We were herded into a small room in the admissions building at Swarthmore College, a fine private school outside Philadelphia. The campus is picture-perfect. In fact, it looks very much like the picture on the brochure -- high praise indeed, because your typical college brochure cover would make the Love Canal look like Venice.
But we weren't there for the scenery. My daughter was attracted to the school for its academic reputation. I liked the school cheer: "Fight, fight for the inner light. Kill, little Quakers, kill."
Anyway, we're in this room, and we're listening to the same spiel we've heard at all stops on the Littwins' Tour of Incredibly Expensive Colleges and Universities when the admissions officer says in response to a question about accommodations, "There are no phones in the dorm rooms."
I saw jaws drop. I saw light fade from the bright, shiny faces of the young. I saw, for the first time on this tour, a hint of a smile from a parent, who must have been thinking, "If we're going to cough up $22,000 per, the little brat ought to suffer a little."
It's college time again. And if your son or daughter is a high school senior awaiting the mid-April, yes/no/maybe package in the mail that will only (this is what the kids think, and some nTC parents, too) determine their life's course (if I don't get into Tech, I'll have to work at a carwash or, worse, sell life insurance), you know what I mean.
For a little over a year now, my daughter, Angie, a senior at Dulaney High School, has been playing the college admissions game. Since, as some of you may have guessed, my job as sportswriter allows for a lot of free time, I've played along.
It's a hard game, and everyone's scared. Many parents are afraid their kids won't get in the right schools, and they won't get the chance to say at dinner parties, "I just heard from John. He's at Yale, you know." The thing that scares the kids, besides rejection, is the application process itself. You try to write an essay on how the school motto -- Knowledge Is Good -- relates to the feeding habits of whales.
Once, in the days before MTV, applying to college was no big deal. You went to Old State U or maybe to Where Dad Went. Colleges didn't recruit you, and you certainly didn't recruit them. You filled out an application -- name, address, grades, Scholastic Aptitude Test scores and maybe a short essay on why you want to go to Old State U or to Where Dad Went -- and that was it. You got in or you didn't. Usually, you did.
At least, that's how I remember it. (I went to school in the '60s; therefore, much of what happened during that period is, let's say, a little fuzzy.)
Today, applying to college is completely different. What isn't? Here's a primer.
The process starts when the kid is in the 11th grade and he or she gets on a mailing list. Is that Life 101 or what? You think when they're done with you, Prestigious U. sells its list to L. L. Bean? "Congratulations on your college acceptance. Have you considered how you'd look on campus if you didn't wear duck-hunting boots?" Anyway, Angie gets letters from schools across America -- from dance schools in New York to engineering schools in California -- in that very sincere, let's-be-friends, Dear Angela style, explaining why she should apply to their school. The technical term for this is begging.
As you might have guessed, colleges are begging because many of them charge $20,000 or more a year, and you'd beg, too, if you were asking parents to shell out that kind of cash so their kids can go to fraternity parties and throw up. I mean, college isn't that different from when we went. I read the statistics: 55 percent of all college students have at least once worn duck-hunting boots on their heads.
Some of the mailers are pretty inventive. The Southern California Trojans send out a big, red, foldout Trojan horse. Some schools' mailers have peek-a-boo covers and look like greeting cards. Everything is in color. And the form letters usually are signed by hand -- at least those from the classier schools. Angie did what all high school seniors do with these letters. She put them in a pile. We still have that pile today.
For our next step, we move to the Visit. I loved visiting colleges. I love college campuses, college bookstores, college pizza. And, mostly, I loved watching the kids. We were about to begin a tour at one large university laid out over what must have seemed like half of upstate New York, when one youngster earnestly asked, "Will there be a tour bus?" OK, they're a little pampered. So are the parents. We toured New England in beautiful spring weather, and all I could think of was, why couldn't I go back to school and throw up again at fraternity parties?