“Neurotic Parent” Author J.D. Rothman Finds Humor in College Admissions Stress
J.D. Rothman is the parent behind the popular blog “The Neurotic Parent” and recently published L.A. Times bestselling book “The Neurotic Parent’s Guide to College Admissions“. Rothman’s book was recently optioned for a potential movie treatment – which means neurotic parents nationwide may experience Rothman’s humorous take on college admissions in 3D sometime in the future. When she’s not blogging, Ms. Rothman is an Emmy-nominated writer / producer of children’s television programs (including Daytime Emmy and CableACE wins).
OneDublin.org Editor James Morehead had a chance to meet with Ms. Rothman during her book tour which recently made a stop in Pleasanton, California. A full room of parents (both neurotic and soon-to-be neurotic) enjoyed her wit and insights.
James Morehead: How did you end up being a blogger, published author and expert / humorist on the college admissions process?
J.D. Rothman: “My day job is a children’s television writer and producer, and I’ve been doing that for many years. I started the Neurotic Parent blog four years ago in 2008 as a lark when one of the moms from my son’s soccer team heard that I was going on a college trip with my son, and that we’d be visiting 12 schools in 9 days across 8 states. She thought logistically I’d have a lot to blog about, but when I saw how the parents and kids behave on these tours – and it was mind-blowing – I became a neurotic parent when I wasn’t neurotic before.
“The blog took off – it went viral just about the fifth day – and was discovered by an admissions officer from Kenyon College who published an excerpt. About two years later my current publisher, who was then a neurotic parent herself, discovered the blog and asked me to turn it into a book. I feel really flattered that out of four million blogs, my blog was discovered twice by publishers. Bloggers should have hope!”
Morehead: How much of the book came directly from the blog, and how much was created specifically for the book?
Rothman: “The original idea was to have the book be about 60% blog, but I think it was closer to 40% blog and the rest was new material. We added a lot that didn’t have to do with my own kids, but had to do with the insanity that is going on in general in the country with college applications.”
Morehead: Is the insanity of college admissions something new or has it always existed?
Rothman: “It really has changed. The insanity definitely was not there when our generation applied to college. Even five years ago it was not nearly on the level that it is now. I think what has happened is that US News and World Report, which was previously a third-rate news magazine, started ranking schools and during the baby boomlet years the colleges started marketing themselves to get more students to apply so they could turn them down and appear more selective and go up in the ranking. I think that’s what happened first and around the same time high schools started offering dozens of AP courses so suddenly instead of having a 4.0 you could have a 5.8. And then test prep came into play at an extreme level with certain companies offering $15,000 packages.
“Combine that with international students from India and China who would have an easier time getting into the Ivy League schools than getting into the University of Delhi or Beijing – and suddenly they were competing. So now every top school brags that they have a full class they turned down. That means parents started to try to figure out how to have their kids stand out, and have what’s called a ‘hook’. All of that is new and didn’t exist before.”
Morehead: There is a lot of humor in your book but underneath I sense frustration and anger about the situation. Is your goal to get a message across using humor?
Rothman: “My goal is to relax people through humor. I think if you can stop and laugh about something you won’t worry as much about it as much – you won’t be as neurotic.”
Morehead: Is it really harder to get into college, or is it just harder to get into the 17 schools you mention in your book that everyone is obsessed with?
Rothman: “I do say that the unfortunate part is that everyone wants to go to the same 17 schools, or parents want their kids to go there, and yet there are 2,700 schools in the United States and at least 1,000 of them are good. So the problem is wanting your kids to go to those 17 top schools. And part of the problem is so many kids are over-prepped, and have given up the fun parts of childhood, that the parents feel that after all that work their child deserves to go to a top school, while other parents see it as a ‘parenting badge’.
“The ridiculous lengths that kids go to – discovering a new galaxy or inventing an anti-biotic or joining a circus troupe to stand out – has a lot to do with parents putting their kids in unusual activities at an earlier age. If parents and their children are happy with a school they can get into – ‘love thy safety’ – then none of this would be happening.”
Morehead: What do admissions officers think of what you are doing?
Rothman: “They love my book, which surprised me. My blog was originally anonymous because I thought it would affect my kids chances if colleges found out what I was writing. But the Director of Admissions at Kenyon College, which is a great writing school and discovered the blog originally, told me that the director of Colby was reading from the blog at information sessions and the director of Columbia admissions said he’s going to recommend the book at information sessions. So I think they love seeing the humor and irony in what they are doing and they also do want parents to relax, and laughing does get parents to relax a little bit.”
Morehead: Have you become less neurotic as a result of the blog and book?
Rothman: “I’m less neurotic because my younger son was accepted earlier into his dream school, now I just get to worry about furnishing his dorm room and making sure the sheets are long enough, which I cover in the book. In terms of whether or not I can tell parents that they’ll become less neurotic, it really depends whether they’re in a neurotic city or not. I thought Los Angeles was a neurotic city until I visited places like New York and Westport, Connecticut and Palo Alto. I’m expecting Pleasanton to be up there.”
Morehead: What are your thoughts about The Race to Nowhere’ and the stress students are facing?
Rothman: “My kids go to a progressive school and that’s partly why I did become neurotic. Their school doesn’t have grades and doesn’t have AP classes, yet they both got into a top 10 college. I definitely am a believer in American’s doing their kids a disservice by racing to nowhere, and I also believe that colleges appreciate kids that have a holistic view of the world and have not been just trying to get good grades the whole time. A mother contacted me from a community near yours saying that she was concerned her daughter had two B’s in 8th grade, and I said her daughter could burn down the school in 8th grade and colleges aren’t going to know.”
Morehead: What are the key things you’ve learned that can help neurotic parents relax?
Rothman: “The first one is that I wouldn’t worry so much about colleges because no one is getting a job anyway – so no matter where your kid goes to school you are going to have to worry about where they’re going to be a barista. I have a chapter on that.
“The second one would be ‘love thy safety’, which I mentioned earlier. You have nothing to worry about if your child sets his or her sights on a school that will accept them.
“And the third one is that as much as you want to interfere and guide your child, it’s better to just shut-up and let them do the guiding. If they perceive you really want a school, they probably won’t. And don’t help them on the essays if you’re a lawyer, because you’ll end up using words like ‘heretofore’.”
Morehead: A humorous thread throughout the book is a capella singing groups on college campuses, is that a new phenomenon triggered by the popularity of Glee?
Rothman: “That’s a great question – I’m thinking it might be a chicken and egg dilemma because I noticed it before the success of Glee. Pretty much every college tour guide, despite the hundreds of clubs, focuses on the a capella groups. It could be because kids like to sing in high school or because a capella groups have fun names.”
Morehead: Our family visited the University of Victoria on a college tour and the guide talked about Quidditch matches on campus. What are some of the more unusual traditions you ran across?
Rothman: “The first thing is that most colleges have some sort of superstition or tradition about where you can step, or about certain archways you need to avoid or you won’t get in or you’ll do poorly on your mid-terms. I wasn’t aware of the amount of bad karma that you can walk into on a college campus. There are some clubs at Bard that I didn’t include in the book but wrote about on my blog (read more…) – clubs like the ‘Gluten-free Baking Club’, ‘Bard Belly Dance Collective’, ‘Bard Guqin Society’, ‘The Yarn Appreciation Society’, ‘Beekeeping at Bard’, ‘Hands and Knees Collective’ and that’s just a few. All of the colleges, even the public universities that are facing financial difficulty, say that if you want to start a club, that you can start one about pretty much anything.”
Morehead: What did you do in college and where did you graduation from?
Rothman: “Part of my schtick is that I’m not revealing where I went to college. It doesn’t matter where I went to college. But I can say that I got an M.A. and a B.A. from schools in the top 100. I studied linguistics, not any of the careers that I’m involved with now. We didn’t have to worry about getting in and I don’t think the courses themselves were as difficult then either.”
Morehead: Are you planning a follow-up book?
Rothman: “I own the trademark ‘The Neurotic Parent’ and there is a very good chance we’ll have ‘The Neurotic Parent’s Guide…’ to something else. I loved writing the book, even though it nearly killed me.”
Despite her neurosis, both of J.D. Rothman’s sons were accepted into Duke University.