Guest columnist Lydia Mann: Inside the college admissions journey

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

As we approach the college admissions deadlines in January, and I watch many parents worry about “what will happen” and “what’s next,” I ask us all to slow down and think about the goals — the real goals — we have for our children.

I’ve worked in the world of college admissions for over a decade and throughout, I’ve wondered if the advice I gave about the application process would change when I experienced the birth of my own child. At 37 years old, I am considered an “old” first time mom — I’ve had a lot of time to wonder.

But this past August, I gave birth to the most beautiful baby boy in the world. He’s perfect. It’s only been three and a half months with my son, and he’s changed my life in more ways than I could have ever imagined. The love I feel for him is a new kind of love: pure, extending and untiring. He could never fall out of my graces. Not for long. He’s perfect — just perfect.

And now that I’m back at work, I’ve thought more about my longtime question: “Will the college admissions advice I give change when I have my own children?” The answer is no. Parent or not, I’d give the same advice today that I would have given three and a half months ago, two years ago, or 10 years ago. My entire world has been rocked, but what I know about this process remains the same today:

■Find a place that helps you become the best version of yourself.

■ Do your research and stay open-minded.

■ You want to learn how to fail — seek appropriate challenges and a place that will support you as you problem-solve, and learn to self-advocate as you try again.

■ Know that the most successful college graduates share one thing in common (and it’s not an alma mater): they like the college communities they join, becoming involved and invested in their academics and beyond.

■Choose a school where you will be seen, even mentored, by the faculty and staff.

So what does this mean for my own perfect baby and our lives together as I look ahead at the next 18 years? I know the “business,” so I should be able to help him “excel” in this process, right? Right. I do. I want him to find a place that helps him become the best version of himself. I want him to be resourceful, thoughtful, and reflective.

He needs to understand the world around him and then find ways to make it better; that will take lots of work and an open mind. He will make mistakes, and I hope many of them will be in a college classroom with the support of faculty and peers around him. I hope he turns those mistakes into moments where he grows to understand himself and the things he cares about better.

And I hope that he turns out to be a successful college graduate with a few lifelong friends and the advocacy skills he needs to be a problem-solver for and a contributor to society.

And he’s perfect, remember? So why would I want to change him, try to mold him, in a way that is inauthentic to who he is, all for a “desirable” name on a T-shirt I’ll wear two decades from now? He’s just perfect already.

And just as perfectly as I see him, a college will see him, too. He will be perfect for a school somewhere one day. When we get to the college process, I won’t fill his head with names of schools that he may or may not want to attend; I’ll give him resources to help him explore and talk to me about what feels right. It wasn’t until he was born that I knew anything about him, and it isn’t until this process is over that I’ll know where he’s going.

So along the journey, I’ll let him lead. And I’ll accept whatever school that sees him as perfectly as I do. The last thing I’d want to do is change who he is, change his perfect self, to be someone he is not for reasons that keep him from becoming all he can be.

Lydia Mann is the director of admissions at Clark University in Worcester.