This summer we embarked on that well known right-of-passage odyssey: The College Road Trip. And of course, me being built in the ridiculous way that I am, I immediately started free associating about the meaning of this trip. An odyssey, of course, is a courageous journey that changes everything. It’s named after the Greek Hero Odysseus. So I’ve been thinking about him. For a lot of reasons. One of them is that when Odysseus left his palace in Ithaka to voyage across the “wine dark sea” to Troy in order to fight for the return of Helen, he had only recently become a father.
I imagine Odysseus in the weeks of preparation before departing, with his twelve men in their black-tarred ship, anguishing not only over the upcoming war, but also because he has to leave his infant son, Telemachus. I think of Odysseus stricken with grief with the knowledge that he will not be able to protect his boy from the palace intrigues. The wily hero knows what will happen when he’s away. There will be pretenders to his throne, suitors to his wife, plots to harm his boy. I see Odysseus dispatching a court messenger to summon his old friend Mentor to Ithika, asking him to fend off the suitors and to guide his son until he returns.
The name Mentor always brings a hint of pleasant surprise. Even now, 25 centuries later, it is the word we use to describe a person with the wisdom to guide young people through the ordeal of adolescence, teaching them to think for themselves…
The aim of our trip was simple. It was to visit a half dozen schools, expose our son Zach to another part of the country, and to start to gain an understanding of his preference between big and small, urban and rural. As a bonus, we hoped Zach would learn that there are a lot of cool colleges in the world, and that there is more than just one great fit for him. Maybe this insight could remove at least a little of the stress from this anxiety ridden process.
I began this piece with meanderings about Odysseus and Mentor because in two very short years, we, like Odysseus, will be separated from our son. And, I believe that the four college years are the last important developmental period of his youth, and what happens in college will have lifelong consequences. I still hold the quaint notion that college should change his life. College should be a time for him to explore, to get to know himself, and his interests. Our hope is he will be awakened to his talents, not wind up bored, untouched, and unenlightened. In short, the college experience should be transformative. God knows we’ll be paying enough for it to be.
And it’s in this context of transformation that I want to find for my son what Odysseus wanted to find for his: A mentor. What better place to start looking than his potential coach? The dream is for Zach to swim for someone who will not only guide him through the trials and tribulations in the water, but also someone who will help him navigate some of the intrigue outside the pool. I want him to find that coach who will help prepare him for adult life after swimming, a person that he’ll still be visiting long after he’s graduated.
With the extreme caution that I am no expert, what follows are some impressions and insights from our trip. Because this is SwimSwam, they’re mostly limited to the swimming side of things. Please note that I’m a lost parent just like everybody else when it comes to college admissions, so anything I write should be taken with a whole shaker of salt. Every child is an experiment of one, so what appeals to us may not appeal to anybody else. But I hope our travels so far might generate some discussion or provide some of the comfort of shared experience to others embarking on this journey. I invite comments – especially if I’m mistaken about something (I’m learning too). If anyone wishes for genuine advice from someone knowledgeable about college swimming and admissions, I find articles written by Rick Paine on this website to be quite useful. Also note that I wish to remain purposely vague about the specific schools and coaches we visited:
- Realistic assessment: We began the search with a few broad brush assumptions. Yes, Zach does want to swim in college. No, he isn’t really a Cal, Stanford, USC or Michigan level swimming prospect. Some advice we’ve received from other parents who’ve already sailed this route is: You’ll probably want to try to find a team where your child will have a decent chance to make the travel squad. Otherwise the swimming experience just isn’t as fun. This sounds right to us as we know a few phenomenal swimmers who ended their careers early because they attended programs at the very highest end of the D1 spectrum and got lost once they arrived on campus.
- The only academic advice for now: He’s got to like the school. Unfortunately swimming is a demanding sport. Injury, illness, and burnout are always a possibility. In the end, the goal is to graduate. Wherever he chooses to go, he’s got to be able to see himself there – Even if he can no longer swim.
- Coaches are generous with their time: Early in the summer we encouraged Zach to fill out the athlete recruit form for each of the schools we planned to visit. He then wrote e-mails to each of the coaches and their assistants, explaining when he would be visiting, and asking for a meeting. In some cases, Zach needed to follow up with phone calls (this took some screwing up of his courage, but he managed). In the end, just as in swimming, persistence paid off. Zach arranged appointments with all but one coach (who was out of town, but they agreed to exchange emails after the college tour – which they did). Once on campus, most of the coaches spent an hour or more with us, telling us all about the school and the team. To a man (and this time they were all men) these coaches were gracious hosts. They helped make the process comfortable, informative, and enjoyable.
- Coaches are busy: Before, during, or after most of the meetings there was usually another swimmer or family wishing to speak with the coach. So I assume recruits are filing through at a constant rate. It being late August, when the Fall recruiting season is ramping up, probably didn’t help. While in most cases the coaches seemed to know about Zach’s swimming and his academics, they didn’t always seem to remember that he was at the time what is called a “rising junior” which we learned means he was between his sophomore and junior year in high school. When these coaches realized Zach had an extra year, it seemed to us that this came as a pleasant surprise. The moral of the story is, even though information was shared electronically, it’s probably a good idea in these initial meetings to review the specifics of the situation.
- Let the separation begin: I have this theory that raising a kid is a long process of preparing for separation. I’m simultaneously excited and despairing about Zach leaving, but it’s got to be done. For this reason we tried to put Zach in charge of the college process as much as possible. It was his job to make contact with the coaches, and he took the lead during the meetings with the coach, introducing his parents, asking the questions, etc.. We all got better at this as we gained experience. In all cases, these coaches are pro’s, intuitively nurturing the process along. It was fun watching Zach grow in his role, and we are grateful to the coaches who helped it unfold.
- Know the difference between Early Decision (ED) and Regular Decision (RD): We visited some academically selective schools. At these institutions, the coaches have the ability to “support an application,” but the number of applications they can support is limited. The Early Decision (ED) admissions process is used to indicate to the school that this particular institution is the student’s first choice. ED applications are usually due by Nov 1 of the student’s senior year in high school. The ED is also binding, meaning if the student is accepted under ED, he must withdraw all his other college applications, and he can’t attend another school. All coaches wish to fill their rosters early. As one coach put it, he uses most of his “supports” in the ED round, saving only one or so for RD.
- Speed wins races: One question a lot of people have asked is what do coaches want? I suspect a lot of things. A good student, a good fit, a good attitude etc.. But the thing coaches told us they wanted most were to fill holes in the current roster and times that would place in the A or B final of the conference meet. Initially I couldn’t quite convince myself that the mathematics of the number of recruits and the number of teams in the conference really made this a literal requirement, but looking at it later, it started to make sense. D1 swimming scholarships are relatively rare, and those who receive them are expected to contribute right away. For schools that don’t offer scholarships there can be a higher attrition rate in the Jr and Sr class, and so Fr and Sophs need to step in and score. In short, the fastest swimmers will have the most options. For those below the top tier, this may mean that a number of swimmers may need to choose other institutions before an offer can be made. Which is another reason why it’s so important to know there is more than one “right place.”
- Communication is key: It occurred to Zach what the implications of ED really are, and we had long conversations about it in the car. It means that he’ll be making a college decision before most of his non swimming classmates. It also means that a swimmer’s academic and athletic resume is essentially completed at the end of the summer after his junior year. Most importantly, for any ED that hinges on swimming, the swimmer and the coach need to be really clear about just how much support the swimmer’s application will receive. The coaches we met all seemed very straight forward, and all indicated that when the time came, they would let Zach know exactly where he stood. Still, the burden of responsibility for making sure that communication takes place will fall on Zach.
At the beginning of our trip, we hoped our son would realize there are a lot of great schools where he could be happy. And we think he did. But we were pleasantly surprised by something a little unexpected too. It became very apparent that these coaches care very deeply about their swimmers. Almost without exception, something happened to indicate the impact the coaches we met were having on the lives of their swimmers. We heard stories about weddings attended, saw swimmers returning to campus and visiting their coach first, witnessed coaches tracking jobs after college. Not only are there a lot of great schools, there are a lot of great mentors. It’s an encouraging start to a long odyssey. May all of us parents and students currently engaged in this journey find favorable winds and minimal anxiety…