Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

Community News Network

March 21, 2014

The madness of college admissions

Ident: X8467

Selector: tm--a

Priority: r

Slug: bc-college-comment

bc-college-comment 03-21 1472

(wap) (ATTN: Editorial page editors)

//

By Pia de Jong

''I'd like to congratulate you on raising an exceptional student," read the letter from a Midwestern college I'd never heard of before. "Because I'm impressed by your son, I offer to send a guide to help with the college selection process."

A booklet, as glossy as a fashion magazine, slipped out of the envelope and fell on the floor. Its title: "The Best and the Brightest. How America's Top Students Choose Their Ideal College."

 What? Were they talking about my 15-year-old, with his bright eyes, pimples and tousled hair, just a 10th-grader at a New Jersey public high school? My son is still a kid who plays hide-and-seek in the fresh snow and hunches over family board games on Sunday nights. His arms are too long, dangling in the way when he tries to give me a kiss. The other night he asked me how old I was when I first fell in love.

Yet this college already found him exceptional. The letter continued: "As one of America's top national universities, according to U.S. News & World Report, we have the resources to provide your son with a world-class education under the instruction of professors who are top experts in their fields."

Cheerful letters from other schools soon followed, more than 40 of them so far. After I opened a few, I noticed they were very much alike. "Congratulations!" "You must be very proud!" "I invite your family to visit our campus."

I began to understand that maybe we weren't so exceptional after all - that thousands of kids across the country were being bombarded by the same direct-mail campaigns. And that the most elite schools don't need to market themselves this way. I wrapped a rubber band around the pile of letters and put them in a drawer. It was my introduction to the bewildering world of American college admissions, and I didn't know what to make of it.

My husband and I moved our family from Amsterdam to the United States in the summer of 2012. We took the kids out of their Dutch gymnasium - an Old World school where students focus on Latin and Greek. A trip to Rome is the reward at the end of the six years, when they can read all those ancient inscriptions.

The Dutch education system has its flaws, but it is relatively straightforward. When children are about 12, at the end of their primary education, they sit for a national exam. Based in part on their results, about 20 percent of them go on to a secondary education that prepares them for a research university. The rest follow a curriculum geared toward trade schools. There is an obvious downside to this system: It closes off opportunities early. If you're a late bloomer, it's possible, but not easy, to switch from the trade school to the university track.

But if you're on the university track, you can go to almost any university you want. Of course, there are some requirements. To study medicine, you need to have taken biology and physics, which you don't need for law. (In Holland, as in most of Europe, there is no liberal arts curriculum at the university level, and most students declare a major right from the start.) Sometimes, if there are too many kids applying to medicine or a popular field such as psychology, there is a weighted lottery that favors students with the best grades. In the end, however, almost all students end up in the place of their choosing. There is little stress, and thanks to government support, it is affordable for just about everyone.

Yet my husband and I led our kids off this paved path and instead found ourselves wading through a thicket of baffling vocabulary. Early Decision? Early Action? We weren't prepared for what seemed to be a grim, winner-take-all test of character. We were taken off guard by all the pressure put on kids, and all the anxiety and guilt among parents.

Going to college seems to be the most talked-about subject among people with kids around the same age as ours. And by now we've heard plenty of stories feeding fears that your child will be left behind, will miss out on the best education and, therefore, will see his life ruined before it even begins. "All is lost," a friend wrote to me after her daughter missed the deadlines for many of her college applications, had a meltdown and dropped out of her private school. My friend's sentence made me wonder: What exactly did she mean by "all"?

It doesn't help that we're in Princeton, N.J., where it's especially clear how competitive American college admissions can be. Last year, Princeton University received 26,498 applications, and only 1,291students entered the Class of 2017. That's less than 5 percent of applicants, or about 0.03 percent of kids in the United States turning 18 that year.

I've tried to maintain some skepticism, to resist getting too caught up in it all. I managed to keep my jealously more or less in check when a friend emailed that her youngest was just admitted early at Yale, like her brother and sister before her. What a lucky mom to have such super-smart wonder kids - and to understand how to navigate the system.

At the same time, I don't want my kids to lose out on a good education because of their parents' ignorance or because our sense of adventure involved moving three teenagers across the Atlantic at a crucial age.

"You definitely should see a private college counselor," a friend told me. "You need help. It will cost you thousands of dollars, but it is well worth it. You can start with a free consultation."

So my son and I found ourselves sitting in the well-appointed office of a man asking what my son wanted to do with his life. "I have no idea," my son sighed, in the same tone I used when I was that age to answer annoying aunts. How could anyone know? Albert Einstein had no idea he would one day become Albert Einstein.

"Well, what are your interests?" the counselor asked.

His interests range from learning more about the stars to studying card tricks, from a fascination with the idea of infinity to playing Xbox. Afterward, the consultant said: "Your son has to learn to focus more. He is just drifting through life."

But what's wrong with a bit of drifting?

So much of the American college admissions process seems to be about checking the right boxes - and knowing the right boxes to check. On Sundays, my son plays sports with special-needs kids. When I asked if we could do something special for a boy he was assigned to work with, he looked at me, puzzled. "It would be nice," he said, "but I would look totally stupid. Nobody does things like that. You have to have this done before 11th grade starts." I have no doubt that my son enjoys those Sundays. But I worry that this system, which seems to value gamesmanship over anything else, is sapping his idealism and diminishing the enchantment of his adolescence.

And what do we take from the knowledge that two of the most successful entrepreneurs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, dropped out of Harvard? The world is waiting for people who are fully alive, who are proud of their individuality, who are not afraid to be creative. We shouldn't deny kids the chance to mess around, to make mistakes, to inhale life in big gulps.

Recently I went to hear a concert played by the orchestra at our local high school. It was beautifully done, Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony, at a near-professional level. But it was strangely joyless.

It wasn't until I attended my daughter's middle school band concert, with all its toots and missed notes - amid raucous laughter from the musicians - that I knew what was missing.

The American education system in general, and the college admissions process in particular, seem intent on creating cautious, careerist adults-in-training. I'm reminded of the children in stylized 17th-century Dutch paintings. They're typically depicted standing ramrod-straight in clutter-free rooms and dressed like mini grown-ups. The girls are in long dresses, embellished with lace, impossible to run around in. The boys wear suits with starched collars that would make it hard to even turn their heads. Their faces show none of the pink blush of kids who have been playing outside.

A good education is about timing, willingness, openness. Looking at the stress we're putting on kids to get into college, I wonder: Are we, as their parents, so pleased with our lives that we want to rush our kids to have the same?

 

1
Text Only | Photo Reprints
Community News Network
  • linda-ronstadt.jpg Obama had crush on First Lady of Rock

    Linda Ronstadt remained composed as she walked up to claim her National Medal of Arts at a White House ceremony Monday afternoon.

    July 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • Can black women have it all?

    In a powerful new essay for the National Journal, my friend Michel Martin makes a compelling case for why we need to continue the having-it-all conversation.

    July 29, 2014

  • Dangerous Darkies Logo.png Redskins not the only nickname to cause a stir

    Daniel Snyder has come under fire for refusing to change the mascot of his NFL team, the Washington Redskins. The Redskins, however, are far from being the only controversial mascot in sports history.  Here is a sampling of athletic teams from all areas of the sports world that were outside the norm.

    July 28, 2014 3 Photos

  • 'Rebel' mascot rising from the dead

    Students and alumni from a Richmond, Va.-area high school are seeking to revive the school's historic mascot, a Confederate soldier known as the "Rebel Man," spurring debate about the appropriateness of public school connections to the Civil War and its icons.

    July 28, 2014

  • Fast food comes to standstill in China

    The shortage of meat is the result of China's latest food scandal, in which a Shanghai supplier allegedly tackled the problem of expired meat by putting it in new packaging and shipping it to fast-food restaurants around the country

    July 28, 2014

  • wd saturday tobias .jpg Stranger’s generosity stuns Ohio veteran

    Vietnam War veteran David A. Tobias was overwhelmed recently when a fellow customer at an OfficeMax store near Ashtabula, Ohio paid for a computer he was purchasing.

    July 28, 2014 1 Photo

  • Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 1.33.11 PM.png VIDEO: High-dive accident caught on tape

    A woman at a water park in Idaho leaped off a 22-foot high dive platform, then tried to pull herself back up with frightening results. Fortunately, she escaped with only a cut to her finger.

    July 28, 2014 1 Photo

  • CATS-DOGS281.jpg Where cats are more popular than dogs in the U.S.-and all over the world

    We all know there are only two types of people in the world: cat people and dog people. But data from market research firm Euromonitor suggest that these differences extend beyond individual preferences and to the realm of geopolitics: it turns out there are cat countries and dog countries, too.

    July 28, 2014 1 Photo

  • How spy agencies keep their 'toys' from law enforcement

    A little over a decade ago, federal prosecutors used keystroke logging software to steal the encryption password of an alleged New Jersey mobster, Nicodemo Scarfo Jr., so they could get evidence from his computer to be used at his trial.

    July 25, 2014

  • Russia's war on McDonald's takes aim at the Filet-o-Fish

    Russia said earlier this week that it had no intention of answering Western sanctions by making it harder for Western companies to conduct business in Russia.
    But all bets are off, apparently, when you threaten the Russian waistline.

    July 25, 2014

Latest news
Featured Ads
Only on our website
AP Video
US Ready to Slap New Sanctions on Russia Kerry: Not Worried About Israeli Criticism Boater Rescued From Edge of Kentucky Dam Girl Struck by Plane on Florida Beach Dies Rodents Rampant in Gardens Around Louvre House to Vote on Slimmed-down Bill for Border Looming Demand Could Undercut Flight Safety Raw: 2 Shells Hit Fuel Tank at Gaza Power Plant Raw: Massive Explosions From Airstrikes in Gaza Giant Ketchup Bottle Water Tower Up for Sale Easier Nuclear Construction Promises Fall Short Kerry: Humanitarian Cease-fire Efforts Continue Raw: Corruption Trial Begins for Former Va Gov. The Carbon Trap: US Exports Global Warming Traditional African Dishes Teach Healthy Eating
Parade
Magazine

Click HERE to read all your Parade favorites including Hollywood Wire, Celebrity interviews and photo galleries, Food recipes and cooking tips, Games and lots more.
Obituaries
Poll
Kelly Lafferty's video on Tom Miller