by Genevieve Anderson
The packed theatre at Lick Wilmerding High School erupted in laughter when the speaker JD Rothman asked for a show of hands for how many 9th grade parents were in the audience. After all, the title of her talk that night, as well as her new book, was “The Neurotic Parent’s Guide to College Admissions”. Those neurotic 9th grade parents in the audience had been outed.
Rothman’s literary agent had advised her not to bother speaking in northern California – “it’s too chill” – and to forget San Francisco altogether since it was a non-neurotic city. She disagreed: a town sandwiched between two of the world’s best universities, UC Berkeley and Stanford, would be bursting with college anxiety.
Rothman, an Emmy-award-winning screenwriter and best-selling author, herself confessed to humble academic beginnings: a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from a “top 100” college. After graduating, she embarked on a year long backpacking tour of Latin America and resettled in New York City to teach. It’s when she landed a job as a temp and translator at the children’s TV show Sesame Street that her illustrious career took off. Why does this matter in Rothman’s view? Because it’s inconsequential where your kid ends up in school- anything wonderful can happen afterward.
Rothman joked that ever since she wrote a Huffington Post article titled “ Why Your Brilliant Child Didn’t Get Into the Ivies” she’s been treated like an expert. Jokes aside, she is approached constantly by concerned parents, college counselors and admission officers alike. And for a good reason: Rothman offers the kind of advice that reassures parents that there are excellent, balanced, kind-hearted schools out there, and sane ways to get into them. She mentioned some of her favorites: Kenyon, Northeastern, Bates, Colorado College, and University of Washington. These ‘normal’ schools are the kinds of places where you can still find students reading a poetry book under an oak tree.
She also told the (true) story of Dani, a girl who was advised by her college counselor not to apply to UC Berkeley because of a C she got her Junior year: she would “never get in”. Dani applied anyway, and is happily studying there today. Rothman’s prescription: don’t believe everything your counselor tells you and aim high if you want to.
Some other appealing and amusing advice:
If your teen loves Brown but hasn’t much of a chance, try Wesleyan instead. Love Georgetown? Try Boston College or Fordham University. How about U of Michigan? U of Washington is a perfect substitute. There are a lot of great schools catching up with the top tier, and offering everything they do except the insane acceptance rates.
Find a safety school to fall in love with.
Identifying a dream first-choice college is not difficult, but finding a safety your kid really loves is. Spend more time on this – it will make the whole application process much less stressful.
Avoid “Tufts Syndrome”.
Tufts has long been considered the safety school to the Ivies. But beware: if you apply there and are a solid candidate for UPenn, you may be rejected simply because Tufts fears you’ll be heading to Philadelphia instead of Medford. They could be wrong, and theirs is random thinking, however schools like Tufts are believed to guard their enrollment numbers fiercely. A number of other schools, like Washington University in St. Louis, have a reputation of practicing this kind of “yield protection”.
Don’t change your child’s voice in the essays.
Parents sometimes do need to be taskmasters for their kids in the application process, particularly the boys. However, don’t get so involved that you’re editing the essential narrative of your kid’s essays. Colleges can tell the difference between an 18-year-old voice and a 50-year-old one.
Pick some schools that appreciate Californians.
Do Californians have a leg-up at East Coast schools? Probably. “They like us because we’re more mellow, we’re smart but not insane, and we lead less stressful lives”. Plus if your child applies to a school like Duke (aka University of New Jersey) she’ll be considered more unusual, almost from “abroad”.
Early Decision is a way of saying “I’ll marry you if you ask”.
The statistics speak for themselves: a higher percentage of applicants get in Early Decision than Regular Decision, often just 3 to 4 percentage points higher but this can make all the difference. Rothman is convinced that both her sons would never have been admitted to Duke had they dropped themselves into the regular admission pool.
Never despair, there are great schools abroad that are easier to get into.
If your child is worried about his prospects at home, but still wants a prestigious school, he should consider a few good places abroad. Very capable kids, not happy with their US choices, have gone in droves to universities like McGill, St. Andrews and Edinburgh. And they’ve acquired an education and a half for having ventured to new cultures.
The evening ended with a Q&A session and, as Rothman predicted, with parents treating her like an expert. While far from it, Rothman does give a refreshing and light-hearted view of a maddening, uniquely American process.