April 05, 2020

Choking on college apps (And we’re not talking hors d’oeuvres)

A man named Jim saved my life a week ago. There’s not much I can tell you about Jim. He has a nice voice. He’s polite. His name has one syllable. But mostly, Jim knows how to handle a sobbing mother who can’t figure out how to get her daughter’s SAT scores sent to various colleges.

Jim and I met during a panic call to the the SAT Program center in Princeton, N.J. Seems my 18-year-old daughter, when taking the Scholastic Aptitude Tests, inadvertently had put a hold on her test scores. According to old Jim, that meant we had to go through a completely uncomplicated process of releasing those scores. It was this simple: I say release them. He says OK. Ta-da. It’s done.

Well, not for me. When Jim and I spoke, I was in my third month of trying to figure out the college application conundrum. I was lucky to be still standing on my feet. And without Valium.

If you haven’t applied to college, or helped a kid apply to college in roughly 20 years, then you may not be aware of the similarities between a teen-ager deciding on a university and, say, an earthquake. Both are pretty shaky. Both can knock you upside the head. Leave you in a shambles. Keep you up at night. Or, as Jim can attest, make a mother bawl.

The early days were easy. We drove to colleges, walked around campuses, stayed in cheap hotels. We laughed at the formalities. Ate junk food. Worried about tour guides as they walked backward off sidewalks and nearly into trees.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t some mother-daughter tension on our jaunts.

“Is there any building that anyone wants to make sure we see?” one cheerful tour guide asked.

“Yes,” I said eagerly. “The library.”

“Mom! YOU’RE not going to college!” my daughter remonstrated.

Oh, I thought. Right. And I didn’t say another word.

Well, mostly I didn’t.

At another school, the dean of admissions met a full auditorium of prospective students and their prospective financial backers.

“This is a very human interaction you’re going through,” he assured us with the smug smile of a man who didn’t give up this year’s vacation for the greater good of his family’s education.

On a piece of paper, I wrote, “I like him because he’s the embodiment of a businessman but he’s clearly intelligent and has an intuitive as well as humorous side,” and I passed it to my daughter, who was slumped in her seat.

In a few seconds, she plunked the note pad back at me with this message: “Yes, but just imagine doing this for six hours every day. This is basically like being at school. This guy = people who like to hear their own voices. Blah, blah, blah.”

And that was the easy part. The hard part came with the paperwork. One room of our home became College Application Central, with booklets, catalogs and applications spread into messy piles. We sat side by side at the computer and wrangled over word choices in her essays. “Put in the stuff about being homecoming queen,” I implored. “Mom, what about my academic stuff?” she insisted. When I bumped into other parents in the same whirlpool of emotion, realization and humiliation, we’d share war stories, trade secrets, pretend we knew the one true way.

And that was only the hard part.

The really, really hard part came with the financial aid forms, which are written in some pidgin version of Klingon. And here’s the hilarious part. In order to just get the forms to apply for the type of financial aid provided by many private schools, you have to pay a whole bunch of money. Like a week’s worth of groceries, to be exact. It doesn’t take a college degree to see the twisted irony in that.

Plus if you have anything unusual about your home life — such as a divorce, or a farm, or parents who have money, property or other assests in a foreign country (and please convert those Swiss francs into dollars) — then you’re sunk. Finally, I felt as hollow as all the zeros I had written in the blanks.

By the time I got to Jim, I was very close to suggesting that my only child get a job at Burger King and be happy with Whoppers and french fries for the rest of her life. Me, I’d commit myself to the local psycho ward for post-college-application stress disorder.

“I’m crying,” I told Jim. “And I feel stupid. I’m trying to help my daughter get into college, and I don’t even understand the options on the automated telephone menus. Jim, it doesn’t look good for a mother to be this clueless.”

“Now, now,” he said gently. “Nothing you say will be stupid.”

Before we hung up, Jim made the ultimate appeal to a mother’s heart. He wished my daughter luck for her future.

I suppose he could see it was in her best interest to leave home, but that one tiny kindness on Jim’s part brought me back to the real world. Here’s a guy who’s plugged into a phone all day talking to angry, miserable parents who are sick of voice mail, annoyed by full financial disclosures, and, most of all, fighting to balance an already full life with the major project of getting a child into college.

That doesn’t mean I am forgiving about this whole debacle of college applications. I’m not.

But I accept Jim’s wishes, and, in a maddening world of paperwork and deadlines and the looming emptiness of the nest, I thank him for a style of aptitude that isn’t scholastic.

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