Process of applying for colleges has become way too complicated

Family Matters

February 22, 2004|By Susan Reimer

WHEN WE LEFT Jessie, Jen and Kate, the Three Lacrosse-kateers, they were touring the mid-Atlantic states in a van, searching for the perfect college.

Rejoining the girls today -- six months later -- we see that, like the best soap operas, absolutely nothing has changed.

After more than a year of what has become a miserable test of endurance, the girls still have no idea where they are going to college, or if they will be playing lacrosse when they get there.

The process began about this time last year, when we, their parents, issued dire warnings about junior-year midterm exams and how critical those grades would be to the college application process.

It continued through the spring and summer as the girls played two seasons of lacrosse, with regular interruptions to visit college campuses.

This fall, things got serious as the girls tried to narrow the number of schools to which they would apply to an even dozen and begin the applications -- all the while keeping their grades up in a suitably challenging senior-year academic load. There was more lacrosse, and there were more college visits.

Tension mounted as the application deadlines collided head-on with senior-year midterms, about which we parents issued another set of dire warnings.

I don't know about the girls, but my fellow mothers and I can't keep this up much longer. The college application process has become a marathon in search of a finish line.

My message to all the college admissions directors is this: Your process is going to collapse of its own weight. It is too long, too expensive, too complicated and too hard on students and their families.

You need not worry that the flawed SATs are a poor predictor of academic success. The application process itself is going to reduce your talent pool to those kids with mothers like me, ones with the grit and the money to navigate this insane process.

I was the first in my family to attend college and managed to do it without more from my parents than a signature on a form. I took the SATs once. I picked one suitable college out of a catalog, applied and got in. The first time I saw the campus was the day I moved into my dorm.

I have seen enough families go through this process since then to know that it is no longer that simple. But it seems much harder than it needs to be.

The girls have taken the SATs multiple times after multiple prep courses and tutoring sessions. They have visited more places than Cher on her farewell tour. And they have applied to more schools than they can remember the names of.

Granted, they have added lacrosse to the equation. But that might be the only criterion for applying to a college that these overwhelmed kids could name. (The only other requirement might be what I would describe as a discount version of the "brand-name college" criterion: The kids at the lunch table have to at least have heard of the school.)

The girls all applied using the Common Application, which is available online, and that is a helpful first step in this process.

But this application is not universally accepted, and almost every school required what it called a "supplemental" application, seeking anything from three lengthy essays to a simple assertion that the student has not been jailed recently.

Some schools required essays, some did not. Some required interviews, some did not. Some required three recommendations, some required none. Some had strict application deadlines, some have rolling deadlines. Some would have a decision for you in two weeks, some won't let you know until April 1.

The only thing the schools had in common was an admissions fee of about $50 each.

God bless the child who has a vision of his future and can complete an earnest application for the college of his dreams without any parental help. I have heard stories about just such children.

I think Jessie, Jen and Kate are closer to the norm. The future is Friday night or the next big test, whichever comes first.

But they are smart, hardworking girls who can play a sport and who come equipped with parents willing to fork over the ungodly tuition. It seems to me that the colleges should be competing for them, not the other way around.

To ask high school seniors to market themselves to colleges -- while maintaining the grades, sports, activities and blemish-free criminal record that will make them attractive to those colleges -- seems cruel.

To then make them wait months for a decision seems doubly cruel.

Here's what I suggest:

A common application that is universally accepted. No teacher recommendations, no counselor recommendations and no essay. Those things are suspect, anyway. If you want a writing sample, take it from the new SATs.

Just ask for grades and scores, including SAT subject-area scores and advanced placement scores. If colleges can find a way to handicap classroom grades to reflect that some high schools are more rigorous than others, that's OK with me.

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