The Crabby Counselor Talks About the Best-Laid Plans

The Crabby Counselor wonders about mice and parents.

I can’t stand Robert Burns, but it’s hard not to think about “To A Mouse” when I hear about how some parents treat their kids like topiary. Case in point, the alumnus who once called me asking what I thought about certain schools for his daughter. He wanted to be sure she’d be able to get into Amherst.

“How old is she?” I asked.

“In second grade,” he replied.

A recent article in the New York Times reports that some rarified parents in Manhattan are hiring nannies to speak to their children only in the nannies’ native tongues (now there’s a whole packet of assumptions!). They want to be sure their children have a leg up in life, especially when it comes to kindergarten admission, which of course leads to primary school admission, high school admission, then the bliss of a college where they are untroubled by unwashed graspers. One parent is quoted as saying, “Once you are trilingual…your brain can break down new languages that make it so much easier to learn your fourth, fifth, and sixth languages.” I pity that child and hope she has a good therapist one day.

As crazy as these parents are (the Times reports without irony that “being bilingual does not seem to help in the highly competitive kindergarten admission process” and quotes an expert who says, “Speaking another language is indicative that you are verbal, but you have to be behaved”), they’re not the only ones who try when their children are small to mold them into future Elis or Lord Jeffs or Old Mains or whatever. And it’s probably not that odd to expect parents of means to want to pass on their social and cultural DNA along with their actual genetics through heavy doses of lessons, camps, internships, enrichment programs, and so on. But it’s utterly futile to try controlling the future, and nowhere is that truer than in college admission.

If you’re on the outside of the biz, it seems pretty simple: a kid applies and is accepted or not, based on the published criteria. Of course it’s more complicated at highly selective schools, when it seems like equally qualified candidates just have to duke it out for the available spots. But the reality is much more complex, and one reason that I’d never want to be a dean of admission.

Underneath any college’s admission requirements are all the other requirements it has to meet, none of which has anything to do with candidates for admission. The trustees want to raise test scores and GPAs and advance in the rankings; the president wants more students on financial aid; the faculty wants smarter students; the development office wants more potential big donor parents; the athletic department wants to replace its graduating football and tennis players; students want more diversity; alumni want more of themselves; and so on.

These “wants” don’t even begin to account for what actually happens in any given year: Too many accepted applicants showed up in the fall, meaning this year’s class has to be smaller; the endowment tanked, meaning there’s less money for financial aid; one of the dorms has to be renovated so you can’t house as many students; more women than men were in the last class; and no one plans to go abroad this year. All this makes a continually mutating mix of demands that has to be refined even up to the last-minute of the admission cycle.

Now try to project these conditions ten or fifteen years into the future. Demographic trends can be seen, various economic and cultural elements can be guessed at, but on the whole, sheep’s entrails are as good as graphs at telling you what you’d need to do to have your kid wearing your school colors. That’s where Burns’s apostrophe to the poor mouse comes in. The little creature was all snug in its winter nest, thinking it had everything under control, when suddenly its world is literally turned upside down. The plowman recognizes that the mouse isn’t the only one with a problem:

But Mousie, thou are no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

However you translate that damned “Gang aft agley” line (usually as “go oft astray”), I think you’ll see what I mean as far as grooming kids for college admission is concerned. Sure, colleges know their yield rates and who’s graduating, the basic elements, but they’re riding a new wave each year and have to make up for any anomalies the following year(s). To try predicting what the admission climate is going to be like ten or fifteen years from now, well, good luck, Mousie. Some Scotsman with a plow is going to turn your world upside down and then write a poem about it. Better to focus on present, not “promis’d” joy, and let the apps fall where they may.

The good news is that as long as you’re not shaping your progeny for a specific college, you should do fine: What’s almost never reported is that about 80 percent of American colleges and universities accept well over 50 percent of their applicants. You can fine tune things the closer you get to application time (maybe a bilingual girl- or boyfriend!) but we can save everyone a lot of “grief an’ pain” if we treat our offspring like kids and not like bonsai.

3 thoughts on “The Crabby Counselor Talks About the Best-Laid Plans

  1. Loved this, especially the line “…let the apps fall where they may.” Too bad the parents you speak of will ignore you.


  2. I would like to include your site on my list of the top 100 education advice blogs. I was wondering if you could send me an e-mail so I could ask you a few questions about you and your site to include in my article. Please include the title of your blog in the e-mail, thanks!


    • Hi Alexis– Thanks for offering to include my site on your site. I’d be happy to answer your questions about College Counseling Culture and College for All.

      Best wishes,

      Will Dix


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