Preparing for College

Kiki came home from school with four colorful brochures. They extolled the virtues of an art college with campuses in Georgia, Hong Kong, and France. Kiki flipped through the pages and rattled on about how good it would be for her to get out where she can really be grown up and how nice it would be to surround herself with other students who loved art the way she did. My response was to ask the question pounding in my brain.
“How much does this school cost?” The response, $30,000 per year, led us into a discussion about cost and benefit. Then into talking, once again, about advantages that are available to Kiki because of the quantity of working artists with whom we have business contacts. Then I looked over at Kiki. She was closed down, clutching the brochures to her chest. I remembered the light in her eyes when she’d first unfolded them. Howard and I back-tracked.
“Show me the page about the horses again.” I said. Kiki flipped open the brochure and described the things that the college representative had explained to her AP Art class. This time I listened.

Now is the time for Kiki to be excited about the possibilities for her future. She needs to picture dozens of paths for her life. There is no choosing to be done yet, just the growing process of possibility. All the years before this Kiki’s life has been dictated by others. Adults have guided her path, told her where to go and what to learn. The realization that she can choose for herself is both exhilarating and frightening. The very process of picturing herself in Georgia, or Hong Kong, or France changes the way she thinks about who she can be. Next year, after applications, acceptances, and rejections, will be plenty of time for us to talk about specifics and logistics. Then Kiki will be ready to begin narrowing down and weighing which path is most likely to take her to a destination that she wants.

This year is also a learning process for Howard and I. We’re beginning to imagine a future in which our oldest is launched out into the world. Rather than just generally knowing that at some point college expenses will come, we’re beginning to view our financial picture to evaluate what is possible. We have to make careful decisions about the level of financial support we are able to extend, because whatever we do for Kiki will set a precedent for three children to follow. We need to choose something sustainable across four college educations, some of which will over lap each other. A friend has decided to sever all financial ties once her kids hit college. Other friends support their children all the way through. We don’t know what our balance needs to be, but we are beginning to picture possible choices.

All three of us are learning about the emotional processes involved with the launch into the college years. For one thing, we need to let Kiki dream as big and as far as she wants this year. A week after the brochures, Kiki returned to saying that perhaps she wants to go to the local college and live at home to save money. She is alternately thrilled by adventure and wants to stay comfortably close. Sometimes the impending application process makes her stressed, other times she is calm and confident.

We try to stay in “Calm and Confident” land as much as possible, but there is so much frantic urgency regarding college applications. School teachers, counselors, and other advisers all hand out lists. They give long lectures on what colleges look for. Students and parents end up with the impression that everything must be started right now and done exactly right. The truth is that anyone who and figure out how to pay for college education can have one. The high pressure is only necessary if the student hopes to enter a career for which an Ivy League college is required. Along Kiki’s educational path we’ve made decisions based on her current educational needs first and how it will look on a college application second. It is possible that will affect which colleges she is accepted to attend. I still think all the choices were the right ones.

We attended a scholar’s night which had sessions about standardized testing, college applications, financial aid, and a host of other post-high school possibilities. I noticed that the representative of one college pointed at the list of recommended classes and emphasized that they were not required for acceptance. He told us that GPA, SAT/ACT scores, and the quantity of AP classes had more effect than whether a student had two years of language classes. He said that the recommended list was simply there because it was this sort of a balanced academic curriculum that was most likely to help students be prepared for the sorts of work they would be expected to do in college. Yet if you talk to the average school counselor, they will get quite intense about the need to get every class on that recommended list. It is fascinating how the drive to give students every possible advantage creates stress where it need not exist.

It helps me see that the application process is actually a useful tool for students. If you are not accepted at a particular school, it is possible that you simply aren’t prepared for it anyway. It takes a certain sort of academic focus to thrive at Harvard, and it may be a kindness to keep out the ones who are not ready. I find this thought calming. If Kiki is accepted at a college, it is because the registrars believe that the education paths we have chosen have suited her to succeed at their school. We’ll continue to make our best choices at every step, because that is all we can do.

Our next college preparation step is almost upon us. Registration for her senior year will start in a week or so. We’ll have one last opportunity to choose classes which will be on her transcripts for college applications. We’re also beginning to look up college websites and request more information. Standardized testing looms as well. Each of these things is new, but none are worth the level of stress which is often attached. Yes they have an effect, but none is the make-or-break point for her entire future. As long as we can continue to see that, we’ll do fine. In the meantime, we’ll be flipping through more brochures and picturing what is possible.