91: The College Application Meltdown

91: The College Application Meltdown

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teens Talk Getting In...To College

The College Application Meltdown

Teamwork divides the task and multiplies the success.

~Author Unknown

One of the delights of my life has always been enjoying the musical talents of my children. Early on, my son Jack displayed a particular penchant for musicianship, picking out simple melodies on the piano as soon as he could reach the keys. Later, he took up the saxophone, and as he improved, he was a frequent soloist in All-State band and other select ensembles. So when it came time to choose a college, it was only natural for Jack to look at universities with reputations for turning out talented instrumentalists, conductors and teachers of music. The good news was that his ability made him an attractive candidate for those schools.

And that was also the bad news. As my son “narrowed” his search to five colleges, he realized that in addition to applying to each university, he also needed to apply to each college’s school of music. That meant filling out ten applications instead of five. It meant double the number of contacts, e-mails, online passwords and essays. It meant twice as many deadlines. It meant multiple recommendation letters from multiple sources. Each music school also required an audition, in person. That meant scheduling out-of-town trips during what was already the busiest time thus far in his seventeen years of life.

Jack had always been an easy-going child. In high school he somehow managed, with the energy of youth, to juggle his school-work with his near daily after-school rehearsals and private lessons and still find time for an active social life.

But the weight of activity in the winter of his senior year became immense. It included All-State auditions (for both band and chorus), weekend trips for both state concerts, additional local concerts, and even a week-long visit to Ireland leading his marching band as drum major in Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. His regular class schedule that semester was not an easy one; the senior calculus class was especially challenging. Add to that the weight of college application deadlines and auditions, and the inevitable occurred.

One evening my wife and I confronted our son with the importance of his upcoming college trips. Jack was lagging behind in the application process. We felt he needed to practice his instrument more often. He needed to think about how he would answer interview questions. In our overall opinion, he wasn’t taking enough ownership of the countless getting-into-college tasks. As we talked, and as he began to realize the magnitude of the work that still awaited him, our conversation with him became one-sided. He grew quiet and unresponsive.

My wife and I should have read the warning signs and stopped questioning and prodding him, but, we thought, he needed to understand what was at stake. The more we tried to wrench words from him, the gloomier he got. Finally he could take no more. He got out of his chair and climbed the stairs with his head hung low as we continued to pepper him with questions, like reporters following a defendant into a courthouse.

When those questions were at last greeted with a closed bedroom door, we realized, too late, what had happened. Our son was on overload. And the resulting meltdown was acute and paralyzing. Our easy-going, positive young man was replaced by a melancholy and tearful teenager. Earlier, he had been so excited about college, but now it seemed a colossal burden. The looming application deadlines appeared to him as ominous as a terminal illness. Even his assurance that music was his chosen field came into doubt. Music, a major source of our son’s joy, had turned into a source of fear and anxiety.

My wife and I put our heads together. How were we to relieve Jack’s stress while spurring him to jump through the necessary hoops to get into college? We talked. We prayed. Mostly we worried. Why can’t he finish his application essays? Why won’t he practice harder? Doesn’t he realize a C in calculus could jeopardize a scholarship? The questions were endless. That is, until finally it dawned on us that our son’s stress was simply a reflection of our own. And no wonder. The three of us might as well have been trying to eat an entire Thanksgiving turkey at one sitting. In fact, we were trying to force our son to swallow it in one gulp. True, the big picture was enormous. Could the two of us learn to take one task at a time? Perhaps if we could, Jack could too.

So we began to break off smaller pieces, setting one or two-day goals. We directed him first to a single essay in a single college application, then to one more, then to one appointment, and then another. And we made progress. Sometimes it came slowly, other times in major leaps forward.

Jack became more realistic, deciding that there were not enough hours in the day to apply to five universities and their corresponding music departments. The field was narrowed to four schools, and only two of them out-of-state. That February we made one trip, then one more. They turned out to be adventures — leaving our snowless Georgia soil to visit the winter wonderland of Minnesota and the heartland of Indiana, enjoying the tours of college campuses, vibrant with activity. Our son talked with students; he met with professors. As he dealt with one portion of the college search at a time, Jack’s spark was reignited.

The interviews came and went; our son performed his auditions beautifully. He met his deadlines. He played his concerts. He got his homework done (well, most of it). All this happened not in one week, not in one month, or even two.

And in March, when Jack returned from his marching band’s thrilling trip to Ireland to find he had been accepted by all four universities, with scholarship offers from three of them, he was energized anew. The process had been arduous, but not life-threatening, and not without reward. And when his whirlwind of a senior year in high school came to an end, our son looked forward to continuing his education, a little more experienced in prioritizing and planning, and his parents a little more schooled in patience, in the benefits of baby steps, and in the enjoyment of the moment.

Jack, bless his heart, even got an A in calculus.

~Nick Walker

More stories from our partners