College Essay Boot Camp and the Unbearable Feeling of Letting Go
On Tuesday, I had to get my flu-ridden self out of bed and take my daughter to school.
No, the Fall semester hasn’t started THIS early (she still has another two weeks, but the summer still feels like it’s been too short). But as this will be her senior year, there are additional events and activities on her agenda. She’s been talking about next year’s prom for months, since her class raised enough money to secure fabulous space at our beautiful Museum of Natural History. And next week, she will sit for her senior portrait — so I really do have to get off my butt and make her an appointment for a haircut. And maybe a blow dry just before the photo shoot.
Today – August 1 – is when the college common application goes live for students entering next Fall. It’s show-time, folks. All the years of education, testing and prep have all culminated to this, and it’s scary as hell (at least, for ME). For my daughter and her friends, the scariest part is having to write the various personal statement essays that will accompany those college apps. So the wonderful teachers who coordinate her magnet put together an all-day essay writing boot camp to jump start the process, featuring a couple of established private coaches — and we parents were invited to sit in on the morning presentation.
As usual, we ran late — so the school library we entered was already filled with students and their parents. Fortunately, there were empty seats near Megan’s best friend and her mother, who greeted me with the confession that she isn’t ready for this.
Boy, can I relate. “I almost wish she was flunking out so I could keep her home a little longer,” I joked.
A dad at the table looked at me incredulously. “You want your kid to fail?” he asked.
“No, of course not,” I sputtered. No one is prouder of my beautiful, smart, high achieving daughter than I (except maybe her father). But the other mom got it.
“It must be a lot harder for you with an only child,” she said. “At least I still have two more at home.”
I nodded. It is REALLY hard to acknowledge that the best, longest job I’ve ever held is ending. Not “ending,” exactly, as I will always be her mother. But my role is changing, and I feel so very lost (which I suppose is what yesterday’s post was really about). Couple the sadness I am feeling over that with the anxiety I’m experiencing over where she will go to college and how we are going to pay for it… and I think it’s understandable that I’m kind of a wreck right now.
The presentation began with Audrey Kahane, who helps families hone in on the colleges and universities that are the best fit for their students. She talked a bit about why it is so much more competitive now than when we were young.
“If you got into UCLA or Berkeley 30 years ago, chances are you would not be able to do so today,” she said. The reasons:
- That same common college application that makes it so easy to apply to ten or even 20 colleges at once is one of the reasons: universities now have many more applicants to choose from, so their acceptance rates are smaller.
- On top of that, having a low acceptance rate makes them look good to the people who are doing the college rankings, so the colleges themselves are under pressure to keep those rates low
- This is one of the reasons why today’s universities recruit new students so aggressively; some even targeting kids right after they’ve taken the PSAT.
I can attest to that: we used MY email address on Megan’s PSAT and SAT tests, so all the recruiting emails come to me — and we’ve been receiving dozens a week for the last three years. Some of the colleges reaching out to her are really well known; but the majority are schools I had never heard of. Most are private with tuitions of $40,000 a year or more. There is no way we can send her to one of those without MAJOR financial assistance, and I am not talking about loans. I am terrified of seeing her start her life with a college loan that’s equal to a mortgage.
“Everyone wants to go to USC, UCLA, Berkeley and Stanford, but the acceptance rates are extremely low,” Kahane said. “Be sure your list includes some great schools that are more accessible.”
But how? How do we sift through all those colleges? How do we find the ones who will love her enough to offer her the scholarships she would need to be able to afford this?
She has a list of colleges she wants to apply to, and most of them are the ones that are hardest to get in. I’ve told her she also needs to apply to at least one CalState (including the one that’s only a few miles from home — which actually offers the kind of program she is interested in). Living at home and commuting a couple of miles away is NOT her college dream, and it’s not mine either — but everything changed after the economy imploded and that is what we know we can afford. Even if she only went there for two years and transferred, it would make a huge difference in the cost.
Kahane talked about what colleges and universities are looking for:
1. They want to see applicants who demonstrate intellectual curiosity
2. They want to see students who have had some impact in their schools and/or communities, which makes them attractive as someone who would have an impact in college or even the world. Yale said they were looking for the next Einstein or world leader. (Well, it’s a good thing we’re not interested in applying to Yale.)
There are three steps to getting a good match with a college, Kahane said:
1. Know yourself
2. Know the colleges
3. Present your best self in the applications
Create a balanced list of likely schools, 50-50 dream schools and accessible schools (she doesn’t like to use the term “safety school”).
Once you find the schools that you like, you have to show them you like them. This does not apply to the Stanfords and Berkeleys on your list, but schools that are less selective do need to know that you really are interested.
The biggest way to demonstrate interest is to apply for early decision, but since that is binding, you should only do that if you are absolutely certain you will go if accepted. This is not a good route for someone who needs to compare financial aid packages between universities.
You could also apply for early action, which doesn’t require a commitment so this could be a good thing. However, this is not a good idea if you need an extra semester to up your GPA.
Some colleges actually track how long you spend on their websites. (Ha! This might explain some of those emails we continue to receive from schools that caught my fancy — but offer nothing my daughter is interested in.)
As Kahane spoke about the goals of the college essay, I realized that her advice could easily apply to blogging. I imagined hearing her advice at one of the BlogHer writing labs I wanted to attend but somehow could not find the space in my schedule to do so:
The goal of your essay is not to impress, but to create a bond with the reader (who may be reading hundreds of essays a day). Find a story that reveals something about you that admissions officers can’t tell from other parts of the applications. The most effective essays may focus on a moment that made students see their world differently.
Show that you are an intelligent person who thinks about things. And most of all, make sure it has personality, is concise and easy to read. It should have a conversational voice.
And remember: the first draft does not need to be perfect. Get it out and then rewrite it until it shines. (I wish I did this more with my blog, but I am such a slow writer that all I ever do is post first drafts here — which may be why everything I do is so flat lately, compared with my posts during the gymnastics years, when I spent my afternoons sitting in a gym with nothing else to do.)
That’s a lot, but the second speaker — Julie Ferber Frank — had even more to say. I am not going to even attempt to paraphrase her advice here, because the handouts she brought are online at her website, AdventureEssays.com. I left the parent part of the boot camp feeling both reassured — and more anxious than ever. I thanked my daughter’s teachers for putting the event together, and thanked the lecturers for sharing their knowledge with us all, and left my daughter and her friends, who were spending the rest of the afternoon beginning the first drafts of their essays.
On the way home, I told my daughter I thought we should hire one of the consultants to help us with her college search. This is a big concession for me, because I tend to think of private education consultants as unnecessary ventures, designed just to make me insecure enough to part with what little money I have. My kid has done very well without going through the private coaching and tutoring so many of my friends’ kids have endured. Could she have done better? Maybe. Would I have signed her up for extracurricular tutoring if she was not the kind of student she is? I’m sure I would. But so far, we have not needed it and it feels funny to be considering that now.
I never needed to hire a consultant to help me get into college, but everything was so different 40 years ago. For one thing, our high school offered counselors who took the time to get to know each of us. My daughter’s high school has one counselor for every 800 or so students, and getting in to see one isn’t easy. When I applied to college, my parents told me I could go anywhere I wanted — as long as it was a public institution in Los Angeles. I applied and got in to both UCLA and CSUN, with just a 3.31 average. As Kahane said, I would not be even close to UCLA today.
My daughter was kind of appalled at the suggestion that we talk to an outside counselor as we begin this process. She feels she has it all under control — from her college list to the essay writing. I wish I had that same confidence.
I look back at my daughter’s young life and realize that I felt this same anxiety with every new phase of her education: from choosing a daycare I could trust with my newborn infant when I went back to work… to preschool, to kindergarten, to middle school and high school. I stayed up nights, worrying — was I doing the right thing for her? Would my decision help or hinder her development? Would she be safe? Would she make friends? Would she do as well academically in public school as the kids who could afford the area’s best private schools?
Each and every time, once we got there, my worries were laid to rest. She was in the exact right place at the exact right time for her. She’s done well and has grown up to be a capable, smart, independent young woman. Everything I want for her.
I tell myself I need to step back and let this process take its course. I need to stop worrying. Now is the time to focus on ME and what I will do next year when I no longer have a child to take care of. The thought of her leaving makes me tear up, even as I write this.
But of course, I won’t stop worrying — about either of us. Not yet. I’m not ready.