Application Madness, and Wisdom

Kenyon's dean of admissions and financial aid, Jennifer Delahunty has an insider's view of education's most angst-ridden ordeal. But her years of experience admitting (and rejecting) other people's children did little to prepare her when it came time for her own daughters' college searches. No matter how great your expertise, the process is painful and personal.

In the spirit of this double perspective (professional, parental), Delahunty has edited a collection of engaging, useful, sometimes amusing, sometimes touching personal essays, I'm Going to College—Not You! Surviving the College Search with Your Child (St. Martin's Griffin). She lays out the context in her introduction: "College choice has become the crucible of anxiety for millions of parents and students across the county. Acceptance of a son or daughter by a top college, as defined by the nebulous prestige mongers, has become the coin of the realm, the ultimate 'good parenting' seal of approval."

How to survive the college search with dignity, tenderness, and sense of humor intact? The essayists assembled by Delahunty (some are admissions professionals, all are parents) share their stories, as well as their coping mechanisms, fears, and strategies. Delahunty has contributed a piece herself, as have several other writers affiliated with Kenyon.

Some themes emerge. A number of essays remind us to listen hard to what our children want instead of burdening them with our own desires. In "Application Madness," writer Anne C. Roark talks about how she learned to let go, allowing her daughter to write her own essay without professional (i.e., Roark's) help. Similarly, in "The Age of Reason," Joe Queenan points out that children may choose a college based on a sports team, a "party-school" reputation, or proximity to ski resorts, boyfriends, and music clubs.

Another theme: college is not the be-all, end-all of life. Neal Pollack, author of the memoir Alternadad, reflects on this truth in "An Unsentimental Education," about his own experience as a fifteen-year-old "self-righteous rocket of careerist obnoxiousness." In high school, he "signed up for clubs that I didn't like, ran for student council offices that I didn't care about, and took AP classes in subjects that didn't interest me," all to get into the college of his dreams, Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Once there, he crashed and burned, and found more joy in his post-college couch-surfing.

College isn't supposed to be instant bliss, writer Anna Quindlen notes in her contribution to the collection. It's not "a warm bath but a deep pool." After all, Quindlen says of kids becoming young adults, "That's how they learn to swim."

Of course, it's easier to jump into the water when you see that others are already there, stroking along. Delahunty's book reassures and gently admonishes the current generation of anxious parents, telling them—in many voices, via many stories—that their kids will ultimately make their own splash.

—Traci Vogel

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