My son applied to college and all I got was this essay

draftMy son is applying for college and our entire household is on Valium. The source of our stress, however, is not the shift in our family structure or the cost of out of state tuition. It’s the college application process.

I applied to two colleges. The Dude is applying to eight. I’m told this is on the low end of average.  Each application has anywhere from one to three essay questions. And we’re not talking about lame, tell me about yourself, what you’re studying, why you’re buckets of awesome essay questions. These are theses worthy of a philosophy doctoral student or an entire White House Cabinet. Nothing separates the wheat from the chaff than having to outline a position on the Affordable Care Act in 300 words or less, in a way that shows the reader the real you. After all, it works for the Miss America pageant, right?

One of the essay questions is actually “Why do you do what you do?” I’ve been asking the Dude this question for years (although it’s generally worded “What were you thinking?”, and he’s yet to come up with any answer, let alone an articulate one. The best I can get out of him is an indiscriminate mumble and the head hang of chagrin.

Another question gives a quote about momentary connections with strangers that can have profound emotional impact. It asks the student to share a similar experience. We’re talking about a 17 year-old boy. Connecting with human beings would require him to look up from his phone, and compared to his friends, my son is freaking Oprah.

Show, don’t tell. Share something unique about yourself. Show that you’ve done your research. Articulate your career aspirations. Have career aspirations. No wonder the Dude is having a nervous breakdown. They’d might as well ask for the history of ball point pen spelled out in interpretive dance.

I understand that colleges need some means to distinguish between applicants, so let me suggest a few questions that will actually help illuminate the character of prospective students.

You have two critical assignments that will take all day, and both are due tomorrow. You could provide partial work on both, or complete one in its entirety. How long have you been procrastinating and what did you do instead?

Your mother has just asked you to answer her question and you have just realized she’s been speaking for the last five minutes. What is your response?

Which is the greater offense, driving the car home without enough fuel to make it to the gas station, or spilling your Caramel Crunch Frappuccino on the driver’s seat? Defend your choice.

Which is more transparent to you, the mass of  tortilla chip shards surrounding your desk, or the pile of dirty Kleenex next to your bed? Which one will your mother notice first, and why?

Your mother is a writer who churns out 500 word essays on a daily basis. What makes her uniquely unqualified to critique your rough draft?

I tell The Dude that writing is fun, and he looks at me like I’ve told him his Dad and I have sex. He’s actually a good writer, funny and creative. Adults, however, have done everything they can to suck the joy out of stringing words together, transforming meaning and cadence into points on an AP exam. Is it any wonder we tell them to show us who they are and they’re afraid of giving the wrong answer?

I don’t know where he’ll end up going to school. I only know both the Dude and the school are lucky to have each other. I only wish I could be there to see him find what he loves. As for knowing why he does what he does, I’m not holding my breath.

Photograph “Drafting” by Sebastian Wiertz © 2012 Creative Commons/Flickr


10 comments on “My son applied to college and all I got was this essay

  1. aviets says:

    Words cannot express how glad I am we are done with the college application process. It’s a full-time job for the student AND for his/her parents, just when senior year is taking up all your time already. Thankfully all three of ours were pretty much on top of it every step of the way, but they also needed advice and help every step of the way. Throw in the financial aid crap, too, and kids who don’t have that kind of support are at a huge disadvantage…which turns into a really ugly, never-ending cycle regarding who gets to have an (ahem) “affordable” college education and who doesn’t. Sorry for the soapbox tirade – I feel really strongly about the subject.

    • We haven’t even gotten to the financial part of the deal yet….

      • aviets says:

        That’s especially fun when a school wants an estimated financial aid statement BEFORE you get your tax statements (like in December or early January) and then they also want a REAL statement using your actual tax statement about a month later. Killer. And we still have to do the FAFSA every year for two of ours for three more years. AGONY!

  2. Sarah says:

    Oh my goodness, this had me laughing out loud (although I know I’ll be going through this very process in just a few short years!) In our house, it’s the daily battle of the practice… because I don’t know anything about music, phrasing, or pitch after 35+ years as a pianist… best of luck to all of you 🙂

    • The only advice I can give you is to let them own the process to the extent they are able, and be there to support and give advice when invited. Even though it’s hard, we’ve let the Dude fall, because he’s so proud when he stands back up on his own.

  3. MGB says:

    Fantastic post! Thanks so much. I hope the Dude inherited your wit and knack for getting down to what matters…

  4. I remember those pre-college days. For me, I think I had three tiers: “dream schools,” “okay schools,” and “safety picks.” So I probably wrote an essay for at least six institutions. I must have blocked out the crazy writing madness because I ended up applying to grad school later on as well!

  5. “They’d might as well ask for the history of ball point pen spelled out in interpretive dance.” and “Adults, however, have done everything they can to suck the joy out of stringing words together, transforming meaning and cadence into points on an AP exam.” Not to belittle any other single line. But Jeannine, you have a gift for getting to the very core of the issue with grace, humor and transparent truth. I do not envy your family this particular period of time. On the other hand, it’s going to be gone so fast you may not quite know what happened. Just a heads-up. 🙂

  6. hiyacynthia says:

    Oh, Jeannine! This post was funny and I hope you promote it widely. We are not applying to colleges, but I can relate. Love the questions you made up, by the way. My daughter came to me last night for help with an English essay (11th grade) and although every single thing I suggested was brilliant, she moaned and groaned and could not form it into her own words and also looked at me like I’d just told her that her father and I have sex. She was basically saying, “I need your help, but I don’t really want it and don’t want to admit that you know what you’re doing and I have no clue.” We had a similar argument tonight about illness. I ended the argument with, “I give up.”

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