If I were going to college today, I don't know if I could get in. In the freshman profile of several top-tier schools, over 90% admitted seem to come from the top 10% of their graduating classes. Where do the other 90% go I wonder?
When I was going to school, the goal was to get good grades (B or above) in college prep classes. The standards for the University of California system placed you in relatively good stead for just about any university in the country. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not so old that there were no additional criteria needed. We certainly did things that would "look good" on our college applications. I think I walked a 20km for the United Way. I also joined some clubs, ran for a few offices unopposed (thankfully I didn't have to disclose that I never actually beat anyone else in the election), and played Yente in Fiddler on the Roof.
I never really thought about any of this until the first of my friends had her kids. Once they were of high school age, I started hearing about what it would take for this generation to get into college. She spouted a list of criteria. You can't just play sports, you have to play varsity, can't just be in the orchestra, you have to be first chair, can't just be president of a club, you have to be president of the student body, can't just have a 4.0, you have to have a 5.9 by way of Advanced Placement and honors classes. And it helps if you have a part-time job, and volunteer to build houses while in a foreign language immersion program in either Central America or Africa.
Some years later, while standing in line to have blood drawn at my OB's office, I heard two women discussing "the" school you just "had to" get into if you wanted to get into a decent high school or college. And they were talking about preschool. Apparently their unborn 4-year-olds were in college prep before they were even in utero.
I don't begrudge those high school kids who are either naturally Type A students, or severely ambitious achievers. It's great to swim competitively, play tuba and get an altruistic thrill from reading to blind geriatrics. I just hope that those who are more moderately motivated can go to college too. There's so much to be said for the slow, sure process of getting to know who you are, which has always been the hallmark of the high school experience.
Frequently a class that isn't an honors or AP class is still challenging. To honor that challenge, for that individual, is worthy. Spending a Saturday afternoon reading a book that isn't on the required reading list can be as bracing and eye-opening as a more ambitious community service project. Practicing the art of photographing a friend and capturing that spontaneous instant is just as valid as having a piece in a show. And what teenager doesn't grow from writing their own angst-ridden soliloquy even if they don't perform it at the high school spring follies. If a teen grows in Brooklyn but the college board doesn't see it, did they still grow? Depth and introspection don't always translate into "achievement," but are valuable nonetheless.
Kids have their whole lives in front of them. Is it really necessary for them to know it all now? Isn't that what college is about; for further discovery, advanced learning and preparation for a life of independence and accomplishment?
Meanwhile, I sit by the mailbox anxiously awaiting the old fashioned yea or nay letters. I know it's futile. The responses will either be emailed directly to my applicant (and not her mother), or else the envelope will be too thick to read through. All the patience I thought I'd been perfecting these last 17 years is suddenly gone. Check back around April and we'll see.