Andrew Ferguson had deliberately avoided reading articles about the college-admissions process until he realized it was time for his son Gillum to apply to college. Since Ferguson's time as an undergrad, SAT prep courses, high school schedules packed with AP courses and $40,000 college counselors had become the norm. Ferguson documented his and Gillum's journey through the jungle of college admissions in Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College. TIME spoke with Ferguson about parental anxiety and the much dreaded personal essay.
Why write about the college application process?
It brings together all these huge national themes like personal ambition and status anxiety and ideas of equality and opportunity. [And it combines those] with the most intimate feelings that people have, which are their feelings as parents to do right by their kids.
Were you surprised by the way the process affected your own behavior?
I realized that there was something irrational that I was doing as a parent. I was about to either go broke or go into debt in order to get my son into a school that I knew was overpriced and that would continue to raise its prices and that probably wouldn't deliver the product that they were selling. We know two things about college from research in the last few years, and the first is that kids don't learn very much when they're there. The second is that where they went to school has almost no influence on things like their future happiness, job satisfaction, even income. But [regardless], I was still willing to knock myself out to try to get my kid into the kind of school that he wanted to go to.
Did you hit any particular low points as a parent?
When we were filling out the essays. I say we. He was writing the college-application essays. The essays are supposed to be answers to questions that I thought were unfailingly ludicrous and particularly ill-suited for young 17-year-old boys. They were all touchy-feely: What was your most embarrassing moment? What does it feel like when you do x, y or z? As one counselor said, "You have to tell your son to reach in and bring out his innermost thoughts." And I said, "He's a 17-year-old boy, lady. He doesn't have any innermost thoughts, and if he did, you wouldn't want to know what they are and neither would I." So I was hovering over him as he had a terrible time trying to answer these touchy-feely questions. I remember at one point I said, "Why do you have this line in here? This line doesn't make any sense. You're trying to tell a joke, and the joke isn't funny. You really ought to just cut this line all together." And he said, "Dad, that was one of the sentences you wrote."
Speaking of backing off, didn't you tell your son not to lifeguard the summer before his senior year?
I didn't tell him not to lifeguard that summer. I just suggested he might want to look for a different kind of employment. [A professional college counselor] had said that there are all these things that the kids should do, you know, start a business, go to Guatemala and build wheelchair ramps in whorehouses. I knew he didn't have the entrepreneurial spirit and I wasn't going to send him to Guatemala, so we were sort of at a loss, and he ended up lifeguarding anyway.
What's the worst thing you were advised to do?
A lot of parents told me that if I wanted to learn about the general college experience, I had to go onto the Web and read collegeconfidential.com, which is this massive website that I describe in the book. It's a place where anxious parents and their children and professional counselors can come together in a common meeting space and spread misinformation and gossip and lies about going to college. And there's no way to tell a good piece of advice from a bad piece of advice. So you can go from one page to the next, and an hour has passed and you have heard 12 different pieces of advice, all of which contradict each other.
If I were a parent counseling other parents right now, the No. 1 thing I would say is stay away from College Confidential. In fact, I'd stay away from the Web as much as you can because the Web has no particular filter for good information and bad information.
Is there anything you wished you had realized earlier?
I thought it would matter if he went to one school over another or if he went to college at all rather than go off into business. But kids at 18 and 19 and 20 years old are going to grow no matter what they do. I look back on it now and am very happy for what my son and I went through. I sure as hell wouldn't want to do it again. But I have to, with my daughter.
What will you do differently with your daughter?
I think I would be much calmer. I think it has been much calmer. Partly due to the fact that I do know how it ends. She will get into college. She will turn into a fine young woman wherever she goes. So that kind of takes some of the pressure off.
So there are no lasting scars?
We can look back on it and see that he's happy and know that it was worth it for that reason. Kids in four-year colleges generally have a high level of satisfaction. Why wouldn't they? What's there not to like?