College Tour With My Grateful Child

My youngest son, Thing 2, and I took a little trip to North Carolina earlier this week to check out college life in a warmer climate. Our mission was to see UNC Wilmington, Elon and Guilford College. We went this far afield because at the end of an eight-college tour through New York state and Vermont over spring break, Thing 2 opined that he wasn’t sure how he felt about winter.

Because Thing 2 has a pretty impressive school resume and a towering, yet untapped intellect, I decided to humor him and take him down south. Knowing that my son is a  liberal, I told him that we could go no further than North Carolina.

It is important to note that prior to this trip, which will probably end up costing abut $1000, we had already checked out eight other schools. For those, like me, who had not experienced a college tour since the early eighties, it usually involves enthusiastic college students, a heart warming student-produced video, and an inspiring talk given by an admissions officer. Softened up and as compliant as a someone on ecstasy, the starry eyed parents and their children are then herded through the campus.

Each time we go through one of these tours, I quietly cry during the video portion.

I cry because I reflect on my own foolishness when it was my time to choose a college. I went to a very nice prep school that I loved. Our college counselor was benevolent and highly ineffective. As I remember, we had a brief meeting in which he looked at my transcripts, made note of my failure to pass a single math class, and then rattled off a list of schools where I might apply. NYU, Sarah Lawrence, Williams College, Barnard, Swarthmore…

Following the meeting with my college counselor, I then wrote to the colleges to request an application. Actual toll calls were made from the pay phone in the dorm to arrange an interview. Once a date was set, it was up to me to get my self to the the school via public transportation. My parents had nothing to do with any of this because the were 90 miles away in Rhode Island and they were paying good money for college counseling.

I got myself from Easthampton, Massachusetts to New York University. I bravely took the elevator up to the 20th floor of the NYU admissions office and sat through an interview.  All I remember about that experience is getting back to the street following the interview, stepping out of my heels because my feet were in agony, and unceremoniously dropping each shoe into a trash bin. I then walked bare foot across the street and purchased a pair of beaded, fringed moccasins which I wore until they disintegrated.

I was supposed to interview at Williams College, but on the way to the Peter Pan Bus Station in Northampton, I made the tactical error of stopping for breakfast. I soon fell in with a cheerful bunch of college students (I think it’s safe to say the weren’t Smithies) and decided that going to their apartment in town to smoke pot and drink beer on such a fine day was much more enticing than racketing around the state on a smelly bus. When questioned about my experience at Williams, I simply said that I hadn’t liked it.

All I remember about Sarah Lawrence was the long wisteria clad walkway from one building to another. That was all I needed to see. Sarah Lawrence shot to the top of the non-existent list. I applied there, and to my home state school and that was that.

I had my heart set on art school, but my parents wouldn’t hear of it. My father was an artist and hadn’t I noticed how financially remunerative that was? I had planned to apply to Rhode Island School of Design and Alfred University.

Back in the day, there was no online Common Application. We used typewriters. Each essay question was different for each school. Because the act of simply applying to a school spoke volumes about a student’s motivation, most students probably only applied to the three or four schools that they felt confident of getting accepted to. Now, the trend is to apply to an average of twelve schools, which I think is self indulgent and wasteful. Still, I feel the peer pressure and will encourage Thing 2 to apply to the six that he liked.

Notice how I say “I feel the peer pressure.” That is so wrong. My son should feel the Goddamned peer pressure, not me. It is his life, not mine, yet, unlike parents of my generation, we are all intimately involved with the college selection process. It amazes me how worked up some of the parents get over laundry whenever we get to the dorm portion of the tour. “Do they get a text message once the load is done?” someone invariably asks, as if this is critically important and will inform their decision to send their child there or not. Gag me with dryer sheet!

We have been on so many tours that when we did the last one, Elon, I decided that my work was done. If there are to be any more tours taken, Thing 2 will be taking them with his father because if I hear one more “fun fact” about a tour guide, I might shoot up the place.

When we began this experience with Thing 1, I was on bed rest for the summer following the accident and had plenty of time to research schools and plan trips. Once I was upright and mobile, we took Thing 1 to look at a bunch of SUNY schools that I had chosen after forcing him to fill out a little questionnaire of my own devising. Do you prefer an urban or rural environment? Approximately how many glass shops do you want to see in the town? In your opinion, how many tattoo parlors should be within walking distance?

These are critically important questions. These are questions that high school kids can relate to. Seriously, asking the majority of them what they want to do is like asking toddler who he will be voting for in the 2012 election.

Getting Thing 1 connected with a school has made me feel like I am searching for the perfect  bride in an  arranged marriage. Because he has a superb college counselor at his school who will see to it that he gets money from the places he applies, we have visited some pretty swanky places like Skidmore, Elon and Ithaca.

Each one of these institutions look amazing to me, like a veritable intellectual playground where students can pursue their liberal arts dreams in the way that I failed to do when I had the opportunity. Each visit has been at least a two-hanky event for me, but Thing 2 has remained unmoved.

You have to apply here, I will gush, and to this he will say something like “yeah well maybe, but it’s kind of small/there isn’t enough diversity/It’s too big/I am not sure how I feel about winter.” The kiss of death is when he says “I just can’t see myself going here.” I long to take him by the shoulders and shake him until his teeth rattle, but I don’t. Instead, I take a deep breath and tell him not to make perfection the enemy of the good.

I can’t help but wonder if my son is seriously entitled and wouldn’t be better off spending a year working some crap job in his home town, just to clarify his mind. Maybe he is overwhelmed? Back when I was doing this stuff, no one gave a shit if you were overwhelmed, or if the college wasn’t perfect in every way. You just kind of got on with it. I mean, isn’t the fact that he gets to go in the first place pretty great?

Luckily, Thing 1’s college counselor has the kids send their applications in by late October, so there is an end in sight. If things go the way they typically do with high school seniors, Thing 1 will soon be reaching that exquisite state of intense and chronic irritation with everything we represent, and will realize that this tedious business of college applications is just a means to an end.

I plan to be as irritating as possible.

Related stories: http://blog.realcollegetour.com/, http://neuroticparent.typepad.com/




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  1. Johno says:

    I always enjoy your posts but rarely comment (and should more often). Your recollections of applying to colleges in the early 80s took me right back (including your take on our nice but ineffective college counselor). Here’s to hoping Younger selects a gem that is the perfect fit for him.

  2. Johno says:

    I always enjoy your posts but rarely comment (and should more often). Your recollections of applying to colleges in the early 80s took me right back (including your take on our nice but ineffective college counselor). Here’s hoping Younger selects a gem that is the perfect fit for him.

    1. admin says:

      Haha. Did I get it right as far as college counseling went at Williston? I honestly cannot remember more than that one meeting. With Youngest, we have meetings in the summer! Workshops on essays, the common app, and gathering recommendations…which is great I suppose. My other kid just kind of got it done without too much from me–except the orchestration of the tours. They must have been beating the kids..

  3. Cathy Cantu says:

    Liz, I enjoyed your story SO much and could certainly relate. My son will be going to college in Orlando in a couple of weeks. I SO agree with how parents are so involved nowadays. We left most of the college application process up to my son, and later found out that four schools didn’t even have his ACT and SAT scores. THAT was up to him to do, and it didn’t get done. And he never opened any of the emails from the schools when they notified him that they didn’t have everything! He’s gonna have a SHOCK when he’s on his own!!! And I’m truly going to love watching it!
    Cathy (The Frazzled Mom)

    1. admin says:

      Oh ouch! Yes, we definitely have to give them just enough rope, don’t we? I’m really glad you enjoyed and commented! Good luck to you and your son. I’m sure once he gets smacked around a little by all those tedious details of life, he will figure out that it is just easier to open the emails. Keep me posted!

  4. admin says:

    Thank you so much for reading! I hope you do start something about umbrellas, and do be sure to work “bumbershoot” in there somehow.

  1. College Road Trip | The Flip Side says:

    […] To be continued… […]

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