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Why parents should let their kids take the lead during college application season


If you have a college bound high school senior or you know one or you are one, then you know this is the time of year that things get intense. College application deadlines are bearing down like a freight train, essays and transcripts and SATs and essays and references. And did I mention more essays?

The dumpster fire that is senior fall - that's how writer, podcaster and TV host Kelly Corrigan puts it. She is the mother of two current college students. She recently wrote, yes, an essay about the process of applying to college and about how somehow something beautiful is being formed in that dumpster fire. Kelly Corrigan, welcome.

KELLY CORRIGAN: Hey. Great to be here.

KELLY: I want to acknowledge up here near the top of the conversation the privilege in having a conversation about the stress of college and applying to college. And you get to that, you know, that for a lot of people, the financial piece of this is stressful, if not more than getting good grades or SAT scores. You write about how your kid is about to be the central figure in a shockingly expensive venture with little visibility into what the family can bear. But you argue that for the kid doing the applying, this also forces growth.

CORRIGAN: I mean, I think these are some of the biggest questions a kid has ever asked of him or herself and of his or her parents. So if you're thinking about, is it kind of greedy to want to go to a private school, is it greedy to want to go to a school that you have to fly to? I don't know what my younger siblings might need. So if I drain the bank account, you know, what's my little sister going to - what options will my little sister have? And I think that might be the first time that many kids are thinking in numbers quite that large. I mean, these are huge, huge numbers.

KELLY: So full disclosure, I have fought in these trenches. My oldest applied to college last year. We will do it all again next year with my second. I read with supreme recognition the section of your essay headlined College Fear Is Based On A Lie. What's the why?

CORRIGAN: The lie is that this is it, that this is a binary moment. And then if you get to the University of Stretch Dream Goal, everything will unfold accordingly, and if you don't, you're kind of screwed. Like, it's just - the world is going to be an uphill battle for you for the rest of your days. And I feel it. I know that that's the idea that's circulating in hallways and classrooms. I know that most parents say the word college way too many times before the fall of their kid's senior year, where you can't just take it back with one statement.

Like, if you've been noting your whole life - and I only say this from experience - who went to what college, and then your kids are starting to look at schools, and you say, it doesn't matter where you go, you'll be successful wherever you go, the kid's thinking, right, but why did you bring it up every time? Why have I been hearing about it for 15 years if it doesn't matter? Like, of course it matters. So I think for the parents of younger children, one thing I would say is make a decision with your co-parent about how many times you're going to say the word college.

KELLY: You got to start early on the self-discipline.

CORRIGAN: Of course, because they're - the children will listen.

KELLY: How - you said, I say all this based on experience. How did these conversations unfold in your house?

CORRIGAN: You know, I really feel like at some level, we blew it, to be totally honest. Because it did come up a lot. It came up too much. I mean, we both really liked college. I felt lucky that my husband got an early decision to his dream school, which is a lot of people's dream school, Yale. And I got rejected by every school except for the one I went to, University of Richmond. And I went with, like, tears in my eyes. And it was awesome. I had the best experience.

So I felt lucky that I could say to my children, look, you might be me. It might turn out that you're standing in the driveway with rejection letters hanging from both hands. And you may drag yourself to some school that you don't think is right for you. But that's not the end of the story. That's the lie is that the story ends there in the driveway with the rejection letters. The truth is the story unfolds every day and a lot of it's based on what you do.

KELLY: One of the lines from your essay that will stick with me is this - I will quote - if we agree that any one acceptance letter is not the prize, what could the reward be - developing comfort with uncertainty, expanding self-knowledge, building new capacities and a sense of agency? Because that kind of personal growth is not too much to ask of this process and what a grand outcome that would be." That's such a lovely way of thinking about it. What a grand outcome that would be.

CORRIGAN: I know. But, you know, you're fighting a culture that's sending a different message. So sometimes I think about all the voices that are in my kid's head in a given day. So that's everything that the sort of commercial entities are throwing their way, everything they're getting, all those mailers that they get throughout the fall that could fill a recycle bin, all the things you're hearing between classes from friends and whatever their college counselors are telling them. And then I'm just this tiny voice saying, you're growing right now. This is it. What you're doing right now is the stuff of greatness. But, you know, I'm like one person trying to underline one part of their existence. I mean, it's worth trying. But it's also humbling to think about the chorus of voices that's telling them otherwise, that's telling them that it's - this is only about the outcome.

KELLY: Well, and also the temptation, I suppose, for parents to get in there, roll up their sleeves and help. And it sounds like where you landed was the key. The whole point is for both parents and kids to figure out, uh-uh (ph), it's got to be the kid leading. It's not about the parents jumping in to help.

CORRIGAN: You know, it's interesting. We're doing a series on "Kelly Corrigan Wonders" right now called Live From College. And so I'm talking to kids who are all the way into school looking back on this process. And I will tell you that every kid says, my mom thought I should go here. My dad really wanted me to go here. I mean, my dad practically wrote the essay so that I would go here. Like, kids end up in schools they don't want to be in and that they might transfer from because they felt it coming through, the message loud and clear. Your father really wants you to go to such and such. Your mother would be so excited if you ended up at blahdy-blah (ph).

So the more you get involved, the more the blood's on your hands if it doesn't work. The more involved we are in our kids' lives, the less satisfaction they get to take from their achievements. Like, every time we get involved, we steal that sense of satisfaction that's possible in big undertakings like this.

KELLY: It's the writer Kelly Corrigan. She hosts the podcast "Kelly Corrigan Wonders" and the PBS program "Tell Me More." Thank you.

CORRIGAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.