Enjoy the holidays, don’t forget college applications

Consider This

Despite Santa and his merry band of elves, the Christmas cards wishing Joy and Peace, wreaths on nearly every door, despite all that, the holidays are often times of stress. For every upbeat yin, there seems to be a downbeat yang.

For parents who have children applying to college, the days from Thanksgiving through New Year’s are additionally fraught. As application deadlines loom for the high school senior, the atmosphere in the family home can be emotionally challenging.

If you sent your kid off to college 20 or 30 years ago, or if you went to college 20 years ago and don’t have a kid in high school, you might not relate.

Things have changed. Is the story currently making the rounds of a student applying to 14 schools a tale of moderation or one of mythical excess?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, in October 2010, 68.1 percent of high school graduates were enrolled in college. In 1992, that rate was 54.3 (according to www.higheredinfo.org).

With that increase in numbers has come added competition. Schools that used to be easy to get into are turning away applicants in droves. It is not something that can be left to the last minute.

Kids have to stand out, but what they really have to do, perhaps for the first time in their lives, is sell themselves. I don’t say that pejoratively. They must create a self-portrait of themselves that an institution will then use to gauge if they’ll fit in. They must distinguish themselves from among a pool of thousands of other students. Their essence must be conveyed in an essay roughly 500 words long. For many parents, it is a process that tests their ability to be supportive and nurturing without becoming hysterical and badgering.

For my son and me, it started at Thanksgiving. The extra days around that holiday seemed ideal for buckling down and focusing on the essay. How soon the bartering began: Write one essay, then you can go to the movies. A day or two later, tension building, stakes getting higher, recalcitrance setting in, settling for a paragraph or two. Praise, reward or punish, reprimand?

If it’s such a mammoth struggle, it begs the questions, “Is college the right choice? Does he even want to go? What are the alternatives?” But just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it should be abandoned.

At the end of the Thanksgiving break, the essay still unfinished, my son announced to me that he was going to make pancakes for breakfast. What was the ratio of flour to liquid, he mused aloud? I offered the suggestion that he consult a cookbook. Nah, he didn’t need to do that. He grabbed the container of flour and shook some into the bowl, poured in some milk (yes, it’s true he wasn’t using a mix) beat it all together and made his pancakes. I sat there and simmered. Why was it so difficult for him to follow directions? When he sat down with his pancakes, they looked fluffy and edible.

Now, I’m not equating pancakes with college, but clearly, I need to take a step back. Somewhere in my consciousness I am aware that my son is telling me something. He is in charge of his life. I know him to be thoughtful and capable. He’s going to do things his way. It’s not going to be the way I would go about it.

I’m still hoping that he’ll apply, and that he’ll let me copy-edit his essay.

Tara Kelly, copy editor at The Lakeville Journal, is an avid follower of social trends. She may be reached by email at tarakny@earthlink.net.