Expectations

Coming Full Circle in South Bend

Gosh, it has been such a busy fall and I have clearly been a failure as a blogger lately! I will start posting regularly again once things calm down a little. Today, though, I felt inspired.

As many of you know, I visit about 30-40 colleges per year. Often times it’s easiest to do them in spurts, on pre-conference tours with other counselors. These marathon visits are absolutely exhausting because it’s school after school after school, but we get great face time with the admissions officers, and the visits are much more in-depth than they’d be if we just signed up and toured a school as a member of the general public (although I do those too). During the past few days I have been to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Northwestern University, University of Chicago, Loyola University Chicago, DePaul University, University of Notre Dame, Holy Cross College, St. Mary’s College, and Goshen College. Tomorrow is Purdue University, Valparaiso University, and Bethel University. Then I am headed to Louisville for a conference and finally to check out the University of Kentucky in Lexington before heading back to DC. My feet are about to fall off :)

The reason I’m blogging today is not to share information about those schools, although I do want to post more about my visits because I have learned a TON. I’m writing a post because staying in South Bend has really made me think about the crushing disappointment of college admissions decisions and how they can be so utterly devastating for a teenager.

When I was 17, there was nothing more in the world that I wanted than to go to the University of Notre Dame.

I don’t think my desire to go to ND was based on anything concrete besides a really fun weekend visit on campus when I was a junior, but I had made up my mind and ND it was. My college counselor told me that despite my high SAT scores, it was a stretch. Obviously, though, she did not know what she was talking about. Of course I was going to get into Notre Dame! I had worked so hard!

When I think back to myself as a teenager, I was pretty savvy, or at least I thought I was! I went to boarding school, was very independent, thought I knew more than everyone about everything, and I was highly skilled at convincing people to give me what I wanted. I zipped up and down the Northeast Corridor on Amtrak most weekends alone or with friends, and even had elite status on my favorite airline because I was so used to jet-setting all over the place! The thought that Notre Dame would not accept me was a concern, sure, but I really did believe that I would get in. I deserved it. Just like tens of thousands of my peers did :)

Most teenagers believe that they are invincible. The rules do not apply to them. Common sense does not apply to them. Graphs and scattergrams on Naviance and Scoir do not apply to them. Girls, by the way, are much worse than boys when it comes to this.

When I got outright rejected (not even deferred!) from Notre Dame, I was SHOCKED. Devastated. Hysterical.

Of course, it wasn’t about Notre Dame at all. It was about the fact that I really wanted something that I couldn’t have. Man, that is a really hard lesson to learn. That no matter how badly you want something, how badly your parents want it for you, or how many people you can sweet-talk, it’s not going to happen. That is absolutely crushing, but it’s also part of becoming an adult and slowly realizing how the world works.

I see this same scenario play out year after year, and what I certainly didn’t realize at seventeen is that it’s even more devastating for the adults involved than the teenagers. To watch your child be rejected - it’s like a dagger to the heart. It’s just horrible. Especially when there are lots of tears involved.

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So if find yourself in this position in December (which some of you will, given the absurdly low acceptance rates that we are sure to see yet again), here are my words of wisdom: getting rejected from Notre Dame was the best thing that could have happened to me. I really mean that.

It’s like that movie Sliding Doors: if I had gotten into Notre Dame, I would not have ended up at Wash U, which had an incredibly flexible curriculum that allowed me to graduate a year early without too much trouble. If I hadn’t graduated early, I wouldn’t have decided to “take a year or two off before law school”. I’d probably be an attorney somewhere with piles of paperwork on my desk instead of having a blast on my entrepreneurship journey. I would definitely not have met my husband the week after I graduated when I was 21, wouldn’t have my kids, and so forth.

Much more importantly, though, I wouldn’t have gotten the wake-up call I needed to understand that life wasn’t fair and that things were not always going to go my way - whether I “deserved” them or not. This rejection, as painful as it was, represented a turning point that helped me become the person I am today and had a very positive ripple effect on many other areas of my life. 18 years after I first stepped foot on this campus, I can truly say that I am so very grateful that things worked out the way they did.

So while there’s not going to be any bigger advocate for a student than me, know that if the dream school admissions decision doesn’t come back favorably, all is not lost. Things will work out. I promise!

Sleep Training and the College Admissions Process: Different Ages, Same Lesson

Did anyone else have kids that were awful sleepers as babies? I was always so envious of parents whose babies slept all night or woke up just once or twice.

That is NOT how things went in my house! When I had my daughter, I thought there must be something wrong with her because she just wouldn’t sleep. It was like she was nocturnal or something. Then I had my son and realized that maybe my daughter wasn’t quite so bad after all.

Election Night 2016. A terrible night in every respect! We found out later that he had acid reflux.

Election Night 2016. A terrible night in every respect! We found out later that he had acid reflux.

He routinely screamed all night long. Every night. For months. It was extremely unpleasant and ultimately got to a point where I just couldn’t take it anymore.

As soon as he was old enough to sleep train, we sought the guidance of a sleep trainer who we also used with my daughter five years earlier. (If anyone knows a parent with an infant, her name is Suzy Giordano and an hour with her is probably the best gift you could ever give someone).

I can honestly say that this woman saved my sanity and my marriage. Probably more than that. My business. Everything. I could not function because I was not getting any sleep and had to work all day.

So now that I have finished singing her praises, I will tell you that Suzy is not cheap. At all. I gave her information to a friend in an equally awful situation, and she was appalled that I would pay so much for sleep training. She clearly thought the sleep deprivation had gotten to my head.

Don’t get me wrong - I know she’s expensive, obscenely expensive. I am not the kind of person who routinely pays people $500/hr to do things for me, let’s put it that way. But the one thing I learned from paying Suzy Giordano was the difference between cost and value.

Let’s think of the value that woman brought to my life. I am not exaggerating when I say that I would have taken out a second mortgage on my home at that point to get some sleep. I was in a seriously desperate situation. Paying Suzy $500/hr actually represented an incredible value when you consider how working with her turned my life around. She was worth sooooo much more than we paid.

Recently I had a mother ask me to tell her point blank why my team is worth the cost of the prices we charge. In almost a decade, no one has ever actually asked me that.

After thinking about it more, I decided we probably weren’t worth it for every family. I’m being honest. There are definitely cheaper options out there - much cheaper - particularly if you’re willing to work with someone that doesn’t have college admissions experience but has helped their own child, or maybe knows absolutely nothing about college admissions but is a good writer who can help with essays.

If your situation meets all of these criteria, you are reading correctly - we are not worth the cost. Find someone cheaper!

  • Your student already knows exactly how and where he wants to apply and the schools aren’t all crazy reaches (I say this because someone who only wants to apply to crazy reaches has a very high likelihood of ending up at NOVA when they don’t get in anywhere at all. Then they call me in May and the whole family is in tears and can’t figure out what went wrong. Every year this happens.) I’m talking about the straight-A kid with a 35 ACT who is involved in every activity under the sun and applying ED to UVA/ED II to William & Mary, as well as a number of other safer options. No out-of-the-box strategy or tough conversations about being realistic needed. Just write strong essays and make sure that the recommendations and applications are also done well.

  • Your student is 100% (or at least 95%) motivated and does not need constant reminders to stay on task. You tell him that he needs 20 essays by August 1, he is able to self-regulate his time while meeting with a tutor once per week for extra help, and has 20 perfect essays ready to go on July 30. This kid does not need Rebeccah reminding him multiple times per week about every individual task he needs to finish in order to meet his ultimate goal and then checking up to make sure he completed each of them.

  • Your student appreciates constructive criticism from his parents and takes it at face value without giving pushback or needing an intermediary to deliver tough messages. No fighting. “Thanks for your input, Mom! I’ll make that edit right away!”

  • Your student is good at developing original ideas (he doesn’t have to be amazing in terms of style- you can hire a writing tutor on the side to help with that - but somebody familiar with the school, without the voice of a 50-year-old mom, has got to be able to help with content creation for that 600-word “Why College X” essay!).

  • Your student has taken detailed notes from every college visit, is a regular on “College Confidential” and generally understands the specific unwritten requirements that many individual schools have. Yes, that means that the “Why Columbia” supplement needs to reference the core curriculum and the “Why Penn” supplement needs to reference the city of Philadelphia.

Okay, so I was kidding a little bit about having a teenager that appreciates constructive parental criticism, but other than that, there really are families out there whose kids meet the other criteria. They typically do not work with me on an ongoing basis but I see them for strategy sessions.

For the other 90% of families, it’s important to consider the difference between cost and value. College is likely the most important investment you will make as a parent - ever. I’ve written about this before in our FAQ: while we are not the cheapest option in town, there is absolutely zero question that we provide the best value.

P.S. My friend’s kid did not sleep through the night until 18 months. Mine did by 5 months. She will be hiring Suzy the next time around.

Coming Home to Stay

I recently came across The New York Times article When a College Student Comes Home to Stay and felt it necessary to add my two cents, given my experience working with so many families and students over the years.

In previous generations, everyone looked forward to college. Arrival on campus for freshman orientation represented freedom, new friends, and a major step towards adulthood. Today, the lead-up to college has spiraled out of control, and arrival on campus represents so much more: a sought-after prize that justifies a decade (or more!) of sacrifice.

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As students work tirelessly to perfect their college essays and try desperately to increase their ACT scores following years and years of pressure, they often can’t help but develop very unrealistic expectations about the end goals that they are trying to achieve with so much hard work. This idealized version of college certainly doesn’t leave room for imagining days caught in the rain without an umbrella, courses with terrible professors, evenings missing family and friends from home, or poor scores earned during the first round of exams.

When the bad days come - and there will be bad days, even at Harvard - students are stunned and surprised. They often start thinking something is wrong with them or that they cannot handle college altogether.  95% of the time, nothing is wrong at all; they are simply experiencing the ups and downs of daily life. Because this happens so often, I find it increasingly important to guide families during the college application process to maintain a realistic viewpoint, and I encourage parents to have discussions with their children about the realities of college and the “real world.”  

The better perspective these students bring with them to their freshman year of college, the less likely they will feel as if the world is crashing down around them when they are no longer in the top 10% of their class, get their first C in a course, or aren’t getting along with their roommate. 

Of course, there are also situations when something more serious is at play. Should a student come home from a break or their first year and not want to return, or transfer to another school, all is not lost.  Here at DC College Counseling, we not only serve high school students and their families that are embarking on the college application process for the first time, we also enjoy working with students who would like to transfer to a better-fit school.  Every year we assist students from a variety of backgrounds who were unhappy with their first college selection.  

Many of our clients are interested to learn that countless schools, such as UVA, have much higher acceptance rates for transfer students than incoming freshmen.  In fact, we find that students who do transfer schools often have better and more options available to them than when they applied to college during high school.  No matter what your family seeks or needs, always know that many options exist and we are here to help.