11/14/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The College Insider: Admissions Freak-Out Countdown#1: The College Counselor Appointment

I've been right where you're standing, waiting outside the college counselor's office for that first appointment of your child's senior year, trying and failing to balance absolute pride and abject panic. Let me clarify one thing before you get started: From here on in, nothing is as it seems.

Basically, you are about to cede control to people who might as well be speaking an obscure Chinese dialect, for all the success you can expect to have deciphering their message. There's no malice involved; just an agenda that's far more complex than merely figuring out where to send your kid to school next year.

I understood none of this when I started - but I do now, thanks a good deal of hindsight, a journalist's tendency to nag at a question until it yields, and that basic parental drive to spend a great deal of time and money pursuing what sounds like a dream college. In the name of camaraderie, I will translate as best I can.

You'll emerge from this meeting with a list of schools that range from the impossible to the improbable to the possible; in the current climate, anyone who still refers to "safe schools" is delusional. Do not for a moment imagine that these evaluations stem solely from your child's academic profile. A successful college counselor juggles some or all of the following concerns:

1. Yield: For colleges, yield is the percentage of accepted students who actually enroll. For high schools, yield is more about getting kids into prestigious schools. Public schools care about yield to staunch the hemorrhaging of students to private schools. Private schools care about yield because they're competing for next year's incoming middle-schoolers, and prospective parents notice the percentage of graduates who go on to the Ivy League. A senior is a senior, but a senior is also a selling tool.

2. Odds: Your counselor knows something you don't know, which is who else might apply to the schools on your list. Are a senior's chances at Duke bad because of measurable considerations like that lone B- in calculus, or because three other kids with better SAT scores or extreme athletic prowess are applying? Try not to think about whether those other kids really want to go to Duke or just want to rack up acceptances.

3. Cliques: It doesn't devolve into an adult version of mean-girls, but I can provide witnesses who will testify that a particular officer from a particular college bonded with counselors at private school #1 and had no such rapport with the staff at private school #2. School #1 placed almost a dozen seniors at that college. School #2 was lucky to place two - and before you go into denial, yes, the two high schools produced graduates who looked pretty much the same on paper.

Those of you still clinging to the security blanket of process and reason - and I empathize, but tough love is your best hope - can try this: Write down how you think the meeting with the counselor went. Usually, one parent expects rejection everywhere, the other parent anticipates acceptance everywhere, and the senior hears exactly what he or she hoped to hear. Three sane members of the same family, three distinct interpretations of the same information. Even if the college counselor were operating in a vacuum, which is not the case, there's a lot of interpretive wiggle room here.

But you're goal-oriented, I know, so you want to know who's right and what to do about it. There's no way to tell until notification day next spring. The safest thing might be to shave off the top school, shave off the bottom school, and focus on the middle, but if college admissions were about proportion, fewer parents would start every other sentence with "My kid's on the Harvard track."

If it's any consolation, it's good to know what you don't know, now - liberating, really - because the saddest family, come next May, is the one that played by the rules, dotted all the i's, crossed all the t's, filled in the bubble grids with care, strategized like crazy, and still didn't get the desired fat envelope or the equivalent congratulatory email. Take the counselor's advice as advice but not as gospel. Plague him or her with questions, and remember that an answer is not a guarantee. Embrace the rule of almost: Almost anything you hear from almost anyone has almost nothing to do with anything resembling a dependable reality.

There. Now you're ready for what's coming.

Next up: Admissions Freak-out Countdown #2: The SATs, sudoku, your daughter's hormone levels, and test-prep backfire.

Karen Stabiner is the author of the upcoming novel, Getting In. Write to or visit to find out more.