College Advice for the Cost of a Single Post-it Note

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The Checkup

The college application process tends to press the when-I-was-your-age button in many of us parents, and bring on those monologues so universally beloved by our adolescent children.

They are no doubt delighted to hear that we were not under the kind of pressure that we worry may be blighting their lives, that our parents were decently removed from the whole process, that we applied to only five — or three — or two schools, that we had never heard of hiring college consultants or taking prep courses, that we lost no sleep over where we would get in, that we never thought of doing “college visiting” tours with our parents, and that we generally lived in a saner, less stressed and happier time.

Or maybe our digital offspring are fascinated to hear about typing applications, armed with Wite-Out and Ko-Rec-Type, and the excitement of rushing to the post office to get manila envelopes postmarked by close of business on the last possible day.

Like most when-I-was-your-age storytelling, this is more than a little self-serving and often somewhat exaggerated (actually, I felt lots of pressure, some because of my family but most because of friends and classmates; I certainly did visit a couple of colleges; my mother was there to help with the typewriter and the Wite-Out) and probably of very dubious interest to the next generation. But having been through the college application process with my three children, I can offer my family’s two pieces of sacred college application advice.

If you have a high school senior, and your child has decided to apply somewhere early decision (or early action or early something or other), the application is most likely in and done by now. And with Thanksgiving approaching, my first piece of advice is that you shelter your high school senior from her or his loving family this Thanksgiving by absolutely prohibiting any talk of college and applications.

Believe me, your senior does not want to discuss this. Not with uncles, aunts, cousins or loving grandparents. The right thing to do under these circumstances is for the parents to tell everyone that college is a forbidden subject — and the best way to explain that is to say, we are all sick of it, and we have promised ourselves and our child a respite. Let’s all find another subject.

No one should know where your child most wants to go, no one should know about a decision to apply somewhere early. Grandparents and family friends and other relatives will eventually know where your child is going to college, but only you and your child need to be in on the fits and starts of the application process.

Going off to college is like marriage — a public event. Family members will know when your child marries, but no bystanders (including the parents) need to know about proposals or even almost-proposals. Those are between the relevant parties; they are not public events.

Similarly, when your child triumphantly announces the results of the college application process, the last thing you want are anyone’s trailing memories of but-I-thought-you-wanted-to-go-somewhere-else. This applies whether or not those early applications were successful; it’s just not anyone’s business, and the idea that it might be is another one of those modern day college application pathologies. But I can promise you that in almost every extended family, there is at least one relative who will never stop bringing this up; four and a half years from now, when that same child is graduating in happiness and academic glory from whichever perfectly good school this painful process yielded, that special family member will still be making sure no one forgets that some other perfectly good school might have been, at some point, preferred.

As with marriage, everyone should know about the actual life decision, so well-wishers can rejoice with your child and enjoy the adventure; no one needs to know about rejections along the way or plans that didn’t quite work out or changes of mind.

And for the same reason, and this doesn’t just apply to Thanksgiving: Remind your child that the correct response to what’s-your-first-choice questions is always an enthusiastic statement about how many great options there are out there. This is (1) perfectly true and (2) stupefyingly boring to the nosy. But on Thanksgiving, take it from me, even this call and response should be forbidden.

Even if you’ve already confided some of these details in family members, my advice is a total freeze on the subject for Thanksgiving. Your child will be thankful, and many of your most irritating relatives may be appropriately irritated — which should make the turkey taste that much better.

As for the second piece of advice: try to have a sense of humor about this, and the lower, the better. When my third child was beginning the application process, his father put a Post-it note on the door of the bathroom. On it was the word “college.” For months, when speaking to our long-suffering son, we referred to the bathroom only by that name, as in, do you need to go to college before we leave the house? Where were you, were you in college again? You just worked out — how about going to college and getting washed up? You can probably imagine all the jokes that this yielded — about how hard it was to get into college when his siblings were home, about boys who spend too much time in college, about how college should not be used as an escape from the world.

Did it get old? You bet. But not as old as pontificating about how much saner and less stressful it all used to be, back in the good old days. And I have to say, that Post-it made it impossible to have a totally serious or pompous conversation about applications; that Post-it hanging there on that door took us right out of the stressed-out third child with something to prove zone and into the puerile joke range, where it turned out that we all belonged.

So there you have it: Freeze out your nearest and dearest, and make a lot of bathroom jokes. You’re not going to get anything better from even the fanciest college consultant.