The Common App and the finish line

July 31, 2013

August 1. For rising high school seniors, the date is like hearing “down the stretch they come” at the Kentucky Derby or seeing the last-lap flag wave for drivers in the Indy 500.

It marks the moment in which all the planning and practice, all the rehearsal and rigor, is left behind. Now is the time to show what you’ve got.

On Aug. 1 each year, the common application, the form that hundreds of thousands of high-schoolers use to sell themselves to any of almost 500 colleges, becomes available. There are basically two groups of people in America on this day: those for whom the phrase “common app” brings a bewildered shrug and those for whom it evokes reactions that would delight Edvard Munch. If you’re in the former group, skip this and go read Jura Koncius’s story on that beautiful South Bethany beach house. If you’re in the latter, read on.

Much has been written about how the process of getting into college has become insanely arduous. And I’ve certainly weighed in on the subject, often positing, as I did when I interviewed George Washington University’s admissions officer this year, that we all need to take a chill pill.

But I have to say that there is something about the release of the common app that makes my palms sweat and my pupils dilate.

The path to college is a lot like the Tour de France. It’s one big race, but there are lots of little races within the bigger one. These smaller races require strategy and course knowledge as well as superior cycling skills.

Planning out high school courses that will make a student’s transcript look rigorous and appealing to admissions officers is like mapping out your overall race strategy.

Preparing for and taking the standardized tests is like a time trial, a crucial sprint.

And completing the common app, with its all-important essay question, is akin to that killer stage in the mountains. Strategy, strength and stamina are required. Many a dream has been crushed in the killer period between the application becoming available and the deadline for submission. (Consider the girl who, as she was hitting the “submit” button on her application, realized she had written“Playing the piano opens a window to my sole.” True story.)

This year’s common app is significantly different from previous ones. It requires answering only one essay question, instead of two, as in previous years. Responses must be between 250 and 650 words, with that word limit being strictly enforced this year.

And what do these 17- and 18-year-olds have to write about in order to sway an army of admissions officers to move aside and grant them entrance to the college of their choice?

Here are some of this year’s options:

Recount a time when you experienced failure. (Probably best to not write about writing your college essay for this one.)

Describe an environment in which you are perfectly content. (Seriously, 250 to 650 words on that? The most perfect reflection on this is Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” But at barely 100 words, the common app wouldn’t allow him to submit that.)

And then there’s the part of the application where kids must demonstrate that they are not just stellar students, but also well-rounded human beings ready to save the universe.

GPA north of 4.0? Check.

SATs above 2,100? Check.

Work in a soup kitchen? Check.

Played in the marching band at halftime while being the star quarterback? Check.

So the final sprint is on. It’s the bell-lap in the process of getting into college. I ran into a colleague recently whose daughter is going off to college this month and she, stricken, looked at me and said, “Oh, my God, you’ve got two to get through the process at one time.”

I try to be sanguine about it. I try to say that my boys have been good students, did well on their SATs, have interesting stories to tell. (This summer Christopher built the Web site that showcases Andrew’s three novels.) Any college would be lucky to have them, I say — and believe.

But I suspect there will be late nights working on essays, difficult moments when their editor/mother says a point could be made more succinctly or a better word could be chosen, as they try to show off their best attributes in the 650-word sprint to the acceptance letter finish line.

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