Apodaca: College pickers must listen to their heart

March madness has segued into April angst.

As I begin writing, I am wedged into a middle seat at 39,000 feet somewhere over the vast middle of the country. My 18-year-old son naps beside me, but I always find sleep elusive on planes, and so I ingest lightly salted peanuts and write.

We are in the midst of an eight-flight, continent-crossing, if-this-is-Monday-it-must-be-Wisconsin college trip. Shortly after we return home to Newport Beach, he will at last decide where he will spend the next four years — hopefully four — being filled with vast quantities of knowledge and probably an equivalent amount of beer.

That's the plan anyway.

Some high school seniors are fortunate to have their college commitment a done deal by now. Such was the case five years ago for my older son, who was admitted to his first-choice school, the only college he ever really wanted to attend. He didn't need to ponder the decision or make any last-minute travel plans before the May 1 yes-or-no deadline.

I had no idea back then how lucky we were. Because for many kids, my younger son included, making that final decision has been a murkier proposition. He knows what he wants in a school, but has yet to determine which of his remaining choices will best deliver on those preferences.

So now I sit in a college campus food court, after yet another accepted-student information session and tour. I thought I'd heard it all during the dog-and-pony shows we attended when my son first began his college search. But there's a different flavor in the mix now that these schools have decided they want him. Once the suitor, he is now the one standing in judgment.

Mind you, many students like him have already been subjected to soul-crushing denials from other schools, received by way of the higher education equivalent of "Dear John" letters. ("You're a great guy, but we're just not right for each other.") Yet they also now find themselves courted and cosseted by the colleges that have accepted them. ("We'll be so happy together! Just look at our beautiful new student activities center!)

I've spoken to other glassy-eyed parents who have endured a similar cross-country college trek, and observed the hordes of anxious students who are faced with the biggest decision of their young lives. It's a lot to digest.

As I stood in a student union store, studying a wall of hats adorned with school initials fashioned about 27 different ways — whoever designs those things has a great niche — another parent who recognized me from a tour struck up a conversation.

We were both on the verge of sending our youngest child off, and compared notes on various colleges. We shared a brief bond, warriors on a field of battle, commiserating in our stressful existence. Then we parted in opposite directions, each accompanied by a son who was undoubtedly wishing for the day when he no longer had to listen to Mom or Dad telling complete strangers all about his college prospects.

As a parent, it's a bittersweet time. For 18 years I've obsessed over my son's every breath. I've pretended to know what I'm talking about at all times as I've pummeled him with motherly advice. Now I'm trying my best to hold my tongue and let him make this huge grown-up decision on his own.

Back home in Newport, the reflection continues. My dog eyes my half-empty suitcase suspiciously, not knowing if he can trust me not to leave him again. I await my son's announcement, but I don't push. I'll know soon enough, and then I can get on with the next stage, which I anticipate will include my missing him before he's even gone. Now I know how my dog feels.

At one point I'd suggested that he make lists of pros and cons. He gave me one of those withering looks that teenagers use to great effect on well-meaning but hapless parents.

"He wants to take a holistic approach," his friend told me during one of our sojourns. You know a kid is ready for college when he uses a phrase like "holistic approach."

But point taken. Indeed, the most valuable information my son received wasn't from admissions officers or counselors, and it certainly wasn't from me. It was the feedback he got from the kids back home, the ones who graduated from Corona del Mar High School just a year or two before.

They were the ones who understood best what he needed to hear about their colleges, and they gave it to him straight, without all the marketing hype, meaningless platitudes and patronizing pitches.

That's why at this point in the game I've realized that my son's final decision won't be based on facts or numbers, rankings or reputation. It comes down to a go-from-the-gut feeling, an intuitive sense about where he'll fit in, find happiness and map his route to future success.

He's tried on countless hats in student union stores across the country. One of them is bound to feel just a little more right than all the others. Despite the bumpy journey it took to find it, that's the one I expect he'll wear with pride.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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