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Eight Little, Nine Little, Ten Little Syndromes

As the population of college-age students increases, and as the pressure to attend the “right college” or the “best college” increases, it will become increasingly important to all of us in supportive positions (parents, teachers, counselors, and advisors) to do right by this generation of high school students as they navigate the dizzying maze of college admissions. It will be crucial that we do all the right things. That being said, I would now like to enumerate mistakes, pitfalls, and errors to avoid. I will describe below many of the problems, both serious and trivial, that I have encountered as a high school college counselor and independent college admissions advisor. Consider this a compendium of mini-case studies.

Veterans of this business will recognize many of these situations. Students and parents might even recognize themselves, but in most cases I am not describing any one particular student or parent. On the contrary, I have dealt with most of the situations below at least ten times apiece, so few of my charges need to feel singled out. Therefore, with thanks (and perhaps with apologies) to Dr. Phil and the other self-help experts out there, I present the Ten Little Syndromes of the College Application Process.

1. The Joseph Kennedy Syndrome. Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, patriarch of the famed Massachusetts family, had four ambitious sons. The eldest, Joe, was killed in the Second World War. Had he lived, it would have been he running for Congress, the U.S. Senate, and President, rather than his younger brother John. JFK made it to the White House but was killed. Son Bobby was aiming for the White House and was killed. For a while, son Ted had presidential aspirations. One has to ask: Did all these men need or want to be President, or was it “expected of them” because they were Joe Kennedy’s sons? Like many Americans, I believe that the latter was true. Which leads me to another question: Who was running for office, the father or the sons? Now apply this question to the college application process: Who is applying to college, the parent or the student? Many of the parents with whom I have worked know, or think they know, infinitely more about what’s right for their kids than their kids do. (I must embarrassingly include myself in this group.) You know what, parents? Up to a certain point, you are right. But after that point, a point that is much earlier in the process than you would care to believe, you need to let your son or daughter decide where he or she wants to go and how he or she is going to get there, and then quietly step aside.

2. The Paris Hilton Syndrome. Otherwise know as the “I Can’t Seem to Get Out of Bed” Syndrome. Quite often a high school junior or senior (a member of the species adolescenta americana) will react to a new challenge by being tired, by being exhausted, by being weary. Just when it comes time to “get serious about your future,” the child who was peppy and energetic as recently as two years ago can barely drag himself or herself out of bed to get to school before lunch, let alone get all fired up about planning the next four-five years. He or she is too tired to visit colleges, too tired to sign up for SAT’s, too tired to fill out intake forms and questionnaires, or too tired to write those stupid essays. Obviously, parents and counselors need to consider the student’s mental and physical health first. However, I have found that if a student just cannot seem to get motivated, the solution for Mom and Dad is to work with the student to break down each college task into manageable portions, to put all tasks on paper, and to offer sincere congratulations upon the successful completion of even the simplest task. The first time a student attacks a task, he or she may be miserable. The second time, unhappy. The third time, he or she might actually enjoy a feeling of accomplishment.

3. The Lyle and Erik Menendez Syndrome. Let’s face it, a lot of teenagers just don’t like their parents right now. If I had a dollar for every set of eyes that has rolled to the ceiling during a parent-student conference, for every time I have heard the words, “That’s so stupid, Mom,” for every weary sigh, for every shrug of the shoulders, I could start my own scholarship fund. Advice to counselors and parents: let’s determine right at the beginning of the process if there is an extremely negative family dynamic. If there is, let’s keep the parties separate at all times (preferably in different time zones). Hopefully, most of the tension and differences can be overcome over the next ten or twenty years.

4. The Chicago Cubs Syndrome. Otherwise known as the “Reality Check” Syndrome. Dad may have three degrees from Stanford, and Mom may be a Nobel Prize winner. But if Junior has only been an average, unmotivated student, he’s probably not going to set the world of higher education on fire. Just as the Chicago Cubs are never going to win a World Series in this millennium, Junior is never going to make all his relatives strut with pride at his academic accomplishments. This Syndrome is also particularly applicable to students who have grown up in the world of California grade inflation, wherein straight-A, honor-roll students find themselves getting average SAT and ACT test scores. So, let’s find all these students places where they can learn, compete, and work with their intellectual equals, and let’s be thankful we’re not Kansas City Royals fans. (Full disclosure: until November of 2004, this was known as the Boston Red Sox Syndrome.)

5. The Patty Hearst Trial Syndrome. When I was young and stupid, I did some young and stupid things. One of these things was to wait in line at the Federal Building in San Francisco in 1975 to get into the trial of the kidnapped heiress who had robbed a bank (either of her own free will or under the duress of brain-washing). Why did I wait in line for 16 hours, surrounded by San Franciscans who had definitely not gone to college on this planet, to see F. Lee Bailey, Ms. Hearst, and other notables? Because I had read in the paper that it was hard to get into the trial! Articles had explained how trial aficionados had fallen asleep and lost their places in line, how fights had broken out over “saved spaces,” how celebrity-gazers had skipped work and school, only to be shut out at the door. And I wanted to be a part of that!

Now think of the current frenzy over college admissions. In April, the news media are tripping over themselves to publish gloom-and-doom statistics about how hard it was to get into such-and-such an Ivy League university, about how high the test scores and GPA’s were at such-and-such a University of California campus. US News & World Report publishes its annual rankings of the “Best” colleges and universities, along with their “Selectivity Indices,” and we all charge, lemming-like, into the next round of college admissions, determined to see if we can somehow fool the system into admitting us and proving that we deserve to be numbered among the anointed. After all, if College A is harder to get into than College B, it must be better than College B, right? Right?

By the way, I did get into the Hearst trial, where I saw and heard next-to-nothing and developed a major distaste for the criminal justice system. Perhaps that’s why I have never yet been selected for jury duty.

6. The Yogi Berra Syndrome. Otherwise known as the “A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing” Syndrome. In writing their essays, students often get carried away with the floweriness of their language. Occasionally they misspell or misuse words and get rescued by Spell-check. Quite often, however, Spell-check leaves them hanging. Recently, the Typo-of-the-Year Award went to the student who declared that “I go to a rigorous college predatory high school.” Back when the UC’s were definitely interested in hearing all about a candidate’s problems, I had a student with a bucketful of them. Family situation, drugs, alcohol, health; you name it, he had dealt with it. Having bravely described his struggle against these problems, this young man decided to give his essay a title, “My Struggle.” Unfortunately, he chose to use the German translation of these words, “Mein Kampf,” which may have impressed a few people but which would definitely have bothered those people familiar with Adolf Hitler’s book. Solution: let’s proofread everything once, proofread everything again, and then proofread it one more time. It’s OK to make admissions people smile, and it’s OK to make them laugh, but you certainly do not want to make them wince.

7. The Al Gore Syndrome. Otherwise know as the “Too Much Information” Syndrome. The former Senator and Vice President was renowned for gathering information, backing it up with more information, and then backing it up with still more information. Accumulating copious amounts of information may be wonderful for the policy wonks of the world, but in the world of college admissions, there is such a thing as too much information. We tell students to “research colleges” through the Internet, through view books, through guidebooks, through videos, and through conversations with students and alumni. But we never tell them when they have enough information on a given college, a given program, or a given major. So, by not saying that they have enough information to make informed decisions, we are basically saying that they must keep on researching and researching, accumulating files and papers and brochures and documents and receipts and everything else under the Tuscan sun. No wonder students develop Paris Hilton Syndrome (see Number 2 above). Solution: Let’s not just tell our students to “get organized.” Let’s all have file folders and accordion files and plastic crates and colored paper on hand. Let’s show our students how to work with a filing system. Let’s show them how easy life can be if they’re organized.

8. The Pearl Harbor Syndrome. Also known as the “We Should Have Seen This Coming” Syndrome. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor may have resulted from some brilliant planning, but its success was also the result of some major stupidity on the part of America military planners. Similarly, the college application process is fraught with major snafus. I am not talking about the organizational problems of Al Gore Syndrome (Number 7 above). I am talking about “unexpected” events like illness, deaths in the family, crashing computers, and sporting events. (“Our team has contended for the championship every year for the past thirty; how was I to know we’d still be in the playoffs on the day I was planning to take the SAT’s?”) Solution: let’s frontload everything. Just because our students’ senior friends last year did all their work in December does not mean that this year’s seniors cannot do theirs in October. Just because our students’ senior friends last year waited until September to visit colleges does not mean that our students cannot visit campuses this June, right after the end of junior year. Students, parents, and counselors – let’s plan ahead. Factor in screw-ups. Assume schedules will get messed up. The worst that will happen is that we’ll have a little extra time at the end when everyone else is pulling his or her hair out.

9. The Tonya Harding Syndrome. Otherwise known as the “You Didn’t Really Believe All That Stuff About ‘Friendly’ Rivals, Did You?” Syndrome. Before the 1994 U.S. figure skating trials, American figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was injured by a club-wielding colleague of her main American rival, Tonya Harding. Apparently, Harding’s supporters thought that this particular end was justified by this particular means. Criminal courts and world opinion clearly disagreed. Competition in the world of college admissions may not be quite as violent, but it can be every bit as intense. Many students feel pressured to get into brutally exclusive schools to earn some kind of perverse bragging right (see Patty Hearst Trial, Number 5 above), and many parents live and die vicariously through the admissions successes (and failures) of their offspring (see Joseph Kennedy, Number 1 above). My first suggestion here is to require that all hyper, status-seeking students and parents read Harvard Schmarvard, by Jay Mathews, who is a true voice of reason in this angst-ridden process. My second suggestion is to tell students and parents to keep their mouths shut when friends and family start grilling them about their hopes and plans. If they can do this, they will keep the process relatively private and relatively secure from the busybodies of the world.

10. The Cat-In-The-Hat Syndrome. Otherwise known as the “My Son Was Supposed to Write His Essays But He Spent the Day Cleaning His Room” Syndrome. Dr. Seuss’ first and most famous character was famous for making an unfocused mess of everything. It’s hard enough getting past the Paris Hilton Syndrome and the Al Gore Syndrome (Number 7 above), but this one is a doozy. Quite frequently, I have heard from parents who were delighted to see incredible bursts of energy from their children when it was time for a college project, only to watch in disappointment as that energy was dissipated on some totally irrelevant, postponable, minor task. Psychologists probably have a word for this syndrome, but for our purposes, Cat-in-the-Hat will suffice. Solution for parents and counselors: if we want a distractible student to accomplish a task, let’s explain it once, explain it twice, have the student explain it back to us, have the student commit in writing (in his or her calendar) to completion of the task, and then pray like heck.

I once worked for a large company whose simple, hard-working founder drove all the new “sophisticated” employees batty with sales “stories.” These were simple, commonsense approaches to basic sales situations. They were so simple, in fact, that many of us thought they were silly. The old timers, however, could recite these “stories” backward and forward and could cite instances in which the stories had helped them land big new accounts or preserve big current accounts. Many of these basic stories could be grouped under the idea of “Failure Avoidance.” Avoid failure, and you find success. “Well, duh,” all the new sales reps would say. And then we would all go out and make the exact mistakes that the founder had warned us about. Well, I learned about Failure Avoidance at this company, and I have learned how to avoid it in the college admissions “business.” If we can all avoid these Ten Little Syndromes, or at least minimize their effect, a lot of current and future students are going to benefit. Good luck to all of us!

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