By Amy Herzog
North Shore College Consulting

family

I have been through the college admissions process countless times with students looking to me for my guidance, support and knowledge.  I have guided numerous students through the college preparation, search and application process and celebrated their acceptances, as well as shared in their disappointments.  I have visited too many colleges to count, taking notes through the information sessions and marching behind eager, young tour guides on the college tour.  Yet, none of this prepared me as I began this very familiar process as a mom and not as an independent third party.  I thought I was prepared, I mean, how different could it be to work with my own son versus working with an unrelated high school student?  I would guide Jacob, my very reserved child, the same as I did any other high school student.  I looked forward to college road trips, time alone without Jacob’s three younger siblings, and Jacob’s inevitable opening up and sharing with me.  There was no doubt in my mind that we would bond, grow closer, all the while making Jacob’s imminent departure that much more difficult.  Right? 

college-bound son 

One thing that Debbie and I always tell our students and their parents is that part of our job is to take the stress out of the parent-child relationship that the college admissions process inherently creates.  We become the noodges, making sure that every single college deadline is honored (and trust me, there are a lot of them).  We press our students to question deeper what they are looking for in a potential college. We sit with them through each and every application as they repeatedly type in the details of their lives, pointing out a misspelled word or an incorrectly checked box. We remind our students that one-third of admissions officers Google their applicants, begging our students to keep their social media websites clean and appropriate. We strongly encourage them to take that fourth year of their foreign language, challenge themselves with some more Honors or AP classes, study for finals, and retake the ACT once again. Again and again, parents tell us how grateful they are for our gentle reminders and noodges. It takes the pressure off of the parents, allowing parent and child to enjoy the college admissions process together.

Yet, Jacob and I did not have the luxury of this buffer. I was both mom and expert. However, in this situation, I was clearly mom first and maybe, just maybe, one percent expert. 

Debbie and I give each of our students a completely customized college planning binder, so of course Jacob would get one too. I proudly handed him his binder, eager to begin our journey together. However, Jacob took one look at the thick binder, grunted and informed me that he was not going to read it, nor was he ready to think about college. And, hence began the roller coaster ride. I wanted to get off immediately.

Jacob spent his junior year completely disinterested in the college admissions process. When I pressed him, he retreated. Questionnaires and assessments eagerly filled out by my other students were ignored, college lists and fact sheets shoved under the bed, and discussions about college visits shunned. Over time, my normally calm demeanor disappeared, and I became near frantic. Why was I able to successfully help my “real” students navigate this process, and yet, I could get nowhere with my own son? I wracked my brain for ways to inspire Jacob, and still, I got nowhere fast.  And then I pulled a last desperation move out of every parent’s bag of tricks-bribery. Jacob loves to ski, however, since he is the only one of my four kids to ski we never go on family ski trips. I was interested in showing Jacob several of the colleges in Colorado, so how about a combination ski/college visit trip? That piqued his interest. So, off to Colorado we went.     

While the skiing aspect of that trip was certainly far more memorable to Jacob than the college visit portion, the trip did spark a glimmer of interest for Jacob.  In Jacob’s eyes, the dumpy college dorm rooms we saw on our tours were as glamorous as the Four Seasons. The hustle and bustle on a busy college quad was as exciting as Cub’s Opening Day. And the cute college towns, with their offerings of fast food on every corner (can you say Chipotle?), were extremely appealing. Still, there was no connection to the fact that Jacob would actually be taking classes and working hard at wherever he ended up, but at least it was a start.      

Our trip to Colorado was followed by road trips to see the University of Illinois, the University of Wisconsin, Indiana University and the University of Michigan (my alma mater). I suggested wonderful colleges on the East coast, none of which he would remotely consider for one obscure reason or another. The University of Maryland, for instance, could never be a consideration because they were sports rivals with Jacob’s favorite college team, Duke. Duke? Jacob was not even applying to Duke. Jacob did agree to fly to New Orleans to see Tulane University, where he spent two weekend nights living in the dorm with an older friend, his first opportunity to actually experience college life without me. Again, a major eye opener for Jacob, yet when I asked him what he did all weekend, in typical Jacob fashion he answered “nothing.” Yet, nothing must have been really fun because suddenly Tulane was a front runner.   

 At last the college list was finalized. Jacob wrote and rewrote his personal statement and supplemental essays, all of which made me cry, they were so beautifully written. Applications were completed without too much hair pulling and sent to Tulane University, the University of Illinois, Indiana University, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Michigan. And then we waited. Waiting for decisions with my students is tough as Debbie and I are emotionally invested in each and every student we work with.  However, waiting for Jacob’s decisions was agony.   Everyday when Jacob walked in the door from school, my first word to him was “so?” So, did you check your emails and college portals? So, did you hear anything? And predictably Jacob’s answer every time was “so what?” His annoyance with me was apparent. Yet, I could not back down. Believe me I tried. 

Suddenly, decisions started coming in. Good decision. Decisions worthy of celebration. Jacob had choices, many of them. Options led to a new round of college visits, this time without me. This time I held my breath as Jacob and his friends road tripped around the Midwest, staying in dorms and fraternity houses. What happened during these visits is still a mystery to me, but I’m sure they closely resembled Jacob’s future weekends at college. Indiana and Illinois were suddenly competing with Tulane as Jacob’s top choice. 

As the May 1st National Decision Date quietly approached, Jacob appeared to be nowhere close to a decision. This time I decided to stop noodging, and instead, I offered to use my expertise to help Jacob decide amongst his top three choices. However, Jacob wanted to do it on his own. He did not want my help-either as a mother or as a college counselor. He wanted to weigh the pros and cons of each of these three colleges and make his own decision. His independence was both welcoming and heartbreaking at the same time. He had finally taken ownership of this process. He was committed to making the right decision and to finding the right fit. However, this little boy that was just born was growing up and leaving me. That was both the good news and the bad news. 

And then finally, a decision was made. As if he was telling us that he was running to the store to pick up some milk (which Jacob would never do by the way), Jacob walked into the family room and announced to my husband and me that he knew where he wanted to go to college. I jumped up and down and tried to give him hugs and kisses, as Jacob did everything he could to get away from me. He quickly left the room.   

I learned a very valuable lesson during this process.  One that I will follow for each of my remaining three kids as they embark on their own college admissions journey.  The lesson is actually quite simple. When Ari, Noah and Emma go through the college admissions process, I will happily be passing them off to Debbie, and I will just be their mom!  

college-bound kidsgoing to college