Swarm of the college-applicant bees

It’s spring and they’re massing, taking off in flight, moving across the land in nervous swarms.

Sam and Becca will get on a plane this weekend too, among the zillion other high school juniors and parents visiting colleges over spring break.

Sam gets to accompany her on this trip to New England. I did the one in February to southern California.

Tour of Tufts University / Photo by Essdras Suarez, Boston Globe

It feels like everyone is moving in tandem. We ran into kids Becca knew on two of the three tours we took in L.A. Now Becca’s friend Emerald is retracing our route down south, while Becca and Sam will visit  the same Boston schools that her friend Hannah toured this past week. I understand this is just a sliver of the American population — those lucky families with the means to pick and choose among colleges — but it feels like everyone we know.

For parents, suddenly there is an instant easy topic of conversation. We met a couple for the first time at a fundraising reception last weekend, and it turned out they also had a junior, and we all immediately launched into the “Oh, where is he/she looking? where have you visited? are you doing SAT tutoring?” and so on.  It’s almost like being pregnant or nursing again, where conversations consist of breathless exchanges between equally self-obsessed people, each one terrified they are missing something: “Cloth or disposable? what brand of stroller? have you tried pumping? what about pacifiers?”

It’s a strange ritual. You visit these schools, listen to identical stultifying talks by admissions officers, take tours where your view of the university rests on the personality of the student tour guide. I did a bunch of campus tours myself when I was in high school and the one thing I remember, almost 40 years later, is being  impressed by the free frozen yogurt machines in the Brown University cafeteria.

Many people have said this before, but it’s still striking — how much more intense the college admissions process is now than with my generation in the 1970s. More kids apply to colleges outside their region; more kids apply to the highly selective colleges; more kids apply to more colleges, period. People my age who grew up in California public schools applied to maybe one or two U.C. campuses; at my private school in New York, we were limited to applying to five schools. Now kids routinely apply to eight, ten or more.

College admissions offices spend the fall semester beating the bushes to attract more and more applicants from further and further afield. Then they spend the spring turning all those kids down. The more applicants they have, the smaller a percentage they’re able to accept, and the better they look in U.S. News & World Reports’ ranking of the “most selective” colleges. Schools that were viewed as “safety” schools in my day are now scarily competitive. It’s a common lament among parents my age: None of us would get into our alma maters if we tried to apply to them today.

(There’s a great book on the college admissions process by the New York Times’  former higher education reporter Jacques Steinberg — The Gatekeepers. It’s a few years old, but very insightful and well-written.)

These college visits are part of a huge marketing machine. That’s not surprising if you consider that college is the biggest single consumer decision most families will ever make, with the possible exception of buying a house. Think how much effort Apple puts into marketing a $200 iPod or Nike puts into marketing $100 sneakers. And this is a purchase that’s not worth $100 or $200 but potentially $200,000.

And at the same time, for the kids it’s their future. The Emerald City. Hogwarts. Adulthood, freedom, independence, classes in Buddhism and poetry, semesters abroad, keg parties, sex, chances to perform or debate or invent. Chances to experiment — both in science labs and with whom they want to be. As easy as it to be cynical about the marketing, I also know there are teenager’s dreams at the bottom of this.

So off they fly this weekend with all the other daddy-and-daughter bees.

I had a nano-second of panic this afternoon when I suddenly thought, “Oh my God, this will be Becca’s last Passover seder at home.”

And then just as suddenly I realized “No, she’ll be here next year. She has one more.”

All the to-do about college tours and tests and applications made me feel like she was already gone — swarmed off to some new colony.

But no, she’s still here in our hive, at least for another year.

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One Response to “Swarm of the college-applicant bees”

  1. Susan Fernbach Says:

    College! What a grand adventure.

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