As I prepare my kids to go back to school in a few weeks, I also daydream a bit about all the rising high school seniors I know who will be applying to colleges this year. It makes me think about the day my oldest will do the same.
One week before I got promoted as an Associate Dean of Admissions at an Ivy League university, I found out I was pregnant with my first child. In college admissions, like many fields, the moment a woman gets pregnant everyone knows her time as a leader may be coming to a close. Like so many women passionate about their professions, I persevered and even became the Dean of Admissions at an elite liberal arts college a few years later.
Today, I am the Director of College Counseling at an independent high school. My daughter, now nine and the oldest of three, has become my shadow. At night when she should be going to bed, she reads over my shoulder as I’m crafting letters of recommendation for students applying to college. She talks about which colleges will be right for her when it’s her time. And, she writes short pieces of inspiration when she’s feeling confident or when she's facing her own challenge.
While my daughter is years away from high school and the college process, I know how quickly time will fly. I think about all the wisdom I want to impart to her when the time is right. I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of the college process, and I want to shield her from the bad and ugly as much as I can.
When my daughter is ready to start thinking about high school, I will tell her a high school doesn’t get you into college anymore; you get yourself into college. In fact, the best colleges in the country know that they need to find students in likely and unlikely places. They are looking for the best students from private, public, religious, and charter schools; there are even plenty of homeschooled students who are as competitive as anyone applying to elite colleges.
I will tell my daughter to never, ever take anything for granted, especially when she goes to high school. No matter what high school she attends, there will be opportunities presented to her. I'll tell her to take advantage of them and, if she does, she will see great rewards.
I will encourage my daughter to stretch herself academically, but I’ll be careful not to push her into desperate overcommitment. This is important. I have watched too many young people try to prove something to their parents or friends, and I've seen them lose their direction because of it. The hormones, the social pressures, and the academic challenges of high school need to be met with my adaptive and unrelenting parental support. Nothing is as important as a student feeling supported. Even when they get behind on their work or come up short on a big test, every student needs encouragement and a safety net of reassurance.
I want my daughter to speak up in and out of class. I never want her to feel like she has to hold back. Teachers respond to students who are engaged. I want my daughter to continue learning from those teachers after the bell rings. I want her to ask the teacher a question and make a connection about what she learned in class. Those impromptu conversations are crucial in her learning, and they will help to build relationships with teachers who believe in her.
I’m going to tell my daughter to keep swimming. I will tell her to swim as long as she keeps loving it. Not to get a college athletic scholarship because, heck, those full-rides are rare. But because swimming gives her something to strive for, and those strong shoulders she’s developing will prop her up in life when something or someone tries to weigh her down.
I will tell my daughter to keep writing. Most high school curricula in this country don’t allow for much personal writing, but that’s exactly what she’ll need to do when it comes to writing her college essay. The more she writes about the ups and downs of her life, the more willing and ready she will be to share the moments of clarity, struggle, and passion in her college essays. Those who share are much more appealing to admissions officers as they sort through thousands of college applications and try to understand each kid’s story.
I will tell my daughter how important it is to know herself and to be true to herself when she chooses which college to attend. I know that a college’s name can surely be impressive, and it’s easy to get caught up in name brands. My daughter’s curiosity has already led her to ask about certain colleges. I tell her that a college’s reputation can take you only so far. It’s what you do with the education that defines your success in life. This country is founded on the idea that education opens doors. A college education opens that first real grown-up door, but it’s not the last. It’s about seizing the opportunity, and that opportunity comes in all shapes and sizes.
The day my daughter was born was a day of hopes and dreams. We had just finished the Early Decision application process at the Ivy League school where I worked. It was also the day I submitted my final paper for graduate school. The paper was about how students feel compelled to portray themselves differently in the college application process just to get into elite institutions. My conclusion in that essay was that if you have to hide your true identity in order to achieve your college admission goals, then you’re not looking in the right place. Be true to yourself. It takes just one college, one person, one place to believe in you. It was only fitting I went into labor later that morning.
So, to my daughter, Sophie, I say: Never hide who you are. Never change. Just grow and learn from your mistakes. The right college will be waiting, and will respond in kind as a result. I love you.