To play or not to play the college entrance game

Posted: Friday, April 11, 2008

I signed up for a two-hour seminar innocuously titled "The College Application Process." It felt more like "How Type-A Parents Play the College Game," because the room was full of parents, not students. What can I say? I was there, too.

An Excel spreadsheet was illuminated on the wall with 10 colleges listed down the left side. Across the top were 12 categories:


• The Common Application

• Supplemental application

• Transcripts

• Letters of recommendation

• Essay(s)

• Interview with alumni

• Campus visit and interview

• Specialized materials (portfolio, resume, additional materials)

• Scholarships

• FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid)

• CSS (College Scholarship Service) Profile

"If you don't know how to use Excel, it's time to learn," warned the instructor, as my head started to swim.

I was torn. Part of me was thinking, "Why am I here? I'm not the one applying to college." But another part of me countered, "How can 17-year-olds be expected to unravel this complex process and meet this array of deadlines?"

Especially when these students were, no doubt, all rehearsing or practicing or meeting or volunteering or studying for an advanced placement (AP) class in an effort to achieve the credentials that make you a desirable candidate in the eyes of a college. Who had time to complete this 12-step process once, let alone the recommended seven times? The standard advice is to apply to at least seven schools: two "reach," four "target" and at least one "safety."

Our college search was launched during my daughter's sophomore year of high school, with the annual college fair. Recruiters from scores of schools set up tables in the gym and students, some eager and others reluctant, fingered brochures and asked questions. I tagged along while she and her best friend went from recruiter to recruiter (although "gatekeeper" seems a more apt term), asking how they could increase their chances of being accepted to that particular school. Of course, I was happy to see them so interested in college. But their anxiety and tension around the event surpassed any sense of excitement.

"Is it better to have one strong interest or a lot of different activities?" one of the girls earnestly asked.

The recruiter from Brown or was it Whitman or maybe Lewis and Clark told them a story about an applicant from Kansas who was totally focused on knitting. She knit clothing for a senior center and entered her knitting in county fair exhibits.

"So, what I'm saying," replied the recruiter, "is that we look at that applicant and think, 'Wow! If she dedicates herself like that to knitting, she will dedicate herself that way to college success.' It's not what you focus on that's important, it's the fact that you focus."

"Hmm ... I guess I could learn to knit," I could see them thinking. Why weren't they asking the recruiter, "What does your college have to offer me?"

My advice was equally confusing. When my daughter was feeling anxious about getting accepted to her top college choices, I assured her.

"You'll be fine," I said. "Just be yourself. Pursue your interests and things will sort themselves out."

But when she was procrastinating on completing her applications, I nagged at her.

"I mean, it's up to you, but if you're serious about early admission the deadline is only a week away," I said. "Just thought you should know."

I wanted to be able to break away from the process, to detach myself and say, "Que sera, sera," but I couldn't somehow. I bought the Princeton Review's "The Best 351 Colleges" and poured over it in the same compulsive way I read "What to Expect When You're Expecting" during both my pregnancies.

I was jolted back to reality after reading a book with chapter titles like "Selling Yourself," "Finding the Perfect Fit" and "The Brag Sheet." The quote on the back cover read, "For those who are serious about getting into competitive institutions, this book is an essential weapon."

Weapon? Not "tool," but weapon. This was getting way too serious. And, worse, this jacket quote was written by the author of something called "Essays That Work: The Best-Selling College Application Essay Guide."

I hid the book under my bed as if it were pornography. Did I really want my independent and creative daughter thinking she had to "fit in" to "get in?" Did I want her to hold out, believing there was a "perfect match" just for her? I don't even believe that about marriage, let alone college.

I chilled. It worked out. She got into college. Soon, it will be my son's turn. I'll see if I truly learned my lesson.

• Carol Prentice is caught in the middle of life, work and family in Juneau.

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