How do dentists feel when they are at the dentist? Is it as miserable as it is for the rest of us, or is it easier because they know the routine? I wonder about this phenomenon more generally, including my own profession, college admission counseling. What is it like to relinquish one’s role as the expert—comfortable, or will I squirm like every other parent? Is it enlightening to see one’s profession from another perspective or terrifying? As a high school counselor with a teenage son, I will soon find out. What wisdom will I gain about both my career and my parenting as I brave college admission as a dad—will it be full of the angst and complexity that I often hear of, or will it simply make me better at my jobs? While time will tell, I asked admission deans who have recently parented a college applicant to reflect on what they have learned and to offer advice for fellow parents.
Admission Reality Check
From eye-opening, humbling, and exhausting to confirming, enlightening and rewarding, seasoned admission deans expressed appreciation for a new viewpoint. They were challenged when faced with their own children’s procrastination, assumptions about their parents’ opinions, peer pressure, stress about testing and an admission timeline that does not seem designed in the best interest of the student or family. The financial reality of sending a child to college was perhaps the most jarring, one dean expressing awe at “the amount of time it took to find the right school at the right price.”
What else surprised these professionals? Here are their voices:
The ‘wrong’ student tour guide can wreck the whole visit experience. I always discounted that idea a bit, until it happened to us. One of our sons, a student-athlete, was told by his tour guide, ‘you’ll do okay in class here; you don’t have to work very hard.’” —Jeff Rickey, vice president for enrollment at Nyack College
“I was surprised by the complexity and level of family commitment required to do a thoughtful, informed, national college search. It took a lot of time, energy and attention over the course of nearly two years, though my daughter might say that it had something to do with her father’s obsession with the process!” —Bob Nesmith, dean of admission and financial aid at Centre College
“The number of schools still recruiting after my son withdrew his application, was a real surprise.” —Raul Fonts, dean of admission and financial aid at Providence College
As parents, we make mistakes every day raising our children, but we find solace in the fact that we are doing the best we can. Admission is no different, and we can learn from the missteps and challenges that deans experienced. Again in their own words:
I did too much in some circumstances and too little in others. Finding the right balance was hard.” —Carey Thompson, vice president of enrollment and communications and dean of admission at Rhodes College
“Our family’s biggest mistake was making high school curriculum decisions based on the perceived selectivity of institutions.” —Raul Fonts, dean of admission and financial aid at Providence College
“I encouraged her to ask too many people to provide her advice in terms of her writing. I provide this advice but did not heed it and she had a difficult time managing everyone’s opinions. She felt like she needed to follow everyone’s advice as not to hurt their feelings. In retrospect, one or two people should have provided her guidance.” —Debra Johns, an associate director of undergraduate admission at Yale University
“Sometimes I wish we had not started quite so early. I took my daughter on her first college visits the summer before her junior year. Some of that was a necessity, but in a perfect world it could have waited a bit longer.” —Bob Nesmith, dean of admission and financial aid, at Centre College
“In hindsight, I would now consider having [my children] take out what was then a Stafford Loan. It would remind them that they have skin in the game, even if my intent would be to repay the loan for them.” —Mike Sexton, vice president for enrollment management at Santa Clara University
“I probably should not have informed my counterparts at other schools we were visiting, but at least I didn’t ask questions on the tours!” —Jeff Rickey, vice president for enrollment at Nyack College
“My only mistake was when we went to schools and she wanted to be anonymous and a colleague would see me and make a big deal out of it.” —Christine Bowman, dean of enrollment services at Southwestern University
Lessons for the Layperson
So, what words of wisdom did deans have for the typical parent who does not deal with college admission every day?
“Chill, it’s going to be fine.” —Cary Thompson, vice president of enrollment and communications and dean of admission at Rhodes College
“Search beyond the brand name schools, you may find a hidden gem that is the best fit. It can be a wonderful experience and some of my best conversations with my boys were on road trips to colleges.” —Raul Fonts, dean of admission and financial aid at Providence College
“Have tough conversations about what you really can afford and be very clear and consistent about this throughout visiting, applying and choosing institutions. Provide a time and place where both parent and child can ask questions about the process.” —Debra Johns, an associate director of undergraduate admission at Yale University
“Net price calculators are your best friend. Use them early to figure out what to expect on price. I found them fairly accurate.” —Bob Nesmith, dean of admission and financial aid, at Centre College
“This is the beginning of your adult relationship with your children. You will be talking about independence, finances and leaving. Be sure you talk about a four-year graduation expectation. Parents should be skeptical when six-year graduation rates are touted.” —Mike Sexton, vice president for enrollment management at Santa Clara University
“Listen to your student, watch deadlines with them (senior year is busy), don’t be afraid to encourage them to advocate for themselves rather than you doing it for them.” —Christine Bowman, dean of enrollment services at Southwestern University
“Let your child pick for themselves and make them do the process on their own. Just consider the admissions process another part of your child’s educational process, not a monolithic experience that you need to fight, game, or be stressed about.” —Jeff Rickey, vice president for enrollment at Nyack College
The Greatest Job
Those of us who work in college admission counseling are fortunate to be exposed to the wealth of opportunities that exist in higher education. Thanks to professional connections, admission deans and counselors have a broader perspective about what constitutes a “good” college. This allows an open-minded approach that often informs the experience that their own children have with a college search that need not be riddled with stress and anxiety.
Debra Johns at Yale sums it up best. She tells parents,
You will survive, your child will be admitted to a fine institution, and if you and your kids keep the appropriate mindset throughout the year, you all will come away from this experience a little wiser, with a few more miles on your odometer, a few more grey hairs, but also with new found respect for your sons’ and daughters’ skills for navigating these waters—with maturity, with sensibility, with thoughtfulness, with perspective and hopefully a wee bit of laughter. In the end, and they may not say this to you, they just want you to have faith in them that they can make good decisions and choices. They most certainly want to make you proud. I share these words both as a parent who just went through this with one child and as a college professional who has worked on a campus since 1984.”
Whether a dentist, mechanic, attorney or admission dean, to grow in our work we must constantly be asking what we can do differently or more effectively. From my days as a stay-at-home father to today as a working dad, parenting has been the most rewarding “job” I have had—watching my children become thoughtful, curious young adults. There is no right way to parent the college applicant and clearly, even career admission professionals can learn from the experience. If we can admit (as parents and admission professionals) that we do not have all the answers and remain open to how we might grow as a family, then we are doing the best job we can.
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