Define Your Terms: Some Words from the College Process

I originally wrote up this list in a spate of boredom some years ago and posted it on my school’s college website. Some people found it funny. I’ve added a few entries for this edition.

(With thanks and apologies to Ambrose Beirce’s The Devil’s Dictionary)

Acceptance: The knowledge that one has been ushered into the ranks of the elite, leaving behind all those, including former friends, who are now beneath one’s notice. The end result of years of toadying, strategizing, and relentless joining, leaving an empty shell where once was a vibrant intellect. In rare cases, substance triumphs over image, but a proliferation of agents, “consultants” and other barnacles have accreted to the admission ship until Captain Ahab himself wouldn’t recognize it.

Admission dean: An all-knowing wizard invested with majestic and mysterious power by the legions of peasants outside the gates, but in reality a mere pawn of his or her institution doomed to carry out its will no matter how misguided or morally offensive it may be. One condemned never to be truly finished with his task or satisfy anyone completely. see Sisyphus.

Admission office: Rejection office. Once a benignly prejudiced (although often tilted to white males, legacies, talented helmet heads, etc.) entry point for modestly talented students with enough money to pay their bills; now a cynosure of every collegiate institution worth its salt, designed to increase the number of students the institution can reject in order to increase that institution’s value in the eyes of those who don’t want to join any club that they can enter easily, considering it beneath them. Challenged to raise the academic profile of every entering class while also curing society’s ills. Rejection is presented as a mysterious force of the universe. “But don’t take it personally.”

Applicant: Supplicant. One who with greater faith than wisdom knocks on the door of the fortress expecting warm hugs and pudding, instead being pierced with arrows and drenched in offal.

College Application: A torture device imposed like thumbscrews on apostates.

College Board: Not, as one might surmise, a relic of the cheerful sadism of fraternity days, but the name of a supremely profitable non-profit institution whose purpose remains obscure even as it tramples the aspirations of students and their families underfoot, like any number of monsters in Japanese films of the 1950s. A testing organization that calls itself an educational organization, thereby turning the meaning of “education” on its head, as if to say that measuring the content of a thing measures its worth. An organization answerable to no one that has the ability to make everyone from high school students to college presidents lose control of their bowels. See also: Norris, Frank, The Octopus; Bush White House; Godzilla; Attack of the 50-Foot Woman.

College Counselor: An individual charged with paving the way to college for high school students, yet with neither asphalt nor equipment to do so. A Cassandra doomed to speak the truth without being heard. A convenient repository for the fears, insecurities, and rage of parents who all know better. When successful, credit goes to the student; when unsuccessful, blame goes to the counselor. See also, fool.

College essay: 1. A repository for words and concepts never otherwise used in adolescent writing or conversation, including words such as “plethora,” “mitigate,” and many other polysyllabic anachronisms (such as “polysyllabic” and “anachronism”). 2. A device that asks the writer to suddenly develop the universal insight of an ancient guru or Buddha or the existential angst of Jean Paul Sartre in order to convince the reader of his/her ability to pass Freshman English and College Math. 3. A piece of writing required by colleges that practically demands stilted and artificial language tied to inflated topics and hopeful deeds. Also known as “bloviating.” Topics include: one’s social consciousness, work ethic, and personal literacy, none of which have any value in contemporary society. 4. A piece of writing no good English teacher would permit in a class. See “Miss America Essay.”

College rankings: The attachment of an absolute value of quality to a thing not truly susceptible to numerical evaluation. A system against which all rail but in which nearly all participate. Not to do so condemns an institution to relying solely on its actual, not perceived, condition.

Common Application: A way to simplify the college application process by making it more complicated. Supplicants wishing to use this means of indicating their desires are often compelled by the CA’s institutional users to subscribe to the collegiate equivalent of a Ptolemaic view of the solar system: Only by attaching many and ultimately redundant wheels, gears, and cogs to the application can one make it appear to operate correctly, i.e., “simply.”

Early Decision: Voluntary servitude. An agreement under which a buyer permits a seller to dictate where he (the buyer) may spend his time and money, without recourse to arbitration. For the pottage of a quick answer the buyer is compelled to sell his birthright. See also, indentured servant.

Financial Aid: (1) Giving money to the wealthy in the hope they will repay it a hundredfold in the future. (2) Rewarding the middle class for not having the foresight to save for college. (3) Bribing the needy in order to persuade them to decorate one’s campus with their social consciousness and picturesque customs.

GPA: The scarlet letter of high school life. A magic ratio indicative of the time, effort, and cultivation of teachers that students have invested in their courses, or rather, in the cultivation of same. A number having vastly different meanings in high schools from town to town and village to village. The pursuit of the GPA, like the pursuit of the snipe, often becomes a task in itself and undertaken just as vainly. For some, a reasonable outcome of a life of dedicated work and inquiry; for others, merely an impediment to one’s aspirations, even if little has been done to achieve them substantively. Often, like the GDP or the federal budget, a way to lie without lying.

“Ivy League”: Used as a synonym for “perfection” or “heaven” when used as a noun by those unacquainted with subtlety: “Cynthia is in the Ivy League.” Translation: “Cynthia has achieved immortality.” Used as an adjective when social conditions require it. Example: “Chad attends an Ivy League institution,” Mrs. Huffington casually remarked at the cocktail party. Translation: Chad will get everything that’s coming to him. Often said with feigned insouciance, for to express excitement about this condition brands one as an arriviste. A much more ambiguous designation than one might think. Originally used by a New York sportswriter to describe an athletic consortium; the irony of this designation is seldom noted.

Optional essay: Required essay. (Also, “optional testing,” “optional interview,” and so on.)

Prestige: n., from the Middle French meaning conjuror’s trick, illusion. The magical ability of an institution to make outsiders think it is worthier of love and admiration than it really is. The prestige of a college or university, as with nightclubs, country clubs, and secret societies, is determined primarily by who does NOT get in, thereby increasing the desire of those on the outside to be on the inside. A college’s prestige can be increased merely by encouraging more applicants, who can then be rejected, in which case the prestige rises while the quality of the institution is affected not at all. A concept with more power than it ought to have in college admission. See psychologist, Marx, Groucho: “I would never be a member of a club that would have me.” In a similar vein, see Vidal, Gore: “It’s not enough simply for me to succeed; others must fail.”

Rejection: A word whose currency rises as its euphemisms multiply. The process by which a college rids itself of those unworthy of its beneficence unless they happen to be athletes, alumni children, or others born in the right neighborhoods. A mark of distinction in college rankings. In some institutions, a 92% rejection rate is considered the acme of a job well done, although the figure is always mentioned with an obligatory apology by admission personnel, especially when speaking with those most desirous of attending. Also, “deferral” and “waitlist.”

Standardized Testing: (1) The Procrustean means by which schools and colleges saw off any protruding limbs of interest in an effort to minimize the need to study the whole person. (2) A magical process by which all human ability, desire, understanding, and aspiration are alchemically transformed into a single sacred number. (3) Turning dross into gold by convincing the credible that this number says something meaningful, thereby compelling them to purchase not only the test itself but the means to circumvent it. As with lawyers in immense lawsuits, the only ones enriched are the test makers themselves.

Waitlist: The limbo of the lost after the initial round of acceptance and rejection letters have been sent. The purgatory of college admission, where one is sent to have one’s sins burned away before being reconsidered for acceptance into heaven (See “Ivy League.”) Unfortunately, like unbaptised babies in the Catholic church, most waitlisted applicants never escape this spiritual desolation and must content themselves with attending one of the institutions that accepted them.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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