In May of 1975, my father took me to visit colleges in New England. For some reason I can’t recall, I thought that’s where the best ones were. We started at Yale, where my father thought I could play college football. The Yale coach disagreed with my father’s assessment of my athletic talent, so we had to find other places that might want to give me a chance.
We visited four smaller colleges: Amherst, Williams, Wesleyan, and Trinity. The Amherst football coach spent a lot of time with us, touring us all over the campus, showing us his favorite painting in the art museum and taking us into the recital hall to speak of the wonderful concerts he had heard there. I thought that any place where the football coach knew there was more to life than football had to be special, and I was hooked.
Hot and nervous in the jacket and tie I had worn for my college interview later that day, I was stunned when one of the largest human beings I had ever seen came dashing into the office in tennis clothes, soaked with sweat, and said, “Sorry I’m late. We had to go to a third set to see who’d win!” He was the dean of admission.
As we introduced ourselves, my father asked if he should join us in the dean’s office. “No, Mr. Teare. You stay right here. I’ll take Christopher in. Time for the doctor to operate.” I was fortunate not to faint.
The procedure apparently went well enough, because when I wrote to the dean to thank him for his time and tell him I planned to apply early decision, he wrote back, including the words, “So far as I am concerned, you have nothing to worry about.” He was the dean of admission. It was June. My junior year hadn’t ended, and I was being assured of admission to my first-choice college.
Why do I tell this story? Because I was lucky. My process was easy. Not many, if any, students have this sort of experience anymore. And I wasn’t that special. Things were just very different almost 50 years ago.
I also tell the story because, prior to contemplating retirement, I hadn’t thought a lot about my motivations for getting into college counseling as a still-new teacher in 1982, then returning to the role in 2003 – after some time in journalism, including as a television anchorman, and 10 years in other jobs in schools.
College counseling is not the only thing I’ve done professionally, but it is the thing I have done the most. Why? I could dress up my motivations as some sort of calling, but that would be more grandiose than accurate. As I reflect, I think I’ve done this work because I was very lucky (including my father’s help) to find my way into a college that was right for me. Without really considering my motivations until recently, I guess I have wanted to help other young people find places that would be equally right for them. That’s the simple part.
The complex part is the process these days, one that has led to ridiculously high cost, soaring student debt, a test-prep-rankings industrial complex that costs too much time and money to predict too little about future achievement, too much emphasis on a tiny group of colleges that reject more than 90% of their applicants, and a toll of anxiety and stress on students and parents. I’ve tried to be helpful, but I’ve also seen things get harder and more expensive every year since I first did this work 40 years ago. I wish it were not so, but it is.
While I have sought to help the students in my care, it’s time for others to pick up the work in my stead. Wardlaw+Hartridge has two wonderful college counselors and a superb assistant to back them up. I have done this work in five schools in Europe, the United States, and the US Virgin Islands, and I know many more college offices in schools all over the nation through other professional experiences. In that context, I know you are in excellent hands with the W+H college counseling team.
I admire the ambition and energy of the students I’ve known here, as well as the love and devotion of the parents I’ve met. I urge W+H graduates to seek out the best professors they can find (use Rate My Professor and talk with older students, starting with your dorm advisor, for recommendations); then to take classes at times of day when they will attend. (If you’re not a morning person, do not take morning classes. If you sleep through them, you are lighting your parents’ money on fire.)
To the seniors and those to follow: I wish you all the very best. You will have the chance to make the most of a college that wants you. The Yale coach didn’t want me, so I needed to find a place that did. You will, too. Especially for those who may be disappointed by next month’s early-round decisions, Frank Bruni puts it wisely in one of the best books on how to think about college: “Where you go is not who you’ll be.” What you make of the opportunities wherever you go will make you who you will be. Make the most of what’s available wherever you go. When you do, what the dean who admitted me to college wrote to me 47 years ago will apply to you, too: “So far as I am concerned, you have nothing to worry about.”