The title to this blog kind of sums up everything I want to say. This is for all my friends who say they'd never get in to the college they attended if they had to apply now. I say, No Way. It's the same. However ....
Ethan's college application process, together with the coincidence of my fast approaching 25th reunion, has left me musing a bit more than anticipated on my own college experience over 25 years ago. You would think I'd had enough reminiscing last November, with the ascension of Barack and Michelle (Robinson '85 when I knew her) Obama to the White House. Our collective experience as college students in the early 80s is more easily defined, though, than my own personal experience as a first generation (or "NCP" -- non-college parents) female at Princeton between 1981 and 1985.
Ethan's decisions, and the colleges' decisions about him, have caused me to really take a hard look at myself, as well as at applying to Princeton then and now (a bit of a disclaimer here: Ethan did not even apply to Princeton, despite my vociferous exhortations).
I took specific steps to learn much more about the college application process than I ever had before -- for example, reading The Gatekeepers by Jacques Steinberg, as well as dozens of other articles and blogs devoted to college applications. Over the past six months I also spent some time (probably too much) reflecting on what a specific college, and a college education generally, mean in the course of one's life. And, believe it or not, I even tried to decide on a course for our one remaining child (Julia) who hasn't yet applied to college. Whether or not I follow my own advice about everything that I write about here, I know that these blogs create a permanent archive for me to look back on (which I did yesterday, when preparing BBQ'd ribs for dinner -- that I didn't really eat, because I'm still not eating beef/pork) just in case I want a refresher course in Taking My Own Advice. With that said ....
The current state of college admissions appears to be an ever-changing and increasingly complicated process. With thousands more children of college graduates applying to colleges, and with the Common Application -- which, for the uninitiated, is an online form that suffices as an application at thousands of schools nationwide, meaning that once you fill it out, you can just click off the colleges you want to apply to without having to answer "Why Do You Want To Be A Student at X.University?" Many colleges do have "supplemental" applications but the Comm. App. still provides all the essential info.) -- admissions counselors are in rather uncharted territory. I think it's fair to say, however, that the number of applicants isn't going to return to the relatively low numbers of the 1990s any time soon. Unless colleges return to "business as usual," and take away the Common App, admissions offices are likely to confront the same vast influx of paper and files to be read (at Wesleyan, the college featured in The Gatekeepers, it took one person an entire day to unload and file/organize the applications received at the office in just one Monday). And, applicants are still faced with vastly increased competition and uncertainty over their college destination.
Which, when you sum it up like that, isn't too different from the way things worked 30 years ago. We had Early Decision and Early Action; we had SATs and SAT prep courses; we had alumni interviews and application essays; and we had to wait until April 15th to find out where we were headed for the next four years. So, what's so different now? I guess you could say that now the shoe is on the other foot. Unlike many of our parents, who either didn't attend college or attended by virtue of pre-ordination (local or where their own parents had gone), our own children have thousands of choices before them. And colleges, likewise, obviously have thousands of qualified applicants to choose from.
I know..... Get to the chase.
With thousands more kids applying to colleges, there seems to be more discretion, more scrutiny, more reliance on impartial assessment, and accordingly More Fallibility than ever before in the admissions process.
All the things you thought mattered in the goal to be accepted at your first choice school really do matter: race, gender, SAT scores, resident state, caliber of high school, writing ability, math ability, parents' colleges, parents' non-college, parents' professions, essay quality, essay subject, mental health, athletic ability, extracurriculars, social skills, leadership skills, discipline history; I could go on and on. It All Matters, if you want to get into the top 2 dozen or so of the most highly sought-after schools in the country, and I'm not just talking Ivy League here. There's Williams (shout out to my brother-in-law, John), Georgetown, Duke, etc., etc. Lots of previously unheard of schools are getting the trickle-down from the influx of applicants. Elon? Bard? NY-Geneseo?
The point is, that even though you'd think that universally increased assessment tools and application scrutiny would lead to more predictable application decisions for students and for high school guidance counselors, I'm here to tell you that Predictability is about the only thing that has Gone Down Dramatically! There is, increasingly, No Way to predict whether one student will be accepted and one denied. And this, my soon-to-be-college-parents-themselves friends, is what is so distressing. The inability to explain to your son or daughter why one school accepted/denied him and another school did not. Or why one school accepted his friend, and not him. With all things equal, what turns the college admissions' counselors' mind in one direction over another? The answer, if you believe Jacques Steinberg, is that one thing that no applicant has any control over: the unique and personal experiences of the admissions counselors themselves. Their own personal experiences have an inevitable effect on the children they choose to push through to admission, and those they allow to remain in the denied pile.
And that, then, is my point (ah, finally). We are who we are. We can't be someone we aren't, just as our children cannot ultimately pretend to be other than who they are. We are a product of our parents, our experiences, our life/career decisions. The Gatekeepers can't escape their own personal experiences, and quite obviously bring it with them to the admissions process. Which, I guess, is just the way it's always been.