When Anguished Parents Go College Shopping
This essay originally appeared in The Hook.
Ah, springtime. Forget robins. The true harbingers of spring in Charlottesville are the clusters of distressed families on The Lawn of the University of Virginia. They are enduring The College Visit.
Potty training and driving lessons don’t hold a candle to this rite of passage. You can tell how far along in the process they are with a quick glance at familial body language. By the last one my family took, none of us were speaking, let alone strolling within arms distance.
We’d traversed miles of college grounds with guides who pointed out dorms and libraries while ambling backwards like revved up stewardess pitching pretzels. We’d carted forests of shiny brochures featuring suspiciously cheery students in North Face, lab goggles and study groups. We’d heard the stump speeches of a multitude of deans who outlined compelling personal statements of successful applications. One described a student who began a coats-for-the-poor program, ending the illustration with a warning that implementing the same program would not do. My husband elbowed me when I snorted.
What is interesting about campus visits is how much of one’s impression is actually of the student guide. As any high schooler can tell you, a severely cute and enthusiastic docent does far more to boost applications than the number of Nobel laureates on faculty.
Of course, the reverse is also true. Unfairly or not, the felicity quotient of the student body is generalized from the brief contact with the roving emissary. We had one so despondent about post-grad job prospects that I not only wanted to drop the application in the nearest trashcan, I wanted to call her mother.
Still, that unrehearsed method was an improvement over the more widely practiced rote approach, a tour technique susceptible to frequent failure. If the young conductor got off track and lost his conversational place, then verbatim repetition of information was provided– necessitating verbatim repetition of audience response. The only thing worse than hearing lore about failure to graduate being caused by stepping on a university seal in the middle of College Walk– is hearing about it again five minutes later. (Of course, one musters as many chuckles as necessary on the off chance that parental behavior might reflect on the child’s application.)
When my first-born was a high school senior, we went up to New York to look at colleges. Not, however, the one that my husband and I graduated from. On principle, she refused to even glance at the campus from the barreling taxi. Instead we headed to an art school where the guide acted as though we were imposing and walked so fast between buildings I thought he was trying to ditch us. Later, I wished he’d been successful. The dorm resembled something between a tattoo parlor and a holding facility. I spent the tour trying to figure out where I would jump when a rat appeared. (My daughter’s back was the most obvious choice.) Midway through the visit she announced her plan to apply early decision. I smiled lovingly and asked if she were insane.
Two springs later while we were with our younger offspring touring James Madison, a student attached herself to our group and provided unsolicited bits of school trivia. Boring bits of school trivia. The real guide was stuck in etiquette hell. “Wow,” he said when he finally just ceded control. “You must take a lot of these tours.”
One good thing is that interviews are no longer part of the drill. I’m still recovering from my own. My very first was with a questioner who kept pressing for an accounting of extracurricular activities long after I’d run out of things to make up. The next was with an Ivy League rep who asked if I was a cheerleader (which I’ve been trying to decode for the last three decades.) But my absolute worst experience with a college gatekeeper was the one where I stood to shake the man’s hand and my wrap-around skirt got stuck between the couch cushions, unwrapped, and fell off. I was so traumatized the head of admissions called me at home that night and gave me a telephone do-over.
So I suppose it’s no great surprise that I experience relief at the little flocks of families touring Mr. Jefferson’s University. Not only because they signal the end of winter, but because I’m not among them.