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What one dad has learned about how to help your senior apply for college | COMMENTARY

Families employ college consultants to assist in getting their children accepted by the schools they want to attend. The consultants help them with choosing classes, sports and extracurricular activities, test preparations, and college applications and essays. Hourly consultations may cost $200 or $300, while longer-term packages can range from $1,000 to $10,000.
Families employ college consultants to assist in getting their children accepted by the schools they want to attend. The consultants help them with choosing classes, sports and extracurricular activities, test preparations, and college applications and essays. Hourly consultations may cost $200 or $300, while longer-term packages can range from $1,000 to $10,000. (Canva)

What is the truest thing you know?

What real or fictional person has shaped you most?

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In 150 words or so, resolve the most vexing questions about the human condition.    Use double spacing, please.

— Typical college application (2020)

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My daughter is one of 3.5 million or so high school seniors in this country. She is applying to colleges, so she must write a lot of essays that presume a developed interior life.

Does anyone know their heart’s deepest truth? Or what has shaped them the most?

At 17?

If you have lived a while beyond your teen years, you know now that you didn’t know much as a 12th grader, no matter how hard you were trying or what your report card said. Hence the adage that education is what’s left in your brain after you’ve forgotten all that you have learned.

One truth is that college is sometimes a pursuit of a social credential versus a quest for knowledge. Every so often, a small handful of students stray outside the boundaries of serious scholarship. (Or so I’ve heard.) Even so, a college degree is still a life requirement for many.   There’s no shortage of consumer demand.

I have learned that to be of any use to your high school senior, first you must forget about how things were back in the day when you went to college. No one cares. Your college story isn’t particularly interesting, anyway. You grew up before every difficult moment of adolescence was memorialized, analyzed and shared electronically. It’s tougher nowadays, in case you didn’t get the memo. All you can offer up front is knowing similar anxiety.

So, address concrete things first.

Ask: what do you want to study?

Where? Urban? Rural?

Public? Private?

How far away from home?

How will you get there?

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What size school?

How much will this cost?

Will the diploma you covet get you a good job?

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Campus visits are no longer available in three-dimensional settings. And a lot of the guidebooks look, well, the same. They tend to say the same unilluminating things, too.

After narrowing things down a bit are the essays.

Helpful advice includes: Don’t be a braggart. Don’t be too humble. Don’t be offensive. Don’t be boring. Don’t be too obscure.   Don’t be too general. Don’t be too specific.   Don’t reveal too much.   Don’t reveal too little.   Show, don’t tell.    Speak your truth. Avoid controversial topics. Engage controversial topics. Be innovative. Be conventional. Be memorable. Just be yourself.

Your intrepid senior is now stymied in mental quicksand.   The cursor blinks. And blinks. And blinks some more.

There is so much in my daughter’s life that rightfully eludes me, but I think I can actually help a little here. We talk. We stumble into a few themes. Sentences form. Then paragraphs. Essays are born. My daughter answers a lifetime of questions with the designated number of words in the prescribed boxes.   There is a path forward.

It’s not a sign of surrender to acknowledge the pandemic has overmatched us for now. Misery and loss will continue to dominate the next few months in the United States and world.   But I hope my daughter — and her peers — emerge stronger. They have learned through screens as needed, with determined teachers on the other side of the connection.   Even when a failure to launch would be more than understandable, I hope they become kinder, wiser, more capable, more resourceful and, yes, more practical, too.

And next fall, they will arrive at their universities — catapulted back into a marathon race after being sidelined.    When they arrive at the finish line as college graduates, they will have earned their own story.

And just like that, I now realize the ambitious essay topics are not a slog, but an invitation to be unafraid of what comes next — to embrace things you don’t know. After all, a commencement is a beginning.

Brendan Clary is an attorney and Ellicott City resident; his email is brendanclary@hotmail.com.

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