The College Fair

Yesterday evening, Neil and I went to Exploring Educational Excellence, a college fair, a first for him. More than anything, in the frustrating sameness of college solicitations, we wanted to hear what the unique qualities are for any school. In that, the fair excelled. The admissions officers for each school only had 10 minutes to talk about their university, and all focused on its differences versus all the other hard-to-get-into national universities with good research opportunities for undergrads.

The admissions people may be as frustrated with the candidates as I am with bland school solicitations. I asked the poised young woman near us if she wanted to go to school on the East Coast, and she told me, no, she hates snow. So then…the only one of the 5 schools she’d have any interest in would be Rice University, though she had the brochures from all the schools in her lap. As the session was about to begin, a fellow parent took the lone remaining seat next to me (in the 375-person capacity room!) I asked about her child, and she said her son had stayed behind to do his homework as both his parents came in his place. So, um, how’s he going to be able to decide if he wants to apply to any of the schools? It was as if some people were hoping for that one of the seats would have an envelope beneath it with a guaranteed admission ticket to one of the schools glued underneath it.

Brown University was up first. In my mind, it’s the East Coast hippie university. I didn’t know that it has no general requirements, so you can indeed math out to your heart’s content, if that is your heart’s content, though you’ll almost certainly want to check out the rest of the scene. I also didn’t know that Providence, Rhode Island is a foodie mecca, though I’m not surprised. There is a new all-glass classroom building which just had me thinking of being a bug under a magnifying glass. It would be no fun at all in a heat wave. And true to my expectations, it’s the only university in the US offering a year abroad in Cuba.

An alumna had already tipped Neil on to the University of Chicago, where the t-shirts say “If I wanted an A, I would have gone to Harvard.” So it was also no surprise to¬† hear about their strong core curriculum, interdisciplinary thought, and the Hogswarts-esque fact that students live in the same “house” for all 4 years. It was the alumna, not the admissions officer, who made the Harry Potter reference, by the way. All the admissions officers felt it necessary to comment on winter weather at their campuses, to which this admissions officer said “I have three words for you. Get over it.”

Columbia University recently sent Neil a tome of material. Pros of Columbia: NYC. Cons of Columbia: NYC. The admissions officer was particularly amusing, and I did learn some things about the university I didn’t know. The core curriculum sounds especially classical, with an emphasis on history and serious literature, appealing to the classical homeschooler. There’s a swim test based on a tradition from the days of the American Revolution, when the university wanted to make sure its students could swim across the Hudson River to safety in case the British invaded the campus. Engineers are excused from the test, on the presumption they’ll be able to build an alternate way to get across the river. Most classes don’t meet on Friday, leaving you free to explore the city on long weekends, and (OMFG) your student ID gets you into every museum in NYC for free. Unfortunately, I was having Seinfeld flashbacks, though I didn’t know where Neil belonged in the cast.

Neil’s grandparents went to Cornell, and he visited it two years ago, so we really wanted to see something about the school that would make it a top choice. But alas, the presentation cemented it as the countryside college where the urban kids come to get away for four years. There’s a center for the study of inequality, and it’s not in the math department. They have a school of labor-management relations, which made me wonder how often the professors go on strike. But if you love food science and hospitality (as Neil’s grandparents do), this place is it. You can invent your own ice cream flavor, and if it’s good enough, it’ll be produced and sold in the campus creamery. There’s a tongue-in-cheek feud between the Vegetarian Club and its counterpart the MEAT (men eating animals together) clubs.

Last, but certainly not least, was Rice University from Houston. It had not been on my radar at all, but its handouts included a brochure noting that it has full tuition merit scholarships for top candidates to its engineering school, which includes math and computer science. Helloooo, Rice, you’re singing my song! I didn’t know what to make of the fact that 10% of its students are varsity athletes, and wrote down one of my insane reasons for not liking the school — possibly too cool. All the kids in the presentation looked so happy! What’s up with that!

At the presentation’s end, each representative gave a “pearl of wisdom” about the admissions process, most of which I know but which was good to hear again. Ellen Perlmutter from Cornell stressed the importance of having the student, not the parent, own the college selection process, and advised us to make the car a no college conversation zone. Neil nixed that. He’d much rather talk about prospective colleges with me than have me force him to decline Latin nouns again. Javier Placentia from Columbia stressed the importance of an original essay, and I once again got an idea of what these admissions officers have to go through, reading hundreds of paraphrases from this book, hastily typed out at 10 pm on December 31. Also, he noted, get someone to proofread your essay. Columbia is not spelled y-a-l-e.

Students were welcome to talk to the admissions officers and alumni directly afterwards. I hung back, because I am #6, and I think those reps had suffered enough already. They sincerely wanted to speak to the kids, not the parents; perhaps to that end, I quipped, they should have free beer, and perhaps a sign up for discount coupons, for say $10 off the deposit on the school of your choice (please indicate in advance), given that next year, almost all of these parents will be coughing up thousands of dollars to some university. As Neil joined the mobbing students to listen in on questions and answers, I chatted with the fellow parents, who are all as neurotic as me. I’m worried that the jank homeschooler transcript I’m cobbling together will be incoherent. Oh, it’s original alright, but it may get an equally original response, like “WTF?&^%$!” (As I said earlier, Columbia’s upside, NYC, Columbia’s downside, NYC.) But a father was worried that his daughter’s high school wasn’t rigorous enough to get her through the admissions process. And he lived in a posh suburb known for its excellent schools! And many of the students will be sending off applications to all the colleges, not for any specific appeal, but simply because they’re hard to get into, despite the fact that they’re hard to get into because everyone is sending them applications.

I drove back and Neil and I chatted about all the schools; I wish more of the material we get was as distinctive about their schools as these presentations were.


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