In Applying, Check Your Attitude

This was a most difficult year for students applying to colleges. The largest population of young people since the 1960s is coming to age. This generation has been dubbed "echo boomers" in homage to their parents, themselves members of the baby boom generation.

There are approximately 80 million echoes, having a significant impact on every phase of the economy. The echo boomers will be applying to college through 2013 and beyond, making the process of applying even more competitive and cutthroat then in the past.

The anxiety is tremendous as students and parents weigh the competition and spend hours studying the class rank and extracurricular activities of other students. However, this perpetual anxiety ridden process need not be the case. More than where you go to school is what attitude you bring to the process of applying and what you make of the school you attend.

This past fall, I taught a young man who was just ending his two years of study at Bucks County Community College. Outside of school, he helped to run his family's construction company. At Bucks, he was admitted to Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest undergraduate honors organization in the United States. Only about 10 percent of the nation's institutions of higher learning have Phi Beta Kappa chapters.

Upon completing his course work at Bucks, he is off to Gwynedd Mercy College where he received a full scholarship. Another student turned a disappointed response from her first choice of a college into a valuable learning experience. Tori had her heart set on attending Bryn Mawr College. She had visited several times, spent the night and was interviewed by the admissions committee.

Tori absolutely loved everything about the school: its academic programs, Quaker ideals and that it was close to her home. Confident of her choice, she applied under the binding early decision option. November 15, she received a small thin envelope, signaling either rejection or deferral. In her case, she was deferred until the spring. Knowing she could not count on acceptance, it was time to broaden her horizons.

Tori and her mother came to my office seeking advice. I suggested many wonderful colleges were out there that had exactly the qualities and programs she was seeking. That same afternoon we researched and applied to several more fine colleges. About one month later, I received a jubilant phone call from Tori. She had been accepted to Alfred University in upstate New York. The letter also stated she was being considered for placement in its honors program. This program provided small seminars for students with studies of the moment topics such as chaos theory, bioethics and neurological disorders.

No longer depressed about Bryn Mawr, Tori set her sights on writing the essay required for entrance into the program. The following excerpts from her essay, reprinted with her permission, provide a glimpse into her resilience, a quality that would help so many students who become discouraged when a early decision choice does not go as planned.

"I have never really been able to fit myself into a particular category or restrictive niche. Athletics have not been a driving passion of mine, though Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) should count as a sport, the likes of which the world has never seen before our glorious and enlightened or blighted times. Accordingly, I have actually bet (in) substantial sums of money that DDR will someday become a popular attraction at the Olympics.

"I suppose I would be eligible as 'punk' if I listened to punk music, or 'emo,' if I was attracted to slash and burn, but, as life would have it, my tastes tend towards folk and Mozart, and I am consistently and depressingly cheerful, much to the consternation of my friends, who are certifiably emoesque. To be labeled as emo, you need to have ash-pale skin, black hair and fingernails, wear copious amounts of eyeliner and safety pin and an Evanescence patch on your backpack before they give you your license. Not everybody passes, myself included.

"If a label there must be, the label with which I have felt most comfortable over the years is 'geek,' partly because playing World of Warcraft is an automatic qualification and partly because there are simply so very many types of geeks that the classification could mean almost literally anything at all that doesn't have to do with jocks, preps or cheerleaders, unless they are in a video game. Then it's okay.

"My Geekhood runs towards literature; ever since I was small, I have loved books and reading, not just about a specific subject in which I was interested, but reading for the sake of the reading itself, which allowed me to open myself to any sort of intellectual pursuit I pleased.

"My interests run from the study of apocryphal texts in the history of Judaism and Christianity, to fantasy series, to the politics of espionage in the early Middle East, to Asian languages, to graphic novels, to any number of other things.

"The phrase is, 'write what you know,' and if you know a little bit about everything, you can write about anything you want, or at least have an idea about where to start your research.

"The other way writing has impacted me is that it has shaped me into a person who observes. In learning to deconstruct people and situations in novels and nonfiction, I have learned to do the same in real life. I have learned to be a problem solver, and to synthesize information rapidly, whether it is about people, places, or issues that come up.

"I stay a step removed from stressful situations, and rarely get genuinely upset about anything for long. It helps a great deal with my ability to solve problems and react to new and different situations. I see everything as something I can deconstruct and understand, as something about which I could write."

Well, needless to say, the candor in this essay blew away the head of the Alfred Honors program, who spent an hour and a half talking to Tori about Russian literature, specifically Dostoevsky. After the interview, Tori virtually bubbled she had found a mentor to guide her years at college. Visits to other schools on her list proved equally encouraging. Once back home, she was assured if Bryn Mawr did not accept her, she would have wonderful choices.

Things certainly do not always work out as planned, and to be open and excited about the opportunities that do come our way is a gift. As fate would have it, a thick envelope arrived at her house in April. Tori received a letter of acceptance from Bryn Mawr and will attend this fall. After deciding, she wrote letters to thanking the people she met with during her college search. She was especially grateful to the professor from Alfred, who, although sorry she will not attend, respected her choice. With the right attitude, the college application process can be an adventure and window into the future, not the drudgery that so many experience.