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And the Envelope, Please: Surviving the College Application Process

5 years ago
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The end is near.

That is the refrain chanted in some 3 million homes with high school seniors across the country, mine included, as they wait to learn which college will be lucky enough to accept them as freshmen. Over the next two weeks, America's colleges and universities will be sending out thick envelopes to students whom they welcome to the class of 2014 and thin envelopes to those they understand to be highly qualified but for whom this university is just not the right place.

Our son, Josh, is a senior, and it's hard to believe that this day is at hand. After spending countless hours working on his personal essay, meeting with the college counselor, and recalling exactly what he did on that community service project in Romania three years ago, he may finally be able to relax. Josh, like the two out of every three high school seniors who continue on to college, will soon know where he will be spending the next four years.

Of course, some of Josh's friends have known for a long time where they wanted to go. For those students, colleges offer something called "early decision." Early decision is not exactly what you think it is -- it doesn't give you a jump on other applicants. Instead, it is intended to "help ease the stress that always accompanies the college selection process," according to Vassar College. That sounds like a good thing, but there's a catch to this process. As Vassar explains, early decision "is a binding agreement. . . . If admitted, you are required to withdraw your applications to other colleges and universities." Although many of Josh's friends knew exactly where they wanted to go -- one of them has been measuring for the drapes in his dorm room at Wesleyan for months --- Josh is not one of them.

I can understand his dilemma. After visiting so many colleges and receiving so many enticing brochures, it's hard to decide. As Josh agonizingly said, "There are so many options, how can I choooooooose?"

So, off we set through the process of applying to a baker's dozen colleges --- among them: Tufts, Penn, Ohio Wesleyan, Carleton, Oberlin, Syracuse and even Harvard (because his dad went there) -- to figure out which college was "the one." It all became a jumble of admission's requirements, personal statements, and compilation of extra-curricular activities.

Many aspects of the process were fun. Josh particularly enjoyed driving around New England for a week last summer with his dad, visiting the colleges and having that father-son bonding experience. It's funny that he didn't have that same experience with me when I took him to Philadelphia. I won't take it personally.

We -- and I do mean we, because any parent who tells you that they let their kid complete the process on their own is probably not being honest -- had a lot of stressful moments during this process. The most stressful probably occurred on Dec. 29, two days before the deadline and one day after we clicked the "submit" button on the common application, when we learned that none of the colleges had received it. What was going on here? Hadn't we followed the directions to the T?

Oops -- an e-mail from the common application guru said that we hadn't crossed one particular "T." Sorry. My bad. Back to the common app to correct the mistake and resubmit the application. Unlike humans, computers are not forgiving of the slightest error.

All of this taught us a lesson: Don't make non-refundable plans for Christmas vacation when you have a senior applying to college.

We learned other lessons too, including the realization that the common application doesn't quite live up to its name. Yes, it does allow you to fill out your name, address, Social Security number and SAT scores just once. But, with colleges receiving far more applications than the number of freshman spots available, they need other information to distinguish among them. And most colleges require an essay.

Some schools have taken innovative steps in this regard. Applicants to Tufts, for example, may post a video on YouTube as part of the process. Wow. Times sure have changed since I filled out my college application with an IBM Selectric typewriter. (For those students who may be reading this piece, a typewriter is an ancient machine that involved striking keys with enough force to cause an ink-stained letter to appear on the application. If you made a mistake, you erased it with an obsolete product known as Wite-out, or you started over. Your parents probably received one of these machines, as I did, when they graduated from high school. You will receive an I-touch.)

To see examples of the videos submitted, just Google "Tufts admissions video." One of those YouTubers, Adam Bangser, figured out the SEO maximization algorithm and managed to have his video appear atop the search. That ought to be enough to guarantee admission. After all, don't we all live or die on the number of clicks on our site?

But being number one on Google does not necessarily translate into being number one in the admission's office. Nicole Anderson, assistant director and career counselor at Tufts, said that more than 1,000 of its 15,438 applicants submitted a YouTube video. Anderson marvels that more than 90,000 people have viewed one applicant's "math dances" clip, but says that clips by Michael Norton and Rachel Ison "stand out." (I hope that the math dancer has a second choice in mind.)

At our household, Josh chose a relatively old-fashioned way of submitting his creative work --- he sent in a DVD. (For a sample of his work -- and a view of my home office -- check out "Obama's First Stride" at the student news action network.)

The application process also brought some insightful moments. All colleges ask the applicant to check a box indicating gender. The common application provides just two choices: male or female. But, some enlightened universities recognize that it's not always that simple, and allow for an "other" option. That's progress.

Other colleges ask for very creative essays that can provide a glimpse into our kids' dreams. I learned a lot about Josh when he told Penn what he would be doing on "page 217" of his "400-page" autobiography. Apparently, he expects to be 55 years old at that point and will be halfway through re-tracing the evolution of mankind by bicycle, eventually ending up where early man started this historic journey with his first upright strides as Australopithecus Africanus.

Wow. I'm not yet 55 and I don't even ride my bike half a mile to the library to return an overdue book.

Yes, the college application process has many exhausting aspects. But the best moment arrives when your child receives that letter beginning with the word "congratulations." Josh received this news from Syracuse last Friday, not via the telltale thick envelope but from an e-mail with the subject line "we have made a decision about your application." He only knew the answer was yes after clicking on the attachment. That's the way the world works today.

So as we wait for other letters to arrive, we can rest, knowing that Josh has at least one great option for the fall.

But wait -- that rest lasted for about a nanosecond. Next up is a college information session for our 10th-grade son, Stephen. And three years after that, we'll start all over again with his sister, Naomi.

The end is nowhere near.
Filed Under: Woman Up

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