The More Things Change…

Acceptance and rejection letters are out for this year and the usual articles about how it’s never been harder to get into college and so on have been coming out like crocuses at the first sign of spring. As I’ve noted before, this isn’t really news, it’s just a repeat of articles from the last 10 years with different numbers, and of course we always have the details of rejected or waitlisted students being astonished that they didn’t get into their “dream” schools, how much the pressure is getting to them, and so on. Focusing on colleges and universities whose acceptance rates seem to be approaching zero, the ultimate exclusivity (not may idea–see Doonesbury from a few years ago), media make it seem as though legions of rejected students will soon be roaming the streets in their ragged cardigans, homeless shades doomed to walk the earth without any cozy campus to call their own.

Of course, this is nowhere near the real picture. Just about everyone who applies to college will get in somewhere; quite a few colleges even (mid-April 2008) now are still accepting applications. The whole thing is only a problem if you care very deeply about where you attend and think that if you don’t go there your life is somehow ruined, destroyed, or otherwise diverted from its true course and flowering, all of which is nonsense.

A colleague and I were talking the other evening about our own college research and application processes, laughing at our callow approach to the whole thing. She and I are contemporaries, so we’re talking about the early 70s, before the whole thing got really out of hand. We were both clueless, to be honest, even though we were both good students. I was head of my class at a large public high school in Chester, NJ, which offered honors but no AP classes that I can recall (not a big thing then), and I did well in the honors track, although to this day I consider calculus my mortal enemy. I had what today would be considered so-so SAT scores (no I’m not telling, although to my chagrin I still know them), and a decent although not spectacular career in the chorus and the theater group. I also worked part-time at the local pharmacy, working the counter and making deliveries all over the area.

When college came on the horizon late in my junior year (although my family always told me I could go anywhere I wanted when the time came), we had no special seminars, no offers of essay help, no test prep, no piles of glossy viewbooks, no “college counselor.” I figured I’d apply to Harvard and Yale simply because my uncle, whom I greatly admired, had attended the former and taught at the latter; I briefly considered Tufts, my father’s alma mater, but since he was an engineer I thought it was a school for engineers, so I dismissed it. There was no “strategizing” to it; I was just going with what I knew.

One day, going by my guidance counselor’s office, I heard him call to me and ask what I was thinking about college. I told him, and he said that was fine, but had I ever considered a small liberal arts college? I asked what that was and he said a good place to get an education but smaller than a university. That seemed fine to me so I asked him to name a few. “Well, Amherst, for example,” he replied. I’d never heard of it, but I was willing to check it out.

I don’t remember what I knew about Amherst (it wasn’t much) before I got on the Peter Pan bus in New York for the four hour ride to Amherst, MA later in the summer, but when I got off in the town center, I swooned at the New England charm and the compact yet spacious Amherst College campus. I thought, “This is what college should look like!” I walked around by myself, coming without warning on the spectacular view of the Pioneer Valley from Memorial Hill, after which I was completely overcome with desire. I dropped in on the admission office, which at the time was tucked away in the main administration building. I was smitten without having seen a student, professor, or admission office person. I asked about interviews. I didn’t need one, I was told; by the time I returned to New Jersey, I was ready to apply.

The time came and I applied to Harvard, Yale, and, at random, Ithaca College in upstate New York. I applied to Amherst early decision, still intoxicated with the thought of lounging on that hill, or simply being there, reading, surrounded by nature. Hell, even the trees seemed intelligent. I wanted to ingest it all. But once the applications were in I went on with the rest of my high school life. (I don’t remember what I wrote my essays on, but I do remember that I didn’t get any help that I recall. My mother may have given them a quick read, but not much else–no English teacher or counselor help.)

Ithaca accepted me almost immediately, it seems to me. Harvard and Yale turned me down, which was OK by me, especially when I recalled my “group interview” at a Yale’s alum’s home. A group of applicants sat around a table and an admission person spoke with us after we had each had a chance to speak with one of the Yale alums who had gathered for the occasion. The home was elegantly appointed, perhaps even lavish; it seemed like a mansion to me and it made me uncomfortable. But what I really remember is the girl who said, “I understand Yale has a burgeoning film department.” I made a face, probably, groaning inside at her pretentious use of a big word to impress the dean. It was then I decided I didn’t want to go to Yale, although I learned a new word that day.

Amherst deferred me, making my guidance counselor, David Boelhouwer, crazy. He couldn’t understand it and called to see what had happened. Turns out, you did need an interview if you applied ED and lived within 250 miles of campus. He managed to wrangle an interview for me over the Christmas break with the Dean himself, the legendary Ed Wall. I went back to campus, courtesy of my aunt, who drove me out from Acton MA in a snowfall and waited while I had my session. I remember being disappointed that Dean Wall didn’t ask me anything about my grades or accomplishments; instead he asked what I was reading and I told him The Wheel of Love, a story collection by Joyce Carol Oates. We talked about that. What was even more frustrating was that I didn’t even like the book, and during the whole interview I could see the snow coming down harder and harder and the light fading and it was a long way back to Boston.

Afterwards, Dean Wall took my puny hand in his massive bear grasp and told me it was nice to meet me. Despite my disappointment, I stopped at Hastings in town and bought an Amherst sweatshirt, which I resolved not to wear unless I got in. My aunt picked me up and we drove back to the Boston suburbs.

The day I got into Amherst was the only day in my school life that I cut a class. My mother, who had been in a terrible auto accident over New Year’s 1973, had needed a nurse during the day, and I would take over when I got home. Consequently I was able to have a car at school. When the letter arrived, she called the school and I got called to the office. She wanted to open it. At first I said yes, then changed my mind. I rushed out of school, hopped into our VW Bug and zoomed home, where I found the acceptance letter. I celebrated a bit with my mother, ran upstairs and put on the sweatshirt, and raced back to school, in time to catch the end of my German class. Mrs. Kerekes, a stern but fair Hungarian, started to scold me, but when she saw the sweatshirt, she started beaming, and all was forgiven.

So I got to Amherst, but here’s the punchline–to this day I don’t think I even knew that Amherst was all male until I actually got to campus. (It went co-end in 1976, one of the last schools of its kind to do so.) My whole experience of college search and application was a fluke arising from a casual comment by my counselor. I’m sure that if he’d said “Williams” or “Union” or “Hamilton” or “Calcutta” I’d be one of their alums today. Total chance. And I’m also convinced that I owe Joyce Carol Oates credit for my admission. Even today I feel guilty about not reading everything she writes (which would, of course, be impossible for a mortal with only 24 hours a day to read…)

So back to my colleague and me sitting in an Irish pub in downtown Chicago. Her story, in its similar lack of focus on “getting into” a particular college, is very similar to mine. And yet, here we were, laughing at our ignorance and marveling at the fact that we managed pretty well in spite of it, having survived and even prospered. Our lives are good, our work fulfills us, and we have good memories of our alma maters. Yet they were accidents! When I see today’s high school students sweating, and planning, and conniving, and arranging their lives so they’ll “stand out” starting even before high school, I have to wonder what it is they’re really doing. It’s not a bad thing to want to go to a particular place, but, let’s be honest, it doesn’t really matter where you go to college. The important thing is what you do once you’re there.

I can already hear you saying, “Well, but what about the contacts, the smart kids who attend, the best professors, and so on?” I still say, it makes no difference, and to fret about it is a stress that’s totally unnecessary. The contacts you make in one place are different but the same as in another–you find the people you need to find no matter where you are. You attend classes or not, you party or not, you start becoming an adult or not, no matter where you are. And with acceptance rates below 10 percent, those big deal colleges are doing other schools a favor by making sure they have a good supply of smart kids who end up fanning out all over the country. So do yourselves a favor and think that you could probably do just as well applying to colleges randomly as you could trying to predict and insure every element.

In the long run, we can’t control what will happen no matter what we do or how much we’d like to. Why should applying to college be any different? The students with the least stress were the ones who came to my office and said, “You know, I think I’ll be happy wherever I go.” As the Chinese say, “Be careful how you travel or you may end up where you expected to.” That’s the spirit!

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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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