“Do parents have a school in the back of their minds that they want their kids to go to even when they say they don’t care where they go?”
This was the unexpected question my daughter asked a longtime friend and college admissions colleague of mine on a steamy afternoon this summer. We had just toured schools in his area and stopped by his office for a quick hello before heading to the airport. After talking with us about the schools she visited, he made my daughter an offer she couldn’t refuse. “You know, admissions people lie,” my colleague joked. “Ask me any question you want. I promise I will tell you the truth.” For the admissions person (her mother) sitting next to her, his comment invited the awkward before she compounded it. I was somewhat horrified by both, but primarily at the awkwardness of the question she chose as she sat next to her mother basically asking my friend to explain my inner thoughts. Have I really done such a bad job at this college thing that my own daughter has to ask a stranger she just met whether I care where she goes to school? Why couldn’t she have just asked whether he really reads all those essays?
I’ve known my friend for over two decades, from when I was a college admissions officer in my first job. Since that time, I’ve been an admissions director at a private K-12 school, a director of college guidance (twice), an admissions reader for a liberal arts college and for the SAT essay, an independent college consultant, and now the dean of enrollment at Loomis Chaffee. I have counseled hundreds of students about how to talk to their parents about schools that interest them, and I have done the same with their parents. Given my career, one would think I would be able to successfully discuss college choice with my own child. And yet here I was, squirming uncomfortably next to my daughter who decides to use her one golden admissions question ticket on a question about … her parents.
My first reaction was indignant (on the inside, that is). Does she really think that her father and I have a “dream school” in mind for her and we are just going through the motions to humor her until she comes to the conclusion that what we believe is ultimately best? We have been telling her and her two sisters for years that it doesn’t matter where you go to school, it matters what you do there. It’s about you, not the school. It’s about how you take advantage of opportunities you have been given, wherever you end up. I have cited Dale and Krueger, Malcolm Gladwell, Frank Bruni (LC ’82!) and adults they know and respect whose undergraduate institutions they have never heard of and who lead successful and fulfilling lives. And apparently it’s all been for naught, because even with this very low bar her parents have set in regards to her next school choice, my child believes that her parents have a hidden agenda for her that we are discussing in the dead of night under a cloak of secrecy.
And she is absolutely right. We DO. My husband and I do talk about where we think she might go to college. We discuss whether we think she would like a small or large school, a research university or a liberal arts college, a rural college town or a big bright city. We talk about whether she will remain close to home or far away, whether she will like the same kind of place that her older sister attends or something completely different. We discuss what kind of peers we want her to be surrounded by, what kind of teachers she will be inspired by, and what kind of major she might eventually pursue. We talk about whether she will want to cheer on a major collegiate sports team or keep singing in an a cappella group. Or both.
In short, we talk about her and her next educational choice a lot. We don’t do it in front of her, but she’s no dummy. We talk about it like all parents do, whether they are looking for a college or a secondary school for their child. My husband and I can claim emphatically to our daughter that we do not care where she goes to school because we believe that she has the mindset to do great things wherever she goes. This is true; she does. But what we have not said is what we also believe to be true: that the right school does, in fact, matter. Because if our child does not feel inspired by her peers, supported by her teachers, challenged by her opportunities and comfortable enough in her setting to grow, she will not, in fact, be her “best self” and contribute to the “common good” in ways beyond that self. If we have a vision of success that prepares her for her entire life, not just for her work life, those factors are the ones that will enable that success to happen. It doesn’t mean that she isn’t the most important part of that equation, but the direction she takes is formed not just by who she is. It is impacted by the environment – who she is surrounded by and who supports and inspires her. It’s not just nature; it is nurture. I know this because as a college counselor, I have seen it with my former students in their years at Loomis, and I hear from our alumni who passionately attest to the impact that their high school had on their development as a person. So yes, where you go to school does matter. In fact, it matters a lot. We do not tell her this, but she knows it anyway, because she has experienced it as well. She just needed someone else to say it to ME.
My friend handsomely rose to the occasion. After a few thoughtful moments he replied, “I’ve never been asked that question before. The answer is yes. Parents do care where their kids go to school, and, yes, they most likely do have a vision of what that looks like. If they are good parents, that is.” He paused, then continued, “And if they are great parents, they won’t let that vision get in the way of where you decide to go. Which I’m sure is what your parents are.”
Thanks, friend. Thanks for answering my daughter’s question in a way her own parents couldn’t. Then again, he’s been through this process as a parent too. Lesson learned.
Amy Thompson is the dean of enrollment at The Loomis Chaffee School, a 9-12/PG boarding school in Windsor, Conn. Prior to her current role, Amy served as director of college guidance at Loomis Chaffee, director of admission at McDonogh School (MD), and assistant director of admission at Georgetown University.