A version of this post previously appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Over the course of my 25-year career in college enrollment, I have helped thousands of students find their way to their best-fit college.
But this past year I declined to help one: my son.
His college needed to be his choice—but I confess it was difficult to stand by and let him make it.
Nevertheless, it was fascinating to see some of the best practices I now advocate for EAB | Royall & Company at play on my own kitchen table, where mailings and checklists and conversations laid out my son’s important decision—one he made skillfully and in secret.
My family’s experience in the enrollment funnel
My son took the PSAT in the fall of his sophomore year in high school. By January, colleges could purchase his name—and, sure enough—his scores made him attractive to a lot of schools and letters from universities began to arrive in our mailbox.
Those first letters made quite an impression on my son. First in his hands also meant first in his mind and heart. Like most teenagers, my son had had few occasions to receive stationery complete with letterhead, hand-signed by adults with prestigious titles. These early letters inspired him and launched his vision of himself a college student.
More schools found my son in his junior year after he again did well on standardized tests—but these institutions were already late to the game. As were the large number of schools—good, sophisticated schools—that only first contacted my son as a senior. This deluge of mailings left him bewildered. He wondered, “Why are they just now writing to me? Do they even care about me?”
I knew those mailings were a huge expense for the schools that sent them, and I winced a little when so many went straight into the recycling bin. These institutions could have had much more impact for a fraction of the cost if they had engaged my son when he was at the very start of his college choice journey.
The University of Denver was one of the few schools with the national reach to find my son in Virginia as a high school sophomore. Denver was early, personal, and persistent throughout the recruiting cycle. From the beginning, it seemed my son would be headed to Colorado.
My son’s secret choice
But squirreled away in my son’s bedroom were traces of his secret ambitions. Another school had also captured his imagination as a sophomore and cultivated a relationship with him throughout the intervening years.
He did not tell me about this school, I think, because I already knew it well, myself.
It was Fordham University: I had worked there in admissions for years.
My son was making his own college decision, and it happened to resemble one I had made myself some years ago. I believe his covert college journey ensured it really was his, alone.
My wife and I agreed that our son needed to do something else alone—make a trip to Fordham to pressure test his choice. So, we sent him solo to Manhattan. He flew to New York, navigated the subway, sights, and sounds of the big city, spent a day exploring the Fordham campus, and found his way back home.
We met a confident young man at the airport. He was more committed than ever to his college choice. We asked him, “How would you rate this experience on a scale from 1 to 10?” He looked me straight in the eye and said, “11.”
And so my son became the unusual student who applied and was accepted to only one school. He completed his early decision process quickly and our whole family was able to enjoy the holidays without any lingering college angst.
Advice to parents from a college admissions professional
As I brace for the proud—and no doubt emotional—day my son departs for New York, I find myself reflecting on what I have learned as both a parent and professional throughout the college enrollment process.
- Start early and encourage hard work
I began “the college talk” when my son was a freshman in high school. His grades had waivered a bit and my wife and I wanted to be sure he understood that effort creates options. Although the privileges of my son’s life had given him a 50 yard head start in a 100 yard dash, they did not ensure he would cross finish lines first.
- Don’t attempt to "curate" your child’s record
Most high schools students are busy between 3 p.m. and midnight and they should make the most of those hours—but their “most” should not necessarily align with their parents’ idea of “most.” Although parents may be tempted to influence their child’s extra-curricular activities to impress admissions officers, please know that last-minute oboe lessons and stealth trips to the Galapagos Islands will not somehow crack the imaginary college acceptance code.
- Enjoy this special time with your child
I took my son on a college visit roadtrip the summer before his senior year. I have to say, time alone in my car with my son, separate from his younger siblings, was transformative. He was a guy, and, for a moment, so was I, rolling back a few decades. With the windows down and the music up, we had real adult conversations about his tomorrow and what sort of school would best bring him to it.
Although I tried to remain separate from son’s college journey, I really enjoyed the ride and am proud of where it is taking him.
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