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When My Daughter Applies to College, I Want to Be Prepared to Help

“I got another email from a college today,” she said.

“Oh, from where?”

“Brown.”

Brown… Is that Ivy League? I wondered to myself. I wasn’t even sure where Brown was located.

I sensed a shade of excitement in her voice, but she’s only in 9th grade. She took the PSAT last fall, and since then, the college emails have started appearing in her inbox. I’m not quite ready to admit my first born is in high school, so I’m absolutely not ready to think about her applying to college.

Moments later she asked, “How is my GPA calculated?” and then “When should I start looking at colleges?”

She was thinking about her future as a college student, but when I heard those questions my first thought was of her as a preschooler: specifically, the first holiday party she attended at her preschool.

With no point of reference, she didn’t know she should be excited about the special event that day. I really didn’t know what to expect, either, so I didn’t make a big deal about it when I dropped her off. As I went about my morning with her baby sister in tow, I looked forward to hearing my big girl’s after-school recap of the party when I picked her up that afternoon.

However, when I arrived at her classroom later that day, I was horrified to see several other moms there, including one mom who was helping my child create a small gingerbread house with graham crackers and frosting. To my surprise, the party was still happening. And to my disappointment, I had no idea parents could attend. I was ashamed I hadn’t been there for my daughter. Instead of anticipating her recap on the drive home, I waited for her to ask me why I wasn’t at the party and to tell me how sad she was.

I beat myself up for weeks (years?) after, thinking of how I ruined the “important” milestone of building her first gingerbread house. After that, I asked the teacher about every party’s attendance policy, but that one incident left its mark. On me. My daughter never mentioned it.

The shame and doubt I feel now about her applying to college feels familiar. What if I mess it up? What if all the other parents know something I don’t know? What if my daughter thinks I’m a dummy for (inevitably) missing something?

She wanted to know how to calculate her GPA, but she has weighted classes. We didn’t have that at my high school. Her huge suburban high school has AP classes, Dual Credit classes, pre-AP classes, and I-don’t-even-know-what-else classes. I don’t know which class gets what points or why. And I certainly don’t know the formula used to get her GPA. To admit that to her is embarrassing. Isn’t this something I should know?

What is a parents role in college application process anyway?

She asked me when she should start looking at colleges because she thinks I have an answer. But when I was her age, we didn’t have the internet; I had to find information regarding applying to college in an actual paper book or catalog in my counselor’s office. That information lacked so many details, but I didn’t even know that. I had no clue what questions I should be asking. And, because I was a first-generation college student, my parents didn’t know either.

Of course, we all have the internet now and I am connected all day, every day. I don’t lack a way of finding answers, but I still don’t know what to ask. So far I’ve relied on the questions my daughter asks me, but that doesn’t seem fair to her; shouldn’t I be the one coming up with the questions? As a parent, isn’t that part of my job?

This past winter break, when nothing was like it used to be thanks to COVID, my daughter surprised me with a request. “Oh! Can we make a gingerbread house over break? From scratch? I’ve never made a real one.”

The question stopped me in my tracks. It was like she read my mind. Did she really not remember my major screw-up when she was in preschool? So I asked her about it. “No,” she said, “I don’t really remember much about preschool. I didn’t know we had parties!”

Stunned and excited, I clarified, “Okay, but I’ve never made a gingerbread house, either. I have no idea how to make one from scratch.”

“That’s okay,” she said. “I’m sure we can figure it out.”

I’m not known for my culinary skills, but I recognized this opportunity to redeem myself. I could finally fix my mistake from 10 years ago.

She found a simple recipe for the gingerbread online. The recipe gave dimensions for each piece of the house, so she used the information to draw a template for each section and cut them out. She followed the instructions and measured the ingredients. Not only had we never made a gingerbread house before, but we’d never collaborated on a baking project before. No one in my house has much experience baking, unless you count eating, so each step of our project felt like an accomplishment. What’s more, she was leading the way.

It was a literal mess, what with the icing and gravity and all. We had moments when we really weren’t sure what the end result would be, but we did it. Ten years after what I’d framed as a huge parenting fail, my first born and I built a gingerbread house together.

The impending college prep process feels like it could be another huge parenting fail for me, but then I remembered: It’s not about me. Preparing for college, choosing a school, applying to college, and deciding on a course of study? Those are part of my daughter’s journey. I’m just here to keep her on track. As it turns out, we work pretty well together. And she’s capable of much more than I realized.

Candy Mickels Mejia

Candy Mickels Mejia is a Gen X mom and writer based in the Houston area. She has written for various parenting and midlife sites and sometimes writes on her own site, Slightly Overcaffeinated. Find her on Twitter @cmickelsmejia.

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