The College Road Trip

April 8, 2014

By Lisa Hartwig

Lisa is the mother of 3 gifted children and lives outside of San Francisco.

ElonIt’s the only fun part of the college application process: the college trip. It’s the chance for your child to dream before the harsh realities of test scores, class rank and GPAs hit. Best of all, parents are active participants. We get to be accomplices to the dream worlds our children are imagining.

Three years ago, I eagerly anticipated bonding with my oldest son on our whirlwind tour of 6 colleges in the east and one in the Midwest. I memorialized the trip with pictures of him scraping the snow off the windshield of our rented car, waking up with bed head and sampling cannoli in Boston. He was not amused. The defining moment of our trip happened during dinner midway into the week.

“I haven’t seen anyone in so long,” he said.

I not only wasn’t bonding with him, I wasn’t even someone.

I returned from the trip with a more realistic understanding of my place in his world. I could be the travel agent, chauffeur and advisor, but I did not have a place in his dreams. The trip was his opportunity to imagine a life without me. He had already gotten a head start imagining that world.

I tried to apply the lessons I learned from my oldest son to my middle son’s college trip. We would see one school a day (with the exception of a quick trip to New York City) and travel solely by public transportation. The pace and mode of transportation would reduce my stress and allow each of us to immerse ourselves in the experience of looking for a college – separately. For my son, that meant plugging himself into the sounds of Ingrid Michelson and Idina Menzel. For me, it was flipping the pages of The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College.

My son let me set the itinerary. We could only visit 6 or 7 schools, so I made the decision to tour schools of varying size located in suburban, urban and big city locations. This would allow me to gauge his interest in particular types of schools. One of the things they had in common is that they all had strong programs in his areas of interest: International Relations, Politics, Philosophy, Economics, Public Policy and Government. The other thing they had in common is that they are all spectacularly hard to get into. That last part wasn’t one of my criteria; it just turned out that way. Or, more accurately, I didn’t make an effort to balance safety, target and reach schools.

I was breaking the first rule of the college application process: manage your child’s expectations.

I wasn’t trying to communicate an unreasonably high level of expectations to my son, although it could certainly be seen that way. I was curious. Some group of researchers decided that these were the best schools in the country and lots of students appeared to agree with this conclusion. How else do you get such low acceptance rates? Besides, isn’t this an area where a gifted kid can dream big? After my husband and I had spent years finding outlets for his passions, was this really the time to tell our son that the admission odds are set against him and he should be more realistic? Without visiting these schools, they would just be names, spoken with reverence by his friends and their parents. He would not know if the fuss was justified until he experienced these mythical institutions, however superficially.

Luckily, the idea of attending an Ivy League college had already lost some of its luster by the time we left for the East Coast. My son had fallen in love two weeks earlier. The object of his affection is a liberal arts college in Southern California. The town, the campus, the classes and the flip flop wearing student body spoke to him. He now had the gold standard against which all other schools would be compared.

If my son felt pressured by my itinerary, he didn’t complain. In fact, he said that he would have been disappointed had I not taken him to these highly selective schools. He was not ready to inventory his shortcomings. He still wanted the chance to dream. So, bring it on Harvard. Let’s see if the tingly excitement brought on by an Ivy League name can compare to the warmth generated by the Southern California sun.

See Part II: A 16 Year Old’s Guide to Colleges

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