College Admissions

Of course I’m thinking about the college admissions bribery scandal. I have two daughters, both great students and competitive athletes who are already thinking about college. M is a junior and she’s compiled a list of “maybe” colleges after our visits over the summer (remember them?), and J is only in eighth grade, but she’s already fretting because her math grade will show up on her high school transcript. We’re in the thick of it, so this crazy-pants news strikes close to home.

I’m also really ambivalent about the whole college admissions process, because in so many activities, there’s constant tension between wanting to support our daughters in everything they do and feeling uncomfortable about how every activity escalates beyond reasonable boundaries, and we’re sucked in as irresistibly as if we’re being pulled with the tide.

What really bugs me about this college admissions news is that, while it’s easy to say, “Yes, clearly, these people suck,” I feel like I am complicit in this completely out-of-whack privileged preparation for college, that just by participating in it, I’m reinforcing a completely unfair system. But at the same time, the pressure to do what we can is intense because the cost of college is monumental and I would really, really like us to score some merit aid so that if there’s somewhere these girls would like to go, hopefully we can make that happen for them.

Cute W and I loved college. We thought it was super-fun and intellectually challenging and that’s where we met each other. While the entire experience wasn’t always perfect, I think we’d both agree that our lives are better and we are happier because of where we chose to go to college. That said, we both think that there are plenty of other places we could have gone that would have turned out fine, too.

When talking with the girls, we have told them repeatedly that we’d support a gap year or even choosing to learn a more hands-on trade (I have pointed out that a much bigger and nicer house up the street is owned by a plumber repeatedly). We’ve said that there are likely many places where they can be happy. We are trying to be low-key. The girls aren’t buying it. As it stands now, they both want to go to an excellent college. They want to be successful, and for them, that means being admitted to a school where you tell people where you’re going, and they give a little gasp of recognition and congratulate you.

I know it isn’t like this everywhere. I have friends and relatives in other locations where the norms are different: no one talks too much about it because not everyone goes to college, or the vast majority of people go to the closest state school, or almost everyone spends their first two years at community college.

Actually, I was going to blame our community, but I think I’m getting that wrong, too. I just remembered that M has senior supplements from the last two years at her high school which list the top colleges where seniors are headed. Want to know?

For 2017, they were (in order):

  • Hudson Valley Community College
  • Siena College
  • Schenectady County Community College
  • Union College
  • SUNY Geneseo

For 2018, they were (in order):

  • Hudson Valley Community College (by far — 55 kids!)
  • SUNY Albany
  • Schenectady County Community College
  • Siena
  • SUNY Oswego

So, umm, these sound reasonable and attainable. And yet both of my daughters seem to gravitate toward friends who are very driven, just like they are, and that means Cute W and I meet a lot of parents who have super-impressive kids and really high expectations about college. So our cohort is families who value education and really push when it comes to preparing for college.

But in small and larger ways, it feels like access is gained or limited by parents’ resources, which just isn’t fair. Here are a couple of examples, focusing on academics.

At our high school, some of the courses qualify as college credit through one program or another. This is considered a feature of our excellent public education, but the way it plays out is that in order to actually receive this college credit, a parent usually has to fill out a form and make a payment to the college offering the credit. Now, it’s not required, but if your kid is in this class, the teacher’s telling them about this awesome college credit and how this will look good on their transcripts and who knows if this is actually worth doing, but for me, the path of least resistance is just to fill out the form and write the check. But what if our family wasn’t able to just write a check? Yes, probably they can appeal to our guidance department and apply for some special dispensation, but it’s just a potential barrier for kids.

Just today M was asking for a check for an AP exam. AP testing costs $92 per exam. We are fortunate to be able to just write a check, but I’m sure that’s not true for every kid who’d want to take an exam. Heck, not all schools have AP courses at all. And actually, Cute W and I don’t love the whole AP concept, mostly because we think an actual college course will be better than the same subject taught in high school, but if your child is a student who is trying to create an excellent college application, she wants to take that AP exam so it will show up on the transcript.

And speaking of exams: the standardized tests. Almost every one of M’s friends is getting private tutoring for standardized test. Most are dropping, um, I think it’s two or three thousand dollars for a course of study with a local guy who is well-known and chatted about among the parents. Back in the fall I remember listening to them discuss this around me at soccer games. To me, the whole idea felt excessive. I actually used to work for Kaplan Test Prep, so I know my way around a test, plus Khan Academy has free test prep that syncs with your official College Board records. I didn’t think M really needed to study, but if she did, Khan Academy would be fine.

But as time passed and M became more fretful about testing, I started to doubt myself. One day she came home from hanging out with several friends. In the course of conversations, it became clear that every other person in her circle of friends would be receiving her own car once she got a license and a course of study with the expensive SAT tutor. That means that our child, who has literally everything she needs as well as a delightful, attentive, and loving family, is the “deprived” child among her peers. The car didn’t bother me so much. Sure, our lives would all be easier if we had an extra car for her, but just like she managed to survive most of middle school without a phone, she can make do without her own car. But I was starting to feel downright guilty about the test tutoring, even though the whole idea felt, well, icky.

“Are you feeling deprived about the tutoring?” I asked. I don’t know what I would have done if she’d said yes. I have a friend who offered to pay half the fee when her son felt he need the help. Maybe I would have tried to find my old Kaplan lesson plans. Maybe I would have sighed and just signed her up. But luckily, she seemed to feel the same way that Cute W and I did, that spending so much money on a tutor felt almost like cheating. I mean, yes, obviously it’s not actually cheating. But M has so many advantages already, and she is responsible about studying on her own, so plunking down the money for test prep seemed like not just an extravagance, but something that would be required for someone less capable and more spoiled than the person she would like to be. So she’ll be doing practice tests on her own and we’ll hope for the best.

But the point is: it’s hard. I wasn’t sure–still don’t know, really–what the right choice is. And I sure as heck can’t judge everyone else and there choices. Okay, well maybe: I’d venture to say that the Tiger Mom who’s making her kid get tutoring because a 1500 isn’t good enough is in a different category from the mom who’s signed up for tutoring because her kid’s been having test-related stress nightmares, but you generally don’t get the whole story, so who knows? Or, you usually don’t get the whole story except when you run into that parent who tells you all the many ways in which their Brilliant Child Is Achieving So Much and you have to smile and nod instead of curling up into a protective ball.

I feel like I’ve been hyper-aware of this whole issue of privileged activity escalation, and now it sticks out to me wherever I go. Just last night we went to the district choral festival and I was thinking about how some of these wonderfully talented singers have accomplished amazing things already. And hooray, but it’s also because parents have the resources to pay for voice teachers or transport their kids to auditions and if either of my kids was really passionate about singing (and I am still sad that they’re not), I would totally be signing them up for singing lessons and auditions. But it also makes me wonder about the kids whose parents don’t have the time or money to do that, who aren’t in a district with a massively wonderful music booster program. “We are so fortunate. . .” they’ll say between songs, and yes, absolutely, we are. But I feel both gratitude and guilt.

Of course, since my kids are athletes, I notice these inequities the most when it comes to sports. But I’ll get to that next time.


  1. Claire

    I know Siena and Union aren’t Harvard and Yale, but I always thought of them as fairly competitive colleges. Honestly, with the majority of careers, even white collar careers (like accounting), a SUNY graduate will likely be very successful. I’d be happy to get out of the rat race and have my son live at home while doing two years at HVCC and two years at SUNY. The competitiveness drives me crazy.

  2. I think that those are all good options, and Siena and Union are competitive — it’s not like kids are a shoo-in at all. But I’ll tell ya, M totally wrinkled her nose at that whole list. Part of that is understandable, because I feel like sometimes familiarity breeds contempt when it comes to high school students and their local colleges. When I was in HS, we all called Fairleigh Dickinson “Fairly Ridiculous.” But part of M’s reaction is thinking “those schools definitely aren’t good enough,” and we’re not trying to give her that message, but she’s definitely gotten it somehow.

  3. Claire

    Well, as you said, your kids are exceptionally bright, so I can see why they might want the challenge of aiming higher. They’re probably both Ivy League material. Someone has to be, so it might as well be them,who will get there by their own merits (yes, with some degree of privilege pertains to any of us who live a middle class lifestyle).

  4. Ugh, Claire, I am hoping I’m not sounding like a “blah, blah, blah, my fabulously intelligent children. . . ” mom. I don’t think they’d get into Ivy League — they’re great students, but not super-duper exceptional, although I like ’em. Besides, there are all those spots saved for the legacies and the kids whose parents donate buildings or bribe somebody!

  5. Claire

    Not at all, Katie. Your posts aren’t braggy at all. It’s just that I’ve been following your blog since your kids were really young, and it’s obvious just from the little stories you’ve relayed throughout the years that they are quite bright.

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