College Planning Season

Our son is an only child. Sorry, son. That’s just the way it worked out.

A challenge with being an only child is that the viewfinder is always focused on you for good or bad reasons. No breaks. Ever. The child may think they are getting a break when what is happening are the parents are resting up for another highly focused session of coaching and accountability. Sounds fun, right?

Wish for a Sibling

As a good friend pointed out, our son wishes he had a brother who didn’t do as well as he does. That would at least take some heat off him from time to time. A sibling might give him a break. Because, as much as I hate to admit it, we’re always turning up the heat on this kid. Grades, homework, extra-curricular activities, and whatever else we think is important on a given day.

And this year, his junior year, the temperature is rising to 451 degrees, and it is getting freaking ridiculous and challenging science and math AP classes, ACTs, crew five days a week, driving, and all the talk and decision-making involved with his college application decisions. A ton of pressure each day, not including our enlightened and manipulative questioning.

College Planning Racket

Like lemmings in our area, we hired a “college planning” service without much forethought. Heck, “everyone else” does it around here, so why not us? Smart, right?

And, so now, here we are. For those who don’t know, the college planning center promises to help the kid “find the right college and develop a plan for getting accepted into it.” Sounds great, right? They don’t tell you that they are also creating a ton of extra work for your child. Pick a major, pick a job, pick a school, and make your school selections. And can you do that right now, Mr. Sixteen years old? And, while you’re at it, why not take more tests to better understand your skills and interests?

My favorite conversation thus far came we visited the center during our son’s first semester finals. The counselor said, “Let’s look ahead to your senior schedule. Now is not the time to take your foot off the gas! Maybe time for some junior college courses in addition to high school! And what do you plan to do for an internship this summer?” I could see my son’s head was about to explode.

Pause and ask, “What are we doing?”

At this point, I had to pause and ask myself, “what are we doing here?” After all, when I was 16, I did nothing of the sort. I was busy developing into what they called “strong junior college material!” Deciding if I wanted to become an electrical engineer or computer scientist (the choices given to our son from the planning center) was out of the question. And, stepping back, what 16-year-old is ready to make that critical decision? Yet, despite that, we are asking him to make those decisions here.

So, if I step back and ask myself, what is at play here? Why are we doing this? I’m not sure I’m going to like the answer. The answer is that we’re doing this more for us than for him. After all, if he gets into a great college, it most certainly follows that this is primarily the result of us, his amazing parents.


But, when I think about college and our son’s future working life when held against the backdrop of my wife and my experience, I see that a bit of serendipity trumps planning. Serendipity is hard to prepare for, by definition. Let me illustrate what I am talking about with two genuine examples.

My wife went away as a declared dance major to Cal Poly. Her dream was to be a ballerina. After a semester, however, she realized that was a big whoops. Not practical. No money there in ballet. So, she quickly changed her major to accounting. Many years later, she is a happy and prosperous forensic accountant. Not because of thoughtful planning but rather because of dumb luck.

Similarly, I got my first job out of college because the man who hired me was not fully conversant in English. He thought I had attended Havard when I had participated in Harbor – a junior college. Big difference. Ten years with that company launched my sales career that continues today. Again, unplanned serendipity. Dumb luck.

The Lesson

So, what to do? What is the lesson you can learn from us?

The lesson is simple: just let it go. Stop trying to manipulate and control your child. Love your child as they are. They may not appreciate that love today, but they will eventually.

And, trust me, if you love your kid and care for them, that love will help them learn to make the right decisions. And guess what? Some of the most critical decisions will be informed by mistakes. So, give them space and time to do just that; make mistakes and learn from them.

Update – A Coda

The coda to this story is that our son applied to all the University of California campuses in computer science. That was our brilliant plan. But, the UC campus he was accepted, he wasn’t interested in attending. Then, COVID hit, creating what will forever be known as the weirdest and lamest college year ever.

Today he’s at a college we never considered having the time of his life as a sophomore (as any sophomore should).


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