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