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'Tis the season for college application panic

High school students being dropped off at school.

High school students being dropped off at school. Photo Credit: iStock

It's that time of year. Not Christmas (it's been Christmas since mid-August). Not Thanksgiving. It's College Application season.

Season is an appropriate term for this period. In hunting parlance, when something is in season - say, a partridge - it means that you can shoot it down without fear of reprisals (except from the partridge's family). With college application season, the thing that can be shot down without fear of reprisals is the applications (hopes and dreams) of millions of high school seniors.

A relatively new factor in the admissions panic, which is now at a full, rolling boil, what with the last few deadlines for Early Admission (coming in the next few days) and the beginning of deadlines for Regular Admission (coming in the next few weeks) is the Common App. The Common App is actually handy because it lets you apply to multiple colleges online, the only civilized way to do anything. Applying to college is already stressful enough, no need to add to that stress by forcing students to use a physical mailbox for the first and only time in their lives. This great online tool increases the possibility of you to being rejected by multiple colleges at a time instead of just one, should you accidentally tell all 15 of them at once that "in conclusion, that is why I want to go to Stanford."

And now, high school seniors are applying to even more colleges than they used to. "10 applications is now commonplace; 20 is taking on a familiar ring; even 30 is not beyond imagining. And why stop there?" asks The New York Times, a newspaper known for its ability to reduce helicopter parents to a state of quivering shock with headlines like "'Ma, it's dressage time!' Six Activities Everyone Else's Children Have Been Secretly Doing Their Whole Lives" and "Whoops You Attended The Wrong Preschool, Kiss Cornell Goodbye."

The essay questions on the Common App are not exactly reassuring. Most people take one look at it and think, "Great, I've been doing life wrong", but it seems especially rough for the kids born with a silver spoon lovingly placed in their mouths by a hovering butler. If you are trying to casually allude to the fact that, as a Carnegie-Rockefeller-Federline, you come from money so old it has evolved into a totally different form of money, the application really leaves no place to do this. Are there any right answers? I couldn't come up with any.

"Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it," one asks. "If this sounds like you, then please share your story." "My grandfather donated your athletic complex," you type, nervously. (This does not quite seem like what they had in mind, but what else could they mean?) You look at the next question.

"Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?" "I think my biggest failure is my failure to have experienced failure," you write. "I kept begging my parents to let me fail at one or two things, but no." You delete all of that, quickly, and write "THIS! HEYO!" Then you delete that too. You look at the next questions.

"Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?" "I wrote in to complain about the fact that the Activities section of this application offered only a limited number of characters for the 'details, honors won, and accomplishments' racked up in my years of chess club leadership! 150! That's barely a tweet! But nothing happened so I guess I wouldn't do that again." (How, you wonder, do other people get 650 words out of this?) "Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?" "My family's ancestral home, Money Roquefort Haus of Gaga, worth 60 times your campus, has always made me feel particularly secure." "Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family." You frown at the application several times. Somehow, titling your application essay "Best Super-Sweet Sixteen Ever!" was not quite how you pictured this going.

It is around this time that newspapers and magazines begin to fill, like clockwork, with essays rhetorically asking "Why Even Bother With College?" or "College, Who Needs It?" These sound very hopeful, if you are sitting lost in a thick hail of open college application tabs, but then you actually read them and their message turns out to be that "Bill Gates never completed college. Neither did Steve Jobs. Why go to college when you can become a successful billionaire entrepreneur?" "Because you wanted to be an English major," you suggest, timidly. You always thought being a billionaire entrepreneur sounded like a good time, but when you sat down to think of billion-dollar ideas all you could ever come up with was "an app to tell you how close you are to cheese" and that didn't seem worth blowing over the college experience for.

These essays are right about one thing: College does almost nothing to prepare you for life. High school does. In high school, you keep to a rigorous schedule and get up early and attend class on Fridays. In college, none of these things apply. Then you have to go from college straight to actual life, where your habit of staggering in half an hour late with a hangover that resembles a Greek goddess trying to hammer her way out of your skull is actually counterproductive. It is a terrible system.

This is why so many people wind up in graduate school.

Unfortunately, before you can worry about that, you have to get in. And I don't know how to help you with that.

The only useful thing I ever learned about college applications was that if you want to send a taxidermied squirrel to Harvard as a supplement to your application, make certain you have done a good job with it so it doesn't fall apart in the admissions office. This did happen once and it did not end well. If this helps, great! Other than that, you're on your own.

Petri anchors the Compost opinion/humor blog at


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