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The College Process, Not “The Hunger Games”: Networking with Other Families

As a college consultant, I am often surprised to learn that most families shoulder the stressful, confusing college process in isolation from a free, rich resource to which they have access: other families. This “go it alone” modus operandi may stem from: a lack of connection with other families in the teen’s high school; an attempt to protect family privacy by taking a “close-to-the-vest” approach; a secretive strategy rooted in competitive, “zero-sum-game” assumptions; or simply a lack of understanding about how helpful other families can be as a resource. Let me discuss each of these causes in turn.

1. Lack of connection. There are many reasons your family could feel disconnected from other families in your student’s high school. You could be newcomers from a different town, state or country. Your teen may be attending a regional public or private high school in a different town; current classmates are not the neighborhood kids with whom your son or daughter grew up. If your family is comprised of two working parents or a single parent, with long commutes or heavy travel, there may have been no time for involvement with parent-teacher organizations or your kid’s extracurricular activities over the years. Maybe you have a shy temperament and are not outgoing with other parents. Or maybe you see your teen’s high school as his or her world, and you do not feel it is appropriate for you to become overly involved. Perhaps your independent–or rebellious–adolescent does not make you feel welcome.

All these reasons are understandable, but I encourage you to reach out to other parents as much as your situation allows, as early in your student’s high school career as possible. You will probably find that other parents in the same life stage as yourself can be a source of rich, satisfying friendship for you, which may last even after your adolescent has gone to college. We all need friends, to share rites of passage and all the ups and downs of life.

Remember Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village?  It’s not just about elementary school kids. Having parental cohorts in your teen’s class can keep you “in the know” about so many things: teachers to avoid for Spanish or Pre-Calculus next year; parties to forbid your teen to attend because the parents are away and alcohol will definitely be present; or “mean girl” dynamics that may be stressing out your daughter but she cannot tell you about it. I am not talking about interfering in your teen’s life; I am referring to doing the “face time” with parents in your high school community to keep you informed about the world in which your adolescent is growing up. And being connected with parents will help keep you on top of the college application process as well.

2. Keeping “close-to-the-vest.” I understand why families do this. Sometimes it is appropriate, especially in the winter of senior year, when college acceptance stress can be so contagious and you want to protect your child by donning “blinders” to “run one’s own race.” If you have cultivated genuine friendships throughout the high school years, however, you can reach out to at least a few other families for mutual sharing of information and support. This approach is different than blabbing about your child’s applications and play-by-play results to every parent you meet. So keep a low profile if you desire, but try not to isolate yourself and your child from families you consider real friends.

3. Secretive competition. This is utter nonsense. As a college applicant, is your child a competitor? Yes, in a broad sense. If your child wants to get into, say, Columbia University, he or she is competing with some 25,000 applicants from all over the globe, hoping to be one of the lucky ten percent admitted. But your kid is not competing with every senior in your high school. Ah, you say, but there are ten high-performing students in my kid’s class who have announced that they will apply Early Decision to Columbia this fall (some even wearing T-shirts from their campus visit). Columbia cannot possibly take all ten, so my kid is actually competing directly with his classmates, head to head. True enough.

But let’s break this down a little. Your guidance department does not like to be overwhelmed with “ED” applications, and they do not want their credibility tarnished with Ivy admissions committees by sending them unqualified “ED” applicants. Guidance counselors from rigorous independent high schools might actually redirect unqualified Columbia “ED” applicants to institutions more suitable for their credentials. In our hypothetical story, let’s say a few applicants decide, for whatever reason, to apply somewhere else Early Decision instead. Let us say that by the time the November First deadline rolls around, there are only five Columbia “ED” applicants left. So, is your child competing directly with those kids mano-a-mano? Yes and no. This is not The Hunger Games. It is certainly not personal, even though it might sometimes feel that way. Keeping your application strategy “secret,” as though a bona fide “back door” truly existed, will produce an ulcer… but not necessarily a fat letter from Columbia.

In our hypothetical story, perhaps one of these five applicants has such perfect academic credentials that there is no way your teenager could be preferred on a pure merit basis. All your child can do is achieve to the best of his or her own ability. It gets more complicated if one of the five is a legacy, an underrepresented minority, a “development admit,” a boy, or a champion athlete. These are factors which may or may not enter the picture at any given institution, and over which an individual applicant has no control. These factors certainly cannot be changed by showing a secretive, coy, petty, jaded, cut-throat attitude. No matter what you may personally feel about institutional admissions policies, explicit or inferred, I suggest modeling good sportsmanship for your teen in the college process. PS, if your child does not get into his or her “ED” dream school, do not lose heart: there are over 2600 four year higher education institutions in the US.

4. Lack of understanding of how families can help each other in the college process. Ninety-nine percent of the time, your student is not competing directly “against” his or her best friend (if you choose to view it that way). So you have nothing to lose, and certainly much to give and gain, by collaborating with other parents who are going through the process or have already successfully navigated it with an older child. Networking with other parents can dial down the stress, if you connect with informed parents who have wise, balanced perspectives, rather than misguided, overly wired parents who infect you with their own high-strung anxiety.

Consider the following ways in which you can help, or be helped by, another parent in the college process:

• Give or solicit feedback on campus visits, or even travel to a college together.

• Become a “connector” between a family who is interested in a given college and another family you know whose child has attended that college. Sometimes when I have tried to do this favor for clients, I have been disappointed to learn that the family never followed up, foregoing a valuable opportunity and possibly embarrassing me after I reached out to a contact on their behalf. Are people actually more eager to pay a consultant for expertise than contact an alumni family for free firsthand insights? When a client does reach out, he or she is usually surprised at how much the conversation helped, and I am impressed with that applicant’s maturity, confidence and initiative. I think to myself, “That young person is bound for success.”

• Become a “connector” between a family whose child is interested in a given career field and a parent you know in that field (or a family whose older child is pursuing that field), creating opportunities for “informational interviewing.” This approach can be especially helpful for pursuing complicated career paths with less straightforward formal steps to success, such as performing arts or the entertainment business. And it will introduce your child to an invaluable tool critical to success in those fields: the art of networking. Your teen will probably discover that people are by and large pretty nice,  and are happy to share their insights if approached in an appreciative way.

• Exchange information on college resources (local tutors, college consultants, financial aid workshops, books, articles and websites)

Making supportive networking gestures is more likely to help your child than it is to somehow put your child at a (perceived) competitive disadvantage. It will also help another young person find his or her way, and whoever said we were put on earth to help only our own children? Even though I get paid for what I do at Position U 4 College, I consider my own college guidance work to be a way of “paying it forward” in gratitude to generous adults who helped me when I was a confused adolescent. I am certainly a believer in the old adage that “every man is every child’s father.” I try to help every young person I can, whenever I can. 

Modeling a collaborative attitude is a precious gift to offer your child, too, as he or she goes forth into a world that can easily be perceived as dog-eat-dog. No wonder The Hunger Games bestselling novel and blockbuster film resonated for our teens so powerfully this spring; they certainly want to succeed, but they also want to retain noble, compassionate qualities. The archetypal character Peeta, “struggling with how to maintain his identity…his purity of self,” makes a declaration that I believe rings true for many idealistic adolescents as they begin their run for the roses: “I keep wishing I could think of a way…. to show… they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games.”

Albert Einstein once said, “The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe” (Isaacson). Networking with other parents in the college process is just one more way of demonstrating that being supportive of others is a way to achieve in life, while still retaining and celebrating one’s caring  and generous values.