Posts Tagged ‘college admissions’

Sudden-Onset Scrapbook Compulsion

January 15, 2012

I have spent about fifteen hours over the past three days obsessively creating digital photo albums on Snapfish. One was of our recent vacation in Puerto Rico; the other included all of our family photographs from 2011.

I’d finished the first draft of my Technion manuscript. I didn’t have to start my new job at Golden Gate Audubon until next Tuesday. In the interim, I could have worked on my poor long-neglected novel. I could have immersed myself in checking out Bay Area bird-related Web sites and blogs, or reviewed the past two years of Audubon’s newsletter, or collected resources on nonprofit marketing, or… you get the idea.*

Instead, I uploaded and and edited and arranged  a gazillion photos.

And before that, I gathered up all of our home videos from B’s childhood and took them to the camera store to be transferred onto DVDs. That costs a ton of money. I’d been putting it off for about four years. But I did it this week.

It doesn’t take Dr. Freud to diagnose that there’s something psychological going on here.

On one level, this is just trying to tie up loose household ends as I move from one phase of life into another — from working at home with total freedom and flexibility, to working in an office with a whole additional set of external demands on my time. It’s a new calendar year, a good time to organize mementos from the past year, and who knows when I’ll have this kind of available time again? It makes perfect sense.

But I think there’s also a deeper level. Maybe I’m quietly gearing myself up for B. going off to college in the fall. I’m starting to tie up the loose ends of her childhood. There were twenty-one VHS tapes that needed to be transferred before they someday decay and before our decrepit VCR gives up the ghost. There are about six years of family photographs sitting in my computer, waiting to be put into albums.

B. will always be our child. She’ll come home on vacations, we’ll fight over chores just like we do now, we’ll help her with her problems, maybe even more than we do now. But as of this coming summer, her childhood is officially over. The years of outings to the Oakland Zoo and Children’s Fairyland, the birthday parties at gymnastic studios, the horrific Disney princess dresses and early-morning soccer games and lousy attempts to braid her hair. All gone, tied up like a package that has just gone into the mailbox with a metal, unarguable clang.

So some part of me wants to tie all these photos and videos up too. To have her childhood neatly organized and packaged, lined up in a row on a shelf. So I can look at that shelf and feel, “We did it. We did this project of raising an entire child.”

Some of this may be a little obsessive and Type-A personality. I just spent 20 years in a career where every project I undertook left a written record, a page of newsprint with my name and work on full display. I keep a lot of those clips jammed in a file drawer. Are these photo albums an effort to turn B.’s childhood into similar proof of my productivity?

But some of it is perhaps a normal reaction. She’s going away; our time with her will become a wisp of smoke, a tuft of cat fur floating in the living room sun. And these albums and DVDs are something tangible that can remain.

Perhaps when the albums are done and arranged, I will be able to read  them in order like a graphic novel and perceive the patterns and plot turns that were completely invisible to me as we were living through them. Perhaps the albums will help me make sense of it all.

When B.’s soccer team was little, we bought them cheap plastic trophies at the end of the season — whether or not they’d won any tournaments — so they would have a tangible reward for trying hard and being good sports.

These photo books and videos are my cheap plastic trophy.

I’m not sure how to tease out all these intermingled causes, but I do know my syndrome — SOSC.

Sudden-Onset Scrapbook Compulsion.


*Author’s disclaimer: In all honesty, I did engage in some productive activities like looking at bird-related blogs this week. But I also did a ton of photo album stuff. :-) 

Happy holidays, and a surprising kind of supermarket music

December 26, 2011

A belated merry Christmas to my Christian and Christmas-celebrating friends! Happy end of Chanukah to my Jewish friends!

We just returned from a week-long family vacation in Puerto Rico, where we rented a big house with my brother, sister and their families. This was a rare and wonderful way to bring everyone from two coasts together and build connections and memories among the young cousins. We swam in the ocean, hiked in the rain forest, bought Puerto Rican fried snacks and cooked our own fried latkes, and took an amazing nighttime kayak trip into a bioluminescent lagoon, where the plankton emit light when disturbed, creating comet-like trails as you move your hand in the dark water.

The trip began in the best of ways — with an email saying that Daughter had been accepted early-decision by N.Y.U.’s film school! This was wonderful news, since she really, really wanted to go there. It’s the perfect program for her, in a city where we have lots of family, and to top things off, it eliminates four months of worry and the need to slog through another three or four applications.

As a little holiday gift, I’d like to share this link to a video from our first day in Puerto Rico.

We had stopped to buy lunch and groceries in Ralph’s Food Warehouse, a U.S.-style supermarket in the town of Humacao. We were surprised to find a live band of drums, horns and a Christmas-clad stilt walker dancing through the aisles. They were sponsored by a local candy company and performing either bomba or plena, two Puerto Rican musical styles based in African drumming. Perhaps someone with more expertise can fill in the details….

A far cry from the Muzak version of Silent Night!

Happy holiday season, and may you and your loved ones have a 2012 filled with health, happiness, and unexpected music.

El Yunque rain forest / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Pelican at Punta Santiago / Photo by Ilana DeBare

With the bomba/plena band / Property of Ilana DeBare

College application crunch

October 30, 2011

Well, that was an intense few days.

Those of you with kids who have been through the college process don’t have to read any further. This will probably just bring back bad memories and raise your blood pressure. Those of you without college-age kids? Here’s a glimpse into life in the app lane.

My daughter is applying early decision to a university with a film school that she really wants to attend. Regular college application deadlines are mostly either Dec 1st or Jan 1st, but early decision applications are due by Nov. 1st.

Photo by Justin Ide / Harvard University News Office

For the past four days, she’s done pretty much nothing except this application. (Well, okay, she did go to one dance and one Halloween party over the weekend.) And that’s after working on it off-and-on for the past month.

Here’s what was involved:

  • Main application, called the Common App, since most universities let you file a single version of it online. This required a one-paragraph essay about an extracurricular experience, and a long essay (The Personal Essay, thought of by high school seniors with capitals just like we capitalize the name of God or Godzilla) on a major life experience, or ethical dilemma, or person who influenced you etc. etc.
  • Supplemental application for this particular university — three more short essays.
  • Supplement to the supplemental application, this one specifically for the film program with four more parts — a creative resume, a statement about her philosophy of collaboration, a creative work sample such as a short film clip or storyboard or portfolio of drawings, and a dramatic autobiographical short story of up to four pages aimed at showing her ability to be a “visual storyteller.”


Daughter has been pretty organized about all of this. I helped her make a checklist and schedule earlier in the fall, and she more or less kept to it. But not surprisingly, the final stretch ended up being a killer anyway.

So all weekend she was working, and I was lurking and nagging and generally raising her stress level (an important motherly task). And then Sunday afternoon it reached a crescendo where she was trying to draw eight more images for her storyboard, and I was scanning them in to a PDF for her, and she was trying to finish her dramatic story, and I was proofreading it for her, and she was inputting data into the online application sites, and we were both trying to find an ID Number that is required on one of the forms but did not appear to exist anywhere, and also trying to keep track of which essays were inputted and which ones were still being written, and then we had to photograph a bunch of jewelry pieces she’d created for her portfolio submission, and where was the glue stick to fix up a mistake in one of the storyboard images?

Oh — and she had forty pages of history reading for homework too.

On the bright side, by 9:30 pm on Sunday the application was essentially done and she could start on homework. There were 24 hours left until the actual deadline, which meant she could have fun on Halloween evening. Her essays are engaging, revealing and actually written by her (as opposed to written by mom, the guidance counselor or a hired gun). And it’s interesting what you can learn about your own kid — things they will tell an abstract and anonymous admissions staffer that they have never told you.

I’m hoping the next few applications will be easier. But the UC system, for one, doesn’t use the common app so she will have an entirely new Personal Essay to write for them.

I think what’s hardest for me in all this is that I can’t do the work for her. I hang around, aware of the time ticking past, watching her work with less-than-adult efficiency, and think, “I could bang this whole thing out in about an hour and a half.” After all, it’s writing on deadline. It’s what I’ve done for twenty-plus years.

But of course I can’t do it for her. I don’t even really edit her stuff. I correct typos and grammar, but I don’t tell her how to write.  I walk on eggshells — if I get too directive she will get into a huff and storm off. Let her figure things out on her own. Don’t try to make her into some younger version of yourself. Don’t scare her off of writing by being too intense or judgmental about it.

The upshot is that the thing I’m best at in the world, I avoid trying to teach her.

Swarm of the college-applicant bees

April 15, 2011

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.

Kick-off time at the College Marketing Bowl

June 16, 2010

It’s kick-off time at the College Marketing Bowl!

I haven’t written any blog entries recently because I’ve been on a family vacation back east. Since we happened to be in New York, Becca and I took admissions tours of NYU and Columbia – her first venture into the college admissions process.

Let me start with a disclaimer that we’re not really looking. She’s just entering 11th grade in the fall, and so hasn’t started reading brochures or checking out web sites or doing any serious search stuff yet.

This was pre-search.

Like pre-soak on the washing machine.

Or like a pre-game show.

Which brings me back to the College Marketing Bowl analogy.

Even at this itsy bitsy early stage, it feels like a giant sporting competition. But who is competing against whom? The colleges competing against each other for our $40,000 in tuition and $13,000 in room & board per year? The students competing against each other for the privilege of paying all that money?

All I could think, as we sat there listening to the shtick from the NYU and Columbia admissions spokespeople, was what a humongous marketing project this is. Think about it… NYU’s price tag of $53,000 equals the cost of buying about 200 iPods per year for four years. Eight hundred iPods in total. This is one really big consumer purchase that they are trying to sell us.

NYU’s marketing effort was a combination of high-tech, streamlined and chatty. They gathered us in a new-looking admissions auditorium across from Washington Square, with posters of their ten satellite campuses around the world, a video profile of a charismatic young woman in their filmmaking program, and slides of students and facilities. They played up the opportunities to study abroad and their career placement services, and the tour guide took us inside a residence hall to a model dorm room that was outfitted (according to a little sponsorship placard) by Bed Bath & Beyond.

Columbia’s effort was basically an hour-long lecture in a giant, historic rotunda that seemed intended to cow you into applying with its grandeur. The dark-suited admissions staffer talked at us, in a voice that was difficult to hear because of street noise and the reverberations of the giant rotunda. He played up  the advantages of having a real campus with quads, trees, and centralized dorms in the middle of the city, but also the historical weight of Columbia – for instance, that Columbia professors “invented” the disciplines of political science and anthropology, and that the rotunda of the administration building was the biggest in (New York? the USA? the known universe? I forget). Our charming student tour guide talked about the dorms but didn’t take us into one.

Two very different marketing approaches – NYU using all sorts of bells and whistles and seductions, and Columbia relying on an unabashed and unadorned recitation of its own greatness.

I was reminded of a terrific book I read a few years ago, The Gatekeepers by New York Times reporter Jacques Steinberg.

Steinberg spent a year following the admissions staff at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. What struck me was how the university spent the first half of each year beating the bushes to drum up applicants – sending its admissions people to far-flung corners of the country like rural Arizona or inner-city Los Angeles to encourage applicants who might otherwise never have heard of their school.

And then Wesleyan spent the second half of the year culling and rejecting most of those applicants.

Part of the story behind this is that universities want  really big pools of applicants, so they can look as selective as possible. If they accept 1,000 from a pool of 5,000, that’s one out of five. But if they accept 1,000 from a pool of 10,000, that’s one out of ten – a much more impressive stat for those notorious best-colleges-in-the-US rankings.

So colleges want our children to apply. But they don’t necessarily want our children to attend.  

After only two campus visits, I can already tell that these marketing presentations are going to blur together. Every college will tell us about its low teacher-student ratio, its munificent financial aid budget, its laudable diversity, its stellar job placement record, its plethora of student clubs and activities.

For Becca, one challenge will be learning to distinguish a good university from a good marketing presentation.

For now, she came away jazzed by NYU and underwhelmed by Columbia. She is interested in filmmaking, and liked the emphasis on film and the arts at the NYU presentation. She liked the prospect of being part of the city more than living in a university quad. She didn’t like Columbia’s mandatory core curriculum.

But what really ignited her enthusiasm was when the NYU rep mentioned that their dorms have “theme” units, such as a Spanish language floor, French floor etc.

And that one of those floors is a “Bohemians and Rebels” floor!

This is my daughter who in the past year has discovered Phil Ochs and Woody Guthrie, and who would rather have lived in the 1960s than any other decade.

Current score in our own personal College Marketing Bowl: NYU 10, Columbia 0.

But again, it’s just the pre-game show.

And what would Emma Goldman and Allen Ginsburg say to learn they have become cogs in a machine built to market a $53,000 consumer product?