Why College Applications are the Stuff of Greatness

“From the bureaucratic minutia to the deep introspection, submitting a college application is possibly the biggest achievement of your kid’s life to date”

~Kelly Corrigan

Years ago I read The Middle Place, by Kelly Corrigan. It was a funny book and I have enjoyed following her on social media ever since. She recently posted a piece about the fall of senior year in high school. When I read, “Something beautiful is being formed in the dumpster fire that is senior fall…the kind of growth that parents dream of”, I knew I had to write about it.

I have shared her piece below but I want to highlight a few points that she makes because they are spot on. When children are very young, often the answers to the questions in their life are black and white, good and bad, yes and no. You made the travel team? Good! Smoking cigarettes? Very bad! As children progress through adolescence, the answers become more nuanced and less clear: there are pros and cons to all choices. And this hits a crescendo with the college admissions process. Getting into Stanford is amazing but if you live on the East Coast, there might be a tradeoff with the distance. An acceptance at a likely school might be accompanied with a scholarship that is hard to turn down when you look at the cost of a reach school that admitted you. There is no perfect college…but we live in a country with so many choices. To quote Ted Fisk, the author of The Fiske Guide, “The American system of higher education is a real treasure”. (I actually wrote a piece about an interview that I saw with him, “Thoughts From Mr. Fiske [Or calm in the Heart of Application Season])

Kelly Corrigan lists the many attributes that a student gains from going through this process but she ties it up with a bow when she states, “Tell every high school senior you know this most-encouraging truth: making decisions, weighing fiscal demands, understanding yourself, managing a hundred to-dos, overcoming your worst fears-this is the stuff of greatness”. I love this quote because these are the skills that are required to negotiate adult life on a daily basis. I have posted Kelly’s entire piece below. If you know a senior that has applied to college, give them a huge congratulations from me!


In the early days of her senior fall, my daughter was projecting confidence about the college application process. She’d make a spreadsheet, things would be checked off, it’ll all come together, Mom. But right around this point, with classes and sports in full swing, college mutated from something exciting to that-which-shall-not-be-named. To inquire about, say, a 150-word supplemental essay was to provoke a fit of unholy madness.

It was probably no coincidence that her mood crashed just before the Nov. 1 early application deadline, as I bet it is doing in a couple million households across the country right this minute.

What I couldn’t have known then is this: Something beautiful is being formed in the dumpster fire that is senior fall. Regardless of outcome, the college application process itself can force the kind of growth parents dream of. Here’s why:

Making decisions is hard.

Imagine a heap of flea market jewelry where each piece is tangled in some way around another. SAT or ACT? When to take it and how many times? City school or the rolling hills of some rural outpost? Greek, Greek-lite or anti-Greek? Early action or early decision? Our kids decide. Ahh. But then a cool older cousin or trusted teacher points out a new wrinkle and they undecide. They scour College Confidential and rogue Facebook pages looking for some bit of truth they can trust. Decision fatigue is real. How many of us have the patience to separate each chain, bracelet and granny brooch?

Needing a lot of money is stressful.

Your kid is about to be the central figure in a shockingly expensive venture — with little visibility into what your family can bear. What percentage of your family’s savings is at stake? What kind of support did or will his siblings need? What are the chances of getting need-based financial aid or a merit scholarship? Is it O.K. to want a private education or is that greedy and unnecessary? And the doozy of all doozies: Is it always worth it? (Listen to Kelly Corrigan Wonders podcast to hear more on this question.)

Self-reflection is a mind-bender.

What are you good at? What was meaningful about your summer experiences? What should the admissions committee know about you? If this doesn’t seem all that dreadful, ask yourself the same questions. Are you shrugging? Grimacing like that toothy emoji? Recently when a friend of my daughter’s asked for help with an essay, I was tempted to suggest he write: “I don’t know anything; that’s why I need to go to college.”

Project managers are made, not born.

Humans are built for many things, but most of us live and die without learning to pilot a process this complex. Just how many items are on the average college application checklist? Let’s see: transcripts, recommendations, biographical info, resume, personal statement, supplemental essays, standardized tests, application fees. Next up, the harrowing process of securing financial aid. What happens if you leave a field blank? Will you ever know? Which brings me to the cloud of anxiety surrounding the whole thing.

College fear is based on a lie.

The lie is about consequences. The lie says this is a binary moment: You’re off to greatness or you’re doomed. The lie says there is no other way to get the life you want than by going to University of Stretch Dream Reach. That’s why they want it so bad.

But in all cases, for as long as we live, it is damn near impossible to know in advance if getting what we want is a good thing or a bad thing. Look at divorce rates. Or job satisfaction ratings. Some people are miserable and uninspired on every campus in America, even those dreamy dream schools, and plenty of people are thriving at schools with acceptance rates near 100 percent. (And here’s a bit of news: the majority of colleges in the United States accept most applicants.)

You couldn’t have convinced me of this in April 1985. I sobbed in my parents’ driveway, a rejection letter dangling from each hand. Four months later, I limped off to the only college that accepted me, and I love my life.

From the bureaucratic minutia to the deep introspection, submitting a college application is possibly the biggest achievement of your kid’s life to date — assuming you are letting them lead. And I’m here to say you should. Of course, executive function varies, and with it, so do the roles parents play. Are you one of the lucky who need only to be available for spot consultations? Or do you feel sure that if you don’t keep the reins tight, your child will grow old at your kitchen table, eating Oodles of Noodles in his underwear?

Deciding where you belong in the process has a lot to do with how you answer these questions: What will happen if you let them lead, and what will happen if you don’t? Another worthwhile thought experiment goes like this: If we decide they’ll find their way one way or another, if we agree that any one acceptance letter is not the prize, what could the reward be? Developing comfort with uncertainty? Expanding self-knowledge? Building new capacities and a sense of agency? Because that kind of personal growth is not too much to ask of this process. And what a grand outcome that would be.

Be warned, when you try to celebrate the litany of achievements a completed application represents, your kid will say the horrible thing they all believe: “None of it matters if I don’t get in.” Celebrate anyway. Leave a card on his pillow. Make a toast. Take her for fro-yo. Tell every high school senior you know this most-encouraging truth: making decisions, weighing fiscal demands, understanding yourself, managing a hundred to-dos, overcoming your worst fears — this is the stuff of greatness. This is, in fact, exactly the way to get the life you want. So, someone, please make the bumper sticker: MY KID APPLIED TO COLLEGE.

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