The College (Un)Fair: Step Right Up, Kids, To Big Anxiety Assembly

Nightingale-Bamford School with my 17-year-old daughter. Juniors came from11 local schools and representatives were there from 125 colleges around the country. Nightingale was a gracious host, but sheer numbers made it a madhouse. My daughter will never be admitted to any school, said my friends. The competition is too intense-just look at this place. But that’s O.K., they added; their children won’t either. No one’s children will.

I don’t know who these invisible geniuses are who actually will be accepted to college, but I’m envious of them, and more so their parents. They must be a far less stressed group of individuals than my friends and me. We peruse guidebooks and consult the Internet, meet with college advisors and attend school meetings. It consumes a good deal of our lives.

I desperately wanted the college process to be fun. I imagined walking arm-in-arm with my beautiful child through tree-lined campuses discussing Big Meaningful Issues like “Why are we here?” and “If women ruled the world, would there be war?” We would walk into libraries with great, tall stacks just to inhale the scent of the books and hear the creak of the wooden floors. Ah, life, I would say. It’s a beautiful thing.

My daughter feels differently, though. She’s totally overwhelmed by the application process and feels somewhat incapable of moving forward. Her junior year of high school is tough; the demands upon her intense. First there are the Advanced Placement exams to worry about, then the SAT’s and, after that, the SAT II, which I knew as the Achievement Tests. And, oh yes-she needs to make straight A’s, except for two A-minuses to prove that she’s not an obsessive perfectionist. It’s all making her a little testy.

She does well enough in school. She speaks French beautifully and, for reasons that are inexplicable to me, she excels in courses like physics and chemistry. It’s not enough, though, they say. Applicants have to have an edge: perfect scores on their SAT’s, play an obscure orchestral instrument, be environmental scientists and create the most briliantly written college essay ever. “I have an idea,” I advised her. “Why don’t you write about how much you adore your mother?”

I could certainly do likewise for her. I think of the things my daughter does well, the joy she brings to every day of my life, the sparkle in her clear blue eyes. It’s the way she laughs that makes her special, I think; the fact that she named her fish, Fish; her bohemian sense of style, with my scarves swagged around her neck. It’s not the colleges that I want to appreciate that, though. It’s her.

What would it matter if she got into Harvard or Princeton or Yale anyway-all schools she assures me are impossible to get into? Would it really make her a better person? I wonder. I didn’t go to an Ivy League school and I turned out, well … odd, perhaps, but happy enough. And besides, I once dated a man from Harvard, and he managed to drop the “H-word” (as I came to refer to it) into the conversation approximately every 15 minutes. Grace escaped him, Harvard or not.

But still, I was awake half the night worrying that I had handled the College Fair badly. I thought about my daughter’s friends, whom I saw marching around purposely with their parents from booth to booth, engaging in conversation, shaking hands, befriending those in high places. What did they know that I didn’t, I wondered, and how did they get their children to cooperate? Maybe I should have tripped them up, I thought, stuck out my foot just as they were passing. Instead, I stood paralyzed in the corner and waved as they passed.

My wise daughter sized up the situation the minute we walked in the door and dismissed the event as pointless. “You can get this information on the Internet,” she said as she eyed the stacks and stacks of brochures. “I want to go home.” We stood there, right in front of the representatives from Duke and Dartmouth, arguing about how to proceed.

She had a point. After some discussion, we surmised that the purpose of the evening was to make face-to-face contact with the college reps, look them in the eye and say something memorable. But what would that possibly be? With hundreds of students elbowing their way to the front of the line, the only way I could imagine they would remember you would be if you gave them a diamond tennis bracelet, perhaps, or burst into a rousing rendition of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” or maybe “Old Man River.” Now that would make an impression.

I heard one woman telling a tale to a venerable Southern school about her youth in Texas and the summers that she spent visiting her grandparents in Alabama. “The South is in her genes,” she said as she patted her child on the back. “She can’t help but be attracted to it.” You’re pathetic, I thought. Shut up! Dear Reader, that woman was me, competing with the masses, trying to exhibit some edge. My daughter rolled her eyes and asked me to speak no more. I happily obliged.

Perhaps I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe instead of believing that my child is going to end up in the school that’s right for her, I should be contacting heads of state-or possibly Oprah-to write letters of recommendation in her behalf. Maybe we should both learn to say clever things, like “How many ways can I kiss up?” in 17 languages.

But that’s not going to happen. Instead, I’ve decided to tune out the noise and tune into that place in my head that is full not of expectation or entitlement, but of hope and wonder and infinite possibility, and try to convince my child to do the same. Not to sound hopelessly naive, but isn’t that what a college education is all about?