My older son, Ben, is a senior in high school, which means that, like approximately 2.1 million other young men and women, he is engaged in the college search.
There are several searches that define the arc of parenting. There is, of course, the childcare search. Childcare can be broadly defined as a babysitter, a daycare environment, or anything in between. We did not have local grandparents, and I well recall mine and Dena’s angst at choosing a stranger in whose care we would leave our precious little cacophony. (If I recall, our first babysitter date consisted of driving once around the block before rushing back in to make certain all had gone well.)
It was, without a doubt, the most important decision we would ever make.
Then, of course, there is the kindergarten search. Homeschool or school-school? Public or private? City or county? Did you know there are admission tests? To kindergarten?!? What goes on in those interview rooms? The only thing Ben felt worth reporting on was, “I drew a picture of Daddy in the shower.” My God! we fretted, they must think we’re hippies!
But it all mattered a great deal, you understand, because it was, without a doubt, the most important decision we would ever make.
These were followed by the soccer team search, the orthodontist search, the car search, and the girlfriend search. (Just kidding about this last one! We would never micromanage something as personal as our child’s choice of romantic interests. We outsourced this job to the NSA.) They were, each and every one, the most important decision we would ever make.
But they all pale in comparison to the paramount importance and all-consuming nature of the college search.
Now, when I was a senior in high school, my college search consisted of taking the bus to visit my older brother for a weekend. Then I completed precisely one application, and the following August, left home. It was Thanksgiving before my parents realized I had not just left to grab a pizza with my pals.
So imagine my surprise when, a generation later, things have changed. For instance, these days, the process begins much earlier. Just how early, you ask? The day Ben was born, after he had been returned from the customary newborn weights and measures, we found an envelope tucked discreetly into his bassinet. “Dear parent, based on your child’s Apgar score, we here at Highbucks University encourage him to consider our fine school in a few years’ time.”
Such entreaties arrived periodically over the ensuing years. “Dear parent, based on your child’s drawing of his father in the shower, we encourage him to consider pursuing his passion at the Overdrawn Art Institute.” As early as eighth grade we began hearing about how class selections over the coming years would build a picture of our child as a prospective college student. But it wasn’t until junior year that the madness was fully unleashed. That’s when Ben’s school let loose its college counselors, with their magisterial tomes and their databases and their arcane rubrics for translating a student’s various accomplishments into a universe of possible colleges.
It’s also when I first learned about the Common App.
The Common App, is not, as I had hoped, a rude program for your smartphone, but rather an online form that, upon completion, allows your child to press a button and apply to approximately one bazillion colleges at once. According to my infallible research tool GooglePedia, approximately 3.25 million young people will graduate from high school in 2015, and of these, approximately 2.1 million will enter college. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (and good luck trying to find “rocket science” as a choice of major on the Common App!) to realize that 2.1 million teenagers all releasing a bazillion copies of the Common App at approximately the same time is going to be very, very detrimental to the health of the Internet. I am perfectly justified in my outrage at being unable to keep current on the funniest YouTube fails of 2014 when the bits and bytes of skateboarders smashing their privates on stair railings can’t fight their way through pipes clogged by (2.1 million times a bazillion) essays titled “The Mission Trip that Changed My Life.” During college admissions season, the Common App spams up the web so much that a consortium of Canadian pharmacies, third-world bank account trustees, and Viagra discounters have collectively sued the Common App for unethical behavior.
And then there’s the matter of campus visits. Here’s a secret I’ve learned these past few months. Students do not actually take classes their senior year. They make campus visits. They are graded according to how many colleges they visit, and they get extra credit (sometimes called “AP”) for colleges that are farther away and more expensive to travel to. “Turning in an assignment” is code for bringing the teacher a T-shirt from the college bookstore.
By the time all is said and done, they have Common App-ed a bazillion schools and visited half that number. They have SAT’d and AP’d and ACT’d and GPA’d themselves into daytime comas. As the sun goes down and tuition nightmares creep into our parental dreams, our high school seniors stir to life. They engage in a heated group chat about whose Xbox will host the evening’s zombie party.
Because it is, after all, the most important decision they will ever make.