By Steven Levingston
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 25, 2011; 3:50 PM
One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College
By Andrew Ferguson
Simon & Schuster. 228 pp. $25
My daughter's college applications are all in, and now we can quietly go nuts while admissions fairies from coast to coast get busy, as Andrew Ferguson wonderfully puts it, "sprinkling pixie dust and waving wands, dashing dreams or making them come true."
It's an apt metaphor because, as anyone who's been in it knows, the family caravan to collegeland is magical and terrifying: You begin wide-eyed and innocent, skipping along with outsized hopes, only to shrink before the fire-breathing ogres of the SAT, the essay, the deadlines, the costs. In "Crazy U," Ferguson invites you to join him on the dream-mare that he and his son endured.
The book is both a hilarious narrative and an incisive guide to the college admissions process. Ferguson, a senior editor at the Weekly Standard, has done his research, poring over mountains of published material and interviewing admissions officers, college coaches, academics and the guy behind the U.S. News & World Report college rankings.
But if you're looking to crack the admissions code, beware: Ferguson slams into a hobgoblin blocking the way. He calls this monster the "law of constant contradiction." Parental meddling? He finds one newspaper article that deems it a curse but another that says, "Parents, you owe it to your high-schooler to get involved!" The essay? One book urges students to write about an exotic foreign trip - they'll stand out. But a counselor warns, "Admissions committees are so sick of foreign trips."
Ferguson cuts through the muddle to elevate the discussion and deliver some powerful big-picture analysis. We learn the tortured history of the SAT and how it has become "the most passionately controversial element in the world of college admissions." We get a stark portrait of the one-way trend in college costs. Ferguson recalls that his annual tuition bill in 1978 at the small liberal-arts college he attended was $5,100. Adjusted for inflation, his price tag today would be $16,500 - far below the $40,000 his alma mater now charges. He combs over College Board handouts explaining how to pay for school and is repeatedly reminded that $143 billion in financial aid awaits students. He wonders for all of us: "Maybe it's good news that $143 billion was available for aid. But isn't it bad news that we need the $143 billion in the first place?"
It may seem strange to say that a book so full of heartache is a pleasure to read, but Ferguson's storytelling is irresistible. You root for the obsessive, well-meaning dad and his lackadaisical son, and you laugh out loud over their college-app tug of war. There's the son telling his high school counselor that in college he wants to major in beer and paint his chest in the school colors at football games, prompting Dad to snap later: "It'll be a big help when he writes your recommendation."
Then there's Dad handing his procrastinator a book on successful college essays and watching the boy vacantly turn it over in his hands. "I thought of the apes coming upon the obelisk in the opening scene of '2001: A Space Odyssey,' " Dad writes. "He did everything but sniff it." And here's Dad encountering a mother who gloats that she and her daughter worked three solid months on the essays every day after school, plus weekends. "We did three months of work too," he tells her, "in twelve days."
And finally, the Ferguson applications are on their way to a range of schools - tough ones such as Georgetown and Notre Dame, as well as the safety school, Indiana University. Now his tale catches up with my own family drama, and that of all this year's applicants: the seemingly everlasting wait. Adding to the father's tension, the son sets up a college interview with a local alumnus, prompting Dad to say, "I don't mean to nag," and then nag his son to shave before the meeting, and not to use the word "like" too much, and "please, please, don't wear your baseball cap to the interview."
Waiting for word also brings an incessant weighing of the odds. Ferguson calculates the impact of the "hooked" slots - those going to students who have an advantage because of athletic prowess, status as an under-represented minority, or parents who have lots of money or attended the university. After all those places are scooped up, Ferguson reckons, the chances of getting into a dream school are "much worse than a crapshoot."
But the dice do come up for his son. He gets into one of his preferred colleges, a place Ferguson will identify only as BSU, Big State University, because he sees in its curriculum weaknesses shared by many of today's institutions of higher learning. His complaint: Colleges are leaning too far toward a do-it-yourself curriculum that prepares students for the workplace rather than for deep, critical thinking. As he puts it, "You could get a degree in the humanities [at BSU] without studying literature, or a degree in history without ever sitting through a survey class in American or European history."
Ferguson takes us up to move-in day at BSU, noting how bewildered his son looked as the family was leaving. Dad himself was nearly grief-stricken. "Some part of them is gone for good," he reflects. "It's been turned away from home and toward a place we don't really see, that a parent can't reach, is not supposed to reach." His sadness then flamed into an insane anger "at all the things a man can't control." Leaving the campus, he stopped at a gas station, filled the tank and gunned the engine until he "felt a sickening tug and heard the sound of sheet metal being ripped from the welded bolts, because I'd left the nozzle in the tank."
He heard nothing from his son for several days - and then the phone rang. The college boy was in the laundry room of his dorm, in a panic. "Which goes in the hot water, colored stuff or white stuff?" he asked his father. "Mom told me and now I can't remember. . . . And nobody here seems to know either."
Steven Levingston is the nonfiction editor of Book World.