College trolling, family-style

Search: Scouting for the right school once was a bit impromptu and student-motivated, but no more.

April 14, 2002|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

MORE THAN three decades ago, when I began my search for a college, it was a rite-of-passage trip, taken with two friends -- also juniors in high school on spring break -- setting out from Atlanta and heading north, eventually winding up on the green pastures of Harvard University. It was as much a celebration of the freedom our driver's licenses brought us as a quest for an appropriate institution of higher education.

Last week, when I set out from Baltimore with my junior-in-high-school son, I found that the trip remains a rite of passage, but now it is one for families to experience, a test of generational bonds and stresses that takes place in the Mixmaster that is the contemporary college admissions industry.

By comparison, my original trip was a disorganized mess. We would wander around campuses and look up alumni of our high school and chat a bit, then head off. Now you would be hard-pressed to find students alone on such a quest; parents are always present, and usually the ones asking the questions.

The motivation for my original trip came from my friends and me, spurred by the get-into-a-prestigious-college pressure of our private high school. My parents seemed a bit puzzled. They were all for furthering my education, but they figured that a lot of good schools were out there.

Now it seems reversed.

I ended up picking the schools my son and I would visit, in part to see friends along the way and to present an array of college choices. My son did want to check out Massachusetts Institute of Technology and as long as we were in Boston, why not stop by Harvard? On the way up, Wesleyan University in Connecticut filled the liberal arts college niche. When we left Boston, we drove across Massachusetts into New York for Rennselear Polytechnic Institute.

At each place, the drill is pretty organized -- a one-hour information session, conducted by an admissions professional, followed (or preceded) by a one-hour campus tour, led by a student.

The schools walk a fine line in marketing. They want to be friendly and welcoming, but still play a bit hard-to-get. If they seemed too easy, they might not be worthy of your child's attention. It would be like pricing a Rolls-Royce at $12,000. Something must be wrong with it.

One corollary emerged -- the more prestigious the school, the more hidden its admissions office. Most colleges have large signs aiming prospective students to the proper building where they find parking reserved solely for such visits.

You won't find parking at Harvard, In fact, if you don't know the address, you probably won't find Harvard's office of undergraduate admissions. The best clue is a hand-lettered sign on a nearby doorway pointing the way, probably because its inhabitants got tired of giving directions to wandering families. You have to locate the street number, enter the right brick portal and make a couple of turns down pathways to find the modest signage next to a corner doorway.

Same for MIT, where the admissions office is just another door on a long hallway in the romantically named Building No. 1. That's just down from where the tours depart, beneath the soaring ceilings of the lobby of Building No. 7.

Harvard was clearly in a class by itself. The tension was palpable in the information session. The admissions officer held the keys to this magic kingdom, and parents and students alike were almost aggressive in their desperation to learn how to unlock the gates. Knowing that the Class of 2006 had just been screened and admitted, one prospective applicant asked what sort of essays stood out from the crowd. To his credit, the admissions officer said, in so many words, the well-written ones that had something to say.

Harvard gets close to 20,000 applications for an entering class of 1,600. Getting in comes across as akin to winning the lottery: It would be great if it happens, but you would be silly to count on it. The same is true of its brethren in the Ivy League triad -- Princeton and Yale -- as well as Columbia, Stanford and a handful of others. They can take whomever they want. If they want a jazz oboe player with 1,600 on the SAT, they can probably find a dozen to choose from.

Harvard did have a nice phrase that echoed what others said they were looking for -- the "well lopsided" student. That means no longer are they looking for someone who does a bit of everything -- football captain, student body president, volunteer for the homeless --while getting good grades. Now, they want people who still get those grades but show a passion for a particular area, whether in athletics, the arts or extracurricular academics. They're not looking for well-rounded students, but for a well-rounded student body.

It is impossible to evaluate what your college experience will be like on the basis of a day, or a weekend, or a week on a campus. Yet it is impossible to overestimate the importance of the decision.

Of the trio that set out from Atlanta in 1968, one ended up at Harvard. Another was rejected. I didn't bother to apply, knowing my chances were nil. During that trip, as we drove past the exits for Baltimore, someone wondered if we should visit Johns Hopkins. We joked that we didn't want to be doctors.

A year later, amid my Ivy League rejections, I received an acceptance from Hopkins. I came up for a visit, said it looked fine and entered that fall. In a few years, Baltimore was my new hometown.

I found my profession at the Hopkins school newspaper. One day, walking up the steps of The Sun building on Calvert Street, I said to myself, "I'll work in this building someday." I've been here almost 29 years. I met the woman I would marry, one of the first women to attend Hopkins as a undergraduate, the mother of this long-haired teen-ager I was driving around to colleges.

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