WE WEREN’T ON THE PHONE BUT 30 SECONDS BEFORE I KNEW MY OLD friend wasn’t right. “Aw, I’m okay,” she said dully. “Just a little sad lately.” Sleeping a lot, waking hopeless, sleeping some more. “I don’t know what it is. Thankfully the kids don’t seem too affected.”

She had four of them, making her as much of an overachiever in parenting as she was in every other area of her life. In college she had leveled us all with grades she didn’t appear to work for. She was multitalented, well loved, almost excruciatingly enviable—and born without a competitive bone in her body. Now she was helping her eldest navigate his search for a college, and for the first time in her life, she was depressed.

What on earth did she have to worry about? This kid was a top-of-his-class basketball all-leaguer who spent his off-hours feeding the hungry. “No,” she said with finality. “I’m not worried about him.” Funny then, how when the fat letter from Duke University arrived a few months later, a switch flipped. Overnight, my friend got her mojo back.

This was about six college application seasons ago, and I have since learned what hell those seasons can represent for parents of high school seniors. Being a writer by trade, my friends come to me for counsel on everything from family obituaries to the phrasing of their e-vites. College application essays top the list. “It’s not like we want you to write it for him…” one friend insisted. (By which she meant: “Do you think you could maybe write it for him?”)

Of course not. But the parental requests have been telling: the frayed edges of their appeals betraying outright panic. Panic? How times have changed. My only personal experience with the college essay was my own—tell us what book you’d write, and why—scribbled off while babysitting the night before it was due. The next day I sent it off to Stanford University, the only school I wanted, along with one to the UW, my fallback school. My parents stayed out of it.

Today parents pay thousands of dollars to private consultants who help their little darlings identify fitting schools, practice SATs, and refine draft after draft of autobiographical essays. (These essays might spring from a prompt, like University of Pennsylvania’s famous “You have just completed your 300-page autobiography. Please submit page 217,” or a question, like University of Chicago’s “How do you feel about Wednesday?”) As it happened I did get into Stanford—today impenetrable to all but those who can claim national excellence in something. And the UW, which last year littered the floor with rejected four-point students, is no longer anyone’s fallback.

No wonder parents are freaked out. Admissions consultant Judy MacKenzie, owner of MacKenzie College Consulting in Lake Forest Park and Bellevue, affirms that parental stress over kids’ college prospects is a big reason her business is booming. Before hanging out a shingle she worked in admissions at Princeton and Dartmouth; she figures she’s read 30,000 college essays, and counting. (Her list of essay topics to avoid: Death, A Trip Abroad, My Favorite Coach, What I Don’t Like About My School, and How My Community Service Project Made Me Realize How Lucky I Am.)

“The bar’s gone way up, and applying to colleges is a whole lot more complex now,” MacKenzie says. And fraught, California admissions consultant Paul Wruble told The Chicago Tribune last year, with angst that has less to do with the applicants than their parents. “One of the measures of successful parenting, apparently, is the name and prestige of the college our kids go to,” he told the paper. “Somehow that anoints us.”

Gross! I opined to my aforementioned friend, who is spending this winter walking the college application gantlet again, now with her third born. Do you really think parents care that much about the status of the school their kid gets accepted to?

“I’m a stay-at-home mom,” she said after a moment. “What other work evaluation am I going to get?”

Real life offers no finals week, no job performance review. For my friend, the verdict on her kids’ college acceptances is as close to a grade as she’ll get for a lifetime of careful parenting. For goal-oriented achievers who spent high school working toward good colleges, college working toward worthy jobs, their 20s establishing careers, their 30s building families, their 40s creating dream homes—the 50s descend bearing this little zinger: No one arrives.

It’s the great shock of midlife: that all that linear striving from milestone to milestone no longer serves as an organizing paradigm. And it hits just about the time the kids are heading off to college. That’s when the well-adjusted among us find new paradigms, maybe finally getting around to that live-in-the-moment thing they’ve had on their to-do list for decades.

As for the rest of us, we keep doing what we know: seeking new achievements to pin to our impressive resumes. Even if they aren’t our achievements at all.

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