Crazy U, or, Getting Your Kid Into College: Author Q&A

Filed under: Amazing Parents, Books for Parents, Education: Teens

getting into college

Crazy U. Credit: Andrew Ferguson

Add this to the laundry list of things that were simpler when you were a kid: Applying to college.

Back then you selected your reach and safety schools, filled out the applications, wrote an essay, dropped it in the mail and hoped for the best. Today it's like trying out for the Olympics -- after so diligently researching and preparing, let alone being in possession of excellent credentials, even the cream of the crop seems to get rejected.

ParentDish spoke with Andrew Ferguson, author of "Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course on Getting His Kid Into College," about the 18-month process that nearly put him over the edge. Following is an edited version of that conversation.

ParentDish: What is the college application process like today?
Andrew Ferguson:
You get pulled in five or six different directions at once. It's sort of like if you're trying to buy a luxury good that you can't really afford, where there are so many different kinds on offer and everybody is trying to pretend that theirs is completely unique, and by implication the other guy's luxury goods aren't as good as theirs.

PD: Ugh.
AF: I discovered this iron law of nature called the Principle of Constant Contradiction where if you're seeking advice about college admissions, for every piece of advice you get, within a week you will get a totally opposite piece that cancels it out.

PD: Sounds exasperating.
AF:
It's especially bad on the Web. Somebody on College Confidential or [similar] bulletin boards will write, "You know, you really ought to give flowers to your counselor who writes your recommendation," and then someone writes, "No! That would be a bribe!" Meanwhile they're all people who have Internet names like PuppyWuppy and LoveSavage69. So you, as a parent, are thinking, "OK. Which is the crank? Is PuppyWuppy crazier than LoveSavage69?"

PD: Everything seems so arbitrary. How can a parent stay sane?
AF:
That's why I wrote the book the way I did, which is as a story rather than as a long series of tips. The thing that really gets you through, and this sounds slightly sentimental, is your bond with your kid. In a way, you're both doing this for each other.

PD: How long did it take you to figure that one out?
AF:
The ultimate piece of advice I give people, which sounds so banal is, "Relax. Believe it or not, just relax." There's nothing more infuriating than telling someone who's nervous to "relax." It could really send you around the bend. If I had a dime for every time somebody told me to relax in this process I could afford my son's tuition bill.

author andrew ferguson

Author Andrew Ferguson; Credit: Jack Shafer


PD: Ha!
AF:
The vast majority of kids end up going to one of the top three schools that they wanted to go to. And any type of heartbreak that they endure is certainly going to be temporary. They end up in a place where they're happy and if they're meant to be happy and lead happy and fulfilling lives, they will, regardless of where they went to school.

PD: It sounds like you were very hands-on. Is this high level of parental involvement a fairly new phenomenon?
AF:
I'd say at the intensity it is now, yes. It was about the early '90s where there was a tremendous increase in the amount of marketing and the pressure and this sense that kids had to go college to succeed. Something happened in the past 15 years to convince people that you cannot be happy in life unless you've got a college education. I think that is sort of disgraceful, in a way. And it becomes a self-fulfilling thing.

PD: How do the admissions officers handle this intense process?
AF:
My impression is that these admissions officers are really tortured people. On the one hand, they know that they have to distance themselves from all this craziness and kind of tut-tut and say, "Oh, isn't it awful that it is this way," while on the other hand they're in a professional situation that demands they perpetuate the system they're supposedly finding so annoying.

PD: What do you know now that you wish you had known then?
AF:
I wish I had been more selective in what I read, where I took advice. The Internet bulletin boards like College Confidential, I found to just be worthless precisely because there was no principle of selectivity. You simply couldn't figure out what was true and what wasn't. There are really good Web resources like the Department of Education's College Navigator. I wish I had known about that because that is fantastic data that they have. It's all very current, it's all been fact-checked and it's indispensable.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.