My 18-year-old daughter is in the throes of applying to US colleges, with three weeks to go before the applications must be in, which of course will completely dominate/overwhelm/ruin our Christmas, but what can you do?
Well, you could do it as it’s done in the UK. Applying to top UK universities (called “unis”) is also fraught with anxiety, but it’s ever so much simpler:
How to Get into a Top UK University (Uni)
1. Do exceedingly well on your end-of-year A-level exams in the Sixth Form (like senior year in the US).
2. Apply to 3 colleges, in order of preference. Do interviews.
3. Get into one. Go. If you don’t get in, do a gap year. Then go.
4. Pay 9,000 pounds for tuition (about $15,000) and complain loudly because a couple of years ago it used to be only 3,000 pounds ($5,000), so this is a huge increase. Fail to remember that in the UK that amount of money will pay tuition at any university in the country, including Cambridge and Oxford. Do not tell any American friends who pay upwards of $45,000 per year for tuition at top colleges (approximately 28,000 pounds; $60,000 if you throw in housing and meals) because it could drastically undermine your friendship. Instead, feel sorry for your American friends because they must undergo the following series of torture.
How to Get into a Top US College
What it was like when your parents applied to college 30 years ago:
1. Take the SAT.
2. Apply to 3 colleges.
3. Get into all three.
4. Decide on one. Go.
What it’s like NOW:
1. As a high school freshman, begin to seriously fret about your grades as you start hearing other kids talk about college. Hey, everything from now on counts, right?
2. Sophomore year, take fretting to a higher level. Hear about other kids spending their entire summer vacations at premier soccer camps, language camps, camps abroad, as you schlep around town doing babysitting and dog walking to make money.
3. Two weeks before the start of junior year. Realize that you need to show some athletic prowess in your high school career. Try out for a team, and come to the startling insight that these kids have been playing soccer since they were four years old and you don’t have an ice cube’s chance in hell. Try out for drama; at least this’ll be on your high school resume even if all you did was move scenery on a darkened stage.
4. October, junior year: take the PSAT. If you do well, you will become inundated with college catalogues. If you don’t do well, get the colleges to send you their material anyway so you can pretend they want you.
5. Winter/spring junior year: your parents will make you sign up for an SAT test prep course, because who would be crazy enough these days to take the SAT cold?
6. Take the SAT after a night of partying. Hey, colleges understand that you gotta have a social life, right?
7. Your parents don’t seem to understand this line of reasoning. Your SAT scores arrive. Now they really don’t understand this line of reasoning.
8. Start looking at college material, which means clawing through the piles of catalogues delivered to your door. With the volume of stuff, wonder why the US Postal Service has a deficit of $15.9 billion.
9. Realize that college catalogues are pretty much the same and that they all use what looks like a stock photograph of hot kids playing ultimate frisbee. Wonder how on earth flinging a plastic disk could be described as ultimate. Ponder the existential meaning of penultimate frisbee. Notice that every photo shows a tree-lined quad in front of a stately building: palm trees in Southern California; autumnal foliage in New England. Notice too that schools in Maine, New Hampshire, and Minnesota extol the virtues of snow and winter sports. Be skeptical if you live below the snowbelt. Remember, warmer is better, at least in the winter months.
10. Your parents say you have to take a second, more intensive SAT prep course, which you do. This time, the night before the test, you come home at 1 a.m. to get a good night’s sleep. You figure it’s progress.
11. Take the SAT again. God, it’s so incredibly boring . . . yawn . . . so hard to keep your eyes open. Time to make a few random guesses. See a boy at the desk next to you cheating using a crib sheet. Become so rattled that you blow the rest of the test.
12. Your SAT scores are marginally better than your first try, but they aren’t what your parents say you need to get into top colleges, which is straight 800s like they got when they took the SAT.
13. Seriously doubt that your parents got 800s. They went to a school no one ever heard of, for God’s sake!
14. Move on to consider your grades. Wonder what the hell “weighted” and “unweighted” GPAs are and why they matter.
15. Time to squeeze in some “community service.” So you don’t have to spend a totally lame day next Thanksgiving shoveling food at needy people which you then write about as the Second Coming, feed your parents a line about colleges wanting to see international service. Over spring break or the summer, spend one week in Peru or three weeks in Thailand, whichever climate sounds best. When asked about your experience, don’t say, “It was amazing! The countryside/beaches were incredible!” Do say, with a somber expression, “I feel I was able to make a real difference, give back to people who haven’t had the opportunities I’ve had.” Bathe in the warm, clear light of pure altruism, knowing you’ve just upped your chance for admission.
16. Visit colleges. Drive your parents crazy by slouching around campus in your sweats. Go on tours that ply you with the unique history, founders, mascots, and traditions of each place, which somehow seems less and less unique when you discover that every other college has its own history, founders, mascots, and traditions.
17. Do interviews with admissions staff. On the seven-hour drive home, relive it in excruciating detail with your parents who make you realize how lame you sounded. Did you really mean to talk about your Beanie Baby collection and how it taught you the skill of categorizing?
18. Handwrite a thank-you letter to the admissions officer with whom you spoke. Accidentally refer to the wrong history/founder/mascot/tradition of a similar-sounding college: Brandeis for Brown; Colby for Colgate; Trinity for Tufts; UVM for UW-Madison.
19. Decide that you don’t want to go to that college anyway because the girls weren’t fashionably dressed and there was only one cute boy. Hey, you don’t want to spend four years with ugly, badly dressed people, do you?
20. Deeply regret that you live in Massachusetts, California, Illinois, and New York, if you’re applying to colleges in Massachusetts, California, Illinois, and New York, respectively, due to colleges’ need for geographic diversity. Try to persuade your parents to move to Salt Lake City for your senior year. Every school wants at least one student from Utah; why shouldn’t that be you?
21. Ask your teachers for recommendations. Go like, “Uh, Mr. Marcinkiewicz/Marsinkowitz, you know, I really like your class, and I wonder if you would write a college recommendation for me?” Notice that he looks kind of uncomfortable. Suddenly remember that one time in class when you flipped a rubber band after he told you not to and it hit him in the face. Why the hell didn’t you ask Ms. Cathcart instead? At least you can spell her name.
22. Hear your parents in the next room filling in the CSS financial aid form and swearing because they don’t have any money to off-shore in the same Cayman Island bank as Mitt Romney. Experience your parents reliving the horrors of the 1040 Federal Tax Form and learn that your family’s tax rate is double the 14% paid by Mitt Romney. Wonder yet again why your parents are so stupid. Wish Mitt Romney was your father. Wasn’t he the guy who told students to “borrow money from your parents” to go to college?
23. Start obsessing about the acceptance rates of top colleges. When your parents went to college, top colleges accepted a large percentage of the applicants. The same colleges now accept 8.64% of applicants. And yes, that is eight-point-six-four.
24. Spend prodigious amounts of time listening to your friends, acquaintances, other kids in your school, kids in the next bathroom stall, as they talk about colleges. Briefly wonder if you can work the word “prodigious” into your college app while you flip out because everyone else in your senior year seems to have straight A’s and 10 Advanced Placements.
25. Decide to apply to between 12 and 20 colleges because everyone else is applying to between 12 and 20 colleges, which further lowers your already pathetic chances of going anywhere good.
26. Ponder the fact that the colleges you’re applying to all start with the letters A, B, and C, or S, T, and W. What does this mean? With the exception of the “big H,” are colleges in the middle of the alphabet the “flyovers”? And, is this fair?
27. Try to calm your mother down because every time she goes to Shop ‘n’ Drop or Pshaw’s (she thinks she’s being funny), she always runs into other parents whose kids have 800s on the SATs, straight As, and are applying to Harvard as well as to ALL the colleges you’re planning to apply to, which means that your chances of getting in have now dropped from 8.64% to zero. Or worse.
29. Begin singing the praises of Heifer College in Backofbeyondsville, Nowwheresstate, in the hope that you can convince yourself of its merit.
30. Start to fill in the Common Application. Be told by your college counselor that the Common App is meant to streamline the process and reduce anxiety because you only have to write one essay. But since each college wants a “supplemental” frigging essay which asks you to comment on statements by Aquinas, Marcus Aurelius, or Heidegger and/or tell them why you want to go to that particular college, you’re now writing 12-20 separate essays instead one. Curse the Common App.
31. In order to write the 12-20 individualized essays, try to separate the blur of colleges into coherent wholes.
32. Fail at this. Go back to the college catalogues and try to find out what they believe is unique about their college so that you can tailor your response. Look at “The Offer” (Bowdoin) and think about how it would make a great book title for a romance novel. Consider Bates’s “The Promise.” Ditto. Count the number of times that the words “excellence,” “curiosity,” “character,” and “leadership” appear in each college’s material. Ask yourself, is the University of Chicago more a “community of scholars” than Stanford? Are Carleton’s “intellectual challenges” more intellectual and challenging than Yale’s desire for its students to “learn broadly and deeply”? And what on earth does Colby mean by “inspired learning”?
33. Spend all Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, the week until New Year’s, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day working on finishing the 12-20 supplemental essays required by the colleges you’re applying to. Hear your mother bitterly wish you a merry Christmas, followed by, “bah, humbug on all colleges!”
34. On January 1st, your finger trembling, sweat pouring down your face, press the “send” button on your computer that will propel the Common App on its way to the colleges that hold your future in their hands.
35. Remain in a deep sweat for three-and-a-half months as all the Early Decision and Early Action acceptances come through for your classmates and you realize that there are only 3 spaces left at the one college you might actually have a chance of getting into.
36. Realize that if you don’t get in anywhere, your parents don’t have any money to send you on a “fulfilling” and college-impressing gap year, and that your only option is to bag groceries at the same store where your mother is now hearing about your classmates’ early acceptances to Harvard and Stanford.
37. Go into a deep depression. April 15th can’t come soon enough.
That is an awesome post, it was worth the wait. How about just try taking a gap year and travelling America and tennis coaching in America like me.. A lot easier on the parents…
Virginia A Smith said:
Thanks, Ceej. I like your plan, especially if you return to England after a year and get that cheap tuition. Much easier on the parents! xo, Ginnie
I love this post, Ginnie. You’ve certainly captured the madness. If our kids are lucky, they’ll realize that in four years when they graduate (hopefully) from wherever they end up, none of this will mean anything! Elisabeth
Virginia A Smith said:
Thanks, Elisabeth for your words of wisdom. I’ll be so glad when it’s over. . . .
That seems so much more intense than in the UK. I start university this October.
We have to do really well on our A levels in order to meet the entry requirements. And the entry requirements vary between different courses and universities.
And all those essays? Haha. Seems awful! We write a one page essay which isn’t really an essay – it’s called a personal statement. So, you write about why you are so enthusiastic about your chosen course and why you want to study it. That’s the bit we struggle with the most and everyone spends ages redrafting and fussing because universities read so many personal statements so it has to be unique and must stand out to them . Haha. But we’re lucky because we only write one personal statement and it’s sent to all five of our university choices.
After that, you simply send off your application and then anxiously wait to here back. Some universities interview you, but not all. I had four interviews. And some interviews are tougher than others. For subjects like medicine and dentistry, it’s really difficult. I applied for chemical engineering. I guess it also depends on the university.
Once you’ve heard back from all five universities, you have to choose one as your firm choice and another as your insurance choice. My firm is Imperial College London and my insurance is The University of Birmingham. So if you don’t get your grades for your first choice, you’ll go to your second. And if you don’t meet those grades either, you go through clearing which is where you ring up universities and ask if they have an spaces left and would be willing to take you on. Or take a gap year and reapply next year. But that would mean that you would have to write another personal statement and go through the interviews again.
But yes, it seems really tough in America – a very long process as well…
In the UK, we start year 13 in September and I had applied to university by 11th October. And I had heard back from all universities by February and done all my interviews by the end of December.
We also pay about £23 for our university application.
Anyway, great post! 👍😄