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Introduction to touring colleges

When I was a college-bound kid – where I grew up is of significant importance, of course – both the task of applying and the ensuing admission process were comparatively simple exercises. Not easy, just simple.

You’d pick your future profession, for all senses and purposes, and then you’d apply to the only higher education institution in your geographic vicinity that offered a degree in that area (or you could substitute the choice of college that was easier to get in for the choice of future profession). The application consisted of nothing more than a simple “request for admission” supplemented by your High School diploma; no essays, recommendations, standardized test results; no fees either. Applying to more than one prospective institution was technically possible, I suppose, it just wasn’t a common thing to do. Especially, considering that every institution required you to take its own entrance exams in June-July, which would be logistically rather impossible to manage with more than one college in a given summer. You took your entrance exams, and then you’d either make the cut or it’s “better luck next year”…

Yes, there were slight variations to the above: People from other parts of the country did apply to institutions in Moscow or Leningrad, especially since some elite fields of study were not available elsewhere; some disciplines were available at multiple colleges within reach, each with a negligible specific slant; I’m sure there were limited opportunities to attempt to gain admission to a “backup” school if you failed at your first-choice one. But overall, the line was straight: Pick a school, take exams, and make it or fail it.

Years later, on a different continent in a different country, my eldest is applying for college. The arguably objective – if easily corruptible, in the case of oral examinations, – criterion of excelling on entrance exams is replaced here with an opaque and incomprehensible admission decision made by a faceless official who attempts to differentiate my child from scores of others on the basis of essays, recommendations, GPA, SAT, ACT, shmay-see-tee, and whatever personal problems or triumphs that particular official is experiencing on that particular day.

On the considerable upside, there is no need to lock yourself into a specific field of study at the tender age of seventeen. And applying to as many colleges as you want is only limited by how much you can spend on application fees. Which could be a double-edged sword if you don’t know where to stop.

Becky is a smart kid, a very good student with excellent grades and far-above-average test results, but she is nowhere near knowing what she wants to do with her life. She does have favorite disciplines, though, none of which are technical or scientific or even career-specific. So Natasha and her spend a bit of time playing with online college-matching tools and identify a list of a dozen schools that appear a good fit for our high-school senior.

It is not a complicated algorithm. The school needs to be within reasonable driving distance from home – not necessarily within day-trip distance, but no farther than weekend-trip distance. The school needs to have well-established programs in Languages, Arts and History.

And the school campus needs to feel like a good place to call home for the next four years. Whatever that means. It’s an impression thing. Becky tagged along with our good friends last spring on tours to Columbia and Princeton and was not impressed by either. Yes, really.

I am not the one to impose any criteria of my own on my child. I tend to think that an Ivy League education does open additional doors to a graduate, but anything outside of Ivy League is more or less interchangeable. I was accepted to both Ivy League schools that I applied to (as a transfer student, mind you), but chose instead to go to a university ranked towards the bottom of the second hundred on the national scale – and I humbly submit that I did all right for me and my family. So did most of my friends whom I met at school.

With that in mind, I will only insist on a specific school if it is an Ivy League member that Becky gets accepted to. There are two on her list. The rest are top-to-middle-tier Liberal Arts colleges and national universities. I am not going to argue with her that getting a first-hand feel for each place, over and above what we can learn about them online or from respective alumni, is not an important differentiating factor, should she be accepted to multiple places.

Or even not a factor in deciding whether to apply at all. Even with the “common application” that is currently accepted at most colleges nationwide, each school still require a lot of individual attention in completing their application process. With a dozen schools in the mix, it is a lot of somewhat repetitive work. If the school does not feel right when explored first-hand, then cutting it from the list there and then may be a prudent thing to do.

Long introduction nearing conclusion, over the next several weeks, Becky and I are touring a dozen different colleges in Northeast and down to Virginia. I am amped to be able to do some regional travel and have experiences that passed me by when I was a kid. Becky is decidedly more reserved about spending that much time on the road with her old man.

You should be amped as well. I intend to write up my brief impressions of every one of our stops, and surely you’ve been clamoring for my writing lately…

1 Comment

  1. neurondoc

    You should’ve heard the fuss my dad made when I got into Harvard and chose to go elsewhere. I think there’s a part of him that never forgave me…

    Best of luck to Becky during the visiting and applying process.

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