13 tips to start the college search

As this summer winds down and gearing up for a new school year begins, instead of buying new crayons and construction paper for elementary school, I find myself shopping for extra-long twin sheets and shower caddies.

Our little boy is going to college.

And as exciting and daunting as that is, I can’t help but think back to a couple of summers ago when this whole college search process began.

Admittedly, I was absolutely clueless as to how to even approach this overwhelming task of helping my son choose a school. The decision-making process didn’t resemble my own 25 years ago which consisted of a total of three applications in my home state and a mailbox filled with postcards from schools I had never heard of and promptly ignored.

But after wading our way through together, sorting through the endless stacks of information, advice and counsel, I think we ended up in the best possible place for him.

I’ve decided to write this down because I wish I had a jumping off place when I started, so hopefully you’ll find some tips here if you find yourself as confused as I was.

1.) Forget everything you thought about every school. Period. Chances are fairly high that all of the old rumors, reputations, stigmas, unearned loftiness that you ever applied to any school is either unfair, untrue or outdated. You owe it to yourself and to your child to look at a particular school with a fresh and open mind free of old prejudice.

2.) Now there are eleventy billion colleges and universities to narrow down. Consider starting with a geographic radius—are you comfortable with a 3 hour drive? 6 hours? 2 day plane trip? Urban or rural? A very specific program or major? This begins to answer the questions of what is going to be the right fit for your student.

3.) Hello, Internet. This handy dandy tool can answer immediate questions like size, specialties, costs and activities. You should visit every website of schools you’re interested in—and not just the home page. Here’s also a great place to start in general: Collegeboard.org.

4.) Attend every College Night your high school offers. These may seem like a waste of time when you’re trying to schedule an already busy week, but the information you get from unexpected sources and schools you may not have ever considered is invaluable. Your high school probably has a department dedicated to college—use the resources and counselors there. They’re professionals and can really help navigate the process.

5.) Now start making a short list of schools. The real contenders—the ones you like, but mostly the ones your child expresses interest in. Make sure to include some of varying size and distance. Some safe and some reach schools—some you’re familiar with and others that are new.

6.) Now the visits. These trips to different schools and towns make up some of my fondest memories with my teenager. Not only was it an excuse to spend a lot of time together his junior year, but we learned so much and I can’t imagine having to make the eventual decision without having that real-life experience. College visits not only introduce that specific school, but provide constructive comparisons and tangible feelings that no website or brochure could possibly give.

I remember one particular weekend where we visited two schools—the first was one of my favorites which he really didn’t have much interest in and the second was one of his dream schools. After visiting the first he instantly fell in love with everything about it. The second we were halfway through the tour when he whispered, “I really can’t see myself going here.”

We were able to talk about what was appealing and what wasn’t, and it really helped narrow our search from there.

On these visits, do yourself a favor and sign up for the free tour offered by the school. You are getting a lot more solid information and access to dorms and classrooms which you wouldn’t necessarily see on a drive-by or unaccompanied campus tour. More often than not, these tours are led by student ambassadors who have already figured out how to navigate the process in the not-so distant past.

The magic number of schools to visit? That’s up to you. But start with a few and see where it goes from there. Try to fit in a couple over a weekend or break or combine a college visit within a family vacation or visiting friends.

7.) A warning about Dream Schools. Oh, we all have them—you and your child. Maybe your child has talked non-stop about the University of X since they learned to talk. They have every jersey, T-shirt, sweatshirt and foam finger and never misses a Saturday game during football season. THAT DOESN’T MEAN THEY HAVE TO ATTEND THERE 18 YEARS LATER. By the time the decision time is close, chances are their needs and interests have changed as well. Maybe that school is too far away now. Maybe it’s too big. Or too small. Or it doesn’t even offer the program your child is interested in. That doesn’t make the school or your child any less awesome, it just means that the dream has evolved, and that’s okay.

8.) More warnings about Dream Schools if they happen to be out of state. If you feel like instantly vomiting or developing a heart condition, look up the out-of-state tuition costs for your dream school. That number could well be over $60,000 a year conservatively. A YEAR. If you are not independently wealthy, this may be a deal-breaker. If you are independently wealthy, you probably didn’t get that way by tossing around hundreds of thousands without looking into all of the options.

Some states offer in-state tuition rates to students in reciprocal neighboring states, so it’s worth knowing what those are. There are also individual schools that may offer those rates as well, so be sure to ask the school counselor where these options are.

You won’t know how much—if any—a particular school is going to offer for merit, financial need, or athletics for many months, so proceed with caution here. And even with the grades, test scores and money, some schools are notoriously tough on out-of-state students. You may have exactly the same or even better credentials as a local student but still not get in. Some decisions are out of your control and should not be taken personally.

9.) Factor in the intangibles. As your list narrows, so will the factors that are important to your family. Distance, costs, athletics, safety, campus life, housing and academics. Don’t discount these things. They all have a place in the decision-making process.

10.) It ain’t over til it’s over. You may think that once you’ve found that perfect school on paper, it’s time to embroider their fight song on a pillow. I wish. The application process now begins and that’s a whole other process of grades, test scores, essays and fees. So don’t put the cart before the horse and encourage your child to have that final short list comprised of multiple really good and comfortable options so that application process can start with clarity.

Make notes on each of the schools you’ve visited right afterward when it’s fresh on your mind and then you can refer to them when application time comes around.

11.) If we all had our life’s path figured out completely at the age of 18, there’d be a lot more movie actors and art historians. Did you have it all figured out upon high school graduation? Of course not. Don’t expect your child to, either. It’s an exciting time and a place to explore the options out there. Be flexible, supportive, and the best sounding board you can be.

12.) The amount of criticism you are allowed to levy over another person’s college search and eventual choice is exactly zero. I mean it. This is a difficult and uniquely intimate process, and you have no idea the considerations that went into another family’s decision, so leave it alone regardless of your feelings and offer your unwavering support. There is a school for everyone out there and finding the one that fits best is something we should all root for when it comes to our kids.

13.) I’ve written this from a parent’s perspective, but ultimately, it’s their choice. Yes, even if you’re paying for it. By this point, the short-list won’t (or shouldn’t) include anywhere that isn’t a realistic possibility for your family for any of the reasons listed above. So when the applications finally do go out, they are going to a set of schools already-agreed upon between you and your child. This is the time for the discerning of those schools, not after they’ve applied and gotten their hopes up if it never was going to be a consideration.

Parents and students both ultimately want the same thing: to succeed at the perfect school for them. Hopefully, you’ve found that mutually-agreeable place because you’ve journeyed together discovering all of the wonderfully important pieces that went into the decision.

©2014 Tracey Henry

The day Siri died or Why I haven’t returned your call

This is the last transcript between Siri and me before she met her untimely demise.

Me: Siri, please give me a list of kayak rentals in the Gulf of Mexico.

Siri: Of course, Gorgeous. I have found three locations very close to you.

2 hours later.

Me: Siri, weather report for Cape Haze, Florida.

Siri: Looks gorgeous, Gorgeous.

Me: You’re really helpful today. I may just buy you an Otterbox as a little present. I might even forgive you for trying to kill me with your piss-poor driving directions to get here.

Siri: Can you repeat that, I didn’t quite catch that, Gorgeous.

Me: Never mind. Call me, “Ismael.”

30 minutes later along the peaceful bay.

Siri: Ismael, a manatee can weigh up to 3500 pounds.

Siri: Ismael, here are 10 recipes for pecan-encrusted snook I found on the web.

Siri: Ishmael, I have texted your message, “Fire up the blender,” to your husband.

42 minutes later.

Me: Siri, what is a “black mangrove?”

Me: Siri, can you pinpoint an alternative route to “Hidden Lake” other than this ominous-looking swamp path?

Me: Siri, look up, “black mangrove+things that can kill me.”

Me: Siri, call me, “Indiana Effing Jones.”

2.5 minutes later.

Siri: Indiana Effing Jones, here is an image of the “Black mangrove crab.” I did not find any results for “super spider tarantula looking monsters or some shit like that.”

Siri: I have texted your message, “AAAAARRGGGGG! OMG! OMG!” to your husband, Indiana Effing Jones.

Siri: I’m sorry, I don’t understand, “WTF?” Would you like me to do a web search for you?

Siri: Are you crying, Indiana Effing Jones?

30 seconds later…

Me: Breathless. Siri, look up “air rescues from black mangroves of death.” And call me, Goddamn Harry Potter.

Siri: I found no such results. Do you want me to post that last picture to Instagram?

Me: The one of me crying in front of that black widow/Loch Ness nest? No thanks. My hand was shaking too hard to be in focus anyway.

Siri: Goddamn Harry Potter, don’t you think you’re over-reacting? They are non-poisonous sea crabs 2 centimeters in diameter.

Me: Your measurement app is broken—they’re freaking gigantic monsters of death. Besides, I didn’t ask for your opinion, so hush. They’ll hear you and I think I see daylight up there from this terror tunnel.

Siri: Goddamn Harry Potter, would you like for me to check in on Foursquare to “The 10th Circle of Hell?”

Me: No, I want you to give me instructions on what do if your kayak capsizes. And call me Peter Parker.

At this moment, the billions of terrifying arachnid crustaceans begin to descend in what I can only assume as an unprovoked attack. Oars are flying, screams are heard clear down to the Keys, and one yellow kayak and all its passengers and cargo flip over in the brackish mangrove water.

Including one iPhone housing the irrepressible Siri protected only by a flimsy and ill-zipped sandwich bag.


I retrieve her from the bottom of the sea. The baggie is no defense against saltwater, giant spider crab monsters, and feet stomping all over her trying to get the icky off. She sputters. She reboots. Her flash is on and won’t shut off, like an eternal wink.

We make our way out of the nightmare cove of doom, but no one speaks. We’ve all been changed by the horror. When we finally make it to the dock, Siri’s light remains on, but it is clear she has little left. Her speaker has been submerged, but I hear a faint crackle.

I press my ear closer, trying to decipher her last words.

First Mate: What did she say?

Me: It was either, “Open the pod doors, Hal,” or “I’ve found the door to hell.”

We nod. Remove our caps and have a moment of silence. I look at the water-logged screen one last time.

Me: Either way, she just gave me the wrong directions to the Apple Store and liked The Deadliest Catch Facebook page.

R.I.P Siri. Had I known the OtterBox literally protected you from otters and other water creatures, I would have invested in one sooner.

©2014 Tracey Henry

Reading Disney Rainbows this Summer

One of the many wonderful things about the Disney Social Moms Media Celebration—and there are many—is the amazing speaker lineup. The awesomeness of these impressive people from all different fields, specialities and successes are extraordinary in their own right, but then when one of them speaks directly to something near and dear to your personal heart, well, you start to believe that universe may be sending you messages.

This serendipitous situation occurred for me this last April when I was sitting at breakfast listening to LeVar Burton speak to us about reading—specifically the importance of reading to and with our young children.

LeVar Burton.

LeVar Burton.

I don’t think that was news to the parents in the room—it’s not exactly a secret—but a renewed enthusiasm cannot help but be contagious when such a passionate and dynamic expert in the field is sharing his zeal on the subject so eloquently.

My secret Mom mission this summer (and please, don’t act like you don’t have one, too) is to read more, both with and to my kids as well as my own personal reading list. I realized sadly that as life gets lived, the ebb and flow of once-favorite activities get on the ebb side too often, and summer is the perfect time to get back into the reading flow.

To assist me on this agenda, there are a few opportunities I learned about that I’m utilizing and would like to share with you.

~The first is from LeVar Burton’s Reading Rainbow itself, and features a downloadable app that gives you and your children access to thousands of titles at a click’s command. There’s a free trial that you can learn more about and download on Readingrainbow.com. Please check it out—I can tell you with complete sincerity that you cannot find a better advocate for children, literacy, and humankind in general than LeVar Burton.

~Also on that website there’s an opportunity to join a Kickstarter campaign to help bring Reading Rainbow into more classrooms. Any denomination by July 2, 2014 can make a huge difference. I just proudly donated to this beloved campaign.

Levar Burton reading  aloud--a beautiful thing.

Levar Burton reading aloud–a beautiful thing.

~Disney Jr. has teamed up with First Book to donate up to a million books to children who may not get that opportunity we take for granted at home. GiveaBookGetaBook.com is a special website where you can enter in a redemption code to download a free digital book for your family to read, and that same book in physical form to be donated to a region of the country you designate. It’s a wonderful program that will run 4/1/14-9/30/15, and those redemption codes can be found in specially marked merchandise at Disney stores, Radio Disney promotions and other retail locations and products all summer long. You can read more about the initiative on the Disney Parks blog, or just seek out one of those codes and get started sharing the gift of reading with your children and total strangers. I can’t think of anything more meaningful for a summer treat.

That time when Tim Gunn, Ariel Winter and David Arquette read books to my kids.

That time when Tim Gunn, Ariel Winter and David Arquette read books to my kids.

I hope these are a few resources that will help your Mom missions this summer and beyond.

Happy reading.

©2014 Tracey Henry

Sh*t Parents at College Orientation Say

Sh*t Parents at Orientation Say

Oh, I’m not one of those parents who coddles their kid, but I’m somewhat of a control freak.

Wait, what?

We have special circumstances in our family.

But my kid is different.

Your father will build that loft higher.

If she gets assigned to a community bathroom, we’re transferring.

Can you skip back to that last slide? I’m taking pictures of this entire presentation with my iPad to replay for my husband when I get back to the hotel.

When I was in school we didn’t have Facebook yet. You met your roommate on the first day of school and lived with whatever you got.

Wait, what?

He may be 18, but as long as I’m paying tuition, I should have access to his school email and conferences with his professors.

My kid is going to eat every single meal in the dining hall.

My kid won’t eat a single meal in the dining hall.

I’m pretty sure my daughter will place out all freshman classes. And sophomore. And junior.

I’m going to need you to print all of the emails the school sends you, okay, honey?

Where are the dorm cleaning products kept? My Johnny is a neat freak!

Who do I talk to about getting a higher housing number? We were downloading a particularly long Power Point email from her Aunt of “Awesome Photographs,” and weren’t able to login in time.

So is your son rushing? No, he’s Italian.

Do I get charged for parking when I come to visit my daughter and stay in her room overnight?

Do they have coffee around here?

Do they have wine around here?

I seem to have something in my eye, where are the tissues?


Sh*t Orientation Leaders Say

Great question! Now I’m going to repeat it back to you somewhat differently in answer form and throw some catch phrases in while not saying anything of interest and refer you to a website.

We encourage you to have a conversation with your student regarding ______________.

You can get more information about that on our website.

The tissues are right over there.

©2014 Tracey Henry

Patriotic Deviled Eggs

Patriotic Deviled Eggs

Patriotic Deviled Eggs

This is either a desperate cry for professional help or a fun way to celebrate Memorial Day, 4th of July and Labor Day cookouts.

Take your favorite Deviled Egg recipe and throw in a little reverse Easter egg dying, and you’ve got the weirdest yet best addition to any potluck.

For my sized large platter, I boiled 18 eggs and then peeled them as they were warm so they came off easily. Cut them in half and reserve the yolk in a separate bowl for your filling.

Count out the number of red and blue halves you need, then prepare the dye according to the package directions of ordinary food coloring. I used a few drops of color, vinegar and boiling water in a cups and then let the colors cool slightly before coloring the whites.

Dying eggs from the inside out

Dying eggs from the inside out

Place the whites in the color for 3-5 minutes each for desired color. It is a much faster and brighter process than shelled eggs, so keep that in mind.

Drain on paper towels, hole-side down until ready to fill with your favorite deviled egg filling. I used my Deviled Eggs Benedict recipe.

Dyed cooked egg whites.

Dyed cooked egg whites.

Arrange on large rectangular platter in the shape of a flag, and start singing the anthem.

Feel free to bring them to therapy.

©2014 Tracey Henry

Top 10 signs school is about to end

Top 10 signs you know the school year is ending:

10. School busses start carrying salve on board for the third degree burns resulting from vinyl seats reaching 37,000 ℃ by 7 am.

9. Too short to be considered “crayons,” you now have a box of wax finger paints. All in Burnt Sienna color.

8. Notes from the teacher are now scrawled on the back of Expedia and Priceline search results printouts.

7. Entrees on the hot lunch menu include candy from the leftovers in the teacher’s lounge and the “You’ll get it back in June” drawer.

6. The only matching pair of socks in the entire fourth grade is between your daughter and the kid who slept over last weekend.

5. Backpacks have deteriorated into back-of-knee packs.

4. The amount of times you hit the snooze button has grown exponentially throughout the year; you now only awake to the alarm of your own sobs when you realize you have to return to school after Memorial Day weekend.

3. Because of #4, your kids have a laminated tardy slip.

2. Car line has become merely a suggestion.

And the number one sign that school is almost out?

Commercials start alternating between Sylvan Learning Centers, Back to School sales and top shelf vodka.

©2014 Tracey Henry

Graduation Wreaths

I’m usually not this crafty, but for our recent big dual graduation party, I wasn’t all that impressed with the generic “Congrats Grad!” balloons and paper cutouts.

Enter the wonder of the Internet.

I watched this Youtube video, and made a couple in each of my boys’ school colors and then personalized them with their initials, pictures, and extra touches to make it look like I overpaid for them on Etsy.

Permission granted to use this for graduation, birthdays, or anytime you need some fun.

Personalize them for your own event.

Personalize them for your own event.


©2014 Tracey Henry

Happy Mother’s Day. For real.

My discomfort for Mother’s Day is well-documented. Over the years, I’ve explained that since my own mom passed away 13 years ago, ownership of this day has not been possible for me. This has eased slightly in recent years, or at the very least, worn the edges of the day down enough so that pain isn’t as sharp as it used to be, but it still remained one of my least favorite days.

This year, I thought it could be approached differently. When I realized that our oldest son’s high school graduation was scheduled for the same day, I thought, good, it will shift the focus to this bigger milestone.

Which it did.

Startlingly, suddenly, with a huge lump in my throat, here was the day my little boy grew up.

I know this is the moment that we parents work so hard for. We want nothing more than to watch our child on a graduation stage, cap and gown clad marching toward their bright future. The recognition of this incredible occasion is important and I did in fact graduate from high school and college, so I’m not sure why this epiphany is falling out on the keyboard in such a tangled incoherent mess, but I’d be lying if I denied that beneath the joy, there is grief. Not a wringing of the hands doubting yourself grief, or even the hapless wishing to turn the clock back grief, but one of the quiet knowledge that you’re going to miss something that has been so beautiful in your life every day for the last 18 years.

And that you’re also missing that other beautiful someone who felt this way about you on graduation day so many years ago.

Over the years, I’ve begged for her haunting. I’ve waited for her signs. I know they are there, but perhaps because I’m watching so insistently, I think I often miss them. That whole watched pot thing, I suppose.

But I know she will be there on Sunday. For me, and for him. Because she wouldn’t have missed this in life, I know she wouldn’t miss it now. It’s almost sacrilege to even doubt her presence there.

And when I realized that she would be there then, something else finally came into focus. She was there on his first day of Kindergarten, his hockey games, our vacations, and every day in between. She is in his face, Matty’s laugh, Amy’s eyes and Jessie’s spirit. She is in my mirror. She boils that pot over every night at dinner.

And so I think after all of this time, after all of the homemade cards and flower pots received with white knuckles, I can at long last welcome Mother’s Day.

The one the calendar says is Sunday, and the all of the real ones in between.

See you Sunday, Mom. I’ll be the one smiling looking up into the trees.

©2014 Tracey Henry

Public Health Alert–Senioritis

As two of my children approach graduations—one 8th grader leaving middle school and one high school senior about to enter college—I can attest to the very real, very serious condition of Senioritis.

The first symptom is a noticeable lack of interest and energy. Unfortunately, this isn’t limited to the expected school-related assignments, but with most normal human activities. In fact, it may appear that the only thing your child will graduate from is higher levels of apathy.

Victims of Senioritis may appear to have some yellowing of the eyes. You may suspect jaundice, but don’t worry, it’s just that they’ve used up all of their bathroom hall passes weeks ago.

You may also notice a severe and rapid decline in cognitive skills. While it could be attributed to long and late studying for final exams, unfortunately the only math your student is doing is the computation of how many days, hours and minutes are left in the school year and how many cubic yards of garbage will come home from their lockers.

Difficulties with hearing may also result. You can ask them what time the athletic banquet is or when they get their yearbooks and they simply stare at you as if the words were spoken in Spanish—a language they just spent the last decade studying in school so even then it shouldn’t be that incomprehensible—but nonetheless they will mumble they think their teacher said something about that last week, but lately her words are coming out all muffled and monotone, to which you’ll laugh and say, “Like Charlie Brown’s teacher?” and they’ll say, “Who’s that?” which you’ll then wonder what you just wasted the last 12 years educating them on when they can’t recognize a simple pop culture reference but then it will make sense why every time you’ve called them “Pigpen,” in the past it never seemed to register and then you’ll really start feeling guilty that you’ve raised a mess maker who will never win Jeopardy! and then you won’t hear anything either above your heaving sobs of failure.

Nausea can also occur. While it can be due to anxiety or excitement, the more likely culprit is they’ve resorted to eating the old snacks at the bottom of their backpacks.

Other psychological disorders and behaviors are common. Like spending hundreds of dollars on Prom night food, flowers, clothes and cars to spend exactly 12 minutes at the actual dance. The obsessive compulsive use of car window paint and Sharpies. Amnesia regarding uniform and attendance policies.

Be advised that Senioritis is not limited to graduating students. It is very common among parents of said pupils. They can be easily identified as the babbling adults standing helplessly in school offices with open checkbooks. Pale, with elevated blood pressures and profuse sweating issues, they are usually chanting from the fetal position in the corner, “Are you sure you turned that in?” or “But the Evite said 7:00, not six.”

Unfortunately, there is no known cure for Senioritis. The condition seems to be exacerbated by long banquets, presentations and ceremonies where its contagion level is at its highest. The only treatments currently are radical and random in their efficacy. For student patients, hours spent with other sufferers, laughter poring over yearbooks, new country music, Doritos and long summer days seem to bring relief.

For afflicted parents, it is not so simple. Common methods are lame and last-minute attempts at scrapbooking, wine coolers, old country music and sappy reminiscing. Unfortunately, these are mere placebos, and those exhausted parents of seniors rarely take their medicine as directed, and all end up hoping for reinfection.

Because it’s the one disease that you beg for recurrence if it means your kid can be quarantined at home just a little while longer.

Good luck boys, you’ve us proud every day.

©2014 Tracey Henry