College admissions, part two

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

What do you get when you combine one uncertain teenager, two eager-to-the-point-of-mania parents, and a nation full of admirable institutions of higher learning? If you read my last post, you would know the answer is a lot of college visits. While my last post focused on my first college visit and the odd interview there, today I will shift around and offer up four anecdotes from long ago. None of these carries any profound meaning, but they all have stuck with me over the years and I thought they could serve as grist for the mill. If you have any memories of your own college search, please feel free to share that. As an aside – I am not going to take the time when I mention each school below to talk about its many virtues and strengths. Either you know about each school or you do not, but either way, these tiny, non-representative stories from years past should not in any way be taken as criticism of these institutions. All sorts of wonderful people have attended and represented all of these places, and I do not mean to suggest otherwise.

• • • • • • •

One of the first places I visited was Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C. While I would go on to live in Washington for a year after college (and really enjoyed my time there), for whatever reason the appeal of being in D.C. did not really occur to me as a foolish youth. In fact, I really did not get much of a sense of the school during my tour there. Eastern Air Lines Boeing 757What I remember most about the stroll around campus was seeing several Eastern Air Lines Boeing 757s on approach to National Airport. (Some of you may recall I like planes.) As these planes had only been in service for five years back then, I was delighted to see them in their snappy livery gliding by over the Potomac. After the tour concluded, the guide ushered us into a large room where the “information session” would take place. Soon, a young woman arrived and introduced herself as a recent alumna of Georgetown. After her welcoming comments emphasizing the international flavor of the Georgetown student body, she asked the people in the room to tell the group where they were from, and promised the person from farthest away would receive a bumper sticker. The litany of American states ensued – New York, California, Virginia, New Jersey, Ohio, Illinois, Delaware – until a young woman piped up with Paris. The presenter looked up and asked, “France?”, and the student said yes. The woman at the front of the room perked up and said how pleased she was to have her here. Back into the U.S. rut, the next several kids all offered up Florida, Missouri, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and then the next young man claimed Dubai as his home. To which the Georgetown woman said, “Well, we have a tie then. Wonderful.” Sure enough, when the session concluded, she hustled back to her office to retrieve a second bumper sticker so that both winners could claim their prize. Having driven just a bit more than a hundred miles to visit the school, I knew I was not in the running for the bumper sticker, but it baffled me then – and now – why the woman was so determined to conclude that Paris and Dubai were equivalent journeys.

• • • • • • •

As I trekked around the country with my parents, they made it very clear that I would be in coat and tie for all of the visits. This made perfect sense to me then, and I imagine I will expect the same from my sons when we head off to visit schools with them. Understanding and agreeing with something is not, as you may have noticed in your own life, the same as liking it. When we headed south from Georgetown, the weather grew hotter and muggier, as the East Coast is prone to doing in the summer. The University of Virginia broiled under the heat, but did manage to conjure up a breeze or two. It was William & Mary where the heat really set in. When our little group set out that morning, all of the other students in the group cleverly wore shorts and short sleeves. And then there was me. Long pants, socks, Oxford cloth shirt, necktie, and a proper blue wool blazer for good measure. I staggered around the W&M campus on the verge of heat stroke, and the only clear memory I retain is of a large brick dorm with an air conditioner perched in every window, all grinding away at full tilt trying to keep the tidewater miasma at bay. I hope so very much that when I am flogging my kids through the rituals ahead of them that I will remember the absurdity of my outfit that day and be willing to relent occasionally, when conditions warrant.

• • • • • • •

Later, in a cooler clime, as a clutch of prospective Dartmouth students strolled around Hanover, New Hampshire, a young man from Manhattan arrived at the corner of Wheelock and Main Streets and asked the tour guide: How late at night does the subway run? The guide’s reply, referring to walking, bicycles, and shuttles as modes better suited to the town of 9,200 people, was a model of tact.

• • • • • • •

On our swing through New England, we stopped at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. A sunny, temperate day greeted us as we headed out on the tour, with our backwards-walking guide leading the way. She was much more practiced than many of the guides we had encountered, chattering away in a friendly, non-stop way with obvious enthusiasm about her school and its virtues. So determined was she to speak without pause that when she ran out of things to say, she shifted gear into a free-form stream of words which soon had the people on the tour looking sideways at each other. In retrospect, I now wonder if she was not high, but I was too naïve at the time to even wonder such a thing. As we climbed the stairs near the Admissions Office, we crossed a cement sidewalk that looks just like every cement sidewalk you have ever seen in your whole life. Our stalwart guide gestured across the featureless expanse and gushed “Notice even our sidewalks sparkle!” In for a penny, in for a pound, we continued around the campus, hearing nugget after nugget of Wesleyan lore and factoids. Did we know Wesleyan was home to a Javanese gamelan? Indeed it is, and our breathless guide explained how a lot of students came to Wesleyan in hopes of the opportunity to become part of the gamelan ensemble. Part of her patter was a long homage to the diversity found on campus, and she pointed out the various housing opportunities on her diverse campus in which various minorities chose to segregate themselves. As we passed what memory tells me was the “Womynist House,” the guide explained it was an all-female residence. I observed, quietly and just to my mother, “I suppose I won’t be living there.” Our guide stopped her forward progress and her commentary, straightened her back and extended her index finger to full wagging position, and explained loudly to the whole group: “If you come to Wesleyan, you will learn that the whole world is not just like you, does not look just like you, and does not think just like you, and you will learn to respect others’ points of views and ideas!” A dozen argumentative, sassy replies raced to the tip of my tongue, but the startled faces of my fellow tour takers reminded me how odd the situation was, and I meekly replied, “Okay.” The tour resumed, but her comments were punctuated by frequent angry glares at me until the group broke up back at the Admissions Office. It will not surprise you that I stopped considering Wesleyan after this scolding. While this was unfair to Wesleyan, I think it was also fueled by the fact that later in the day I toured a much prettier college which soon rose to the top of my list.

• • • • • • •

Congratulations, gentle reader, for making it this far. I apologize that none of the above vignettes offers any deep insight on life or the human condition – not all stories have morals or deep significance. I will say again I know many fine folks who attended all of the above schools, and I know them to be great places. These stories are not intended to yield any fundamental insights about these schools, but rather to amuse briefly. These reminiscences have reminded me of one last college admissions story, and I will save that for the next post.


3 thoughts on “College admissions, part two

  1. Ran, I love your Dartmouth Tour tale. What was that young man thinking? I think I remember the name of the college on your “practice visit.” Didn’t you also make a Mike Dukakis (dating ourselves) comment that left a blank stare. I am waiting to for you to end your blog writing, “I probably should have gone to Colby.” Check out my blog at

    1. The practice school is in Lancaster, if that helps. Your memory about Gov. Dukakis is better than mine, alas, but it would be very in character for me to make some comment that missed its mark and left them staring, I suppose. I am off to Gator Science now.

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