Picking a college - clued in or clueless?

My son is a senior in high school right now, as I'm busy nagging encouraging him to get his college applications done. I've been telling him how much easier he has it than I did, because the seven colleges he's applying to all use the Common Application, so he doesn't have to write seven different essays and then type them on one of these antiquated devices:

like his antiquated mother did.

Except that I didn't actually have to type SEVEN essays. Only two.

Yes, you heard that right. Because in my foolish, naivete I only applied to two (count'em, one, two) colleges. Duke and the University of Virginia. Fortunately for me, I got into Duke early action, and that's where I went. UVA rejected me.

As I've been carefully guiding my son through the college application and visitation process (you can read more about the visitation process here) with the help of a special college adviser hired by his school, his guidance counselor and his teachers, I've thought back to my own college application experience and I'm actually amazed that I made it to college at all.

I was clueless. As I've been going around all these awesome liberal arts schools with my son, I keep thinking, "Why didn't I consider a school like this?"

Probably because I was so desperate to get out of the Northeast, where most of the kids in my high school were applying to college. I really wanted to go to California, but my parents ixnayed that idea on cost grounds. So I looked southbound.

I can't remember a thing my guidance counselor told me about applying to college. But I can't believe she didn't call up my parents and say, "Do you think it's a bright idea to allow your insane kid is to apply to two only colleges?"

All's well that ends well, I suppose. But I'm just glad my son is getting better guidance.

How about you? Are you getting good guidance in your college search if you're applying now? Or did you back when when you applied to college?


brave chickens said...

Why is the whole college application process so overrated? Is it meant to be, or do people just make it sound more horrible and scarier than it is...? It's also a pretty big 'theme' in YA.

The system in the Land of Australians:
1. Complete exams for subjects taken in year 12.
2.apply for universities using an application form (has to be bought)
3. exam results are sent to universities
4.offers are given by universities

Sometimes applicants may need to present a portfolio, give an interview or both.

No essays, yay!

Someone please tell me, thanks. :)

btw, I love reading about the whole cultural/educational/etc... differences mentioned on this blog. It fascinates me :D

Fi-chan (Bookish-Escape) said...

Absolutely super clueless. I didn't even know what was postgraduate and undergraduate and pre-university (only 11 years of school years here, so I guess we have to take that to get 12 years or something) and whether diploma or degree is "higher" level or something. Now I know better, but still incredibly clueless.

I don't know, sigh, I don't know.

Claire Dawn said...

I'm looking at doing a Masters, either MFA or MA in Second Language Acquisition.

I first applied to colleges back in '99. In those years, the internet has made such a difference.

Ashley @ Book Labyrinth said...

All I know is that I'm glad the process of applying to college and university in Canada is so much more simple. We don't have to do SATs and we don't have to write essays. Even when I applied for my master's program last year I only had to write a short personal statement about why I wanted in the program. I know other programs (like teacher's college, for example) require more work, but again, that's a master's program. In a way I think university standards should be higher up here, but on the other hand, from what I hear, the college process in the States is so stressful... I feel like there's so much pressure on teenagers to make up their minds about their future and get into the "right" college, and it's just crazy.

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

For context, I'm a GenXer. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college and applied to only one--my state school, The University of Kansas, which thankfully was ranked #2 in the country in my intended major, news/editorial.

For the money, it made no sense to apply elsewhere (my parents made a substantial contribution, but merit scholarships and my part-time/summer job income was key).

At the time, there was some rumbling in the extended family about how college was a way to avoid growing up and, "why send a girl? she'll just get married."

I always found it amazing to meet people who had multiple generations of college graduates in their family, especially if some were women. That was completely outside my frame of reference in childhood.

Sarah Darer Littman said...

I actually think it was the strength my essay that got me into college, which is why I nagged, (er) ENCOURAGED my son to put so much effort into his.

I wish I had a copy of mine. I took the quote "A child is not a vase to be filled but a fire to lit" compared my different experiences under the British vs. American educational systems and what I thought were the pros and cons of each.

ivanova said...

I talk about this topic sometimes with my girlfriend, who is Irish. Their college application system sounds similar to the Australian one brave chickens describes. The Irish kids take a really big test called the Leaving Cert, which is all long answer not multiple choice, because that's the way all tests are in Ireland. And they fill out a form in order of preference of what schools they'd like to go to. Each university has a minimum score. Whatever was the first school on your list that you got the minimum score for, you go there. It's simple, efficient, and cheap. Oh, plus of course college is basically free.

She can't understand how here you have to fill out applications AND write essays AND take the SATS and do interviews AND have done all these wonderful extracurricular activities to prove you're great AND get good grades AND pay a pile of money. It does seem like a bit of a racket. I think the one good thing here in the U.S. is that supposedly if you're good at one thing but bad at another you can still get into a "good school," so it's less discriminatory. Like if your grades and your SATs are poor, you can still write a great essay and do a great interview. I don't know how much this is based on truth.

kristen tracy said...

College is such a big decision. And we're so young when we make it. If I could do it again, I think I'd take a bridge year. People I know who did that seem to have arrived at college with more intention. Also. They had really good travel photos.

SWK said...

Loved this post. I actually applied to only one college -- naivte? ego? incredible laziness? Probably all three. Luckily, I got in :) But I'm not sure how much I learned because, at the end of it, I didn't realize that after graduation I needed to find A JOB! Honestly, I think I was pretty clueless until around age 30!

Jordyn said...


This was/is my path:
Switch high schools (and states) after 9th grade.
Spend 1 semester at a high school I hated
Switch to a homeschool/charter program
Graduate early.
Go to the local community college.
(still at community college)
Hopefully after I get my AA I'll be able to get in (and actually attend) a university in my home state, otherwise I'll be going to the closest state university here (and living at home all throughout college).

(That's right. I didn't even APPLY to any colleges when I was in HS.)

Sarah Laurence said...

Good luck surviving the college application process. My friends with older kids say to submit the common app a day early because the site can get too busy on the final day. I hear everyone applies to more schools these days.

I only applied to 2 universities too: a safety with rolling admission and another one early. I hadn’t even started my other applications by mid December, but luckily I got in to my first choice early. I toured around a bunch of east coast universities with just my friends and got good guidance from my private school. I only considered big universities because back then I was more into science than humanities. My parents did nothing other than pay the bills.

I’ve gotten to know the liberal arts college system through my husband who teaches at Bowdoin College. I’d urge everyone to consider these smaller schools that focus more on teaching than on faculty research and publications. You’ll probably receive a better education with smaller class sizes, although we both got a lot out of the big universities we attended. I went to Harvard and MIT (with a year abroad at Kings College, University of London) and he went to Oxford and Harvard. The English system has changed radically. His experience was more like the History Boys – a terrific film (and play originally) about teens applying to the top schools in England.

I noticed in your comment that you too experienced both the American and English systems of education. It would be interesting to hear more about it.

Nice blog here!

Sarah Darer Littman said...

Sarah Laurence - Interesting idea - perhaps I'll do another post, either on my own blog or here, comparing my experiences in the two systems. I was in the UK from ages 7-12, and then did an honors program at Oxford when I was in college, so experienced the tutorial system. SOOO different from the way we learn here.

Melissa Walker said...

I started sweating just reading this post. I remember that process and all the crazy angst and work and decision-making and LEAVING MY BOYFRIEND? NOOO!!!! That went into college. Luckily, it did work out in the end--I went for the path (going far away) that scared me the most. It's was the right thing for me, but I was clueless and took a leap. Phew.

Micol Ostow said...

My guidance counselor insisted that I apply to more than the three schools on my list. One of the two was a place where I was a legacy that everyone assumed I'd get into. One was a reach and one was a safety. I added three more schools to the list and slogged through the applications process...and then got into every one except the one I'd EXPECTED to get in to.

Ended up going to the reach. And remaining bitter to this day about all the extra work I did on those additional apps.

Denise Jaden said...

Alright, I'll say it. I was MORE of an idiot than you. I applied to one university. Thankfully I got in, but yanno, I wasn't absolutely positive that I wanted to go to college right out of high school, so I don't think I would have been devastated if I didn't. But it all worked out for the best I think.

Melissa Walker said...

I also have to add: Every time I scroll down and see this post, my blood boils a little. As a Chapel Hill Tarheel, I can't stand to see that Blue Devil's smirk!

Adeeva Afsheen said...

Banned complain !! Complaining only causes life and mind become more severe. Enjoy the rhythm of the problems faced. No matter ga life, not a problem not learn, so enjoy it :)

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