stress, and uncertainty, and I knew I wasn’t helping by mirroring her confused teenage emotions.
My epiphany—that I needed to back off—finally came near the UC Berkeley campus, after an overnight stay for prospective students and their parents, just days before the college commitment deadline.
“Should we buy the sweatshirt?” I asked Frannie. This wasn’t a simple question; it was The Sweatshirt, the one that declared her intent. She nodded and burst into tears. It had hit her that her journey had come crashing to a halt here on Bancroft Avenue. She was going to Cal.
As I held her, I told her she didn’t need to go to Cal. She could go to NYU. She could take a “gap year.” I was not expecting her to do anything she didn’t want to do or go anywhere she didn’t want to go. Just because I went to Cal didn’t mean she should.
“But I want to,” she said. And I think she was surprised that she meant it. After all the temptation, the rejection, the stress, the cacophony of her friends and family telling her where she should go to college, she had picked her school—her original first choice. She’d visited the campus and seen that it was a totally new environment (definitely not Walnut Creek West). And she didn’t have to go all the way across the country to find it. As she said later, “It just felt right.”
I had been blinded by the sparkle of The Label, the prestige of an elite Ivy League university. And I had made the unforgivable parenting error of wanting my daughter to live the life I thought she should live—not the one she, smartly, chose for herself. I finally logged off College Confidential for good and said good-bye to Mommy Macbeth. I also learned to let go—kicking and screaming, but succeeding nonetheless.
The College-Try Quiz
Why should kids have all the test-taking fun? Dr. Elizabeth Stone, the college admissions columnist for Examiner.com, and John Fouts, president of Walnut Creek–based College Track Services, helped us put together a quiz on the college admissions process. True or false?
1. A perfect SAT score guarantees admission to any college in the country.
» False. Although a good score indicates a readiness to think at a college level and good test-taking abilities, it doesn’t address the all-important intangibles: stellar essays, community service, references, and academic performance. Remember also that some schools save space for “notable” students: the children of politicians and celebrities, or those able to pay full tuition.
2. SAT prep classes are essential for getting good scores and getting into college.
» False. Many students score well on the SAT and ACT without getting outside help. Perhaps the best way a student can prepare is to do a practice run: Take the test without worrying about the outcome. However, for those who are high achievers but lousy test takers, these classes can be valuable. They also offer a third-party intervention for your teen (after all, most teenagers don’t want their parents to tell them how to do things).
3. College admissions officers use a set formula to select students.
» False. Each college is different. Many schools and departments within colleges have their own criteria for granting admission, and the criteria change often. A school looking to pump up its science departments might take more top science students that year, possibly leaving a deserving future English major out in the cold.
4. There is a college for every kid.
» True. Basing a college choice on the name of the school is the worst thing you can do. A college is a home, and the student has to be comfortable. Take time to figure out things that are important to the student: weather, size, ethnic makeup, and, of course, academics (for instance, if your kid wants to study classics, make sure the school is strong in that area).
5. College admission is one of the most stressful experiences a teen will face.
» True. Keep in mind: (1) This is your child’s journey, not yours. (2) Make sure your child takes the time to enjoy high school. (3) Congratulate your child on successes—and that means every acceptance—but don’t disregard the disappointments. (4) Leave space for the occasional breakdown. Besides all the work and uncertainty of finding a college, you and your child are also preparing to separate. You may not be conscious of the loss, but it is still there. —P.S