Thursday, February 11, 2010

College admissions flesh market

About a year ago, I spotted a book at the library. I can't remember the title, but it was something about "packaging" your child for college. In other words, it was a guidebook for parents on how to market their child so as to successfully beat all the competition and get into college. I skimmed a few chapters and what I read was so abhorrent, so depressing, I left the library under a black cloud which stayed with me for the rest of the day. I didn't check the book out. Its affect on me was such that I feared even seeing the cover again. The book described the world of college admissions as cutthroat as the deck of a pirate ship--a literal meat market. Millions of kids are competing for a precious few college acceptances. Will your child be chosen or rejected? Will his failure to be elected student council president, or your failure to sign him up for the correct enrichment activities, get him into the correct kindergarten, ruin his prospects forever? How can you maximize your child's SAT scores? How can you make him write the BEST POSSIBLE admissions essay? How should he "market" himself at the interview? The book was the embodiment of the worst sort of competitive parenting. Its mindset is the reason that so many high achieving students cheat--if Mad Scientist's and Drama Queen's observations of their classmates can be considered representative.

Mad Scientist has been accepted at Canisius College. Not only accepted, but offered a generous scholarship. He hasn't gotten an official letter yet, but the admissions office called him yesterday to say that the letter they'd sent him showed an incorrect amount for his scholarship because they'd decided to offer him an even bigger scholarship. The fact that we didn't get the letter yet says a lot about the difference between the postal service in the South--where I've seen local letters take a week to reach their destination, compared to the postal service in the North--where you can mail a letter late in the afternoon and it will be delivered by the next morning. But that's not the point.

The point is that this is the kid who got an F in health--health for crissakes--because he made a bonfire of his notebook and class work. This is the kid for whom we had agonized meetings with teachers and school administrators about his self-destructive habits. This is the kid about whom the school secretary called me with a shaking voice to tell me that his backpack had been found in a random backyard in the city and did I know where he was. This is the kid who was on the road to being expelled and who I allowed to drop out of high school because his misery in public school was so extreme. This is the kid I despaired of ever getting into any college, let alone winning a scholarship.

The school, Canisius, OK, it's not Harvard, but it's a solid, private, Jesuit, liberal arts college. (Let me know in the comments if you've heard of it.) It was founded in the 1870s, when Catholics kept themselves to themselves, at least as far as education went. My father graduated from Canisius in 1965. Jon's father was a Canisius alumnus too, as are most of mine and Jon's male relatives. (Canisius did not admit female students until the 1970s.) Jon and I are both graduates of Canisius. It's a relentlessly preppy school, the sort of college where the student body is more conservative than the faculty. (How I hated the smug "Young Republicans" when I was a student there, and George H. W. Bush was president.) Then again, Mad Scientist is conservative himself and might fit in better than I did. Canisius graduates tend to become doctors, lawyers, accountants, pillars-of-the-community businessmen and obscure congressmen from insignificant districts. Perhaps not a lot of fashion designers or film producers, but respectable citizens, and within the fabric of the student body there are vibrant, creative, intelligent people. I'm really pleased.

So you see? No need to pimp your child for the holy grail of college acceptance.


  1. Congrats to you all! Remembering what you all went through a couple of years ago, I am thrilled for you.

    I really hate what college admissions have become. I hope to hell that I don't ever become one of those scary parents who push, push, push their kids.

  2. Congrats on the acceptance. I know that's a load of worry off your mind. We are still waiting to hear from Angst's number one choice.

    I can understand how people become conservative as they get older, but I think conservative college kids are just sad.

  3. From a fellow liberal arts grad, congratulations! I have heard of Canisius.

    The college admissions process has gotten insane. I am so not into being one of those pushy parents. I'm just hoping my daughter is a better writer than the parents of the kids who write their essays for them!

  4. The lesson here, as in life, is not to be stressed-out and miserable, but to be open-minded and flexible. Good job on that! Too many parents make their kids feel like one screw-up, and they're doomed. DOOMED!

  5. That's pretty fantastic. Does he want to go?

  6. WHAT a happy ending! I am SO glad to read this--and you are right--we can't "package" our kids for success--they are independent of us and will cut their own path. We can only equip them and clearly you did a great job.

  7. I have heard of Canisius. I attended the University of Dayton, and our basketball team played your basketball team. Catholic schools.

    Congrats to your child on the scholarship. Colleges are colleges are colleges. Your education is largely what you make of it, not what name is stamped on your transcripts. Your child will be fine without Harvard, and probably Harvard will be somewhat less fine without your child.

  8. It's a small world, Bunny Carlos! :)

  9. Maureen CarlsonMarch 25, 2010 8:35 PM

    My nephew graduated from Canisius and is now in his 2nd year of law school at Notre Dame. Congrats.