Posted by: drrozkaplan | May 5, 2010

Searching for the Right One

We are on round two.  College hunting for the second child.  Is it easier this time?  Well, yes and no.  It’s definitely different.  Our second child is a very different child than the first, looking for very different things. We are only two years older, but somehow we feel MUCH older.  The tours of the campuses all blur into each other, and we slog through them feeling that we will die of boredom if we have to see one more cinderblock cell of a dorm room, one more communal bathroom.  But on the good side, we are much wiser, much savvier about the process.  We have lost much of the anxiety, stopped worrying about the prestige, the name school, the GPA, the SAT score, the statistics.  Instead we are thinking about ‘fit’, and paying attention to our daughter’s reaction to what she refers to as ‘the vibe’ of each school we visit.  We are asking questions about campus life and the supportiveness of the faculty and staff.  We’ve learned a lot from having a college student over the last year.

Our first child, our son, is academically driven, and also extremely attached to his sport, which happens to be wrestling.  His process for choosing schools involved picking the most intellectually challenging schools on the East Coast and in Chicago that also had Division III wrestling teams, visiting all of them, applying to them, and waiting.  He sort of knew from his visits where he wanted to be, but there were some preconceived notions he held.  If the school was harder to get into, then he wanted it.  If it was in a city, maybe that was better.  Then in April, when the decisions all came in, there was still a scramble-  he didn’t get in everywhere (nobody does) which hurt his ego a little ,  but he got multiple offers, and in the end, we put some pressure on him based on what we knew about him and felt he hadn’t quite figured out.  It all worked out.  A year later, he says he is exactly where he belongs, and that he can’t imagine a better fit.

There were some odd situations that came up during my son’s college visits.  He came back from an overnight with the wrestlers at one very prestigious university and told us that he would not be happy there.  Why?  “I won’t want to hang out with the other wrestlers.  They’re all a bunch of alcoholics.”  Who knew?  Most wrestling teams are populated by the most clean-living boys on campus.  In fact, I worry more about their food restriction and over-exercise than anything else.  Their bodies are their temples.  So this was a new one.  At another school, the program he would be entering had no required courses and such a loose attitude that we wondered if there was actually any teaching.  Considering that he had all along been favoring a school with a core curriculum, we were baffled when he became enamored with the place.  Needless to say, he is at neither of these schools.  Incindentally,  he  is not at a school with a core curriculum, either.

In a recent conversation with this son, he shared some information that he learned in a Sociology class he is taking.  In this class, they happened to be discussing the phenomenon of college admissions.  “Did you know that 80% of colleges in the US will admit anyone who wants to, and can afford to, study there?” he asked me.  No, I didn’t know that.  Eighty percent???  “Yes, the reason you have the idea that most colleges choose their students is because of the culture we live in.  People we know only apply to highly selective, or at least selective, schools,”  he continued.  Wow.  I suppose that makes sense.  Where I live, it seems like just about EVERYONE applies to the same 20 or maybe 25  schools.  And because all these schools are so competetive, everyone puts in a dozen or so applications.  No wonder the whole process is so stressful.  Not all our kids can get in to all these highly selective schools!  Even the kids who are applying down a tier, to the ‘selective’ schools, are all seemingly applying to a certain small pool of places.  Of course it seems like a dangerous, anxiety-provoking crap shoot.

Maybe I’m deluding myself, but I think the process with my daughter may actually go differently.  She is my ‘alternative’ child, and she goes to an alternative school.  Her school is not terribly concerned with placing its students at the Ivies or the ‘big name’ schools.  These kids come from a high school class of 20 quirky, bright, interesting kids, and most end up at a small college full of equally quirky, bright and interesting kids. Many of these are schools that have been overlooked by the mainstream masses.

My daughter specifically wants a fashion design program and digital arts within a small, liberal arts setting.  That description only fits a small number of schools.  In fact, so few that she will have to also apply to a couple that don’t quite meet her criteria, just to be on the safe side.   Like me, she is a very intuitive person, and takes that which she intuits very seriously.  Two colleges are quite high on her list, not just because they are the right size and have the programs she wants, but because she immediately felt safe and ‘at home’ on their campuses and among their students.  Strangely, one is quite urban and the other is in the middle of nowhere.  At another institution, we had barely set foot on campus when she turned to me and said, “BAD VIBE, this is not going to work.”  That school is off her list now.  We did insist she stay for the information session and tour, but it quickly became clear to us that her intuition had been right all along- the learning environment was all wrong for her.

Returning to the subject of my son, he apparently has learned quite a lot in his Sociology class, as he also expounded on the importance of environment in our last conversation.  It was the conversation that every parent waits for:  the one in which your kid tells you that he actually knows you did a good job raising him.  I was shocked, especially since he didn’t even want anything from me that day.  ” I really have you and Dad to thank for the fact that I’m so happy right now,” he told me, ” because you guys were the ones who put me into the right environments.  I’ve been learning in this class how important the environments you are raised in and exposed to are to your development.”   Unbelievable.  I told him to take more Sociology courses.  Maybe he should major in Sociology.  Maybe he should get a Ph.D. in Sociology, as a matter of fact.

But in fact, I agree with him that environment is extremely important, and in choosing a college, the environment has to be the right one for the particular person.  He did not have the easiest Freshman year, to be honest.  He got Swine Flu early in the year, had a temporary but very upsetting breakup with his girlfriend of several years in mid-first-semester, and got a concussion during a wrestling practice right before Thanksgiving.  He suffered concentration difficulties and mood problems from post-concussion syndrome into the beginning of second semester, which made his studies difficult.  Yet the environment he was in supported him.  His professors were concerned and kind.  His class dean helped him work out a plan to get his work done when he was ill and injured.  The medical staff took excellent care of him.  His wrestling coach was a friend and advisor.  His friends helped him out and kept his spirits buoyed, and the general atmosphere kept him engaged and motivated, so even with all his troubles, he rose to the top instead of sinking. ( I have to give the kid some credit too, though.  One who was less perseverent or less resilient may not have made it in the best of environments- let’s hear it for both nature AND nurture).

I hope my daughter finds a place that will equally supportive and stimulating for her.  She’ll need different things than my son does.  But with all the schools out there to choose from, I know she can find what she needs.  We’ll just have to put up with a few more tours until she’s sure she has enough good options.



  1. Your children are lucky to have such open-minded and intuitive parents that are acknowledging and supportive of each of them as an individual and to let their interests guide this process instead of letting your interests or ego guide their college experiences.

    Many of my friends and my siblings friends ended up in a school because of its name, or because their parents went there, or one of those other reasons that may lead to a poor fit between college and student…

    Fortunately though, college choices are not permanent and can be changed, but it sounds as though your daughter will be free to find her best fit.

    How are the parents doing with the contemplation of being empty nesters?


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