Step Back, Stand Down, Befriend Your Kid's College Advisor

Lacy Crawford, author of Early Decision, analyzes school application insanity

Posted Oct 23, 2013

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Q: You worked with high school students on their college application essays for 15 years. As an astute observer who is a parent yourself now, what did you learn? 

A: At first I thought I was serving the parents who hired me—making a difficult process less challenging for their families.  Over the years, as admissions rates dropped and anxiety levels went up, I felt more and more that I was serving the students, who were under terrible pressure. I felt a mismatch between what students needed to progress to the next step in their education and what their parents were providing (or force-feeding). There is a whole chorus of advisers telling these kids how to do better, be better, be other than they are.             

When I had a child of my own, those parents I had been silently judging for more than a decade became my peers. The college admissions race—and everything it entails, beginning in some places with training for kindergarten interviews—is a trap for parents. You see that it’s ridiculous; but how can you stand down without disadvantaging your own child? I began to write EARLY DECISION to understand how thoughtful, dedicated parents can be so driven by fear of their children’s futures that they are willing to place enormous value in a system that is reductive with regard to character, and that is, if taken to its current extremes, harmful to a child’s development. I hope EARLY DECISION might offer perspective and a sense of humor, so we can imagine other ways of being.

Q: Why is it so difficult for the teens (and the parents) in your book to express themselves, to share how they really feel about themselves, their relationships, and their futures?

A: There is a phenomenon that I wished to tease out that is affecting students now—some unholy combination of falling admissions rates, the Common Application, and the rise of Facebook culture—that causes young people to feel that they shouldn’t learn to express themselves, they should learn to brand themselves.  Like you go from being a child to being a candidate, and skip growing up entirely.  It’s terrible.

There is great fear on the part of the students, and a learned entitlement to publicity, a sense that they should be fabulous and widely admired but not that they should come by that through any process of stumbling and self-realization. As for the parents, I think they are terrified too—so frightened of what the future will hold for their children, so uncertain of their ability to help support them, that they want to give an impression of success and impenetrability, to perform the achievement they wish to see. There is a certain bravado, particularly among the more outwardly successful parents. Children hear this note in their parents’ voices—the falseness of it—and understand it to mean that they are failing, somehow, and that they must step up and be fabulous.In this way, parents and kids reinforce each other’s fears, and no one really talks to anyone else at all.

Q: The character of Cristina, a smart but under privileged Guatemalan illegal immigrant, stands out because she doesn’t have the advantages of the other teens. Did you work with someone like her? Do students like her really have a chance against those with a legacy or a trust fund?   

A:  Cristina is based on a real student, who graduated from a large public high school and was fast-tracked, via the courtesy of university trustees, through admissions and financial aid processes that might otherwise have defeated her. (She had an absolutely terrific run at an Ivy League school.) But it’s desperately important to me to note that a student as talented as she was has nothing to fear from other applicants. Elite colleges and universities are keen to find and admit students like Cristina, but the public education system fails them year after year. These young people don’t know that college is a possibility. They don’t know about the top schools, they have no idea of the fellowships and grants on offer, and they don’t have anyone to shepherd them through the labyrinth of forms, test scores, and deadlines. Often their parents are immigrants, documented or not, and this adds another layer of inscrutability to the application process. It’s a problem that transcends racial and ethnic lines, and it really does enrage me to think that after clearing so many hurdles, posting consistent academic achievement in an underperforming school environment and with heaven knows what responsibilities and disadvantages at home, a student could fail to reach a top college because of what are essentially logistical requirements. I hoped to help sound the drum for outreach and service to students in settings such as these. 

Q: What did you discover about the kids you worked with upon reading the early versions of their college essays? 

A:  That they were terrified. You ask a seventeen-year-old to write a personal essay, you’d think you’d asked them to get naked. They’d probably be more comfortable doing that, in truth. The better students (not to be confused with the brighter kids; sometimes they are the same, sometimes not) would crank out reasonable facsimiles of essays, but they’d be dead on the page. No one risked letting her heart have its say. Now, if you’ve been tutored to within an inch of your life, if the “outside help” began with training for playdates so you could have a successful interview for kindergarten, you’d learn never to trust your own first offering. Constant correction, even when well intentioned, serves to teach children that their instincts are wrong. You can’t write if you think your voice is worthless.

In the first few drafts, invariably I learned how very far down the foxhole these kids had gone to protect themselves. The more sarcastic, deadened, or inattentive they were to the process of drafting, the worse they’d been hurt. I had to figure out what it would take to coax them into saying what they really thought and felt. Sometimes this took months. From there, writing the essays themselves was a relatively quick and easy process.

Q: What advice would you give to the parents of the future Class of 2017? And to the students themselves?

A: Over and over again, I have found that when students discover what they love and grab hold of that dream with both hands, doors open. Maybe not Harvard’s, but somewhere else, somewhere better. A kid who wants something bad enough is a kid who will work for it. Fortune may favor the bold, but with regard to the college madness, destiny favors the passionate. I would want to give students the confidence to take the long view, pursue their goals, and chase opportunities, not titles.

As for the parents: well, you can’t undo what’s been done. By the time a student is seventeen, their education is largely complete. Don’t think you can (or must) scramble now to add a high gloss to your otherwise terrific adolescent.  Instead, say less and listen more. Encourage conversations with other adults, people in a range of positions and careers. Show your child that there are a zillion ways to make a life. Step back. Stand down. Go see a movie. Have a little faith that the world is changing, but your child is up to the task.

Oh, and make friends with your child’s school college counselor. Really. 

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from reading EARLY DECISION? And what would you say to someone who does not have a stake in the college admissions craze to encourage them read the book? 

A:  It's always fun to be let in on the secrets of a closed system, particularly when that system is a self-serving circuit of the very wealthy and very powerful. That’s the voyeuristic part of the book, which I hope is readable and witty. Underneath that is a story about several young people who are finding their way, and the coming-of-age arc will always be a favorite—at any age, a well-told tale of the dawning of adulthood can reinvigorate one’s own interests and hopes for the time remaining.

Finally, this book is about a widespread trend I see in young people, a process that is leading, or contributing to, a shift in the character of an entire generation. The kids going through this are the lucky ones already, the ones we can most expect to end up in leadership roles, by virtue of achievement or connections; it’s useful to see where they’re coming from. In other words, if you don’t have kids and don’t care about college but you’re baffled by your new intern, whose Yale degree doesn’t seem to have conferred upon him any sense of self or authenticity, you might find some insight in EARLY DECISION.