Get a grip on college prep

It's that season again when most college-bound seniors are preparing their applications. Even though my own two children are successfully ensconced at college, I still wonder: What is the source of the anxiety about college admissions? Is it because this is the first time our children face judgment from an entity outside their cozy high school community? Is it fear that there won't be a good job for them unless they graduate from an institution whose name is mentioned with hushed reverence?

The college admissions process has gone from a rite of passage to an all-out battle that begins well before the ninth grade and often involves a cadre of paid advisers. We can partly blame the media and we can partly blame cocktail party gossip. How many times have we read or heard "horror" stories of valedictorians with 1600 boards not getting into Harvard?

While reporting on college admissions statistics may be valid journalism, it also fuels the pervasive angst. And when Americans are afraid, they tend to spend money to assuage their fear.

Should I feel inadequate about not shelling out for a college advising service? Does the $30,000 price tag for the premier package at IvyWise - the college-counseling service in Manhattan - really buy peace of mind for parents who don't have the time to be informed or who are so afraid of their child's "failure" that no figure is too high?

In my youth, it seemed that most parents maintained an optimism that we would go to college somewhere, and we'd get a decent education to boot. This has been replaced by a step-on-the-next-guy frenzy. Students with sweaty palms are Instant Messaging one another about early decisions and SAT scores; lawsuits have challenged affirmative-action admission policies; colleges and universities are eyeing the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings, knowing that being high in the polls is a recruitment tool they can never match. (Whoever dreamed up that publication's annual college-ranking issue is taking baby boomer anxiety all the way to the bank.)

I live in a progressive college town in Maine. In the six years I have been around high school seniors in our public school, I can count on one hand the number of kids who've worked with a testing tutor. For-hire college counselors exist, but only a small number of students use them. Sure, there is the usual stress surrounding college admissions, but some of that is worry about competing with well-to-do students in other places who have all these things plus schools where teachers start the day with SAT-type analogies beginning in the sixth grade. Despite these "disadvantages," our students go on to some outstanding institutions.

Blessedly, the college-admissions torment is over for both my kids. One is a junior at Brandeis, the other a freshman at Tufts University. Now I am looking at the financial bottom line instead of therapy.

I've learned one thing. It would help students immeasurably if all of us adults - parents, teachers, counselors for hire, and a small number of those in schools - got a grip. We know in our hearts that there are many colleges where our students will get a very good education, and many of these are not marquee colleges and universities.

Remember all those articles on self- esteem we read when our kids were small? If we heeded the advice, a paper with a grade of B still got a good word, because we knew the effort that went into it. The imperfect report card went up on the refrigerator. Likewise, when the time comes and whatever the outcome, let's paste the college sticker on the car, take a deep cleansing breath, and relax.

Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer who has worked as an admissions reader for a selective college in Maine.

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