The enemies come together |

The enemies come together

Alison Osius
Staff Photo |

My son narrows his eyes and stares me down. “We’re like two enemies … with a common goal,” he says.

We snarl. We cuss. We start laughing — again.

It’s here. College-application season. I’ve been dreading it for three years, ever since coming out of the other side of the exhausting process with my older son, Ted.

Roy and I have been visiting colleges off and on for about a year. We flew to New England last winter during the subzero Polar Vortex; lifted out of Southern California last spring barely ahead of the raging wildfires; and drooped in heat or splatted in mud last summer in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast while combining tours with seeing family (my idea) and mountain-bike races (his).

I remember, as a senior in high school, filling out an application — in ink — in a ski lodge in Vermont over Christmas break. I applied to four colleges. I had walked in, sat down and took my SATs — college-entrance exams — with no prep. My, how things have changed.

Many or most kids take prep courses for the SATs, ACTs and Subject Tests. They study for weeks and months. Colleges today are far harder to get into: Many are deluged with applications both from within and outside of our country. Students now routinely apply to 10 or 12 places. The applications require information on all classes, sports, community service, hobbies, and past and present jobs; a main essay; and, in many cases, supplemental essays on varied topics. Even “Why do you want to go here?” requires a careful, thoughtful answer.

“If you could take out our college’s name and put another one in your answer,” said an admissions officer at the regional college fair last month, “then you’re not for us. You need to research: courses, professors, all about our college.”

I helped my older son with the applications. I read, discussed, encouraged, proofed, nagged about deadlines. Oh, I hear of kids doing it all themselves — making lists, schedules and spread sheets — but I’ve never met one, at least not in my house. There is just a lot to do, on top of homework, sports and extracurriculars, and kids usually need help.

I remember telling one friend how my older son and I would argue and cuss. I was laughing, but the friend seemed shocked.

“We never got that bad,” she said.

Well, we did. I left the house once, saying, “Fine, just do it,” and midway on a nice hike, received a text lamenting writer’s block: “When are you getting back?”

When the applications went in, he thanked me. “You helped a lot,” he said.

And now, son No. 2 is in the process. He studied for the tests, took them; spent multiple hours filling out the widely accepted Common Application; and is now on to the supplemental essays. His first set asked him to describe a work of art or literature that has challenged him (he picked “The Road,” full of mayhem and survival skills), and to write about his quirks. Which he certainly has. Both items took longer to describe than he expected.

“It all takes so long,” he moans. I’ve been saying that since summer.

We sit at the counter, he and I. He gets distracted. I pester. He gives me the finger. I return it.

I read a book about college admissions, learn the term “auto deny,” and tease him to expect it.

“Auto deny,” we both now say daily, portentously.

Then one day he gets energized. It has all become more real. He considers new and different places, looks into them. Makes goals for what he will complete and when.

He hits a “submit” button, and raises his fist to bump knuckles with me. “The enemies come together,” he says.

Eventually will come answers from the colleges, the acceptances or dings, the numbers and costs. I hope he will have some choices. Mostly I hope he can be happy at any one of these places. I have friends who went to their second, third or bottom choices, and now can’t imagine it all having worked out any other way.

I tell Roy, “This time next year you’ll be somewhere. I don’t know where, but somewhere.” He smiles. He thanks me.

“Femaelstrom” appears on the third Friday of each month. Alison Osius lives in Carbondale, where she is a climber, skier and magazine editor. Contact her at

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