Tim Mullaney: How I beat Bill Macy and Dr. Dre at the college admissions game

Seven weeks ago, I was ensconced comfortably at the bar of the Palmer House, a classic-style Chicago hotel hosting one of the craziest events you’ll ever see — the National Unified Auditions for college acting and musical theatre programs.

Dozens of schools hold four days of auditions there each year, sparing thousands of kids the expense of traveling to 20 schools to be seen (with acceptance rates at top programs in the Harvard-hold-my-beer low single digits, everyone applies everywhere).

Because money is not what it takes, isn’t even the best thing a parent can give kids on this often life-defining part of their journey.

Upstairs our kids were singing, dancing, emoting their little hearts out. We parents were parsing this question:

Did you hear William H. Macy is here? (In this crowd, you didn’t need the introduction, “two-time Emmy-winning actor”). His daughter’s auditioning!

This was before everyone in America knew who his daughter is. That theme about “stars are just like us — they take their kids to college interviews” didn’t last very long, did it?

Also read: Department of Education is investigating schools involved in the college admissions scandal

Admissions scandal

Now Macy’s wife, Emmy-winning actress Felicity Huffman, has been indicted on charges she paid $15,000 to get a corrupt proctor to correct that same daughter’s SAT test.

Huffman’s one of 50 parents and school officials looking at prison time and other penalties in a scandal where parents were targeting admission to Yale, Wake Forest, and other schools — with the largest number appearing to target the University of Southern California, paying up to $6.5 million to get their kids in through “side doors” like paying off coaches to tell admission officers their kids played soccer.

Also read: Are elite colleges really a ‘golden ticket’ to a successful life?

Now, guess where my kid got in last weekend? Into USC’s uber-competitive BFA acting program, which enrolls 18 to 20 students out of 1,000-plus applicants?

Heh heh heh.

Tim Mullaney
The author’s son

We may lack the $70 million rapper-entrepreneur Dr. Dre and his business partner Jimmy Iovine gave USC in 2013, , which social media, at least, thinks is one reason Dre’s daughter got into USC the same day our son did — notwithstanding Dre’s since-deleted Instagram post that she did it “all on her own.”

We also lack the gene that would let us pay someone to take our kid’s SATs for him.

What we got right

But my wife and I did a few things right.

Because money is not what it takes, isn’t even the best thing a parent can give kids on this often life-defining part of their journey.

First, it takes time.

In 2014, two things happened close together: I got laid off, and our son was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. We didn’t plan it, but my stopgap freelance practice put down roots while a job hunt stalled, with a remarkable number of people saying to my face they were discriminating against me over age and gender.

At the same time, our son needed to learn whole new ways to organize how he thought, studied, and lived.

There were worse times to have a home-based gig I could knock off when he came home, even if I made less, and do my more important job. So I did. I need no kudos: I’ve been repaid a thousand-fold, well before last Saturday.

I’d have probably written another 500 stories if I’d landed at the paper whose economics editor put in writing that I was the “wrong gender.” So? I’d never author anything lasting as long as this kid will, or half as interesting as his challenges and triumphs. He’ll have a more important career than mine, too.

Scholarships he’s gotten from other excellent theatre programs will recover most of my lost earnings, anyway — with USC’s financial offer still coming, he hasn’t decided where to go yet.

We met him where he was

Next, it takes understanding.

The year our boy began getting grades in school, he was scared. His best friends are near-Ivy League types who thrived as he struggled to focus. Could he keep up?

Forget about grades, we told him. We’re right here. We see the effort you put in, or don’t. If we see effort, we’ll live with the results. If we don’t see effort, we’ll talk to you about that.

We met him where he was, and he responded by taking himself to new places entirely.

And amid your understanding, remain hard enough to lay down challenges.

Freshman year, I stumbled into my cleverest parenting idea: Facing a boy who loved collegiate gear, I told him that every quarter he’d get stuff from a school he could get into with his new grades. It beat yelling at him. He started small since he was still erasing his pre-diagnosis math deficit, but soon was rocking Northwestern.

We’re happy to report that the dog partially ate his UCLA hat.

As this was happening, our son began setting goals for himself. He wanted to make National Honor Society, and did. It was hard, and stressful, and he caught the 6:05 train nearly every day for months to get math help before school. At times, he wanted to back off, and eventually did. But by then, he knew how to work, which he was always willing to do.

And he decided on his own to be an artist. He made himself at least the early version of a great actor. Better, he has become a great castmate, which is about being a good person.

The elephant in the room: privilege

It’s well and good to confront the issue of privilege. He does have some.

When our public school refused to do anything to support his ADHD, we decamped to a Jesuit school with a learning-support center. It wasn’t the twice-as-expensive peer school whose blue-blazered, green-tied glee club looks like a 1985 Goldman Sachs partners’ meeting (our chorus is a multi-ethnic mosaic — Goldman 2050), but it wasn’t cheap.

We provided acting and singing lessons, and a neighbor helped with an audition video gratis. The privilege part there is that our neighbor’s a Tony-award nominee. We paid a whole, entire $300 for an SAT-prep class, about 0.1% of what actress Lori Loughlin allegedly spent, per social-media-queen daughter, to get her children into USC as fugazy crew recruits.

Our kid actually rowed crew for a year, basically at gunpoint, with grimly hilarious results.

He tolerated it for one cold spring, a season so nasty we parents learned to spot his always-late-arriving eight-man team moseying down river by the hot-pink winter hat he’d appropriated from Mom for the constant rain and wind. Another freshman haplessly steered their boat into protected bald-eagle habitat during practice — in front of an Audubon Society official who flipped out, threatening them with arrest.

Crew got a one-word mention on his application.

We did all this because this is what our son needed from us. No one else could really do it the same way, and we can’t pay other people to pave his path.

With less-than-Dre-like money, we found the more excellent way. We had well-deserved faith in our son, hope, and love. And the greatest of these was love.

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