sleeping dogOf late, my Facebook feed has been chock full of pictures and words that looked and sounded a lot like this:

“On the Southern states college tour and OMG, Clemson is just faaaaabulous! So wish schools looked like this when I was 17!” “So overwhelmed! With so many choices, how is Briana The Brilliant Future Brain Surgeon ever going to decide?” “We are so proud of our little Been Precocious Since He Could Walk, who just took 7 summer courses at Yale for over- achieving high school sophomores and got straight A’s.”

Holy crap.

If I were to post what my college tours with my kids looked and sounded like, I’d have been arrested:

“Shut up. I told you we were looking at this school. You have a tour booked at 2 with an info.session to follow and you better ask at least one intelligent question.”

“Yes, we are going to have lunch here. You need to see what the food is like. I don’t care that there is a 5 Guys down the road.”

“Wake up. We are here.”

“Is that really what you feel is appropriate attire for a college interview? I know for a fact you own a pair of khakis.”

“Hey, look up. Get off the phone. You’re supposed to be looking around.”

“I don’t care that you don’t want to be here.”

“Close your mouth and look intelligent, and smile, damn it.”

And then after trudging through the whole day and trying to make up for my kid’s insolence by smiling endlessly at the tour guide and admissions personnel,  I’d ask the question: the one that I’d been anxiously anticipating asking all day: “So, Spoiled Rotten Little Ingrate, what do you think? Could you see yourself here?”

Sure that they’d come to appreciate the effort I’d undertaken to get them here, to research and meticulously plan this day,and recognizing that they’d just toured a freaking country club I was willing to pay for over the next four years giving up innumerable European river cruises and bi-plane tours of Alaska to say nothing of the month long luxury tented safari in Tanzania, I was consistently disappointed by their less than insightful answers:

“Sure. Why not. They’re all fine. They’re bricky (the buildings) and green (the quad).” OMG. (What happened next is  where I could have been arrested)

Inevitably, and after relentless mining of their brains searching for the golden nugget that would lead us all to the “right choice,” they all eventually applied to and got into somewhere. Two have since graduated within their allotted 4 years (yay) and, my baby is headed back for his junior year on Sunday. So, one might say, we successfully managed the college search mania and, God willing, I’ll be 3 for 3 two years from now. Granted, I have no real idea if they were well educated for their gazillions of dollars, but they certainly all seemed to have a good time.

So seeing all of those Facebook pix and posts made me exceedingly grateful that I was done with all of it but it also got me thinking and wondering.  Did I serve my kids well? Did they look at and go to the “right schools” for them? Would I do anything differently if I were to do it all over again? I think we did well and based on where we are today, I think they chose well. But I also think there are tons of schools out there where they would have been just as happy and successful.

So, having been through it three times, I do have some golden nuggets of my own to share:

1. Be clear about what it is you want college to do for your kid: Are you searching for the most academically challenging experience? The greatest value for your money? The best overall experience? The winningest record for a lacrosse team in the conference? The most comprehensive study abroad program? The strongest job placement record? For me it was pretty simple. I needed college to be a positive academic endeavor and a place where they would make good friends and experience new things. We saw the four years as a preparation for life, not necessarily for a job or for a professional career, which is why we were led to liberal arts institutions. I wanted them to be challenged academically, but not so much that they had little time for anything else.

2. Be realistic about your kid’s abilities: This is extremely difficult for parents and not so much for kids. They have spent their lives in classrooms and are acutely aware of their strengths and weaknesses and how they compare to others. Plus with the rigors of high school today, and the intense competition to get into college, most are just plain TIRED by the time they graduate. Don’t over reach. It’s ok for them to have a “reach school” or two, but sometimes those dream schools turn into nightmares. When waitlisted, there’s a reason. Should your kid get into their reach/dream school, it’s your job to prepare them. Most likely they are on the fringe of what is the “typical” student profile, which means that on Friday night when all their friends are partying, “Pretty Smart, But Not Quite” may have to be home studying. That constant need to keep up can get pretty exhausting and self -esteem shattering.

3. Don’t choose a school for a particular major: Warning, warning, warning….One of mine, who shall remain nameless changed her major 3-4 times. (I think she stopped telling us, so there’s really no way to know how many times.) I do know that the registrar used to hide when they saw her coming. Don’t lock yourself into a school based on some major. Trust me, you don’t want to have to go through this process again and find another school just because “Can Never Make A Decision,” changed her mind again.

4.  Think outside the box: Do these sound familiar? James Madison, University of Delaware, Gettysburg, Bucknell, Dickinson, Susquehanna, Elon, High Point, UNC, Wake Forest, Denison, Miami of Ohio, Loyola, Providence, Fairfield, Boston College, University of Richmond, College of Charleston, Clemson, University of Colorado, Boulder, University of Vermont, Virginia Tech, blah, blah, blah. Yes, these are all great schools and yes my kids went to some of them. But EVERYONE is looking at them and applying to them.

There is a college for everyone and the job is to find the one that best suits your student and not the one that looks best on a bumper sticker on the back of your gas guzzling SUV. (very big generalization) I am always most impressed by the parents of the so-called “alternative”  Noah, I’ve Always Thought Outside The Box kids in high school that got “C’s”, took no AP classes, dumbfounded the guidance department and then got 2250+ on their SAT’s.  Then, seemingly with no angst, they applied and got into some pretty awesome schools and are majoring in some unique jobs of the future stuff.  Yay them. Do what they did…

5. Do Your Research: There is a lot out there. It’s certainly not like it was when I was starting my own college journey. Read, read, and read some more. Find out about financial aid, about retention rates, about scholarship programs, athletic programs and work study opportunities. And, as much as they balk at it, talk to your kid to see what they are looking for from their college experience. With enough discussion, they will share some golden nuggets with you. Be willing to think about the possibility that your kid isn’t ready for college.

Starting a few classes at a local community college is a fantastic way to test the waters and develop an interest. Gap year experiences and volunteering are other great ideas for kids who aren’t ready, and it’s OK TO NOT BE READY. It’s ok to not go at all, but if you find yourself there, just have a plan so that your 18 year old isn’t in your basement eating microwave pizza for the next 10 years. Be open to going off the “popular school” grid. There are so many amazing schools and opportunities out there. Try not to buy into the insanity but instead work to make the process about what is right for you and your family successful and fun.

Here are some great resources to get started that I found helpful:

Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change The Way You Think About College, by Loren Pope

Looking Beyond The Ivy League: Finding The College That’s Right For You, By Loren Pope

Cool Colleges: For the Hyper-Intelligent, Self-Directed, Late Blooming and Just Plain Different, by Donald Asher

In Defense Of A Liberal Education, by Fareed Zakaria

Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote To The College Admissions Mania, by Frank Bruni

Also, online: (colleges that change lives)

Good luck and keep posting those Facebook pix.  And let us know what have you learned from your college search experiences!

Leslie blogs at

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