I’m the ambassador to a kid’s dream. The hardest part of my job is trying to get a kid who, say, really wants to go to Harvard to also apply to Columbia. They can’t conceive of having a desire stronger than their desire to go to Harvard. It’s like the bridal industry. They want this more than they’ve ever wanted anything in their lives.
I had one meeting with a kid earlier this year, sort of a stereotypical overachiever in every single way. I mean, honestly, I never had a résumé like this in high school. You couldn’t get more perfect. Award winner in science and in poetry. I’m serious. He comes to the meeting with five college-essay options that he’s already written, and he’s so insecure. He’s so scared! And I can tell he’s not sleeping, he’s obsessing to the point of ridiculousness.
Most people go where their parents went. And their parents went to good schools. Or they know the board of trustees. I have a lot of kids who are hooked up. Really hooked up. It’s outrageous! The rule of thumb for the most part: The more money a parent has, the less intense they are, partially because they’re already donating money to a certain school, and the pressure is not as great. They know their kid will be okay.
But I’ve seen a lot of fucked-up parenting. A lot of very perverse incentive structures. I see kids who hate their parents. And the kids know at some level that even if they got into a certain school, life wouldn’t be fine. They actually have more sophisticated antennae for important priorities than their parents do. If you are an OCD-prone mother, you are not going to sleep from tenth grade until December 15 of your child’s twelfth-grade year. You will not sleep. I have mothers who, by the time we’re actually working on the college application, look like they have aged ten years. I know that the mom whose house I left today is going to be reading the 500-word essay we did maybe 25, 50 times. I mean, she’s just going to sit on the couch and read that essay all day and all night and either try to re-create the sense of happiness she had reading it the first time or look for problems. I used to have a mom who would call me every single morning at 8:30 a.m. Every single morning. And she just said things like, “You use the word ‘ice-cream cone’ three times in the essay! Are you sure it’s okay?” I kind of felt bad for her.