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An education in applying to colleges

It is nearly over, thank God. I don’t know how much more I could take. I can only imagine how actual college applicants feel.

I suspect that any parent like myself who has – or who has had – a college-bound offspring appreciates my psychic pain. Going to college is a hard-earned privilege. Actually figuring out where to apply and what to expect along the way is like navigating a landscape strung with tripwires.

March’s end brought the bulk of admissions decisions from colleges. It was the culmination of months of deadline-bumping applications and endless essays by 17-year-olds on their most meaningful life experience (I dunno, making the soccer team?). Kids now have a month to decide where they actually want to go.

Every parent wants to raise a well-rounded kid. Then you get to college-app time and find out top schools don’t particularly want a well-rounded kid. They want a well-rounded class. Schools are partial to “added-value” kids who can toot a flute in the college band, play goalie for the soccer team, channel their inner Brando in the college production of “Streetcar” or otherwise separate themselves from the solid-citizen, high-achiever pack.

Forbes columnist Steve Cohen calls this “the worst-kept secret of college admission. ... Colleges want a kid who is devoted to – and excels at – something.” Note to parents of pre-schoolers: Start now with the music lessons and summer sports camps.

You ideally want an admissions counselor to say something like, “Oh, yeah, that’s the kid who recovered from a car accident to set the sectional record in the mile run while knitting a sweater in the school colors.” That acceptance letter is in the mail.

Getting into a college is a just reward for years of hard work. But wait. It is not over. Many top-shelf schools, particularly in coveted big cities, do not have room at the inn for all incoming freshmen. So along with some acceptance letters comes a road map. Justin or Sarah are instructed to spend their first semester at the school’s foreign-country outpost. Granted, there are worse things than a few months in, say, Costa Rica. But an 18-year-old wants to be bonding with other newbies on campus, not applying for a passport.

Another harsh truth: The road for private-school applicants does not end with acceptance. It is finding out whether the school that sent a dozen postcards soliciting your kid’s application actually wants him or her enough to fork over some cash.

It is grant money – not loans – that cuts the coronary-inducing $55,000 annual sticker price to mere mild-stroke proportions. Without it, acceptance for many kids is just a notch on the yeah-I-got-in belt.

Often lost in the scrum for an elite-school admission is what should be the prime consideration: Not finding the “best” school your kid can get into, but the school that is the best “fit” for your kid. Which doesn’t stop most parents from angling to get their kid an edge.

One top-school admissions counselor, only half-jokingly, suggested that expectant mothers deliver the child in a foreign country. When it comes to college-app time, being a native of an exotic land will give your kid a rare “hook.” Elite-school officials will salivate at the chance to boast that their diverse on-campus mix includes a native of, say, Madagascar.

Like I said, it has been a long haul.