Bittersweet by Jamie Kirkpatrick


A couple days ago, I walked into one of the shops on High Street and bumped into a young friend of mine. I knew she had recently graduated from high school and was headed off to college in a few weeks. “Are you excited?” I asked. Of course she was. “Nervous?” A shrug; “Not really.” “How do your parents feel about you going away?” I asked. She looked at me for a moment before answering. “My mom’s OK,” she said, “but my dad is kind of freaking out.”

As a former college counselor, I’ve been watching this drama unfold for almost 30 years. During that time, I worked with more than 2,000 high school students and their families, helping them navigate the college admissions process, preparing them for the day they would leave home and sail off into the great beyond. Working together, we strategized about high school course selection; about which colleges to apply to and when; about how to schedule and survive standardized tests like the infamous SAT or ACT; about how to set deadlines, complete applications, and write thoughtful, engaging, and insightful essays that showcase some unique strength, talent, or aspect of personality; about how to plan campus visits and make the most of interview opportunities; about how to sort through the maze of scholarships and financial aid that can take some of the bite out of the staggering cost of higher education.

I’ve even helped—or tried to help—relieve some of the stress that comes from the inevitable rejection that almost every college applicant will experience at some point along the way. For that matter, I’ve spent countless hours helping parents manage their own expectations and dreams and worries, trying to find a way to help them let go so they can watch their fledglings leave the nest and safely fly off into the future.  Most of the time, it was a successful adventure for all of us; a few times, it ended in disappointment for one of us.

The landscape of college admissions has changed dramatically in the last few years. Because of new application instruments, methodologies, and standards, there are many more qualified applicants in competitive admissions pools these days. (A few elite colleges and universities actually boast about accepting only 5 or 6% of their applicants—and almost every applicant is objectively qualified!) There are competing demands for different kinds of students with diverse backgrounds and talents. Costs have soared: many private colleges and universities cost upward of $60,000 a year now while tuition, room and board, and books for in-state residents at flagship public universities hover around $40,000 per year. Intimidating? You bet it is!

And yet for all the sturm und drang surrounding the college admissions process, it is for many—although not all—an important rite of passage, a leave-taking that marks the beginning of adulthood. And therein lies the rub. For the college-bound student, there is the excitement of new beginnings, new friendships, new independence. At the same time, there is that old familiar fear of the unknown and the creeping regret that comes from leaving the shelter of home, family, and old friends. Once upon a time, there were monsters hiding under a child’s bed; when it’s time to go to college, there’s still some residual existential angst.

For parents, too, there is a mountain of hope and an ocean of concern. Will she be safe? What happens if he gets sick? Who will care for them as much as I do?

And that’s the bittersweet part of going away to college. So to my young friend heading off to Tulane in a few weeks, I wish you God speed. And to you, dad, I say come over to the porch whenever you want to talk.

I’ll be right back.

PS: Robert Day, accomplished author and former distinguished Professor of English at Washington College, once wrote a wonderful essay for the Washington Post Magazine entitled “The ABCs of Enlightenment.”  It’s an absolutely essential read for students heading off to college and for their parents. (Here’s a link. I recommend it highly!

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” will be released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is




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