When it comes to college admissions, grab the bull by the horns

To many people the college admissions process is overwhelming. In my capacity as the dean I have always tried to emphasize the process as a series of simple, logical steps. Just follow a simple “to do” checklist and you’ll be fine. Or so I thought until my own son started his college search.

Now, having completed my first official search as a father, I must confess how ignorant I was and apologize to the thousands of parents I’ve spoken with during the last 15 years.

A few years ago, when he was a high school sophomore, my son brought home a “less than stellar” report card. Clearly, he wasn’t working up to his potential. As a concerned parent, I tried to emphasize the importance of good grades. After all, who wants to see average grades narrow their child’s college opportunities? Imagine my shock when he said, “Dad, don’t worry about it; they don’t look at your quarter grades, just your final grades!”

I looked at this seemingly bright young man and asked myself, “Does he really think he knows more about the college admissions process than I do?”

So I did what most parents do in this situation — I panicked. It was at this very moment I realized two things: 1) I was no longer “the dean,” I was “Dad,” and 2) this process is not logical, it’s more like bull riding!

You see – the goal of every bull rider is to ride his/her bull. As parents, our job is very similar. We are sometimes required to “ride” our child during the admissions process. The problem is, neither the bull nor the child wants to be ridden. This inevitably creates the drama and suspense that makes bull riding so exciting to observe. The only difference is parenting a child through the admission process lasts much longer than eight seconds.

Twists and turns

So what to do? Determined to make this a logical process, I decided to weigh my options.

My first option: I could grab this bull by the horns, throw him to the ground and explain how the system works. I found this option very appealing from an emotional standpoint. But logically it didn’t make sense. The bull was bigger and wasn’t in the mood to be told what to do.

So I decided to seek an alternate plan. We were adversaries, but maybe I could somehow convince the bull it was in his best interest to be ridden. But to do so I needed to determine the bull’s strengths and weaknesses. I decided to rationalize with him, understand him and hopefully discover a peaceful way to “ride” him.

To determine the bull’s intelligence, I asked him a series of questions. Through clenched teeth I began with a simple: “Who do you think ‘they’ are?” This was followed by: “Do you understand that I work in admissions and I am ‘they?’”

My bull looked me straight in the eye and declared he knew what he was talking about and I didn’t need to worry. I was an overreacting father. OK, I had just discovered my bull’s weakness — he was an idiot!

As I staggered to my feet after being “thrown” that fateful day, I asked myself, “What could I possibly say to any parent who is struggling with this process? What would a rodeo coach tell someone who has been flung 30 feet through the air and slammed to the ground?” Because, at that very moment, I realized one thing: I really didn’t like bull riding. In fact, I wanted to turn in my chaps and quit. My new advice to parents would be: “Quit now before somebody gets hurt!”

But after mulling this thought over for a while I knew it wasn’t the right advice. So I dusted myself off and continued to ride. I was thrown on numerous occasions, but with experience came knowledge. I learned the process takes many twists and turns. What appeared to be a very uncooperative teenager was actually a scared young man unsure of how to handle the changes that were occurring.

Sharing their fears

I discovered young men, like most bulls, aren’t good at communicating their feelings. A bull won’t tell you it’s scared, but you’ll know by its behavior. They are instinctive animals and when frightened they’ll kick wildly at everything around them. The bull shouldn’t be blamed for throwing its rider; it’s just acting on instinct. Instead it’s better to recognize the root of the behavior may be the result of fear.

As the intelligent part of this team I realized I was responsible for initiating communication. Of course initiating conversations about feelings isn’t typically a strength most fathers have either; especially when that father is the dean of admissions and holds a warped view that life is a series of logical processes. But after getting tossed a few times I was willing to try anything. So I started a conversation by sharing my own fears about the changes that were occurring and what it meant for our relationship. This inspired him to share some of his anxiety as well.

As it turned out, we were both feeling scared about what this process symbolized. It represented changes that were coming. We both realized life was going to be different and we were struggling with what that meant. We were worried about how our relationship would change, how the family dynamics would be different and what our roles would be when he was away at college.

After sharing our fears and acknowledging changes were coming, suddenly the process seemed easier. We were able to focus on the positive aspects of this change and look forward to him attending college. All of this from a single meaningful conversation with my son. Go figure!

To think it only took 15 years (and one son) to change my perception of my work. And just in time too, because No. 2 graduates high school this year, and my body is still aching from the first bull ride.

Joe Bellavance is dean of admissions and financial aid at Nichols College in Dudley, Mass., and editor of the Dean’s Desk, a free monthly newsletter for parents of college-bound students that provides timely information and addresses parental questions about the admissions and financial aid process. For more information, visit thedeansdesk.com.

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