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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 04/29/2010

College choice: Not a one-size-fits-family deal

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Eileen Wilkinson, a college counselor for almost 25 years and former associate director of admissions at Marymount University in Virginia. She has also served as an admissions consultant for major colleges and universities and currently works in education counseling for PrepMatters.

By Eileen Wilkinson
As the oldest of five children, I became keenly aware early in life that in fairy tales fortune smiled upon the youngest daughter far more often than the reliably odious, eldest sibling. Even in the Bible, the chosen one was typically the baby of the family, such as Joseph of Genesis and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat fame.

However, my experience working with siblings in the realm of college admissions has presented a markedly different perspective. The plight of the younger brother or sister of a phenom, virtuoso or genius has helped me develop empathy for these young people as they attempt to navigate the college selection process within the shadow of perceived greatness.

While no individual situation is entirely typical, let me offer such an example of sibling rivalry – college style.

“Michael” sat in my office, flanked by both parents, with the demeanor of one who believed that
jumping out the window might provide a welcome alternative to our conversation about college.

With shoulders hunched, he scowled at me from behind a swath of hair covering his eyes.

We’re off to a good start, aren’t we? I quickly reviewed his transcript and standardized test scores.

His mother laughed nervously, and his father said, “Well, as you can see, Michael is not Steve.” unintentional, but well placed body-blow. I had worked with big brother “Steve,” a mathematics whiz-kid, who was now happily situated at a fine college.

No, Michael was not Steve, and I was not surprised, nor offended, by Michael’s obvious discomfort about being in my office.

For many younger siblings, the prospect of choosing a college is often saddled with self-imposed, and sometimes parental, pressure to meet the standards set by an older sibling.

In turn, what is already a stressful time in a teenager’s life can quickly morph into a scenario in which they feel as if every facet of their lives—their grades, standardized test scores and extracurricular activities—is being measured, and found lacking.

Such was the case with Michael. He was clearly feeling pressure, and perhaps even a sense of letdown, much like the man on deck after an in-the-park Grand Slam. To add to Michael’s angst, his parents expressed hope that Michael might gain admission to the same college Steve attended.

My first goal was to separate Michael’s journey in this process from that of his brother’s, not simply because it was unlikely Michael would gain acceptance to the same college, but more so because that particular college, and even that “type” of college, wouldn’t serve him well.

As a simple comparison, how many times do we listen to one child greet the answer to, “What’s for dinner?” with glee, while another moans, as if expecting to be poisoned?

Of course it would be preposterous to expect that our children would appreciate the same food, fashion or literature. As with these differences, a college choice should be an individual consideration, not a one-size-fits-the-family deal.

As a parent, once you have already successfully navigated your first child through the rough waters of the college selection process, it can be tempting to impart your impressions and lessons-learned to the next child down the line.

Keep in mind, however, that for many younger siblings, college may be their first opportunity to live and learn in an environment where they cannot possibly be greeted with, “ooh, you’re X’s brother or sister;” where they finally have the chance to chart their own course, rather than sink or swim in the wake of an older sibling.

Certainly, many siblings happily attend the same college and achieve individual success, and, of course you can and should offer advice. Still, the best thing you can do at times is to step back and allow this child the same “the world is my oyster” moment of discovery the oldest experienced back in the day when you yourself didn’t know the difference between Early Decision and Early Action.

Truth be told, Michael had his own, unique talents. They were not yet as fully developed as his older brother’s, but they were there, waiting to be nurtured.

Over time, I learned that Michael had a wicked sense of humor, and a penchant for writing. He eventually chose a college where he could pursue creative writing and find success for himself.

Who knows? Given his perceived suffering in the shadow of Steve the Great, Michael may have been able to use aspects of his life experience as fodder for his stories. Perhaps, in his tales too, the younger brother emerges as the triumphant hero.


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By Valerie Strauss  | April 29, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  College Admissions, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  college admissions, prep matters, prepmatters, sibling rivalry, siblings and college  
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A good reminder for parents. With so many colleges and universities, there is a fit for everyone. In my family, my sister went to Madison, I went to William and Mary, and little brother attended VA Tech. All of us were happy. Of course, I keep telling my own kids they have to attend W&M, but I'm only joking (mostly)!

Posted by: jennypalmer1 | April 29, 2010 7:09 PM | Report abuse

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