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Kids in admissions scandal robbed of life lessons

Parents can help in college search without breaking the law

Nicole Villalpando
From left, Leah Grabert of Texas Christian University talks to Sandra Moore and her daughters Samantha Mendoza, 13, and Stephanie Mendoza, 17, during a 2012 college and career fair at Travis High School. Guidance and college counselors say parents can help their children stay organized but should let the students do the bulk of the work of applying to colleges. [Ashley Landis/for Statesman]

We all want our kids to get into their first choice of college, right? We might have even said, "We would do anything to get our kid into that school!"

Anything except break the law.

Last week, federal prosecutors exposed a college admissions cheating scandal that involved $25 million in bribes to coaches and administrators at several top schools, including the University of Texas.

At my house and the houses of many of my mom friends, we've been in full college admissions mode all year. And yes, there was heartache when my kid didn't get into his first choice.

He'd already psychologically moved in, picked out his dorm room and everything. It was devastating for about half a week. Then some other schools came calling and different opportunities arrived. For a kid who has not had to struggle academically, it was a first lesson that sometimes you work really, really hard and you still don't get what you want.

The college admissions process is full of life lessons — lessons that the parents involved in the scandal might not have afforded their children.

Such as:

• You can survive disappointment.

• Not everything will come easily to you all the time.

• Just because your mother said you are special or wonderful doesn't make you special to everyone.

• Not everyone gets a trophy — or the college at the top of your list.

• Your parents can't do everything for you.

• Sometimes life isn't fair.

Instead, the accused parents might have sent their children these messages:

• You aren't good enough to get into that school without my help.

• You don't have to work hard to get what you want.

• Your parents will fix any problem you have.

What can parents do to help their children through the college admissions process without breaking the law?

Guidance and college counselor Holly Browning, who works at Westwood High School in the Round Rock district, said parents can help their children stay organized and on track with the timetable of admissions from the end of their junior year through their senior year.

Parents should take their child to visit college campuses. Even if your child isn't interested in the University of Texas, Texas State University or Southwestern University, they are three very different-feeling schools in Central Texas. Looking at all three can help children narrow down the type of school they want to consider, Browning said.

Stay objective, she said, even if a school isn't one parents would choose for themselves. One school might have the program that will turn out best for the child. It's being positive, letting the students do the work of applying and supporting them in the decision they do make, she said.

But Browning said parents and students need to be smart and logical about choosing where to apply. "Everybody would love to go to Harvard, but is that a realistic place to apply?"

That's not to say you shouldn't apply to Harvard. You should, she said, but have multiple backups.

Browning counsels kids and their parents about being realistic. Sometimes parents don't recognize that their children have a good chance at their dream school, and sometimes it's the opposite. Either way, she encourages a reality check for both the parents and the child.

And when a decision letter brings disappointing news, Browning said, parents should let their child know, "This decision doesn't define them. They are not ‘less than.’ ”

Heidi Sauer, lead counselor at Westlake High School in the Eanes district, said the challenge is putting the college application process in perspective and being realistic.

"I think part of managing expectations is understanding that denials (and) rejections from a college, while hurtful, are not personal," Sauer said. "In many cases, colleges receive an excess of highly qualified applicants, so it is inevitable that applicants who did everything right might still not earn admission. In other cases, the applicant is simply not a good fit for a college."

Part of the anxiety about applying is the competitive nature of getting into college today, Browning said. "Ten years ago, this didn't happen. An A/B student could go anywhere."

Browning recently counseled a student who got a disappointing rejection email but also received an acceptance letter from another school with a handwritten note.

"They really want you," she told the student, and that should have more meaning than the emailed rejection letter.

Sauer said she reminds parents and students that a person's college experience is more about what he or she makes it than which college it is.

"Disappointment is a natural response to being rejected," she said. "Once that emotion can be processed, there is joy to be found in recognizing that other schools want you and are eagerly anticipating your enrollment and the contributions you can make to that campus on your way to making your mark in the world.

"A person's college experience is largely up to them — the level to which they get involved in the campus culture, their dedication to studies and openness to experiential learning opportunities, making new friends and being inspired by professors or other mentors," Sauer said.