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By Anne C. Roark
knewwe were in trouble when I started rearranging the
furniture in our family room.
At first, the changes were inconsequential—a couch
pushed aside, a library table installed in front of the television.
But then things grewmore complicated. I dragged in a round
table from the garden, and chairs from the kitchen, and
scavenged a bunker-sized bulletin board frommy office. We
needed a place to post deadlines, keep track of names, and
record other intelligence gathered.
The mail had already begun to pile up, sending me on a
frantic search for storage files. I improvised with a set of large
wooden crates, which my friend Gracie had left in my care
after her fiancé found out they were a gift from one of her old
Then came the most drastic step of all: I began emptying
book shelves (fiction stayed, but philosophy and poetry were
wiped out altogether) to make room for our new collection of
600- and 700-page guidebooks. They were mostly filled with
propaganda, but some offered strategy options and collected
data that might be useful, and even practice drills.
All this may sound like someone on a compulsive
reorganization rampage. But I was dealing with a much more
serious problem: Our first-born child, Kate, now a senior in
high school, was preparing to apply to college. Our family
roomwas about to become command central for an uncertain
campaign that lay ahead.
My husbandMarshall and I had always assumed our
children would go to college, but we had no particular place
in mind. He graduated
from a college everyone
in the world knew about,
while I went to a college
almost no one had even
heard of. Yet we both
ended up in pretty much
the same place: living
in a crazy city, making
less money than we
wanted (but more than
we needed), doing work
we loved to hate and
hated to love, and raising
children we idolized but
who felt about us much
the way we felt about our
careers (loved to hate,
etc.). Out of that experience, we became what you might call
college admissions pacifists.
I swore never to be one of those hysterical parents who are
convinced their children’s fates—their careers and lives—are
Spring 2004
Application Madness
For many parents, the college admissions process leads to panic
determined by where they go to college. My children’s
acceptance (or rejection) by a particular institution would not
be the ultimate test of my mettle as a parent. I was especially
offended by the feverish slogans tossed about by so many
parents: Berkeley or Bust, Princeton or Perish, Harvard
or Hang (Yourself). These struck me as the worst kind of
academic xenophobia.
A few years earlier, poolside during a family vacation
in Hawaii, my resolve had been momentarily tested. I was
cornered by a talkative father who bragged about how he
was gaming the college admissions system on his daughter’s
behalf. He had been driven to it, he said, by the frightful
competition to enroll.
I expressed surprise: “It seems to me that it’s easier to get
into college today than it has ever been.”
That set him off. “Let me tell you,” he said. “These places
are so swamped with applications that they can now afford to
wait-list students with 1500 SATs and A-minus averages.”
Worried that his daughter would be shut out, he had
sought the advice of a consultant who specialized in college
admissions. “This woman,” he said, “takes one look at our
daughter’s application—which is pretty impressive, I’ve got
to tell you—and she is ready to toss it in the trash. ‘They see a
million of these,’ she tells me. ‘Good grades, good test scores,
good athlete, good recommendations, good prep school.
We’ve got to do something to make her stand out.’
“So here’s what this woman does,” he went on. “She creates
a new profile for our daughter—a whole new persona. No
more talk about loving math and science and wanting to be
a doctor. She doesn’t care if the kid’s already a doctor. Brown
Prospective college students are deluged with booklets, brochures and guidebooks;
some run to 600 pages or more.
Our first-born child
was preparing to
apply to college,
and our family
room was about to
become command
central for an
uncertain campaign
that lay ahead.
Todd Sallo for CrossTalk