College admissions, part one

[This is the sixth post in a series. For a little background on the thinking behind this, please read this.]

I have the good fortune to be an only child. I have always seen it that way, driven largely by the fact that I enjoy my parents, so growing up in a three-person household was a happy experience. That is not to say I loved every moment – any child will lock horns with their parents at various times, and never having a sibling or two to distract my parents from me was tedious at times. When those mild shortcomings intersected with the complications of adolescence, I know I frequently felt like I had a bellyful of my parents, and I am quite certain they felt the same way about me. We managed all of that pretty well for the most part, and most of the time I think that my lousy math and erratic French were my biggest faults.

As I alluded to in my last post, I grew up fascinated by aeronautics, and had always imagined myself pursuing engineering. When the time came to start looking at colleges, I was surprised and dismayed to see how many engineering programs distanced themselves and their students from the humanities and liberal arts, as I very much saw myself engaged in both realms. When I learned more about these programs, I increasingly saw myself pursuing a liberal arts education and my interest in engineering waned, orphaning my love of aircraft to become an eccentric hobby, and not the organizing passion of my life. I often wonder about the wisdom of that choice, but that is water under the bridge by now.

Thus at the age of seventeen, I was contemplating attending some nice college and studying some nice things with some nice classmates, but I was very uncertain about the where and the what and the who of those statements, and really unclear about the why. As my parents and my school’s college advisor worked diligently to help me determine where I wanted to apply, I found it excruciatingly hard to narrow down the choices I faced. I saw the appeal in small schools and I saw the depth of large ones. I loved the thought of a rural campus and I savored the cultural attractions of an urban setting. And on and on. North and south, east and west, independent or Greek, I dithered and waffled and prevaricated and drove my college advisor and parents crazy.

Since I had barely narrowed down what schools interested me, my brave, patient, and crazed parents decided we would visit a lot of schools. Dozens, in fact. This did not seem like a kindness to me then, but in retrospect I can hardly imagine the work and time that went into these trips. Using the internet, kids today can download information, watch videos, take virtual tours, and Skype in their interviews if they wish. Not so in the Stone Age of my youth, where one called each school, received viewbooks in the mail, called them again to schedule a tour, an information session, and an interview, and then actually trekked to each campus. I have a few years before my oldest child begins this process, and I am sure it is difficult today (I know admissions is much crazier now than then), but I cannot help thinking that the new digital approach must surely be a vast improvement over the old analog methods.

As the various visits, tours, and interviews loomed ahead of me, one good suggestion I received was to pick a good school that you were not interested in and make that your dry run visit. I rummaged through the stack of viewbooks that towered in my bedroom and fished out one which fit the bill. I will not name it here, as it is a good school with lots of great alumni, but it did not speak to me and it was pretty close, so it would make a good rehearsal venue. My mother and I embarked in our old ’84 Buick Century, which was a lemon if there ever was one, and drove there one pleasant afternoon. A nice kid gave us a tour, another kind recent alum conducted an enthusiastic information session, and then I sat in the waiting room as the time for my first College Interview ticked closer. I had read books and article about this, I had engaged in mock interviews back at school, I had been coached and prepped and reminded, and now it was time. The receptionist signaled to me, and I headed back to meet the admissions officer. A sparkly lady greeted me with a cheerful handshake and as we took our seats I noticed, because I am clever like this, that she was quite a few months pregnant.

Being a worldly and polite young man, I congratulated her on her pregnancy and learned it was her first. Moving past the small talk, we engaged in the foxtrot of all college interviews – tell me about your grades, about your interests, about your goals, about what you want to do when you grow up. I trotted out the various answers I had rehearsed and she dutifully wrote down notes about me and my scintillating virtues, my compelling worldview, and my deep desire to matriculate at her school. The trick was that the baby in her belly had just started vigorously kicking a day or two prior to the interview, and she was utterly bewitched by the energetic stirrings of new life within her. Resting her hands on her belly, she would tilt her head with a faraway look in her eyes and coo appreciatively. So enamored in fact that she could hardly be bothered to listen to a word I said, and that makes perfect sense. Motherhood was a brand new, powerful thing for her, and hearing some kid prattle on about community service and extra-credit physics labs pales in comparison. I was deeply tempted to offer up nonsense replies to her questions, but I was much too intimidated by the situation to pull a stunt like that. So instead she threw one fastball down the middle at me after another, and I hit back single after unremarkable single back at her. Before long she reached the end of her questions, looked up from her paper, thanked me for my interest, and showed me the door.

I returned to the waiting room, where my anxious mother was waiting, and she asked me, naturally, how did it go? I replied fine, I guess, and as we walked to the car I explained how the lady had been distracted by her baby. Since I did not in fact have my heart set on attending this school, there was no harm done, but I realized immediately how frustrating it would have been to break through her reveries and really make the sort of powerful impression I imagined was necessary to secure admittance to a school. I was lucky that day that this snag had not influenced an interview that mattered to me, but I knew that all of the upcoming visits that might matter a great deal to me could be subject to their own snags and surprises. This dry run visit was meant to make me more confident, but I came away from it more anxious about the process unfolding before me.

I will wrap this up here for the moment, but please tune in to the next episode when you will hear about further college admissions memories, including fierce Connecticut feminists, public transit in New Hampshire, wardrobe issues in Virginia, and the poor geography of a Georgetown alum.


2 thoughts on “College admissions, part one

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