Thunderdome awaits college-seeking kids

by Lisa Smith Molinari
The Meat & Potatoes of Life

Back in 1983, I showed up for my SAT test with two No. 2 pencils and a pack of gum. The night before, I talked to my best friend on the phone for two hours, but never cracked a book. I don’t think there were test prep books back in those days. Besides, we figured SATs were aptitude tests. You were smart, or you weren’t. Not much you could do about it.

When my score came back, I hadn’t broken a thousand, so I took the test again. That time, I got a 1070, and thought, “Well, I guess that’s it, then.”

I picked schools from one of those three-inch-thick catalogues listing all the colleges and universities, sent off application packets, and got accepted to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Miami cost my parents $12,000 per year, a small fortune for them.

When it came time for each of my three children to go through the college application process, I learned quickly that times have drastically changed. With my SAT score, mediocre grades and no recruitable skills, I would have never been accepted to Miami of Ohio today.

Not to mention the staggering cost of college in the 21st century, which has nearly quadrupled since the 1980s. And then there’s the application process, which is now like entering a College Admissions Thunderdome. Every applicant for themselves, in a cutthroat, competitive rat race. Featherweight kids are thrown into the ring, wide-eyed and naive. Their parents act as cornermen, urging them to fight and applying adrenaline to stop the bleeding.  

Rather than allow their high school students to shoot hoops with friends after school, parents sign them up for admissions test prep courses starting in 10th grade. Piles of thick test prep books adorn students’ bedroom floors. The least expensive online courses cost several hundred dollars, but many parents shell out big bucks for one-on-one tutoring to the tune of hundreds of dollars per hour.

Kids are told that they won’t stand a chance if their college applications don’t show evidence of leadership, advanced academics and community service, so they found obscure clubs, suffer through AP courses and stage lame fundraisers.

If their kids have the slightest glimmer of athletic ability, parents sign them up for teams, camps, lessons, tournaments and showcases, in hopes that college coaches will take notice. They dip into their thinning wallets to pay sports video companies to create recruitment films of their kids running on soccer fields and returning groundstrokes to jazzy music.

Students begin writing college essays a year in advance. Original drafts are funneled through teachers, tutors, parents and counselors who offer “editing advice.” The end product is unrecognizable, but everyone hopes the essay is improved enough to get the student into college, or maybe earn him the Pulitzer Prize.

Applications are sent in, but that’s only Round One. Blood, sweat and tears are shed as parents and students brace themselves for the painful uppercuts of rejection. Having been through the College Application Thunderdome with my own children, I fully understand the agony of waiting for that final bell to ring. Hoping you did all you could. Hoping your kid will get what they want.

And as if this hellish process weren’t competitive enough, we find out that some wealthy parents have been using bribery to get their kids accepted. While the rest of us are feeling guilty that we helped our kids change a few words in their college essays, rich lawyers, wealthy CEOs, Hollywood actresses, famous fashion designers and other elites are paying many thousands of dollars to bribe college coaches and admissions test proctors to cheat the system.

But the real losers in this process aren’t kids who got rejected from their favorite schools or even necessarily the scammers facing 20 years in prison; it’s any parent — criminal or not — who makes his or her kid feel not good enough to get into college on his own merit.

That’s the real sucker punch.

Read more of Lisa Smith Molinari’s columns at: themeatandpotatoesoflife.com
Email: meatandpotatoesoflife@googlemail.com

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