(December 13, 2004) Hear the audio version

What a stressful time of year! Not the holidays – college applications. We boomers who had babies in 1987 are now parents of 17-year-olds who all seem to be applying to the same 200 selective colleges and universities. In Palo Alto, where a 4.04 weighted GPA is only in the top 30% of the class, it’s the same 20 schools. And to be successful, word has it that an applicant must have good – make that great – grades in difficult classes, including several Advanced Placement courses; solid scores on SAT’s; passionate, deep involvement in more than one activity; a talent or special skill that will stand out from the pack; plenty of community service “hours”; and, preferably, work experience. This, not in a lifetime but before the age of 18. And before tackling the actual college applications, including those critical essays.

The stress my daughter is feeling now comes from her cutthroat environment, not from her dad and me. And that’s where our family separates from the pack. We don’t care where she goes. Almost any college in the country has more to teach than any student can learn in four years. She has friends whose parents insist they apply to the Ivy League, or Stanford or Cal. Many families in the Bay Area “outsource” the college application process to high-priced independent counselors, hoping that will give their children an edge. But I don’t want someone telling my daughter where to find her passions or what to write about in her essays. I’d like her to figure that out for herself. And I have good news for parents whose instinct is to resist packaging: my oldest followed her own path in high school, and is now a sophomore at the only university she applied to. Her sister, who still has 19 schools on her list, spent more than a month crafting a fresh, original personal statement she has every reason to be proud of. I’m content to sit on the sidelines and offer help when asked. And ask she does, for this crazy process has actually brought us closer. After she filed her UC application from the kitchen computer, she invited me to lunch.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.