Wisdom or Rivalry? Younger Siblings and College Admissions
Tempting as it may be to influence the fates, your sibling’s choice needs to be theirs alone.
By Andrew Mikula, Bates College
The day I first got into college was one of the best days of my life.
For me, my admission signified the end of a long, arduous and constant process to figure out where my life was headed. Okay—maybe the “where my life is headed” part is a bit melodramatic, but no one does melodrama quite like high school students.
Still, I was extremely excited that day. I even remember the first song I listened to after I was accepted into college. But sometimes it’s easy to forget that not everyone has gotten through the college process yet.
Actually, that’s a complete lie. It’s not easy to forget, but it is easy to almost constantly rub it in my little sister’s face. I spend less time in class, have more vacations and have a shorter school year than my sister, never mind the fact that I live on the same hallway as many of my friends. But that still doesn’t stop her from asking me for advice.
Recently, I’ve been asked to identify whether or not certain colleges would be right for my sister (I managed to string together a lengthy series of “uhhhh”s), suggest colleges to add to her list (I lamely started leafing through the college guide on her desk) and come up with strategies for convincing our parents to let her go to school in California (I usually rely on my sister to sweet-talk my parents into getting what we want, so this was also tough).
It was as if I hadn’t gone through the process myself. What was I supposed to say to her after two years of dreading having to answer questions about my own college search?
Still, for some people there’s a clear incentive to manipulate their sibling’s college preferences.
Some may pressure their sibling into attending the same college they attend. Others may discourage younger family members from enrolling at rival schools. Attending rival universities is an effective way of reinstating the scorched-earth sibling rivalry that is often on pause while one sibling is at college.
That said, there’s no denying that your sibling has had an effect on your college process as well. I visited 16 colleges during high school, and my sister was there for most of the visits, making her opinions known despite staying at the admissions office at “Colby” during a 2° February day. With freezing gloveless hands clamped to a folder overflowing with pamphlets, I heard my sister’s earlier vocalization echoing in my head: “The sidewalks were salted better at Bates.” I’d like to think that’s not the only reason I attend Bates now, though.
You may also find having had to negotiate with siblings comes in handy when you’re at college. Living in rowdy residence halls is fun, but only if you’re the one who’s being rowdy. You’ll find that the same tone of voice you use with rambunctious younger siblings is also most effective at convincing drunk hooligans that some people like to sleep at 2 am.
However, skills learned from having siblings don’t necessarily prepare you for the experience of your sibling being at college with you. For a lot of people, college is a time to form a personal identity beyond that of family or hometowns. It might be jarring and bizarre to have a sibling living in an adjacent dorm, just like it was jarring and bizarre when one of my hometown friends visited me at school last spring. If I talk and act like two different people at home and at school, what do I do when elements of home and school are in the same place? Perhaps it’s a different story if you go to a college with 40,000 kids, but this sense of scrambled identities is not be discounted, especially for twins.
It seems vaguely sad that two twins would want to go to the same college. I know twins who have looked the same, dressed the same and even participated in the same extracurricular activities all their lives. Yet instead of finally developing independently of one another, many would still rather maintain a strong 2-person identity. College is an exercise in responsibility and individuality, but for separated siblings an element of trust and security may be lost at college. My roommate has a twin who attends college over 400 miles away, and—along with Chemistry 107—being separated from his twin was one of the hardest parts of his freshman year.
I’d imagine it’s even harder when one sibling wants to attend the same college as a brother or sister, but the brother or sister does not.
But even when siblings’ college plans differ, siblings can often do something that your parents can’t when advising you about the college process: provide some external perspective while keeping the focus solely on the younger sibling’s self-interest.
Parents give great insight, but they are not without their expectations and priorities.
Unfortunately, one of those priorities is often affordability. College is expensive, and in certain cases not all of that money is going towards tuition.
Older siblings are less likely than parents to worry about money, but they’re also less likely than the applicant herself to change their ambitions suddenly because of poor SAT scores or lack of confidence in college essays. Perhaps encouragement and reassurance are some of the best qualities you can offer a younger sibling during his or her college search. As a successful college process “survivor,” you serve as an example and inspiration for your sibling.
However, there might be tense moments when your sibling isn’t confident that she’ll get into schools that are as academically challenging as yours. The opposite could also be true. What if your younger sibling gets into a “better” college than you attend? I’d say that it’s more important that the person feels comfortable in the academic environment of the college, learning to push him- or herself at a pace tailored to the individual.
At the end of the day, the college process is all about the individual’s needs. Whether your sibling attends the same college you do or a cross-state rival, you will continue to learn from each other. I ended up making a list of colleges I thought she would like a couple of months ago. Several still survive on her most recent list today.
Through my sister’s college process, I’ve learned more about both her and myself. I can leaf through the college guide on her desk and see her reflected back to me, the words on the page like a mirror. It was just like a couple of years ago, when my own mirror contained phrases like “tradition of egalitarianism,” “New England countryside” and “silent, starry nights.”