It’s a Friday afternoon in mid-April and your high school senior has been anxiously running to the mailbox for at least two weeks now.

Acceptance letters have already come from three or four schools perhaps, but he or she is still waiting for word from “the school,” the one place that his or her heart has been set on attending since seventh grade, or since sophomore year or maybe even since a campus visit that occurred just a few months ago.

For me, in 1975, that place was Dartmouth. I had already been accepted at Brown, Columbia, University of Chicago, University of Michigan and Northwestern.

I had my heart set on Dartmouth for many reasons, but mostly because my favorite high-school English teacher (now a Hollywood movie producer, but that’s a different column) had graduated from there just a few years earlier, had taken me and some of my classmates to visit there in spring break of our junior year, and it just seemed to be “the right place” for me, in that intangible, unexplainable way that strikes an 18-year-old high school senior.

We didn’t have a mailbox at our house; the postman actually slipped our mail through a slit in the front door and the various pieces then burst through the slot and scattered in the closet-size “foyer” of our ranch house in suburban Detroit.

On this late April afternoon, my mom had picked up the letter postmarked Hanover, NH and knew immediately that it probably did not contain very good news. The envelope was business-sized and skinny, very skinny. I had jokingly told her near the end of March that skinny letters were bad, because all they contained was a polite, but firm, explanation of rejection and a back-of-the-hand wish of good luck in the future

Sensing the worst, my mom didn’t want to open the letter, so she brought it with her to a school baseball home game that I was playing in that afternoon. She arrived a few minutes late, and while I perched at third base in the top of the first inning, I saw her walking from the car toward the place she always liked to sit, under a large poplar tree behind first base, directly across from my line of sight.

She was struggling with her usual array of items, a fold-up lawn chair, a slightly too-full purse and a floppy sun hat, which she rarely ever wore. This time though, slipped between her fingers was that skinny, business-size envelope. We smiled from afar at each other, but I could see in her eyes what she had been thinking ever since she eyed the Dartmouth letter in the foyer. I knew her too well, even then: “Jimmy, I’m so sorry” was in a thought bubble floating over her head.

The rest of the baseball game was – and still is – a blur. I know we lost (appropriately metaphorical), I know I got hit by a pitch (the symbolism continues) and I know that I lingered longer than usual in the post-game rituals of stuffing the helmets and bats in the bag, grabbing the bases and placing them in the cage behind the backstop and various logistical matters that I, as a veteran senior on the team, usually left to the underclassman.

By this time, my mom was already waiting in yellow Chevy Vega, sitting in the passenger seat and listening to WJR-AM, the “Great Voice of the Great Lakes,” and her one and only source for news and information. I tossed my stuff in the box seat, slipped into the driver’s seat and said: “It’s too cold in New Hampshire anyway.”

Neither she nor I had still opened the skinny Dartmouth letter, but we knew what it meant. And she reached over from her plastic bucket seat, and I turned from mine toward her and we hugged for a good two minutes.

These many years later, I still remember many of the details of that day, including the tears of sadness that dripped from her face onto the shoulder of my dusty, navy-blue jersey. Oddly, I barely recall anything about the days or circumstances in which I opened the big, fat acceptance letters, and financial-aid packages, from the schools that did say yes to my application.

The point of my story is that whether you are the parents of a current high-school senior, or of a younger child, or even of a current college student who might someday be awaiting word from a graduate school, the situation that my mom and I “managed” through back in 1975 still occurs all over America today.

Don’t get mad, either at the system or your child. And please consider these three points about selective college admissions:

  • While your child must have outstanding grades and near-perfect test scores to be considered for admission to a selective school, the grades and test scores alone are not enough.
  • Prestigious universities are not just selecting individuals; these schools are selecting a class. They want a well-rounded and diverse group of students with talents beyond the classroom, a mix of musicians, community leaders, athletes who all share in common a love of learning and a high-school record to back it up.
  • Don’t bank, emotionally or otherwise, on only one school being the place that your child must attend. There are thousands of schools out there, and your child can attain a wonderful education at any of them.

As a postscript, I ended up at Northwestern, where I studied hard, benefited from the proximity to Chicago and its cultural activities and made some friendships that have lasted a lifetime. I do now look back on occasion and wonder “what if,” as this column bears proof. But I do that only because my new professional role at this organization causes me to reflect on the admissions processes at selective colleges, and to try to share my accumulated knowledge with all of you.

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