Friday , November 19 2021
A journal of one family's hunt for the perfect college for their youngest child, presently a high school junior.

In Pursuit of Ivy: A Parental Guide to the College Hunt – Part One

Tomorrow is a big day in the Barnett household. Our youngest child’s SAT scores will be posted up on, and with that small milestone, we will officially commence our second (and final, thank heaven) great American college chase.

Perhaps a bit of an acronymic explanation might prove handy at this point. The SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test), given by the College Board, is required when applying to many east coast and private schools. It is made up of three parts: verbal, math and a writing sample. The PSAT, also called the PSAT/NMSQT, is the Pre-SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. It is generally taken in the sophomore year and provides qualification for some merit (academic) scholarships.

The ACT (American College Test) is administered by the ACT organization, which also administers other standardized tests, like the EXPLORE and the PLAN tests, generally given at earlier ages. The ACT is used in applying to many Midwest schools. It is divided into several parts, and now, like the SAT, also includes a writing section.

My kids are five years apart, and in some ways, they are light years apart (temperament, academic interests, and hobbies). In some ways, they are only microns apart. Both are sensitive and intelligent. Yeah, I know. Whose kids aren’t when viewed through the parental lens? They are both good writers and have similar musical tastes. One is a good student (son) and the other (daughter) was (in high school, anyway) so far above the curve she couldn’t feel the stones being hurled at her by the merely good students below. Five years, two very different kids, two very different college searches.

I thought it might be fun (and maybe helpful to others) if I chronicled this little adventure (which I am dubbing “In Pursuit of Ivy: A Parental Guide to the College Hunt”) and shared it with other parents. Part informational and part commiserational, the point is to both draw on the wisdom of others and hopefully impart a bit of my (meager) own.

Full disclosure: I am not a college counselor, a teacher, or a guidance counselor – nor do I play one on TV. I’m the mother of two kids, a dog, and a rabbit, living in a very modest house in the very modest middle class Chicago suburb of Wheeling. My children were both privately educated until high school, when they transferred to our very fine melting pot of a public high school.

First, so as not to unduly embarrass my children, I will refer to them by their stage names: Dick and Jane. Except in this story, Jane is older (by five years) than Dick, and there is no Sally. Spot is being played by Feathertail (her real name) and would never tolerate a cat (particularly one called “Puff” in her midst). So much for reading primer analogies.

Oops. My husband just ordered me to assign different (and less embarrassingly dorky) pseudonyms for our children. So they will be henceforth known as Drake and Jana. I do believe those are suitably "yuppie puppy-ish" for our purposes.

In the five years between college searches, some things have changed and some things have remained pretty much the same. College tuition is way too high. Unfortunately, that hasn’t changed. Just needed to state the obvious and get it out of the way.

In general, state schools are cheaper (especially if you happen to be a resident), but not always for non-residents. Canadian schools are still a relative bargain. Most private colleges are not. Kids apply to far too many schools (and this seems to have gotten worse in the past five years.)

When Jana applied to college, the norm was six to eight colleges; now it’s more like 12 to 15 (or more.) High school juniors still take the PSAT (that one hasn’t changed since I was in high school), the SAT, and, in our area of the country, the ACT. However, more kids take serious prep classes, and many more than I recall from five years ago study with an SAT (or ACT) tutor. That is where I’ll draw the line. A tutor? Seriously? Never mind.

As recently as September, all I had to do to induce a grimace in Drake was to gently and subtly broach the “C” word. He would snarl something to the effect of “Are you out of your mind?” (Although, I have to say, he said it more politely than that, but you get the idea.) Here it is March of his Junior year, and overnight he has turned into “Drake College,” (Not to be confused with Drake University) comparing schools, rankings, academics, and distance from home (farther is better than nearby), and wondering what he’s going to get on his SAT.

We'll see you tomorrow for Part Two.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, ( Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."

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