I was jolted out of sleep by a rapid burst of text messages last night. I scrambled around for my glasses and squinted at my phone. On it was a photo of a neatly folded t-shirt, ready to go in the suitcase of one of my favorite students as he packed for the big college trip his family was about to take to Southern California. The t-shirt featured two crossed arms, human-like, each capped with three-fingered claws – very reminiscent of Freddy Krueger. The text read, “Does it matter if I wear this shirt to college tours? Is it a ‘violent message?’ My mom won’t let me wear it cuz obviously I’m not at a point in my life that I can dress myself.” These are the moments that affirm to me how much I love my job as a college counselor. I love these kids, and I empathize with their parents. It’s easy for me now to laugh at these normal rites of passage, but if I’m honest, I’m instantly thrown back in time to my own fights with my own now college-going sons over what to wear, how to be, on a college tour. I remember being horror struck with the realization: I read to you every night, I had you vaccinated, I drove an hour each day so that you could go to the magnet school, and now you’re going to throw it all away by wearing that asinine Pabst Blue Ribbon t-shirt? You’re not rushing a fraternity yet! Our biggest fight was when Robbie insisted on wearing his Duke sweatshirt at Brown because he was cold. Not my proudest moment. I remember both Richard and Robbie texting and tweeting during intimate college info sessions. I wonder what made a worse impression, the texting or the uncontrolled pinch that I delivered in a panic– followed by a loud “Ouch!”
Go back and examine the picture accompanying this blog post. That’s the first impression Robbie made at the University of Pennsylvania. Yes, that’s a Georgetown Hoya’s cap. This was only the beginning of his REM cycle. Within 4 minutes his head had lolled back to the heavens, and his mouth gaped open in a drooly-mouthed snore. At Brown, we all had the uncontrollable giggles when Richard kept writing notes to Robbie and Will: “I am #2 in my class…at BROWN.” “I made a splash…at Brown.” Clearly we weren’t cut out for the Ivy League. Will went on a personal survey of the periodic tables at all the fine universities. I’m not kidding when the 8-year old tootsie raised his hand in the 75 person info session at Columbia and asked why their periodic table was outdated. I think I grabbed his hair and whispered at the top of my voice, “Don’t make us all look like idiot savants!”
What I’ve learned since is that it doesn’t really matter what a student wears on a college tour. (Interviews are a slightly different matter.) Tours are a time for students to see how they fit in and whether they can see themselves making their lives on the campus. It’s very understandable and normal for parents to want students to present their best selves when visiting colleges. Many times, the info session and tour are the first real live interactions a student has with a college, and it’s like we parents have been planning for this moment for 17 years. Students, on the other hand, are walking into what may be their home for the next 4 years, and they want to make absolute certain that they aren’t misinterpreted from the get go. Parents should try to imagine what it feels like to be their teenager, getting out of the car and taking his first step onto a college campus. It’s important for kids to bring their past lives with them as an anchor to where they’ve been. I am NOT a hipster. I like heavy metal, and I certainly do not know these 2 adults sitting here with me asking me to put my phone away. It’s all OK, even if it is plastered on the front of their t-shirts for the world to see. Remember it could be worse; you could be that nice middle-aged woman in the row behind you sitting next to that disinterested young man with ear gauges and dreadlocks who clearly doesn’t know HER.
My rules for dressing on the college visit:
1. Be comfortable above all else.
2. Almost everyone dresses casually when visiting a college- shorts and t-shirts are fine. No one will judge you poorly for this. Avoid your oldest, torn shirt perhaps.
3. Express who you are if that makes you feel good.
4. Make sure your clothes show that you respect yourself. Avoid profanity, alcohol and drug references, and anything else that might suggest you might be a dangerous person on your clothing (Freddy Krueger claws excepted.)
5. Do not wear another college’s gear. If it’s freezing cold and it’s all you have, just try to remain anonymous!
6. If you are interviewing or have a personal appointment, the rules change a bit. You should still express yourself, but dress in a way that lets the people you meet know that you respect their time. For evaluative interviews, I’d bump up your fashion to a step or two from a t-shirt and shorts, but still dress your age and style. No suits or ties needed, unless you are interviewing for a scholarship or for a particular program, like a BS-MD program, in which case the college probably offers advice on the expected dress.
7. Parents, remember that my go-to rule regarding college admissions is that colleges want authentic kids. Trust that your child’s authentic self is worthy and creative and interesting!
8. One more important point. My son did not fall asleep or wear a beer t-shirt at any school that he really loved—nor did he text during the info session. Teenagers are not stupid. Sometimes they end up at their best-fit schools by their own, meandering good way. TRUST THEM!