Relax, It’s Only College

The Washington Post, March 7, 2006
Jay Mathews, Education Editor

It is college anxiety season. High school juniors are facing SAT or ACT tests. High school seniors are checking their mailboxes. Family peace and mental health are in jeopardy, but a new book has come to the rescue, “Getting In Without Freaking Out” by Arlene Matthews.

There is a picture of the author on the back of the breezily written 253-page paperback, $10.74 on It shows a woman with a perky smile. The author’s note says she lives in Fair Haven, N.J., with her husband and teenage son. She has written seven books on parenting and psychology and runs an advisory service for college applicants. I like her sense of humor and low key approach to the tortuous admission rites. Each of her chapters is an easily digestible “stress-free secret.” There are 101 of them. Here are a few of my favorites:

Secret #1: Relax, It’s Only College

“Although college graduates do earn more, studies show that what one studies has far more economic impact than where. A recent National Bureau of Economic Research study showed that graduates of so-called selective schools boast no earnings edge. And, at last count, the four wealthiest Americans (all self-made) numbered three college dropouts and a graduate of the University of Nebraska.”

Secret #4: It’s Not Where You Go, It’s Who You Are

This reinforces the point of the first secret, reminding parents of the many successful and admirable people they know who did not go to brand-name colleges. Friends want to know if you are a good person. People at work want to know if you have delivered, and will continue to do so. If you don’t measure up in those ways, a degree from a three-century-old college will not help you.

Secret #15: Not All Invitations are Inviting

This chapter skewers one of my favorite targets, the search letters that selective colleges send out to innocent high schoolers, encouraging them to apply even though their chances of getting in are no better than one in five. Matthews imagines how the search-letter writers might compose a party invitation:

“Greetings! I’d like to invite you to a party at my house.
“Well, no, not really. I’d like to invite you to apply to come to a party at my house.
“Actually, my house is kind of small, so I can only accommodate a few party guests. In truth, I get to be extremely picky about who they will be, since my parties are quite popular. But, I’ve heard nice things about you, and, hey, who’s to say you haven’t got a shot?”

Secret #20: Accept That the Process is Flawed

I have long preached the irrationality of the admissions process for the most selective schools. Many of the people they don’t accept are just as smart and talented as the ones they do, which is one reason why some of their wait lists are longer than their accept lists. Matthews takes this one step further and encourages parents to assume always that the process will at some point hurt their kid for no good reason. “Railing against the inevitable amount of random unfairness to which your child will be subjected will only make you crazy,” she says.

Secret #50: Imperfection Is Better

Matthews is talking about the college application essay, and the perils of letting it get into the hands of one’s parents, or a paid polisher, or a friend who thinks he is a 21st century Thoreau. Her advice reveals the corrupt depths to which this part of the application has sunk, but it makes no sense to ignore it. “The person who should have the very final edit on the personal essay is the essay’s owner,” she says. “Ask your kid to go off into their room and read it aloud. Does it sound like something they would say? Does it sound remotely like the way they would say it if asked to do so extemporaneously? If not, it’s back to the drawing board.”

Secret #53: Expect Procrastination

I have saved my favorite for last, the piece of advice that I wish I had thought of the many times I have heard from parents who have this problem. They say: The deadline is approaching, and my kid has done nothing. My advice is to bring in a third party — the high school counselor, or a private consultant (like Matthews!) if you can afford it — to deal with the slow-moving applicant. The professionals have experience in these situations, and the student is more likely to respond without resentment to someone who is not their parent.

Matthews, however, adds one more smart thought, similar to what Dr. Laura says whenever a caller is complaining about a spouse. The point is: This is old news. You knew the guy was a couch potato before you married him. And you knew your child was a procrastinator before he even got to high school. Don’t expect your offspring to suddenly mature because they are going to college. It will take longer than that. Both Matthews and Mathews suggest you enjoy the ride, as much as you can.

© 2006 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive