It's a life lesson for my daughter, that's what I try to tell myself. This is how the world works. Just because you have a high grade point average, excellent test scores, a myriad of extracurricular activities, hundreds of hours of community service, and you're a legacy at your top pick college -- all those things might count for doo doo squat. For example, if there is only one spot available and the choice is between you and a Division One athlete, tough luck if you were the co-captain of your JV high school badminton team. Better check out that safety school.
My daughter is a senior at an all girls high school in Pasadena. These days the girls spend most of their time obsessing about college admission. They talk in a strange language, about restrictive early action, early action, and early decision. SATs and ACTs and SAT Subject Tests. They talk of tutors and taking tests multiple times ("Hooray," I heard one girl shout. "My new ACT score gets me into Berkeley. In theory.") Reach schools and fifty/fifty schools and safeties (also known as likelies) and how many schools should they apply to -- is 17 too many?
Don't go on the college advice website College Confidential, the school counselors warned the girls. Too much angst. So naturally the girls went there immediately to read the forums with threads like "What are My Chances?" "Help, I have a 3.1 GPA and I want to go to Penn!" writes one desperate senior.
These stories are from different schools around the L.A. area. (I suspect they could be repeated at many high schools in the U.S.) At lunchtime a girl had her list of prospective colleges on the table and another girl saw it and laughed. "Wow, you're only applying to reach schools?"
Last year when acceptance notices went out, a senior boy said to another boy, "You got into Vassar? Too bad, I got into Brown."
And if the competition between students is bad, the behavior of parents can be worse. I met a man recently, a wannabe hipster in groovy glasses and a Simon Cowell tight sweater. It turned out our girls are both seniors. "How did your daughter do on the SAT?" he asked me.
"Fine," I said.
"My daughter aced it. 2380. She wants to go to an Ivy."
Every time I'd encounter Simon he'd drop a little bragg-y bomb. "Simonette made a perfect score on her SAT Subject Test Math Level 2."
"Great," I mumbled, wanting to rip Simon's Tom Ford glasses off his nose and stomp them into tiny pieces.
He saw me with my daughter one day and asked her, "So where do you want to go?" When she told him, he laughed and said, "Whoa, way to pick one of the hardest schools to get into. What's their acceptance rate, seven percent?"
Yes, I have fantasies that Simon has been making up stories about his daughter -- in reality her test scores are mediocre, she has zero extracurricular activities, a meth habit, two DUIs. But -- the hard truth, she probably is the fabulous, over-achieving child her father says she is. So she'll get in anywhere.
Or not. Because college admission has gone bonkers. You might get in, you might not. Nobody knows. I tell my daughter not to worry. Work hard, but have fun. This is your senior year. The right school will find you. She nods at me, but she's unconvinced.
Over the summer my family attended a forum with an admissions director from a highly rated college who said they were only accepting extraordinary students who had done extraordinary things. For example, one boy had discovered a new solar system! And a girl -- when she was only a junior in high school -- she invented a device that would help patients suffering from kidney failure! Afterwards my daughter looked at me -- a look that said, "I haven't done anything close to that."
"You have a lifetime to do extraordinary things," I told her. "And that guy was an asshole." (I didn't say the asshole part to my daughter.)
But I worry. About her chances of getting in to a college she wants -- competing against the athletes and kids with big donor parents who have dorms and theaters named after them. And I blame myself -- damn, why didn't I inherit a billion dollar company and build a library for my alma mater? It will be my fault when my daughter doesn't get into her dream school.
I know it's not about me. Or parents like Simon. It's about children, my daughter included, who have worked hard and are eager to attend the college of their choice. It's absurd this process has become so difficult and overwhelming. But we cross our fingers and trust that everything will work out in the end. (Unless it's not too late for me to win the lottery and write a million dollar check...)