Nine Months of Hard Labor

issue 04 | winter 2012
Nine Months of Hard Labor


First Trymester Features:


It’s normal to be nervous, nauseated, and confused during the first trymester of your child’s college search. Expect the symptoms to be worse if it’s your first child. The process bears no resemblance to your beanbag chair college days, and you’re clueless. Life is one big question mark with tons of abbreviations. Acronyms haven’t been this unsettling since the unsolicited AARP application landed in your mailbox before its time. AP. ACT. SAT. GPA. ED. EA. Each one seems more important than the next. By the time you figure out what a FAFSA is, you need an EKG and a security guard for your IRA.


The only thing worse than worrying about your teen taking standardized tests is the thought of having to take them yourself. It’s true; I’d take a bullet for my kid but not the SAT. To combat this overwhelming anxiety, you will likely resort to one of three strategies:

1: Shopping You can’t pass a Barnes & Noble without purchasing several phone book-sized practice tests for your teen. Amazon’s emails begin to suggest you might also be interested in the LSAT, GMAT, and some Rosetta Stone software. You have enough CDs, DVDs, flashcards, and course materials to open your own Princeton Review satellite office. Chances are good that by the time this shopping spree is over, you will have carpal tunnel syndrome.

2: Drilling You believe that with a little disciplined study, your child will shine. The stopwatch is dusted off and the prep course checks are in the mail. You lock up the car keys and lock down your teen until work sheets, study guides, and online practice tests are complete. You’ve been known to hover to ensure that practice happens.

3: Creating Your teen’s prep experience is tailor-made, thanks to your handmade flashcards and ability to think outside the box. When your SAT Scrabble game doesn’t fly, you move on to Plan B. Decorating cupcakes with math problems and recording a rap CD with vocab words, you’ve even patented a special lock for the Xbox that can be deactivated only by choosing the correct answers to complex algebra problems. You’re like Martha Stewart and Bill Gates rolled up into one perky test-prep parent.

4: Opt Out Some schools, like Denison, are test optional. So if your son or daughter doesn’t want to submit their score on the ACT or SAT, they don’t have to.


Your mailbox and child’s inbox are flooded with information. Your home now houses more catalogues and brochures than Pottery Barn’s mailroom. The dining room table is so far gone, you’ve booked a reservation for Thanksgiving dinner. Since a picture paints a thousand words, you start to believe that most college classes are held outdoors and have a 1:4 professor:student ratio. Unsure if it’s the beautiful pamphlets or your child’s testy attitude, you begin to consider sending him off to faraway lands.


There’s good news this trymester—you’re allowed to travel! The college road trip is the golden opportunity for family bonding and bickering. But you can’t take it until the applicant decides where she wants to go. And these days she’s making commitments about as fast as George Clooney. The only thing more frustrating is her counterpart who lands on campus but refuses to get out of the car because he doesn’t like “the look.” In times like these, it helps to take a Sharpie to the old car decal. BIG Baby is definitely on board.


It’s normal for teens to procrastinate and uncomfortable for parents to watch as college deadlines approach. You sound like a broken record and feel like a personal assistant trying to keep him on schedule. He points out that you were always the last parent to hand in the permission slip. Darn, apparently it’s genetic and, like everything else in that crazy teen world, your fault.

Nine Months of Hard Labor


Second Trymester Features:

Other Parents

Like the adults who supervised all those play dates in the past, parents of similar aged kids tend to cluster and share experiences. Some are helpful. Some are hurtful. And quite a few will rile you up. The worst dwell on anything college-related, brag about their kids’ science fair ribbons, and end all chats with a story about the National Merit scholar who was rejected from every school she applied to. Beware, it’s easy to slip into these patterns, uttering the “we” word as in “We are applying to...” or “We prefer a small school on the West Coast.”

Sleep Disturbance

Since giving birth, you’ve slept with one eye open, but this is different. You obsess about details. (What if his recommendation letters don’t arrive in time? Or worse yet, what if they arrive and they aren’t good?) You listen for the garage door to go up; then pray he’ll get up before noon and write some essays. When you do fall asleep, your dreams always include a broken calculator, Stanley Kaplan, and Fritos. (Don’t ask.)

The Mad Dash

Your teen is never in a rush until it’s the final countdown, and then the entire family must snap to attention and make magic happen. Like his old 8 p.m. elementary school requests (“I need brownies without nuts, poster board, and a Styrofoam ball for tomorrow morning”), the demands leave you scrambling. You frantically write checks, fetch envelopes, and make mail runs. Some days you feel more like a game show contestant than a parent.

Mood Changes

Sure she’s under a lot of pressure, but if your family had staged a reality show, your teen would have been voted off the island months ago. She’s perfected the eye roll and stomp-off during family discussions, and she can turn on a dime. If she’s already been accepted, expect severe positive mood swings and the occasional “I’m already in college, so it’s not like grades matter now.”

Temporary Relief

You practically had to hit the roof to get him to finish his applications, but it’s happened. Now you and your teen are basking in the pure joy that comes with hitting the send key on the last application. It’ll be a good half-hour before you start obsessing about whether he sent the final version of his essay or the unintelligible first draft.


Third Trymester Features:


Teen and parent paranoia are extremely common as notification day approaches. It doesn’t help that every news article and morning show features the trials and tribulations of college acceptance. Half the kids in your neighborhood have already heard from their schools. The rumor mill is churning and your head is spinning. Apparently Harvard took no one from the prep school or public school in your town. And the safety schools are rejecting the shoo-ins. What if your child doesn’t get in anywhere? What if she gets in and it’s not the right school for her? What if her best friend gets in and she doesn’t? You’d crumble but you must be chipper to keep her calm.


Now that you’ve finished proofing essays and running around like a squirrel during nut season, you’ve got time to look more closely at the financial picture. You begin hyperventilating and hoarding Bed Bath & Beyond coupons. You vow to curb your Starbucks addiction (the price of a soy latte x 352 days a year could cover some textbooks, right?) and consider growing your own food and changing your own car oil.


If you’ve done your job (i.e., made sure your teen isn’t invested in only one school and saw to it that he applied to schools that fit his interests and credentials), it’s time to celebrate. You and your child are thrilled. You’ve got your voice and a piece of your sanity back. There’s time in the day to breathe. You can even clear off the dining room table. And that’s a good thing because, chances are, there’s a graduation party in your future.

5 Tips to Keep Your Cool in the Heat of the College Search

1. Stay Grounded

The college-bound journey is an important milestone for your child and for you, but it isn’t a contest. It’s not about a name or prestige. There are nearly 2,500 accredited four-year colleges and universities and plenty of other options that would qualify as great fits. Focus on helping your teen identify many options. Letting him believe that there is one perfect school can be devastating if he is rejected. What if he doesn’t get in anywhere? There’s a place for everyone. You just have to find it. Read College Unranked or Colleges That Change Lives to put the college search and selection into perspective.

2. Let Your Child Drive The Process

This is her dream, not yours. Offer guidance and suggestions, but let her drive this bus. Students have been rejected because parents have been their ghostwriters and stand-ins. Do not fill out applications, write essays, or phone the Admissions Office (unless it’s about finances). Yes, they can tell. Prod and proofread only.

3. Expect Tension

Sorry, it’s not all rainbows and lollipops. In fact, it’s pretty uncomfortable at times. Teens are going in a thousand directions. Senior year is full of demanding classes and extracurricular commitments. Add standardized testing, college apps, and decision-making to the equation, and you’ve got the formula for high anxiety and family tension. Be understanding, patient, and vigilant. Yes, some kids drive the process without being prompted, but don’t beat yourself up if yours isn’t one of them. They’re rare and annoying to us “normal” families. Remember that some of this conflict is a normal, albeit unpleasant, part of separation as your child moves toward independence. Keep your eyes open, be supportive, and nudge when needed.

4. Discuss Finances Early

Address family finances and limitations before your child considers applying to a college. Don’t let her go through the motions and the effort, only to discover that there is no possible way she can attend. Be sure to consider all scholarships and aid before you veto a school, and never be embarrassed to discuss your limitations with a college. You will likely find an understanding ear and just might get some financial support.

5. Find Support

Not all families can sit at the dining room table and harmoniously powwow about test prep, essays, and applications. If you and your child can’t click in this process (and that’s pretty normal), find someone else who can provide guidance and support. From family and friends, to favorite teachers, tutors, and independent counselors and coaches, there are endless resources available. Take advantage of college and college-related websites, as well as parent and college-related groups on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, where you can dialogue with the experts. And while you’re at it, create your own support group of realistic parents willing to share frustrations and solutions, and applaud every child’s success.

Nine Months of Hard Labor


All parents embarrass their kids—some just do it a little better than others. Maximize bonding with your kids by vowing not to become one of these parent prototypes when you visit campus:

1. The Hipster

This isn’t the young adult, urban middle-class, Greenwich Village dweller-type hipster. This is the guy with the unbuttoned shirt and gold medallion. He’d still be wearing bell-bottoms but no store carries them, and he refuses to shop vintage. Often sporting Italian loafers (no socks), a tan, and a superior attitude, he rarely talks unless name-dropping or giving orders.

2. The Tourist

The tourist favors Hawaiian shirts but can pull off the look by just showing up. He would never carry a purse, but always travels with a bulging fanny pack. (Hello! the fanny pack is a waist purse!) The tourist delights in photographing all family activity and isn’t embarrassed when inconveniencing others in the process. He’d hold up traffic for days to get the perfect shot.

3. The Turn-Around Teenager

From behind, they look exactly like 18-year-old girls, but when these moms turn around, teen boys everywhere just feel foolish. With their “yes, these are my daughter’s jeans” and Lady Godiva extensions, these moms continue to channel their youth by flirting with their kids’ guy friends. The Turn-Around Teenager Dad probably exists, but he’s a lot less colorful and may go unnoticed.

4. The Verbalizer

Verbalizers are equally distributed across genders. They ask questions that make kids and other parents cringe. They’ve been doing it since preschool, so they’re armed and dangerous. They fire off questions like their lives depend on it. Somewhere along the line, someone told them they’d get extra points for being ridiculous. The Verbalizer also delights in waiting until the question-and-answer periods have just about wrapped up, then throws in another stupid question that no one can answer.

5. The Hoarder

Hoarders take anything that’s free. Bottled water. Sandwiches. Brochures. It doesn’t matter if they are thirsty, hungry, or in need of information; they don’t want to miss anything. Married male hoarders are more prone to volume hoarding, because they have wives with purses to carry their stuff. The most dangerous? Married male hoarders with fanny packs.

Nancy Woodward Berk ’81 earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Vanderbilt University. She’s an author, columnist, and stand-up comic. Her latest book, College Bound and Gagged: How to Help Your Kid Get Into a Great College Without Losing Your Savings, Your Relationship, or Your Mind was published in October by Nancy Berk Media, LLC.

Published December 2011
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