College admissions are booming in 2012, with schools seeing record numbers of applicants. But before you and your child stress about their odds, remember: They’re going to live full and happy and successful lives, and if their destiny is otherwise, no top-tier school will change it. At least that’s what Andrew Ferguson, author of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College, told himself while he waited to hear where his son got into school.
Rob and his wife came over for drinks. My daughter sat at the TV, my son at the computer in the other room. March was ten days old but it still carried the late-winter death pallor. The decision letters would soon be in the mail. We tried to move on to other subjects but the conversation inevitably returned to kids and college, like a man trying to walk with one foot nailed to the floor. We kept circling back. I didn’t mind. Discussing the subject with our friends could even be relaxing. I’d discovered that several of them were more neurotic than I was, and our conversations left me with the reassuring knowledge that I was not, after all, the craziest person in the country.
“Some nights I’ll wake up and go over our list of schools,” Rob said. “And I think, ‘We blew it. He can’t get into any of these. What if he doesn’t get in anywhere?’”
His wife expressed her exasperation—with her son, not with her fretful husband. He’s as bright and engaging as teenagers come, yet she insisted his chances had been squandered through his inattention and casual attitude. Her son’s a terrific writer, she said, but his essays were dreary. He applied to schools beyond his reach (she believed); in addition to his many virtues, he has great self-assurance. She didn’t want to discourage him for fear of deflating his confidence, but she didn’t want him crushed either, from the steady progression of rejection letters that she was sure were soon to arrive.
In response I embarked on a discourse inspired by a recent conversation I’d had in my office. I’d been thinking it over ever since. These are wonderful kids, I told her, with every advantage in life; where they go to college doesn’t matter in the long run; they are destined to live full and happy and successful lives, and if their destiny is otherwise, then no top tier school will change it.
I told her about a friend at work, who had mentioned his own wandering through the craziness. His daughter was a prize, in person and on paper: SATs in the high 2300s, a 4.0 GPA at a highly regarded public high school, a long and varied list of extracurriculars. “So I relaxed,” he said. The girl’s first choice was Notre Dame, her second BSU. “I thought, ‘This shouldn’t be a problem.’” She was rejected by both, a victim presumably of quotas for boys. Only Tech put her on the waiting list, and she was admitted late summer. That was five years ago. Now the kid is in graduate school in architecture, one of Tech’s strongest departments and a field she’d never have considered before enrolling there. The initial horror—she didn’t get in, even with 2360 boards!—yielded to real life and one of its most charming qualities, serendipity.
“This is our problem,” I said, sliding into my Polonius mode. “When it comes to our kids, we crave certainty. And no wonder. For eighteen years all our energies have gone into giving them a settled childhood, with everything in its place, everything predictable, everything planned and hoped for years in advance. And now we can’t see more than a few months ahead. The path turns a corner, disappears into the woods, and it scares us half to death.
“But all this clarity and certainty we’ve spent all these years cultivating, it was really counterfeit. A mirage. And now here we are back to real life. Real life is unsettled, uncertain. It’s unpredictable. We should stop obsessing and just accept the uncertainty! Otherwise we’re rebelling against life itself!”
At least I think that’s what ol’ man Polonius said. I can’t recall precisely. I didn’t make a note of it, because what happened next meant it no longer mattered.
Our guests were shrugging on their coats when my son appeared at the door of the living room. His face was flushed and his arms were raised in a gesture of triumph.
“I just got an e-mail,” he said. “I got into Tech.”
The women went to hug him. Menacing specters that had wobbled in the ether for many months crashed to earth and vaporized. He was going to college somewhere. The uncertainty vanished in an instant. I might have teared up, from relief mostly. I hate uncertainty. It drives me nuts.
“Congratulations,” Rob said. “You’re over the hump.”