Excerpt: The Parent Trap
Halfway into his eldest son’s junior year of high school, Hank Herman chuckled at the parents who were already anxious about the upcoming college-application process. He assumed they were the extremists, shooting only for the Ivies. But a guidance counselor soon warned the newspaper humor columnist and his wife that the task would “consume” them, too. Several months later, knee-deep in paperwork and updating a “war board” of prospective colleges, the Connecticut resident had to admit the counselor was right—the process was far more complicated, and competitive, than the one he and fellow baby boomers had faced a generation ago. Accept My Kid, Please! A Dad’s Descent Into College Application Hell (Da Capo) recounts an eye-opening, often funny odyssey. One stop along the way: learning to “market” your teenager, in this case as an aspiring education major.
First things first. We realize that the next time our son Matt is asked, during a college interview, what he might major in, he can’t continue to say, “Maybe math, maybe history.” Nor when queried about his prospective career can he blithely speculate that he “might go into business.”
We wonder how other young applicants—particularly the well-coached, superdirected ones—are answering these questions.
And we will find out.
Through a series of covert transactions with a business colleague, my wife is able to secure copies of the recent college applications of two ultramotivated girls from suburban Maryland. We review them in detail.
The first lists among her activities National Honor Society (in which she was both an officer and a tutor), Students for Political Action (president and treasurer), Peer Adviser, Project Diversity (project coordinator), Adventure in Cross-Cultural Living (community service on an Apache reservation), tennis (captain, three varsity letters), and volleyball (three more varsity letters).
I look at my own son’s résumé. Among his activities, he lists pool security guard, tennis desk clerk, Little League umpire, and basketball referee. Hmm. So the admissions director will have to choose between the president of Students for Political Action and the person who checks hand passes at the town pool. OK...
This same girl, in one of her essays, claims that she often wishes there were more hours in the day so that she “could tackle all that she desires.”
My first reaction to this transparent display of overachieving is Gag me.
My second reaction is This is my son’s competition.
And what about the summer situation? That seems to be where some kids really show their stuff. The first girl went out West and did volunteer work on a pueblo. The second headed to D.C. and interned for her state senator. And our son? He’s been a counselor at our local beach camp—and he’s done it with our blessing! In fact, we’ve both felt quite pleased that he’s been able to pass his teenage summers in such a wholesome, carefree, outdoorsy, all-American environment.
We were obviously remiss. Deluded. Irresponsible. We weren’t thinking ahead. Counselor at beach camp? Pool security guard? Do these positions say “initiative”? Would they be looked upon as “broadening”? Where are the chess camps? The internships on Wall Street? The summer semester at Massachusetts Institute of Geniuses? What were we thinking?
OK. Enough whining. Time to regroup. Sure, it’s quite clear that the unpolished, unrehearsed teenager who showed up for the University of Transylvania interview isn’t going to cut it. But this ballgame is far from over. No, not by a long shot.
Because, let’s not forget: My wife is in marketing. Positioning is her specialty. Branding is her middle name.
And I’m a writer. Imagination, creativity, hyperbole—these are my calling cards.
And it’s a good thing. Because together, we’re going to have to create a college candidate.
Where to start?
OK. Besides being a high-ranking student, our son is an athlete; he played both high school baseball and high school football.
He has a brother three years younger, whom, for the most part, he ignores. He has another brother 12 years younger. This one, at least, he thinks is cute.
He once assistant-coached his middle brother’s rec basketball team and, as mentioned above, for years was a counselor at his youngest brother’s day camp. He’s also instructed at tons of local baseball and football clinics. OK, so the high school coaches told the players they had to work at these clinics, or else. But still, the little ones always do seem to like him and look up to him. He’s actually incredibly patient with them—the parents often comment on how good he is with kids. Gets him some pretty nice tips.
Hey, wait! Hold on. Maybe we’re onto something.
Forget that math or history major stuff! Colleges must be getting math and history majors up the wazoo.
We’ve got an education major on our hands!
And, likewise, business? There are millions of money-grubbing mini-entrepreneurs running around who want to go into business. Screw business.
Our son’s going to be a teacher!
My wife and I are cooking. This education thing could be big! After all, how many mainstream, red-blooded, jock-type males choose this route? Won’t this make our son somewhat unusual? Interesting? Intriguing? Won’t this tend to make his application jump out of the pack?
We scratch around for additional material. Let’s see....Although he’s a typical suburban kid, he was born in New York City—lived there until he was 5. He still loves Manhattan—takes the train in all the time. Says he wants to live there when he grows up. So in a sense, he’s a city kid, too. City roots. Aha! Urban. Education. Not just education—urban education!
OK. Good. But what about that transcript of his? High grades, strong athletics, good summer jobs, but really nothing else. Blank. Nada.
That’s it! Priorities! He’s got his priorities—and nothing else is going to get in his way! And what are those priorities? Academics, athletics, and working with kids.
His résumé will be a study in directedness rather than dilettantism. His will be the Anti-Résumé résumé—a refreshing breeze and welcome respite to the admissions officers who have seen a few thousand too many “well-rounded” candidates. Yes, this is good.
I hear my wife mumbling something. “The moth is in my ears,” it sounds like she’s saying. I think maybe she’s losing it. I ask her to repeat herself.
“The softer side of Sears,” she says.
She explains to me that “the softer side of Sears” was a classic marketing campaign. And, she adds triumphantly, we’re going to adapt this theme for our son! From this campaign will come his tag line, his slogan: The softer side of a jock.
My wife and I are pleased with our work. Together, we go into the family room, eager to tell Matt about his new identity.
He’s playing Madden with his youngest brother. (Mentoring him in the art of the football video game, so to speak.) He grunts, never putting down the controller, as we tell him about his passion for urban education. He grunts when we tell him of his plans to be a teacher after he graduates. He also grunts when we tell him about his holy trinity of priorities: academics, athletics, and working with kids.
We take this as a ringing endorsement.
My wife, the director of the Matt Herman account, feels we’ve successfully executed the positioning of the product. Now she wants to ensure that not only will all of our son’s future contacts with colleges be perfect but also that any missteps in the past will be rectified.
To this end, my wife steals a page from my War Board and concocts yet another grid, this one revolving around her newfound constellation of obsessions: the relative importance of the admissions interview at each school (her motherly intuition tells her that the fewer contacts our son has with a given institution of higher learning, the better), the relative complexity of the application, and the availability of a concentration in education.
Her checklist includes questions such as: Is an interview required? Advised? Discouraged? Not available? (Best option!) Do they accept the common application? Do they require “extra” essays—beyond the expected, standard one? Do they award a degree in education? Do they offer an education major—or at least a generous array of courses in education?
Filling out this particular grid yields a number of immediate positive results, allowing us to much more effectively zero in on our position.
With our son’s blessing, we happily lop off from the War Board any school that does not accept the common app. That knocks us down from the original 36 to 25. We also “X” out any college that requires a live interview, dropping the number to 18. Next, we eliminate schools that require applicants to write, as our son calls them, any “weirdo extra credit” essays. Which gets us to the final 11.
Now we’re ready to double back for some damage control at the University of Transylvania. My wife recalls that the admissions interviewer had suggested to our son that he lift his verbal SAT score by 100 points—and that he be better informed about his prospective major and have some good reasons for choosing it.
Subsequently, our son has taken the SATs a second time and, somewhat miraculously, has actually boosted his verbal score by 100 points.
Simultaneously, my wife has meticulously researched the education department at each one of the remaining schools, leaving no stone unturned. In doing so, she’s learned that at Transylvania, our son can double-major (doesn’t that sound motivated!) in elementary ed and history, and he can graduate as a teacher, having already spent significant time in city classrooms. This, she informs our son, is one of the main reasons that Tran is such a good match for him.
She then instructs Matt to write an e-mail to the gentleman who interviewed him, mentioning both the quantum leap in his verbal score and the epiphany he’s experienced in the education arena.
But she does not allow him to hit the “send” button until she watches him cross every “t” and dot every “i.”
There’s a good reason for this.
My wife has a friend in Washington state whose son was applying to Conundrum University, early decision. The absurd degree to which this mother had choreographed her son’s approach to this school made my wife’s interference with Matt seem like harmless fooling around. This woman had schmoozed the director of admissions and the track coach, hooked up her son with the best-known SAT tutors in the city, enlisted a legion of high-priced college consultants—the works.
But when it came time for his admissions essay, the son maddeningly insisted on doing it himself. His mother could edit it when he was finished, but he was going to write it without any help. He finished his first draft and intended to e-mail it to his mother, but the university’s address happened to be in the “to” box on his computer, and—to make a long story short—off the unedited rough draft went, straight to Conundrum’s Office of Admissions!
“Oh, well,” said the son.
My wife’s friend—shaking, in a cold sweat—braced herself to read what her son had sent. It included, by her count, upward of 50 typos and maybe 20-plus grammatical errors. It also was sprinkled with a generous supply of wise-guy, inside-joke parentheticals while, at the same time, totally omitting the majority of his most-significant high school achievements. If he had designed to shoot himself in the foot, he couldn’t have done a better job.
This was not going to happen to our son. Not with my wife in charge of the brand.
Vol. 16, Issue 04, Pages 42-43Published in Print: January 1, 2005, as The Parent Trap