Grades, Guidance, and Goliath: Confessions of a Director Dad

The blog post below is from our very own Director of Admission, Kirk Brennan. He shares with us the struggles of being a parent of a prospective college student as well as having a leadership role in higher education. Understandably,  juggling these two roles is extremely delicate. Thank you, Kirk, for sharing your insight into what our parents go through during this stressful time! 

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This coming Monday will mark the eighteenth anniversary of the day my wife (whom you may remember) delivered our first child. Though I have worked in admission for 22 years, this particular year — the one in which that child is applying to college — feels like my first day on the job. What a strange way to view my job: through the eyes, and from the home of a prospective student.

I had many disillusioning observations this year. I saw that tours of very different schools sound the same, that college marketing materials look alike and even say the very same things, and how a small number of marketing companies vendors seem to drive this process for many schools. I saw that a great deal of a student’s impression of my university is not controllable, and I was especially disheartened when my own student, after feeling proud to receive a mass-mailer from a college, quit reading any of them only days later, and even felt anger as she sifted through them. At USC and in the admission profession in general, we work hard to be helpful, but some days I’m not sure how much we’re helping (and I welcome your suggestions at

What strikes me more than anything is the emotional roller coaster of the senior year. I was saddened to watch mundane events of life magnified to become critical pieces of a puzzle that lead to college; a grade on the tiniest quiz prompts a crisis, or a choice to relax one afternoon is seen as a potential deal breaker for college admission, therefore career, then lifetime happiness. Then there’s the list; so many colleges to consider, will she love these schools, did she miss a better fit, and can she even get in at all? Then filling out the applications, especially the anxiety behind answering the least important questions on the application (we discussed “What’s my counselor’s job title?”). The temporary relief of completing them was soon replaced by confusion over the lack of communication as colleges read. Now the decisions are coming out– the grand finale of this ride — one day she gets in and feels great excitement for her future, another she is turned down and feels worthless, as if judged harshly by strangers. Learning and growing can be difficult, and many turns in life will be unpredictable, but surely I can’t be the only one ready for this ride to end.

From the ground I have watched this roller coaster many times, and such rides tend to end in the same way — with our children enrolling in a college they love. Yet we riders still scream, even feel real terror going down the hill as if the safety bars won’t help; normal reactions, if utterly irrational. I still love rollercoasters (Goliath is my favorite), and I think I will enjoy this ride. I have grown closer to my daughter, and we have all grown closer as a family. I have seen my younger daughter console her older sister. We all cherish the time that remains in this phase of our family life, while we avoid the question of how many more meals we will share together. There are many hugs, tears, pats on the back, and scoops of ice cream to soothe the pain, yet great hope for the future. Today I look forward to this ride finishing, but I imagine when it ends, just like Goliath, I will be excited to get back in line to ride again. I sure hope so, anyway: my youngest is counting on it.


One thought on “Grades, Guidance, and Goliath: Confessions of a Director Dad”

  1. Just starting the ride full steam ahead. Thanks for your words. Coming from you, it seems as if we’ll be okay since you were. We all just want the very best for our children and, at 17 it’s hard for them to believe it.

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