In 1951, The Catcher in The Rye was a groundbreaking novel because it gave the reader a shocking portrayal of adolescent life through the words of its protagonist, Holden Caulfield. JD Salinger’s character was an honest, flawed teenager and was a real depiction of teen angst and emotional turmoil that was new to readers. When I read it in the 1970’s, it was not quite as earth shattering, but I loved Holden’s voice. Today, Holden’s voice can be heard just about any time you turn on a reality television show or read a YA novel and it’s considered pretty “basic” to say that The Catcher in The Rye is your favorite book. Still, Holden’s words and philosophies speak to me with humor and a timelessness.
The college admissions process has changed since the 1950’s too. Even in the last decade, it has become a different beast than the one that current high school student’s parents faced. If Holden were in the office with me, I think he could expound on a variety of topics related to the college admissions process.
The Student-Driven College Search
“Then the carousel started, and I watched her go…if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it and not say anything…”
My parents were great parents but they came to maybe one track meet when I competed in high school. I didn’t feel bad about it because that was the norm. My dad was at work and my mom was making dinner or something. They were doing their jobs and I was doing mine. I usually got a ride home from my friend’s older brother, Bill. He had an old jalopy and the synthetic leather on the seats had cracked in the heat and cold and peeled off in chunks. My best girlfriend knew I had a crush on Bill when we graduated, she gave me a piece of cracked brown material to put in my scrapbook. I still have it and I smile because she and I are the only people who know what it means. Well, we used to be. My parents didn’t know much about my routine, or many aspects of my life and that was fine. Parenting in the 1970’s was like this; supportive non-involvement. When I started high school, it was the first year that Cross Country was offered for girls. I don’t recall my parents pushing me to join the team or really what made me want to join other than feeling like it would be something to do with friends after school and that it didn’t take any special athletic prowess as far as I could tell. They didn’t know my teachers or much about my classes because I attended one of the top public high schools in the state so they must have figured they knew what they were doing. When it came time to plan for college, I remember Juniors took a survey that was supposed to guide us towards a future major/career. I don’t really recall how mine turned out because I was more fascinated by my friend’s result. She was a top student in our class and destined to be director of a funeral home according to the results. She went on to attend Amherst College became a brain surgeon. After the survey was administered, each student had a meeting with their guidance counselor and parents and the guidance counselor would make suggestions as to colleges to consider. A couple of schools, I think. You didn’t want too many because they were all paper applications and your arm might get sore. We all took the SAT because we were on the east coast (ACT only for the west coast students) and because it was a college preparatory high school we had the added rigor of taking achievement tests (now called SAT Subject Tests) but we didn’t really study for them and took them once. In the Spring of my senior year, my parents took me to visit the two schools I got accepted to and I picked one. The extent of my parent’s commentary was my Dad saying was that the traffic in Boston was worse than when he grew up there. I chose the school in Maryland. The whole process, start to finish, took a few months as I recall.
Today, the “carousel” starts well before senior year. Students might not feel they even have a choice about grabbing the gold ring; you’re on the carousel after all and that’s the expectation. Little thought is put to why you want to go to college and what you want to get out of it. The focus is on admissions and acceptance and the application process. It’s like the “Bridezillas” who are laser focused on the planning the perfect wedding with less thought about the actual marriage and what marriage means.
Today, parents need to be told to “let them do it and stay out of it.” This goes against the grain. As a parent, I was told to make flash cards with the word of the day and tape them on the mirror in the bathroom in Kindergarten, to sign a nightly reading log in elementary school, to check and sign a daily planner in middle school and to log on to the home access center progress reports regularly. In high school, when my kids should have been completely independent in terms of academic responsibility, it was suggested at curriculum night that the parents follow the Spanish teacher on Twitter to view class assignments. So, to suddenly be asked to stay out of it and let the student own the college process is as foreign as Twitter was to me in 2009.
My same friend who gave me the piece of Bill’s car seat has an older sister who is a psychologist at a college counseling center. She was the epitome of a parent who let her daughter take the reins with her college search and selection and I was in awe of her restraint. When her daughter fell in love with a very expensive private liberal arts college, they hoped she would receive a sizable discount as part of the college tuition exchange consortium for employees. Her daughter applied and was accepted but crushed when they found out that she was on the waitlist to receive the needed funding. She begrudgingly accepted an offer at a huge out of state public university. The next week, the liberal arts college contacted her and said she had been given a spot off the waitlist for the consortium! The mother told me later that it just about killed her to be paying thousands of dollars more for her daughter to attend the public university that had not been her top choice but that her daughter had already “bought the sweatshirt” and didn’t feel she could change her mind again. That is where I stopped admiring her restraint and thought that she was crazy not to intervene!
This begs the question of how much, when and in what capacity parents should intervene. Certainly, parents planning to foot a hefty bill feel they are entitled to have a say in the process. A discussion of budget and financial parameters early in the process is essential. I always advise parents to sit down with their child before they tour or apply to a college and determine their budget and run the net price calculator. In this regard, if they want to grab for the gold ring and the cost is out of budget, we can steer the student towards a ride on a different carousel. Parents of a certain age may recall the ad campaign from the 1970’s for “Designer Imposter” fragrances. If you couldn’t afford a designer perfume you could go to your local drug store and buy an affordable knock off scent. Similarly, I encourage students to consider the characteristics of name brand colleges on their list and find financially realistic options. I help parents, who may not have a clear understanding of how financial aid works, educate themselves and become savvy about the marketing that many institutions use to hide financial aid information. Frank talk about finances is imperative early in the college search process and this is an appropriate role for parents who are looking to be involved.