Tripped Out


The summer before my daughter’s junior year of high school, a pile of college look books covered our front table. It was a collection of magazines and postcards with clever slogans and beautiful photos of other people’s happy, healthy and presumably smart children who were now advertising their school to my 15-year-old.

By day, the pile grew. At one point, I thought it might avalanche and sweep us away, and I realized Leeannah and I needed a plan.

Many years before, I had taken a detour from my writerly life and worked as a graduate support director for Sisters Academy of Baltimore, a middle school for girls who live in the city’s southwest neighborhoods. I helped the eighth-graders and their parents apply to public and private high schools. I dropped off students for school visits and listened to their reactions when they returned. I helped parents fill out financial aid forms and coached their daughters through essays.

Would this knowledge be helpful to my daughter and me? The college application process has changed dramatically from the time I was a prospective student. Kids today often apply to 10 or more schools, attend accepted students’ weekends to help determine their final choice and await financial aid packages to offset the high cost of college.

Leeannah attended a large public high school with a great track record for advanced placement classes, but whose guidance counselors had long rosters of students to oversee. She had a high GPA and had just been elected class president. But she hated standardized tests and they hated her right back. So, in addition to looking at colleges, we had to figure out if she needed an SAT tutor.

We had a lot of work ahead of us and I knew what I would have told my students to do. “Let’s go on a college road trip,” I told my daughter.

Lessons on the go

Ask any rising high school junior where they want to attend college and they usually give one of two answers: California or Florida. Sometimes, if they are a real outlier, they will say Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Leeannah is truly her own person; she wanted to go to school in Boston.

As she pictured a wonderful winter city with a great collegiate reputation, I pictured the costs of flights back and forth or the hours in a car taking her to and from school. Before we traveled all the way to Boston, I asked her to make a list of schools that were closer, like maybe in Philadelphia, which she would like to check out first. “It’s a process,” I said.

This was what I used to tell mothers when their daughters had their eyes on a certain high school, but they thought a different school was a better fit: Sometimes mother knows best. “Apply to both schools and see what happens,” I always said. If a parent liked a certain school, then it definitely went on the list to be explored.

This is how we ended up in Lancaster at Franklin and Marshall. Leeannah was certain that she wanted an urban school, but I wanted her to look at all the options just to be sure. In my mind, Franklin and Marshall was a perfect choice for her – it had an enviable liberal arts curriculum, a good record on diversity for a small school and lots of great leadership opportunities for students. I pitched it as an experimental control, the liberal arts college stacked against the large and mostly public universities.

“How did you know for sure that you want a big university if you don’t check out at least one small school?” I asked her.

In truth, Franklin and Marshall had everything my college didn’t. I graduated from University of Maryland College Park at a time when the school was transitioning from its party days to the powerhouse university it is now. My major, journalism, was selective, but many weren’t and there was little community outside of Greek life. That homey campus feel was something I longed for from my high rise dorm, so naturally I wanted it for my daughter, too.

Only she didn’t. “Too small and boring,” Leeannah said after the tour.

We ruled out University of Pennsylvania before we even set foot on campus; the SAT requirements would be too daunting. The next school on her list was Drexel University, which has gorgeous architecture and a sterling internship program … and which gave her a gut reaction during what had to be the hottest, most boring college tour on record. Until that day, Drexel had been her dream. Once she saw it, she changed her mind. And that was really bumming her. The road trip had made her less worried about the SATs and more interested in researching majors, but she was disappointed that none of the schools we had visited felt like good fits for her.

That night in our hotel room, she sullenly texted friends and I debated the wisdom of this trip. Three schools down and all we had succeeded in determining was what she didn’t like. “It’s a process,” I offered again, but the words sound lame even to me. What I thought would be a great jumpstart to college selection was turning into a big trip of turnoffs. Mother knows best? Hmm, what did I know? If this had been my old job, exasperated parents would be calling me.

How it all turned out

Leeannah now laughs at the memory of our road trip. Touring those two colleges “were the two worst moments of the college process,” she says from her dorm room when I call her few weeks ago. “They both equally sucked in different ways.”

Harsh, but OK. “We had to have done something right. You are in college, after all.”

“Yeah. We started early and we broke it down enough, so I didn’t have to do everything in senior year.”

“It was a process,” I say

“It was.”

She also liked that I only let her apply to five colleges; some of classmates applied to 15 and more, making their final choice that much harder. But in truth, it was hard to get her to add other schools to her list once she set foot on Temple University’s campus. With its connection to the Philadelphia community, study abroad programs and Division 1 sports, she fell in love with it immediately. Even better, she applied as a test optional candidate and the money we would have used for an SAT tutor paid for a three-week leadership camp at Temple the summer before her senior year. That led to great scholarship opportunities.

All’s well that ends well, I guess. Or: We applied some good lessons, learned some new ones and my daughter is happy.

Now, her 15-year-old brother just has to figure out where he wants to go to school.

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