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Charlie Stewart
First person: College daze
The acceptance (and other) letters are in the mail this week.
Does the anxiety stop here?
Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Do you know what time of year it is? Well, yes, it's tax time, but it's also when colleges start sending out the thin letters of rejection or the thick letters of acceptance. My daughter is just moments away from being notified by the various colleges she has applied to.

Hearing from them will actually be a relief, because families (i.e., parents) with college-bound kids are obsessed with the topic. You can be talking about the probability of property-tax millage being lowered and, sure enough, the next thing you know, the conversation has reverted to colleges. What college is your daughter applying to? What college is your daughter applying to? Then you start doing some wild, mental calculations like: "Hmmmm ... if her daughter is applying to Yale and mine is too, and they're both from Pittsburgh, then by how much does that reduce or better my daughter's chances? How many girls from Pittsburgh does Yale need in one class?"
My daughter and I did a road trip this past summer to see some of these colleges. In fact, we drove 2,500 miles, through eight states and saw 11 colleges and did three drive-bys. For the past nine years I've been a stay-at-home dad. It's nice to see that a lot of the things I've been trying to reinforce by providing stability on the home front are also valued at college. For instance, on the tour at Oberlin, our student guide was kind enough to point out the substance-free dorm. That's helpful to know. But it also did make me wonder: What goes on in all the other dorms?

We are fortunate to live in a time when our children have so many choices available to them. At the University of Massachusetts, you can take Finnish. You never know. Some day you may have an unexpected layover in Helsinki. They have human dog sled racing at Dartmouth and an ice skating marching band at Brown. They were also proud of their three libraries and 5 million volumes at Brown, but Dartmouth has 11 libraries so, if it's libraries you want, head to Hanover, N.H. If libraries aren't your thing, Middlebury has log rolling in the indoor pool and, for your entertainment, Vassar has a Steinway piano in every dorm and it's 50 cents to play a round of golf at their golf course.
Bard College was one of my favorites. I think I could do better there than I did at my own alma mater. In the tutorial at Bard, the teacher and the student decide together on what the grade should be. I've got a good idea what I would suggest. Besides, how badly could I do anyway if I took their African drumming class?

But I probably could have done all right at Brown, too. There don't seem to be any rules. Courses are pass/fail and the parents aren't notified if their kids are caught with drugs. They must assume that if you are old enough to be able to fill out an online application form, you must be old enough to be responsible for your own drug reactions.

We also learned some of the popular lore such as how Bowdoin got its mascot. Apparently an alum, Adm. Donald B. MacMillan, was exploring the North Pole in the early 1900s and shot a polar bear. Somehow, he got it all the way down to Maine, because there it is today in a glass case in the lobby of the gymnasium. And that's why Bowdoin students are the Polar Bears. You can only imagine how unimpressed my vegetarian daughter was. Even with SATs being optional and the second best food in the country, they never did receive her application.
After visiting so many campuses, I found that I longed to be back at college. They have the best themes for parties, and that's when I noticed that the tour guides really started to get animated. There's Diva Night at Skidmore and Foam parties at Vassar. (Of course, these people never experienced Easters Weekend at the University of Virginia. Now that was a party. It was so good they banned it in 1982.)

But I don't think I could get into college now. The pool of kids entering college in two years will be the largest group of qualified college applicants in history. Lucky me. That's my younger daughter's class.

You have to have a "hook" to get into college. Used to be that you were a shoo-in if you'd rowed at Henley or been captain of the fencing team. But now you can't just be a mere valedictorian. You also need to have opened at the Met, arrested the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest or defended your theory on how to stop the sun from dying out. While you're asleep, there are parents out there plotting their fourth-grader's college entry credentials.

I can't wait to get back out on the road with daughter No. 2. I'd like to beat the rush, but she's still busy being a kid. She's hard at work setting a Guinness record for hours asleep by a 16-year-old during spring break.

Re-printed with permission from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


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