That was the wording in bold, cursive 38 point script, scrawled diagonally across the letter-sized envelope. The exterior was a glossy affair, with a photograph of the UC Irvine administration building. Inside, a crisp .097 caliper single sheet of white paper with blue letterhead, had an opening that read:
Dear Ms. Holden,
I am pleased to offer you admission to the University of California, Irvine (UC Irvine) as a Dance major in the Claire Trevor School of the Arts for fall quarter, 2008. Your admission reflects recognition of your accomplishments and our belief that you will thrive as a member of the UC Irvine community.
As admissions letters went, this one was rather impersonal. If not too generic, then certainly positively dry. Whatever accounted for its lack of spark, It certainly must have accounted for my daughter's lukewarm reception of the news.
By contrast, Sarah Lawrence's acceptance -- which came fit within a thick, texture-ful accordian-style binder, with embossed, colored stenciling etched across it -- was penned in forest-green font, on cream-colored .157 bond paper. It effused:
Welcome to the Sarah Lawrence College Class of 2012! The Admission Committee was impressed and delighted by your application. Your vitality as a student and your compelling personal qualities distinguished you among a remarkably strong group of candidates this year.
Talk about your hard sell. (And don't you believe that flattery won't get you anywhere!)
The fact is that it is a racket. All of it. A major business over in the United States -- often demanding a very hard sell. Since it is all about creating the best product possible -- which, in this case, is a select number of the nation's youth. The best brains (and/or demographic profile) amassable. For schools over here, it is all about assembling the best stats, the most impressive entry class, every year, after year. To keep it going like a log rolling downhill, obliterating whatever competition might stand in protest and shriek: "compare thyself with meeeeeeeeeeeeee!"
Well, the call for comparison -- and the absolute need for competitive stats -- may be less the case for mega-institutions like the UC -- which have a huge pool to choose from, fewer resources (as a public institution) to woo prospects, and, thus, seemingly less inclination to go the extra mile to snare a prospect out of the hands of a small private liberal arts school that has taken the time to scrutinize and care about the "fit" it has crafted among its 400 to 600 in-coming freshmen. But that doesn't necessarily make it any easier for the prospective student. And, in fact, contending with the racket, with all the procedural noise, is what makes this, one of America's most frenetic of life-stages, even more peripatetic: hard to contain, mind-bending, nerve-wracking, flat-out distressing for the kids and their families involved.
College, after all, is the single greatest determiner of class attainment in the US today. It is what separates the low from the middle, with the prospect of elevating its end-users (who exit successfully) into the upper strata. It is why, as Michael Massing reported in a recent New York Review of Books (Volume 55, Number 5 · April 3, 2008, "The Volunteer Army: Who Fights and Why?"), the U.S. military now offers soldiers up to $73,836 in tuition credits and will repay up to $65,000 in college loans. Why? Pure survival.
Because, according to a recent Defense Department report:
The most dramatic social force affecting military enlistment is the interest in college attendance. Youth are focused on education and work, with the Military as an afterthought. The percentage of minorities completing high school is increasing, and college is becoming a reality for a greater proportion of the minority population. This increase in college aspirations and college attendance should be expected to continue.
Or in the words of David Segal of the University of Maryland:
The competition the military faces today isn't from Wendy's or McDonald's, It's colleges and universities. The people the military wants aren't choosing between the military and fast food—they're choosing between going into the military and going to college.
The solution for the US army -- which so depends on bodies to make its contemporary work, work?: to offer incentives to do both. First, national service, then self-help; all on the taxpayer's dime.
For the peripatetic parent (and their panicky progeny) the military option is definitely the road less taken. Who wants their kid killed in Iraq? Or . . . Iran?
Instead, for us pacifists, us irrational rationalists, it is an endless succession of tasks left to do. From:
- creating a basic (though likely wildly unrealistic) wish list (and this presumes a child has any semblance of a clue what they want to do in life -- other than NOT kill innocent foreign-nationals); to
- visiting campuses; to
- making a final application list; then
- taking the SATs; next
- filling out applications; followed by
- taking part in special administrative processes and/or selective auditions; then
- applying (feverishly to make all the application deadlines); then
- waiting (increasingly impatiently for the notifications to come -- by snail mail or web); then
- (hopefully, mercifully, can't believe it!) getting in; followed by
- coming down off the euphoric glow; because
- (somebody has to be the voice of reason and -- now that you only have 13 days left!) you have to weigh the relative pros and cons of offering institutions; assisted by:
- (re)visiting schools (if you're lucky -- if they want your kid desperately enough -- on their dime); then the home stretch of:
- working the phones to get that one last extra bit of scratch to tilt the balance in competing financial aid packages . . .
Then . . .you are done! That's all. Just one enormous, extended -- seemingly endless -- racket.
And anyone not entrepreneurial (or peripatetic) enough will never be able to see it through from start to finish.
Is it worth it? Well, so they say. It should influence who you become, the things you learn, the people you meet, the connections you make, the opportunities you will gain . . .
Forget that tinsy niggling, nagging voice in the backmost, deepest-most portion of your brain; the one that says: "Gee, I hope they knew what they were doing when they picked you . . . and I hope you know what you are about to do when you pick them . . . 'cause, if either of you have miscalculated, then, boy are you fucked!"
Which is what it all comes down to -- I mean in those final seconds before selection deadline day comes to a close -- in those final moments, after those 4 weeks of constantly measuring this school in New York City against that one in Boston, and this conservatory against that smorgasbord multi-versity. And during that time, what have you determined? how much closer to determined insight have you come? Come on, admit it: in the end, it all comes down to intuition, and guess-work, and impulse . . . and resources, endowments and networks and projected futures and . . . yes, money. And in the end . . . there is that sobering realization that you try to suppress; the one that reminds you that going here will definitely alter the person you would likely be if you went there.
Better not to think about that at all. Think instead that you are in! And that a space is awaiting you. Counsel yourself that someone cares enough to have wanted you and don't sweat the "could be"s and "might have been"s.
Think instead about the "will be"s; the absolute, soon-to-come certainties.
You are in. And your peripatetic intellectual career is about to get into full swing. Such a rich life you are about to dive in(to), because you are in.
Congratulations, youngling. And enjoy. You earned it.
Probably. Likely. Definitely maybe. Eh -- who cares! You're in!