The Crabby Counselor Asks, “How Many Books Does It Take to Get Into College?”

Crabby takes stock of what’s out there…

New Orleans is a tough place to have a conference because, well, who wants to hunker down in a cavernous conference center when one can be retracing the footsteps of Kate Chopin, Tennessee Williams, Edgar Degas, Anne Rice, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and Jean Lafitte, or partaking of the delights of a city redolent of influences from so many corners of history and the world? (Speaking of Anne Rice, one of her most atmospheric non-vampire or -witch books is The Feast of All Saints, about 19th century New Orleans. A terrific historical fiction.)

This is not to say Crabby did not do his duty by attending educational sessions, committee meetings, and the like. He did. However, he could not fail to be drawn into the mystery and elemental sadness of New Orleans. It gets in the blood and leaves one wondering how anyone could have left it to drown…However…

Breaking out of his reverie and feeling the ache of smiling too much, Crabby visited the conference’s book sales table. New books about college admission seem to come out every year, and Crabby began to wonder, “Why?” He began to leaf through the volumes available. After a dozen he quit, but the question remained–why are there so many books on getting into college?

On that table and elsewhere were College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step, by the estimable Robin Mamlet, a veteran selective college admission dean; Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting Into College by Crabby’s West Coast pals Jon Reider and Sally Springer; the salacious-sounding How to Make Colleges Want You: Insider Secrets for Tipping the Odds in Your Favor; the science fiction-y College Admissions for the 21st Century; the not-quite-equivalently-titled The 75 Biggest Myths about College Admissions: Stand Out from the Pack, Avoid Mistakes, and Get into the College of Your Dreams; the operatic In! College Admissions and Beyond: The Experts’ Proven Strategy for Success; Harvard Schmarvard: Getting Beyond the Ivy League to the Colleges That is Best for You by Jay Mathews (one of Crabby’s favorites and candidate for best title); the oxymoronic Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Into Top Colleges; the sinister and possibly mad-scientistic Secrets from the Cradle to College Admission at MIT and the Ivy League; and many, many, many, oh god help us, many, more.

Upon his return to reality, Crabby decided to visit Amazon to see what’s out there for the worried middle class. Searching for “college admission” on Amazon gives one 11,376 results (7,970 paperback; 2,217 hardcover; 92 Kindle; and the rest apparently delivered directly to one’s brain through the new iPhone). These include “insider” books purporting to reveal all about the admission process; basic guides like Fiske; “how to get in” books; how to write winning essays; how to pay for college; how to contort oneself to please one’s desired college; “secrets” of Harvard students (it’s usually Harvard students); testing study guides; ways to make your otherwise dull, tedious life sparkle by spending summers in exotic locations doing good (NOT “summering”!); and on and on.

Crabby notes this list also contains books about how to get into graduate and veterinary schools, how to take time off before college, and so on, but one has to admit that 11,367 entries, even taking out half of them, is pretty staggering for the topic at hand. Using the term “get into college” produces only 9,264 entries, making one’s book selection process that much easier, at least.

What happens over at Google? Typing the words “college admission” returns 14,400,000 entries (approximately one tenth the number one gets by typing “breasts,” incidentally, but still…). The term “college rankings” returns 73,000,000 entries; “top 100 colleges” elicits 8,460,000; “college acceptance,” 70,900,000; “undergraduate colleges,” 29,600,000; and “top undergraduate colleges,” 38,900,000. Now that’s what Crabby calls information!

“Information desperation” might be another term for it. There is so much to know, it seems, about the college process, so many ways to bend the twig to shape the tree, so little time to get everything done and so many models of how one can, in fact, do it. Insiders, outsiders, hangers-on, and opportunists know where there’s an overwhelming fear of being left behind, and the college admission business is ripe for the picking. Wherever there is fear, sweaty-palmed or ulcerous, there are those who know how to exploit it.

Crabby doesn’t begrudge any of these writers their moment in the sun. (Actually, he does begrudge a few who prey on readers’ fears; lead them to plagiarise–unwittingly or not–or tempt them to make themselves into someone they’re not to achieve an illusory goal.) Some terrific colleagues have written level-headed books that are standing the test of time, but everything they say is basically not only the same but, one would hope, common sensical. They tell readers to be themselves, do their work, participate in class and in activities, be responsible community members and citizens, and be open-minded about the future.

But no, that would be too easy. It should be more complicated than that. But really, there’s no secret to getting into college, unless one feels one must go to a particular college. When Crabby gets together with his colleagues, they trade stories about the essential randomness of their own college process and how we all managed to turn out basically all right. The idea of intending to go somewhere specific in order to achieve a particular life outcome is a relatively recent development. (Never mind the scions of Ivy League parents in prehistoric admission times, groomed from bulldog-blanket-wrapped cradles to follow their fathers’ footsteps.) So there’s more than a little irony in our being college counselors ourselves.

How much information does one actually need for successful college acceptance? Not eleven million bits, that’s for sure. Some good teachers, supportive but non-invasive parents (you know who you are…or maybe you don’t), a few opportunities to express oneself, good friends who have goals and ambitions without being obsessive, and a loving, supportive boy/girlfriend who believes in one’s goals (and vice versa). Follow the instructions on the Common Application and the FAFSA, pay attention to deadlines, and think about the many possibilities out there instead of just “the one.”

Sure one will be a different person if one attends Sub-Ivy College instead of Uber-Ivy U, but who’s to say that might not be a good thing? If one reads all the how-to books, sweats through all the essay models, goes through all the test prep manuals, and memorizes all 75 hints for getting in, how tedious would one’s final year(s) in high school be, and where would one be at the end of it all? Face it: One can’t know or influence the future; all the competing voices telling you you can, at least in the college admission biz, are just noise. Thoreau was onto something when he decamped to Walden Pond because he “wished to live deliberately.” That’s what matters in the end.

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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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