The Senior Year, The College Search… and Tissues

By Karen Hendricks

First day of school, senior year, my daughter holds a photo of her first day of kindergarten...

First day of school, senior year, my daughter holds a photo of her first day of kindergarten…

The past year has been a wonderful, emotional roller coaster of a ride. It’s my oldest daughter’s senior year in high school, so the past few months have been a blur of college applications and visits, special moments like homecoming, decisions, excitement, anxiety and plenty of tissues (for me).

It seems like yesterday that she was a pint-sized ballerina beginning ballet classes at the age of 3. Her love of dance has always been obvious, as much a part of her personality as her sweet, caring nature. I tell people all the time that I don’t know which she did first—walked or danced. Today, on the brink of her college years, dance is a natural career choice for her—it’s what she’s always dreamed about doing. And it’s made the college search all the more challenging. More on that, in a moment…

As parents, we prepare our children for lots of milestones through the years, but preparing them (and ourselves!) for the college years takes parenting to a whole new level. It’s excitement and exhaustion, encouragement and heart-break, all rolled into one experience. Which college is right for my daughter? What if she loves a college that we can’t afford? What if she’s not accepted to her top choice? We faced all of those questions during the past year… But the actual search was made a bit easier thanks to lots of helpful advice from moms who had been through the college process before:

  • Most college applications are due around the holidays, but encourage your son/daughter to complete them as soon as possible, through the fall season. You’ll receive acceptance/rejection letters earlier (at least you know where you stand), it opens more opportunities for scholarships, and the holidays will be more enjoyable.
  • Visit colleges during the school year to get the true feeling of each campus while classes are in session.
  • Take pictures because after you see several colleges, you’ll forget exactly what each one looked like. (Although at one of the colleges we visited, photos were not allowed while on tour.)
  • While it’s great to talk with admissions counselors, it’s even more helpful to talk to current students. Ask them the “real” questions such as “What are the dorms like?” and “How’s the food?” They will give you the honest truth.

Choosing to major in the arts, however, results in a college application process unlike any other. Whether it’s dance, theater or visual art, either an audition or portfolio of work is needed in addition to the standard academic application. Did I mention, it’s extremely competitive? And often subjective? We learned that most colleges see about 300-400 potential dance majors through the audition process, but only 50-60 are accepted, and with some students ultimately selecting other colleges, a freshman class of 25-30 is the end result. Armed with those cold, hard facts, we guided our daughter through the application and audition process at nine colleges. Most dance auditions span 3-5 hours, and although sometimes nerve-wracking for both students and parents, they’re actually great opportunities for the students to work under the actual dance professors to see if their teaching styles and programs are a good fit. We mapped out the audition dates on our calendar, beginning in October and ending in March. I give all credit to my daughter who was very organized, prioritized which college auditions to attend when they fell on the same dates and then registered for all of her audition dates. It actually was an amazing mother-daughter experience, a team effort. She focused on dancing her best; I focused on driving (or purchasing the correct train tickets) and learning as much as I could about each college and dance program.

Earlier this week, May 1, was the national date for college decisions. Thankfully, my daughter made her choice a few weeks earlier. After the dust settled from all of her auditions, she was accepted at three of the nine colleges to which she applied and auditioned—and I’m told 33% is a good percentage! Sadly, she was not accepted by her top college choice and that presented a heart-breaking impasse for a few weeks in February. But, she made an excellent final decision that we as parents support, that puts her right in the heart of the dance world in New York City. Attending college in the Big Apple presents its own share of questions and worries, but I also know it’s the best decision for her future.

This journey has led me to draw a few conclusions and (hopefully helpful) advice to other parents:

  • Enjoy and savor every moment of your child’s senior year because it probably goes by quicker than any other school year.
  • Take time to talk with your teen about college and career choices during the summer before their senior year, if not earlier. Once senior year begins, it’s hard to find the time to truly evaluate these life-changing decisions. Uplift and encourage your teen as much as possible. Believe in his/her abilities and talents.
  • We learned the most about those colleges we visited during fall open houses, but unfortunately a lot of them fall on the same dates. Prioritize and try to attend your top one or two college choices.
  • Don’t let the bottom line be a deterrent. Private colleges often offer more grant or scholarship money than public universities, which ultimately can result in similar prices.
  • Shut out any sources of negative energy and focus on what’s best for your teen. This can be very difficult and painful, especially when unsupportive comments come from family members or friends. Whether it’s a college or career choice, I feel that unsupportive comments are a result of two things primarily: that person’s own expectations projected onto your teen, or simply jealousy. I lost a girlfriend who didn’t understand the rigors of the college application and audition process and actually became upset because I wasn’t available to participate fully in a soccer carpool for our younger daughters. Looking back, I can see signs of jealousy in her actions. My fellow Off the Merry-Go-Round writer Jennifer previously wrote about the importance of letting go of “toxic relationships” and this is one situation that fits the bill.
  • In a similar vein, be prepared to handle attitudes or misconceptions about your teen’s career choice. Just because children enjoy the arts, does not mean the family is snobby or stuck-up. We are as “normal” as anyone else! Similarly, I see other teens and family friends battling other stereotypes: College athletes are not necessarily at the bottom of the academic ladder, for example. For that matter, teens who choose not to go to college should feel secure in their decisions to pursue trades or employment directly after high school–and not looked down upon. I wish we were all more supportive of one another, especially our youth.
  • There’s a wonderful opportunity for your teen to show grace and feel community support. Thankfully, overall, our family has received only a handful of negative comments, while the vast majority are warm and positive. For weeks, it seemed like we couldn’t go anywhere without running into someone congratulating our daughter. The entire family has been overwhelmed and thankful for the community support.

Although my daughter has chosen a competitive career path, I also see her drive, dedication and passion for her career choice… all the ingredients for success and happiness. The main reason I will need lots of tissues over the next few months? Because my tears are tears of joy…

12 thoughts on “The Senior Year, The College Search… and Tissues

  1. we also learned that many people do not understand the rigors of an arts application that includes auditions. and it includes looking at a much larger number of schools than a “normal” college search. we were surprised by the people who openly questioned our choice of major for our daughter (musical theater) for many of the same reasons I assume you heard. But in the end, when they are where they belong, in the world where their soul can soar, you know you have “done good” as a Mom!!

    • Caryl, many thanks for your comments and I love the way you put it–“When they are where they belong, in the world where their soul can soar…” I agree completely!

  2. Great advice! I heartily agree with your point that as parents we should stretch ourselves to try to understand that there are many, many different ways to be a successful teen–and ultimately a successful adult. I know sometimes I fail on this point … I hope I keep working on it! 🙂 Thanks for your encouraging post!

    • Thanks so much for your comments! Each of our teens is “wired” so differently… it will probably end up being a completely different process for my other children! I think the test for us, as parents, is to recognize their gifts and let those gifts dictate their paths in life, being there to guide them as needed. 🙂

  3. Great post Karen. Although we are no where near ready for this phase of school, YET, it will be hear before we know it. I love to learn from others. Thanks!

  4. What a beautifully written and expressed piece, Karen … I already think about my son and what all of this will be like, and he’s not even 4 years old! Your advice and thoughts are/will be so helpful to others ~ whether going through this now or in the future (near or not so near!). And to everyone out there who has to “hear it” from others who have no business in your business … just remember, your son or daughter and you know what is best for your family. As hard as it may be, try to tune out the negativity and enjoy this special time — in all of your lives!

    • Thanks so much, Jenna. Your kind words mean so very much to me. And yes, your son is only 13-14 years away from this process… it will be here in the blink of an eye!

  5. Your sage words of advice reinforce our decision to have our high school junior make most of his college visits this year, to help make educated decisions on where to apply, given how competitive (and expensive) the college admissions and education process is for students. Great post.

    • Thanks, Kat! It’s great that you got “a jump” on things during junior year. Best of luck shepherding your son through the process. Hope he is able to get into his college(s) of choice!

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