A Mom's Temp Job as College Headhunter for Her Teen

Visiting the Ivies and safeties, dealing with ditzy student guides, and more.

By: Margo Warren

In a migration pattern common to many Washingtonians, after my husband and I had kids we left DC, moving to the suburbs to take advantage of Montgomery County's renowned public-school system, where we landed in the Walt Whitman High School "cluster." During my older son's junior year, I found myself with a new job.

Job description: Assist client, 17-year-old boy, in college search with more than 2,700 possible choices; select itineraries, routes, hotels, meals; set up appointments for orientations and tours; ensure that client arrives on time, rested, prepared, appropriately dressed.

Relevant qualifications: Must have a strong ability to hold your tongue. May not offer thoughts about a college, its geographic desirability, or its student body until client has formulated his own.

Travel requirements: Extensive.

Compensation: Zero.

Time frame: Job to begin in spring of client's junior year and be completed by fall of senior year, when client must create wish list of schools consisting of a mix of "reaches," "probables," and "safeties."

About client: Likely to be taller than you. At the beginning of your work with client, he is unlikely to know the difference between West Virginia and Wesleyan or even between a college and a university. He may be hard pressed to define "liberal arts."

Caveat: When job comes to an end, you may experience prolonged period of weeping and, in some reported cases, even mild clinical depression.

I take this crazy job. Client is very likable and easy to work for, though he can be, like his grandfather, "a man of few words." In our initial consultation, he states an interest in studying music and sets his geographic parameters as "north of Bethesda--or California."

Springtime Slog

New York University. A friend's father is a professor of government at NYU, so he takes us on a personal tour. We get to see the library, and he points out the balcony from which a student jumped. The professor wants our client to go there because, he says, "I need the money." Client registers no discernible reaction to where he is. I suppress my urge to say: "Look around, man--you're in New York City, the best city in the entire freaking world." It's rainy. Very urban, not much of a campus, but as our friend the professor says, "The entire city is your campus." That would be New York City. But I say nothing. Client also says nothing about NYU itself.

Off to Beantown. I suppress all urges to say, "This is one of the greatest cities in the world. Don't you love it? Isn't it fantastic?"

Tufts University. I want client to love Tufts. The elephant mascot, the extraordinary facilities. The prestige. The admissions office is handing out rain ponchos; we are drenched. The tour ends on the roof of the library for the alleged sweeping vista of Boston. We see nothing but gray skies, zero visibility.

Dripping client is eager to get into the car and says little.

Boston College. I subcontract this visit out to my husband, reasoning that it would be better led by a Catholic, even if a lapsed one. My husband loves BC; he loves the nice students and the Doug Flutie statue. I think the client likes it, too.

Berklee College of Music. What a place--our tour is led by an aspiring country singer. Berklee has everything a musician could want plus a dozen majors--production, engineering, movie scoring. Tour guide scares me when discussing the liberal-arts requirements: "You only have to take 40 hours and maintain a 2.5 grade-point average; the rest is music all the time." John Mayer went there, Quincy Jones--amazing alums, great facilities. Serves as a valuable field trip for a musician, kind of like going to Graceland.

Client feels underqualified but intrigued.

Boston University. School is urban, but there is a patch of greenery, the "BU beach" along the Charles River. Lots of Emmys and Oscars in the library. The tour guide is a ditzy pre-med whom both client and I agree we wouldn't want to see at our hospital bedside anytime soon. Off to the music department. Once again client seems daunted by the audition process, though impressed by the high-tech practice rooms.

While in Boston, client shows superior mastery of the public-transportation system and seems quite comfortable in the city.

Connecticut College. The fifth day of spring break and the weather is finally perfect. The sun is out; the campus looks like something from central casting--free private music lessons for all! Friendly students, everyone out on the lawn, an arboretum on the grounds, sledding on cafeteria trays. It's Connecticut College, for God's sake--no SATs required. Not a single strike against this visit.

Client says: "There was something off about that place."

Summertime Swing

University of Southern California. We visit during a gray and gloomy period in July. The tour guide apologizes and promises 333 days of sun a year. A film crew is on campus. We learn that graduates will be forever helped by 300,000 USC alums--Trojans helping Trojans--among them George Lucas. Randy Newman's "I Love LA" batters my brain.

Client says: USC is cool.

Next--upstate New York for a college blitz intended as my grand fireworks finale: six colleges in 3½ days, covering hundreds of miles. Conundrum of what to do with the little brother is solved by offload with the New Jersey cousins.

Cornell University. The famous Ivy on the hill lives up to its reputation for beauty and academic excellence. We see all of Ithaca below, the famous gorges. Tour guide discusses The Office, something both prospective students and their parents can enjoy. Mentions that Andy is a Cornell grad.

Client says: Cornell is probably a reach, but he might consider it.

Ithaca College. Newer and starker than Cornell but with a focused tour related to the client's stated interest--the School of Music. Serious prospective students, one carrying his violin case on the tour. We get the lowdown on applying to a music conservatory. We are handed a list of audition requirements--percussion instruments the client has never played, arias in languages he has never spoken. But we hear the magic selling point: "Music-education majors from Ithaca College have 100-percent job placement."

Client interacts with tour guide! Seems to like Ithaca College but remains confounded by audition process.

Colgate University. Named among the ten most beautiful campuses by the Princeton Review, and good friend went there, so why not? The grounds are lovely, but we start out with an orientation session that leaves us rather cold. Young and dopey admissions officer "is like" for every "says." Tour guide further slaughters English language: "When me and my roommate go sledding . . . ."

Client describes admissions officer as "annoying."

Hamilton College. Every reference on the tour is a chance for a dig at rival Colgate. Hamilton is classy. The admissions officer tells us that one of her favorite answers to the supplemental essay question "Why Hamilton?" was a single sentence: "Like Aaron Burr, I want a shot at Hamilton." The college focuses on teaching everyone to write well, which appeals to me, but oh, yeah--it's not about me.

Client begins assimilating knowledge: Says he likes Hamilton better than Colgate. Says a music degree from Ithaca College would be better than one from Hamilton.

On to Saratoga Springs, where at the height of "the racing season" the town goes from a population of 30,000 to 100,000.

Skidmore College. Everything goes right at Skidmore. The tour guide attended the client's rival high school, Bethesda-Chevy Chase. He is a music and government major. Client mentions he is in a Beatles cover band, and we learn there is an annual Beatlemania weekend featuring cover bands of the Fab Four.

Client says: "I think it's a good fit."

If the college fits, you must quit. But we do not. We race down the highway the next morning to Poughkeepsie.

Vassar College. Tour guide takes us to the drama department first. It's famous, apparently--Meryl Streep went there. Mix of old architecture and new, not well integrated. Original buildings stately; library looks like a Gothic cathedral with stained-glass windows. But a visit to the common room in one of the dorms does us in--sofas with stuffing coming out, dusty wires underfoot, lampshades cracked and askew. Music building "too far" to be included on the tour.

Client wants to leave so much that he is eager to head to New Jersey to see his little brother.

Final Report

Client has seen a total of 20 colleges or universities. Extensive organizational support required in the final phase.

Client wants to take piano lessons, rent a piano, take vocal lessons, prepare for music auditions. I write checks, prepare files and spreadsheets with deadlines. He writes essays, takes the SATs twice, and receives early-action acceptance from Boston College. Whew!

But it doesn't stop there. He cuts his list down from 14 schools to eight. In April he gets the nod from Skidmore and smiles in a telling way. He accepts its offer. He still has miles to go before he sleeps . . . in a dorm. I just wish I could accept that he has to leave home to do it.

I don't know if I'd take this job again, but there's a high-school sophomore in the house and something tells me I may have to.

Margo Warren lives in Bethesda.

This article appears in the May 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.