Where Are You Going to College?

Be careful when you ask, “Where are you going to college?” The answer could be carrying plenty of baggage. The Boston Globe recently ran a story, Parents Get Competitive on College, about parents bragging about their children’s college acceptances, going so far as to post their successes on Facebook. In the competitive and emotional college application process, the article explores the harmful phenomena that parents have appropriated the college acceptance as a badge of honor and glory for themselves, feeling nothing for the stress they ask their children to shoulder. “We’re deciding between Northwestern and Georgetown,” read one post. According to the author, Beth Teitell, our “kid-obsessed society makes parents take children’s success and failure as their very own.” She laments that a “laid-back approach can be hard to find among competitive, goal-oriented families.”

It’s tougher than ever for high school seniors. With elite schools accepting record low percentages of applicants, “safety schools” are no longer the layups they used to be. What’s more, Teitell points out that back in the 1970s and 1980s, when many parents of now college-bound seniors went to college, local Massachusetts schools from Boston College and Boston University to Northeastern University were primarily commuter schools. Today, a much wider pool of students from around the world compete for acceptance. So, for some, the joyful season of college acceptances and high school graduations somehow becomes the season for college rejections and uncertain plans.

A piece by Joan Didion that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post on April 16, 1968 about her rejection from Stanford may provide some comfort. She writes, “I remember quite clearly the afternoon I opened that letter. I stood reading and re-reading it, my sweater and my books fallen on the hall floor, trying to interpret the words in some less final way, the phrases “unable to take” and “favorable action” fading in and out of focus until the sentence made no sense at all…I went upstairs to my room and locked the door and for a couple of hours I cried.”

Didion, who ultimately enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley, continues, “The next year a friend at Stanford asked me to write him a paper on Conrad’s Nostromo, and I did, and he got an A on it.  I got a B- on the same paper at Berkeley. So it worked out all right, my single experience in that most conventional middle-class confrontation, the child vs. the Admissions Committee.”

Of course, Didion went on to become a prodigious novelist and essayist. The Year of Magical Thinking was awarded the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2005. In 2007, she received the National Book Foundation’s annual Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. The citation read: “An incisive observer of American politics and culture for more than forty-five years, her distinctive blend of spare, elegant prose and fierce intelligence has earned her books a place in the canon of American literature as well as the admiration of generations of writers and journalists.”

Didion was also awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by Harvard University and Yale University.

I bet Stanford would like to have its acceptance decision back.

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