The Comparison Game: Preparing for College

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A few weeks ago, I found myself in the office of a college counselor, seeking advice on college preparation and acceptance for our 10th-grade son.

Let me start by saying that I don’t know exactly how I ended up in that office - but I think it all boils down to fear. You see, a few months before this meeting, I was listening to some mothers from my son’s class talk about the pressure they felt to enroll their child in enough AP classes, log a crazy amount of volunteer hours, and secure career-building internships to boost their child’s college application.

If you had been there for this impromptu panic meeting, you might have thought that I shared their same worries and insecurities about what I was (or was not) doing to ensure my child’s future success. I nodded in agreement, folded my arms in frustration, and played the part of a likewise concerned mom, but inside I was thinking, “NONE of this has even crossed my radar. Boy am I behind!” As I left the group and got into my car, I laughed at my complete cluelessness to the college prep track that everyone else seemed to know inside and out. At first I thought, “It’s fine. I applied early-decision to one school, was accepted, and never filled out another application. I didn’t have a lot of volunteer hours, took not a single AP course, and had zero internship experience outside of being a camp counselor - and I still got into college.”

But as I kept driving, a sinking feeling came over me - if everyone else was worried, I should be worried too, especially since I love my children more than life itself. Well, that’s all it took as worry set in immediately. Here I was rolling along in life and thinking I was doing a pretty good job as a mom; I was feeding my kids healthy foods, monitoring their screen time, making sure they brushed their teeth and did their homework each night. I thought I was rocking the mom game … but all of that flew out the window. So, I found the best college advisor within a 100 mile radius of Mills River and resolved to do whatever it took to get my son back on track with his peers.

As a camp director, I am often too aware of the daily pressures our children face to measure up to what culture and society say is acceptable. Our children are playing the comparison game every single day, and it’s a game they can never really win. There is always someone smarter, funnier, more athletic, more artistic, or more talented than they are. However, what I didn’t realize was that I joined in this high pressure game of comparing myself and my efforts (or lack thereof) to what other parents were (or were not) doing. I was caving to a similar pressure that the world is putting on parents today - what are YOU doing to make YOUR child successful? What are YOU doing to prepare your child for college? How are YOU preparing your child for their future? Are YOU ensuring they’re taking the right classes and enrolling in the appropriate programs? Have YOU helped them identify their career path and secure the necessary internships to accomplish their goals? It’s a competitive game, and just like our children, parents today are afraid of not measuring up to the expectations and standards of others.

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As I sat in that office with a copy of his transcript, PSAT scores, and a notepad to plan out my son’s future, I listened as the advisor mapped out his course load for the next two years, along with a list of recommendations for internships, volunteer opportunities, and favored extra-curricular clubs and activities. While my son sat there focused and determined to cross everything off the list, I was completely overwhelmed.

After dinner that night, I shared my experience with Bryan and apologized for not starting on all of this college prep stuff sooner. Bryan looked at me with shock and said, “Why are you apologizing? Don’t you realize that we have done more college prep work for our kids than any advisor could put on their list? We have done more than build a college resume for our child, we have prepared him for life. That’s what we do for all kids at camp. Everyone eventually builds a college resume with grades, classes, volunteer hours, and work experience. We have given our kids so much more. Some kids might be more prepared to get INTO college, but because of camp, our kids are prepared FOR college, and life beyond it.”

Bryan was right. For a moment, I forgot about all the good that camp was doing in the life of my child and yours. I forgot about all the personal growth and maturity our kids gain from a summer camp experience. I forgot about the values, lessons, and life-skills learned through summer camp. These things can’t be taught by a college counselor, or in an AP course, or from a “get-into-college’ checklist.

Camp kids are prepared for college because they have the ability to enter a new environment, make new friends, and build a home for themselves without mom and dad. Camp kids make the most incredible friends because they have learned not only to accept others for their differences, but to appreciate the unique blessings those differences add to their lives. Camp kids have experience solving their own problems without parental support, and they are more confident because of it. They’ve faced fears, overcome obstacles, experienced failure, and celebrated success that was all theirs. These are the gifts of camp, and these are the things that have prepared our children to not only succeed in college, but to succeed in life.

We have done more than build a college resume for our child, we have prepared him for life. That's what we do for all kids at camp.

As a camp director, I know all these truths about camp, but as a mom, I forgot them. I have seen tremendous growth in my children from summers spent in the mountains. Yet I forgot what I WAS doing for my kids because I fell to the pressures of what the world said I SHOULD be doing for them.

With each passing day, I draw closer to my child leaving the house for college. Like every parent, I want to send him off knowing I did my best to prepare him for life’s journey. In this unique time of social distancing, I find myself evaluating what really matters most. How do I prioritize my time with him before he leaves? How do I want him to remember this time? Do I want him to be an adult at 15, or do I want him to enjoy his childhood free from the pressures of this world?

These last couple weeks have allowed me to slow down and count my blessings. I count camp as one of the greatest, and I want my children to enjoy that blessing as long as possible. In the end, will I regret the AP class that my child didn’t take? Will I still feel guilty for not enrolling them in the summer enrichment course? I doubt it. Fear wants me to, but faith reminds me that in love, I gave them what I knew would best prepare them for their future. And I believe that one day, my kids will not only agree, but thank me.

And so it is with you! Hang in there, take stock of the good things you’ve done and are doing, and continue with what YOU know is best for your own kids. They’ll thank you someday, too.