PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Navigating The College Admissions Process

It’s the last week of March.

This year, for me, that means that I begin the process of relieving my yard of the detritus that gathered over the winter and recycling all of the items that have been stored in my garage, waiting for a day that was nice enough to haul them to the city recycling bins.

But I also know that this week feels a little different for me this year as an empty nester. Because this is the week when many of the most competitive colleges  in the country send emails that upon opening will yield either shouts of joy or tears of sorrow.

It’s been three years since the tense day arrived for my oldest son. We knew he was going to hear from most of his top choices on Thursday, March 27, 2014.

He’d spent the day at the Regional Science Olympiad and returned home, turned on his computer and sat at the dining room table waiting for them to arrive when the clock turned to 4 p.m. CST. At 3:57 he made me go to the basement. He said I was making him nervous.

So I was emptying the dryer when I heard the first whoop of joy and I ran upstairs to hear the University of Pennsylvania Quakers Fight Song blaring from his computer. When he opened the email from Penn, the first thing he heard was the song, as he read the words, “Congratulations.”

Now that we knew for sure that he had gotten in to one of his top choices, I was allowed to stay in the room, as he opened the rest of the emails as they rolled in — with another yes from Brown and then his dream school, Columbia. We were elated.

About an hour later, when the email from Harvard arrived, the tension was off. Harvard had been a throwaway — a last-second decision made literally because he had an essay he could use for the supplement, and it would be fun to see if he could get in. Columbia had always been the goal.

When he read the words “Congratulations” and clicked on the video of Mark Zuckerberg welcoming him, we were both stunned, to be completely honest. But it wasn’t long before Duncan was hooked, and after a trip to Boston to visit, it was a done deal. He was Harvard bound.

It was a little over 20 months later when his younger brother was put out of his misery of waiting for a decision a bit earlier in his senior year.

We were in New York City, where Ian was one of finalists for the National Wendy’s High School Heisman. The awards event started Friday, and we arrived Thursday, so we spent the day trying to avoid talking about the elephant in the room.

When 5 p.m. EST arrived, Ian left our hotel room to pace the halls, waiting for the email. He opened it as he walked back into the room with a shout of joy — he would be joining his brother at Harvard.

It was actually a good thing he was accepted with Early Action that day because that evening, we had decided to go to a Broadway play — to either celebrate if he got in or drowned his sorrows if he didn’t.

Ian picked the show  — the musical “School of Rock” — based on one of his favorite movies as a kid. But what both of us had forgotten was that in the movie — and the musical — there was a running joke about how you were an utter failure if you didn’t get in to Harvard.  It would have been a really long evening if he had gotten a rejection or even a deferral.

But the truth is, no one is a failure if they don’t get into Harvard. Having two kids there, I hear it from them both all the time. Harvard is just a school. It isn’t heaven.

And the reality is that getting into top college can be a crapshoot. Often there is no rhyme or reason why a student gets an acceptance from one college, waitlisted at another and rejected at a third.

For example, I am aware that none of Duncan’s friends at Harvard who applied to Vanderbilt were accepted. Every last one of them was waitlisted.

Even so, it isn’t uncommon for me to get an email from someone who has a child who wants to go to Harvard, asking for advice. What did my boys do to get into Harvard? And what can they do as parents to support them in their dream? Because in all honesty, the college application process becomes a family affair — even if you have to leave the room when the decision arrives.

I was talking about this to my friend, Tammy, who is also from small town North Dakota and has two children who graduated from Yale and Stanford as well as a daughter who is currently at Princeton. She said she also gets people contacting her, asking for guidance.

As we visited about it a little more, we realized that there may be an untapped market in this area of the country to help both parents and students navigate the college application process, and there are some “tips” we’ve learned along the way. As well as an understanding that not every school is for every student.

Neither of us take any credit for our children’s success in this process — that was done as a result of their own hard work, commitment to being good citizens and natural ability.

We did however, help direct them from time to time. One of my son’s friends refers to her mother as her “Momager,” and that phrase fits Tammy and me perfectly. Doing what we can to help our children succeed on their own terms.

A lot of students have all the tools that they need to successfully get into elite schools, and they most likely would do well there, but they either don’t apply because they are afraid it will be too expensive or else they do apply and don’t get in because guidance counselors and school administrators are not aware of some of the best ways to prepare the best application. That’s not because they aren’t good at their jobs but because so few students ever apply and when they do, they may not know the breadth of top schools available.

In all honesty, many students find that the top schools are more affordable than local state colleges, thanks to generous financial aid programs (for example, anyone making under $65,000 doesn’t pay anything to attend Harvard and you pay only 10 percent of your income up to $150,000.) And there are definitely some ways to improve your chances of getting into a top school. It’s a crapshoot as to which school, but there are pathways to being more successful and to choosing a school that is a good fit.

After talking this over, Tammy and I have decided that we are going to try and fill a niche market. We want to help students tell their story in the application process so that they present their best — and truest — possible self to the college admissions officers. And we want to help mentor parents so that they can present, be supportive but not alienate their children in the process. They may have to leave the room when decision day arrives, but hopefully they will still be on speaking terms!

I’m not sure where this will lead — my empty nest keeps getting filled with opportunities I never imagined. But Tammy and I are excited about the prospect. We are planning a free informational meeting in early June to gauge if there is even interest in college consulting for students and parent mentoring. We want to offer some basic advice to rising seniors who are looking at colleges,  guidance for younger students as they focus on how to develop the best resume while also pursuing their passions and some words of wisdom for parents as they accompany their children. And we will go from there to see what this idea might become.

If anyone who reads my blog has interest or knows someone who might like some guidance, let me know, and we will send you information as our plans become more fully formed. Right now, it is just a pipe dream that we are working to make a reality.

I just know that whatever unfolds in this process, if  I can help some parent hear a whoop from the other room and some student cry tears of happiness as a dream comes true, that it will make this last week in March a little more joyful.

3 thoughts on “PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Navigating The College Admissions Process”

  • Helen Murphy March 28, 2017 at 10:54 am

    Great article and great idea. College is so expensive and it is getting harder to get accepted. One of my sons went to a private school and it was cheaper than a public college because of the scholarships available to him. My granddaughter is a freshman in high school and it would be good to know what activities to get involved in to increase her chances of getting a scholarship or acceptance into a college. She is a good student and her parents have limited income so she will needs scholarships. She lives in the cities but her parents would be willing to come this way for an informational meeting.

    1. Paula V. Mehmel March 28, 2017 at 11:18 am

      I will let you know. And our goal is to help people pursue their passions while also maximizing their opportunities. My youngest son earned $250,000 in scholarship funds, beyond financial aid, and both sons are literally paid to go to Harvard, so it is possible. They can’t keep more than their expenses, obviously, but they have done well and we have been very fortunate.

    2. Paula V. Mehmel May 19, 2017 at 9:25 pm

      We are having our free information meetings on June 5 and June 15 at Elim Lutheran in Fargo. You can check our Facebook page, GPS College Navigation Consultants, Guidance for Parents and Students


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