College applications: take two

By Lisa Summers


Lisa Summers

Lisa Summers

It seems I just got one child moved into the college dorms and now I’m back in the thick of it with essays, deadlines and the onset of “senioritis.” Having gone through the college application process two years ago, I was completely floored by changes that have taken place since I applied to UC in the mid-1980s.

Forget the fact that tuition was a tenth the current cost. Forget that some reasonable limit existed on the number of out-of-state students admitted annually to a university system created as an affordable education option for California residents. And really forget the fact that a student could have a less-than-perfect academic record and expect to be admitted to at least one UC that wasn’t UCB or UCLA.

I had a job in my field before I even graduated, and it wasn’t one of those “unpaid internships” that have a kudzu stranglehold on entry-level positions in today’s job market. This job came with an actual paycheck. Those days are over.

One thing I’ve realized the second time around, is how different each child is not only in terms of his or her personal expectations, but in evaluating the intrinsic value of a four-year college education.

With many college grads moving back home, even after a stellar performance in college, prospective college students (at least mine) are understandably skeptical about the amount of time and effort he or she must dedicate to the grinding schedule of AP classes, sports, tests and what might have one time amounted to a junior professor’s CV of extracurricular activities, awards and work experience. When I think back on how little thought went into my college application, I shudder. In that sense, it does seem a little unfair to raise the bar so high for such uncertain outcomes.

But, like the saying goes, “The good thing about living in a small town is, if you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t worry, because everyone else does.”

For both my kids – the one in college and the one on the way – their experiences outside the classroom were invaluable. Opportunities to get involved in and around the community of Sonoma abound if a student has the will and curiosity to seek them out. Whether volunteering for creek cleanups, participating in local theater productions, working in the community garden or trail workdays (or writing for the local newspaper) – you name it, there is a way to participate.

While grades and test scores matter, the interactions with the world beyond high school and home not only help set the student apart from the ubiquitous “scholar-athlete,” but give them an inside look at the day-to-day life of an organic farmer, a coach, a restoration ecologist, a reporter, a nurse or even a city official. In addition, the attendant formalities such as letters of introduction, interviews and follow-up, learning to balance school and work – these are all important skills that set them up for success during college. Acknowledgement of every individual and/or organization that has held a door open is not only great practice, but can keep those doors open after graduation. Connections are everything.

In my second year of volunteering with the wonderful SVHS College and Career Center to help with college application essays, I’ve discovered that students are almost always more interesting than they think they are. Still, the personal essay can be a beast. While students, many for the first time, are trying to find their own voice in telling a story, parents (including me) have difficulty putting their own biases aside.

A trusted friend or teacher can often provide a more objective review. I’ve come to think of the college essay as a sort of rite of passage for both high school seniors and their suffering parents; from this point forward, the journey is going to be more or less their own. For a brief period of time, the essay matters so much, and then it matters not at all. It’s the journey that counts.

College admissions are, and will probably remain, a bottleneck for many years to come.

The question that weighs most heavily on my mind is not which school my child is accepted to or not accepted to, but is he really, truly interested in the process of learning. Curiosity about the world – even some small part of it – is what college is about. While the application process can be both exciting and stressful, either way, it has a life of its own and, fortunately for everyone, an ending. There is really is no way around it, there is only through.