Low-Down, Dirt-Poor, Hands-to-Heaven College Application Parental Blues

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I haven't posted in more than five weeks, having submitted myself to an alternative form of torture - the "wayward son college application ordeal".

I applied to colleges in the 1970s. And wow. I am not in Kansas any longer.

Talk about a meat grinder, a cellulose processor, a proctology exam, a test of faith, a deal with the devil, a flirtation with death. All rolled into one. Working with my son to submit applications to 10 schools (more shortly on why we applied to 10, and nearly considered to applying to 310) consumed every second of my spare time between November 1 and January 1.

And that does not include the remaining hours (days? weeks?) necessary to submit to his colleges the scores of financial aid forms (CSS, FAFSA, Business/Farm Supplement, copies of W-2's, 1040's, K-1's), and presumably the hours that will also be spent prostrating myself before brooding, punitive financial aid enforcers (hooded, shirtless, broadsword-wielding, teeth-blackened, breath-putrescent).

In the old days, applying to college was a low-key affair. Even the most competitive schools had yet to amp up their application process. We filled out a simple form, wrote a short (laughably bad) essay, sent in our SAT's and perhaps one or two pathetic scores from AP classes, asked our teachers to submit desultory letters of recommendation (I think desultory was the expectation), and all was well.

I grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, where, because of the influence of Princeton University, all of students at Princeton High School - except for me - were good-looking, brilliant, and sexually active. And even I had a positive, low-stress college application experience. I applied to five schools, visited them all (by myself) by train or plane, stayed overnight in the dorms with students, was introduced to the most "on" alcohol and drugs of choice at that school, possibly attended a class (but possibly didn't), and generally learned as little as I could about the school's academics during the time on campus.

Oberlin offered to admit me during my interview. Of course, that immediately destroyed any interest I might have had in going there. Yale and Swarthmore wait-listed me. For somewhat unclear reasons, I preferred Swarthmore (small, nerdy, a place where I was destined to feel lonely and isolated) from Yale (which even then was the coolest school in the world, made even cooler at the time by the omnipresent, titillating threat of being mugged or murdered whenever one stepped three feet beyond the 60-foot high, machine-gun-manned, razor wire walls of the campus).

Because I preferred Swarthmore, I wrote an insincere, ingratiating letter to the Dean of Admissions about how I had wanted to attend Swarthmore ever since I'd learned as a young lad that the college's former president had, heroically and melodramatically, dropped dead of a heart attack in his office during a days-long blockade by gun-wielding black militant students in the late 1960s (trust me, the idea of "black militant students" at Swarthmore would not be so different from casting David Spade as rapper Biggie Smalls in the newly released biopic). I also thought it was cool that the school straddled railroad tracks where depressed students routinely rested their heads just before the Media Local commuter train rattled around the bend, always on schedule with death.

So of course, Swarthmore admitted me. And I lived unhappily ever after. But the point is that college applications back then - for baby boomers - were simply not that big a deal. The parents were not involved. The cost was not outrageous (I think Swarthmore cost about $4,000 for tuition, room, and board my first year). It wasn't very hard to get into a good school. I had one friend with good grades and SAT's, but absolutely no extracurricular activities or awards. He applied (late, if I remember) to only Yale and Harvard. And he got into Yale.

Ahh, times have changed. Let's consider my son. Let's call him "Daniel". Let's consider my son's high school and friends. And let's also consider their infinitesimally small chances of getting into college. And then their even smaller chances of paying for college. And the ensuing acrobatics and pyrotechnics that ensue between November and January to provide our offspring with the slightest extra edge in the battle to bankrupt ourselves so we can plant a sticker on our car window that names some tiny college no one has ever heard of.

"Daniel" attends Garfield High School in Seattle, an urban, predominantly African-American high school of about 1,600 students with deep historic roots in the black community of Seattle. Students attending Garfield include Quincy Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Lee, and, most recently, NBA Rookie of the Year and All-Star, Brandon Roy.

Garfield is also a feeder school for students in the Seattle Public Schools Accelerated Progress Program, a separate (highly controversial) learning environment for academically gifted students, most of whom are white or Asian. Daniel has been in this program since 1st grade. He has always been very bright, with significant talents in music and writing, but never been the least bit ambitious, driven, or passionate about his schoolwork. He's only done the minimum amount of work necessary to get the grades he wanted, generally at the last minute, and sometimes even then falling short.

What I respect about Daniel is that he is not at all like his father. Daniel places a high value on being happy, and works hard at defining moments of happiness for himself. Everyone at Garfield knows "Danny". He is well-regarded for his kind and unpretentious manner, his generosity of spirit, his loyalty, his great sense of humor, and the delight he takes in just goofing around with friends. In short, he is just the sort of student who has almost no chance of getting into the schools where he would thrive, grow, and achieve the happiness toward which he strives.

So this was our predicament heading into the school year. Ironically, I knew (although no one else possibly could) that Daniel would be more at risk at the less competitive colleges than at the most competitive colleges because he would inevitably float in the middle - contributing in many small and significant ways to the well-being of the school, but only challenging himself to achieve in the classroom in ways that made sense to him. I knew he could handle the work at the top schools (even though his grades might not indicate it) and that he would grow enormously as a person and as a student at one of these schools. I also knew that he would be bored at the lesser colleges (where it might seem he would more easily outperform his peers).

But try laying this argument on the more elite colleges and universities in the country: If you admit me, you can expect me to provide the glue that all communities of young people need to thrive and flourish, but can also expect me to drift a bit academically, particularly at first, not because I cannot handle the work, but because more than anything, I care about the glowing moments of happiness that a life in balance will produce, poking holes in the umbra of campus existence, flooding it with warmth and illumination that transcends and makes palatable the often-dry, exhausting work of studying and learning from books.

So Daniel, surrounded by peers who achieve at superhuman levels (and mindful that he was, first and foremost competing against his superhero high school friends because they were all applying to the same schools), crafted a strategy that involved applying to lots of very good schools, knowing that his odds of getting in were relatively low, but realizing that nonetheless these truly were the schools where he belonged.

Enter his father. The same "in-the-moment" spontaneous approach to life that makes Daniel at once so charming and so infuriating meant that there was no way he would be able to manage the herculean organizational tasks involved with applying to 10 schools on his own At the age of 17, when happiness, spontaneity, and living in-the-moment mean, above all, not spending time with his parents, neither Daniel nor I relished the interactions my efforts to assist him in assembling, thinking about, writing, editing, and submitting the materials for each school's application would require. Would my relationship with Daniel - already a bit like hugging a cactus - survive?

We did one thing right. Daniel decided to apply to Yale Early Action. This was a delusional decision in the sense that he really had no chance. With Harvard and Princeton eliminating their Early Decision programs, every talented kid in the country was instead applying to Yale. Their Early Action numbers soared by 60 percent in two years. This year, the school admitted only 13 percent of these applicants. And after tracking the College Confidential message board like a stalker in the days before the November 15 announcement - where every student waved like flashing badges of glory their 2400 SAT's, 4.0 GPA's, and Perfect 5's on the 10 or 12 AP exams they had taken - I welcomed Daniel's rejection. I think he cared more about going to school where people were smart and happy, not perfect and plastic.

Daniel's rejection from Yale did provide some good news. Yale had removed from play a very large pool of perfectly plastic applicants, who would no longer trouble Daniel and and his friends at the other schools where he was applying. Another piece of good news was that by applying early to Yale, Daniel had gotten his ducks in a row for the Common Application, the allegedly "streamlined" approach to submitting applications to multiple schools. All ten of Daniel's schools relied upon the Common Application, so preparing it for Yale meant that Daniel could focus only on the "supplements" to the Common Application that all schools require.

In truth, these "supplements" were often as daunting as the Common Application. With the nearly ubiquitous January 1 deadline bearing down us during the holiday break, getting each of these applications in order generated enormous stress. The fault lines of our world had already been cracking. My company, which serves legal and financial professionals, faced an uncertain future as the country disintegrated financially. I also had made the mistake of taking on responsibility for my son's high school band jazz website (on the misguided assumption that, after a lifetime of avoiding any commitment to volunteering in any way at all, it was time for me to "give back" to the musical organization that had given so much to my son). Finally, we had no money but were doing our best to create a "festive" holiday mood for our children. Amidst this confusion and stress, I also had to apply pressure on Daniel every day, every hour, to make sure he was focused on his essays and his mind had not drifted off to Facebook or YouTube or The Wire or Madden or a game of Fugitive with his friends.

Daniel did not appreciate this pressure. He understood rationally the importance of these applications, but some, supremely healthy part of himself rebelled against the idea that they should take so much from him, that they should warp his life, distract him from his studies, his music, his own writing, his athletics and his friends (perhaps not so much from his family). And so we drew our hammer and our tongs and went to war for three weeks. Not pervasively and consistently, but intermittently and with savage intent. He swore. I yelled. He slammed doors. I stomped out of the house. We both glowered. As my wife likes to put it, we battled like dinosaurs, the most primal and survival-oriented parts of our brains activated and firing like Gatling Guns.

In the end, Daniel submitted his applications on time. The outcome is now out of his hands. He still needs to nail his grades for this semester, so he and I still posture and bellow from time to time. But the moment of surcease is at hand for him, that point in time when he can relax because his destiny is now with others to determine. Maye this the way someone feels when they walk to the gallows and they realize that all is now with God. Is it a sensation of peace? Or grace? Of fear? I do not know. But at least one can let go. And for a 17-year old who needs to get on with the great adventure of taking on life with both hands and riding it raw, letting go of the college decision-making process must feel pretty damned good.

As for me, I continue to fret and obsess. Beyond the financial aid hurdles, I have taken to crunching numbers and building models to predict various probabilities for admission. A certain, soothing fascination accompanies this mechanical absorption in abstraction because it offers illusions of rationality, understanding, and control in a decision-making universe that is very much not about those things.

I've learned a lot about the empirics of admission, too. For example, at many schools, girls have nearly a 50-percent smaller chance of gaining admission than boys (they apply in much greater numbers). On the other hand, it also helps immensely to apply as a racial minority or as an athlete or as the child of a parent who attended that school. The hot "hook" these days is to be the first person from one's family to attend college. Daniel falls short in all respects. His parents are embarrassingly over-educated. Daniel is so white he is almost translucent. And while he loves sports, his cross-over dribble might not gain him admission to the local middle school.

I have created admissions models that allow me to project the chances that any child will gain admission to a particular school from within a universe of schools to which they've applied (after all, only one school needs to step up and say "I choose you!"). They generally verify the obvious - make sure you have a safety or two. But they also indicate that applying to many fine schools is also not a bad approach.

Whether my models apply in the real world - whether they matter in Daniel's case - remains to be seen. We will know by April 1. Perhaps I will report what happens on that date ... if my mind and body can survive our efforts to figure out how to pay for whatever school does admit Daniel.