What We Talk About When We Talk About College

Jane Kulow joins us again this month with her heartfelt insights into the college application process as her daughter contemplates the meaning of commitment and applying early decision.

 What we talk about when we talk about college:  a decision.

"Do we talk about anything other than college these days?"

Our daughter, Julie, asked me that over dinner last weekend, before adding, "It's okay, that's about all I'm thinking about anyway."

Early in the morning, two days before that dinner, Julie and I set out on one more college visit. I cannot say that will be our last campus visit, but it is the last we will undertake before she submits her first application.

Julie revisited this campus with a number of questions in mind:

  • Could she see herself there as a student?
  • Did she feel comfortable in the neighborhoods surrounding the campus?
  • Where do first year students live?
  • How close is that to the center of campus?
  • Does she like the dorms?
  • What does the student body look like, in terms of diversity, dress, attitude?
  • How studious are they? Or, do they seem to be?
  • How does that fit with what she is looking for?
  • Was this college still her first choice?
  • Does she still love it enough to apply Early Decision?

My task was straightforward:  help her find the answers to her questions.

We won’t make this decision for her.

But we want to help make sure she has asked enough questions of the school and of her own reactions to the school so that she can make an informed decision. That's not to say we don't have any input, but our input on the decision was provided long ago when we three—parents and daughter—discussed the characteristics of her list of colleges and what made the most sense to all of us. We've agreed on the short list; this is about the shortest list, a list of one.

"Do I like it? What do I think? What do I

see when I step out of the dorm?"

Campus tours weren't offered during Julie's initial visit due to our timing; we visited immediately before commencement weekend. We listened to the admissions information session, Julie met with a department chair, and then a 2013 graduate showed us around another department's facilities. There was more than enough to snare Julie's interest. Now, five months later—a long time in the life of a teenager—was she still that interested?

This visit, we walked the neighborhood in all directions, located the first year dorms, peeked into the dining hall, sat in on a class, and took the official tour.

"I'm looking for where I could hang out on my own.

If I need space, where would I go?"

Is it too early to decide?

Last year, I offered a nephew these three reasons to apply early:

  1. Gain a huge sense of accomplishment by seeing one application through to the end,
  2. Get the Common App interface figured out by seeing one application through to the end, and
  3. Receive an early response.

This year’s Common App, with its numerous glitches, for both student and colleges, could make the application completion feel even sweeter. But there are a few other considerations for applying early:  Do the student's grades and accomplishments through junior year support a strong application? Is the student's SAT or ACT testing complete? Does the student have time to complete applications by, well, right about now?

Many colleges offer either Early Action or Early Decision, not both. Early Decision adds more heft to the question of applying early, since that application requires the student, parent, and guidance counselor to commit that, if offered admission, the student will accept and there are significant financial aid considerations. Since Julie’s college of choice only offers Early Decision, her follow-up questions boil down to:  Am I ready to commit now?

A couple of years ago Julie loved a different college and talked of applying there Early Decision, but her interest stemmed mainly from attending a musical theatre camp there in seventh grade.

This time is different. Almost every aspect of this school offers a strong connection to her interests. While still on campus during the first visit she drafted a list of why she wanted to attend. Julie's visit last week confirmed and strengthened her choice. The academics, the campus, advising, class sizes, location, challenge:  they are what she wants.

Now we walk a fine line together, of loving a college yet trying not to love it too much, because no matter how strong the student, how compelling the application, there are no guarantees. While she awaits the outcome, I’ll try to help her stay away from College Confidential, and I’ll try to stop myself from reminding her she’ll thrive wherever she ends up.

 

Jane Kulow is the founder of the blog Dr. StrangeCollege or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Journey, which covers the ebb and flow of the path to college for her three children, dubbed the Mod Squad. As Jane describes it, "this is what we did, what we saw, what we laughed about, and what I’ve read (and asked others in the house to read) along the way." We're delighted to have her as an eloquent fellow traveler here, sharing adventures and insights as her -- and your -- children head off toward the higher halls of academe.

 

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