BACK WHEN I WAS considering which college to attend, I wrote to the ones that interested me, figured out how to get accepted and how to pay, packed my trunk and left. The time I spent selecting a college probably was less than the time I spent choosing the right wardrobe.
The world is different now. Whereas I got serious in the spring of my senior year, our eldest daughter jumped into action as a junior. And on the eve of her senior year in high school, our collective family worrying has begun. It is only September and already the brochures, letters and flyers she's received weigh nearly five pounds. And that doesn't include any catalogs or bulletins. Those are promised for early fall.
But it's a measure of life's complexity that besides providing children the tools they'll need in college -- english and math, languages and good reading habits -- you must watch their natural anxiety over this new adventure exacerbated by the intense competition, preparation, even hype, that accompanies the process of Getting In.
It's important for young people to know that they must make choices in life; decision-making is a priceless process. At the same time, it can be overwhelming for the prospective college student.
At dinner the other night, my daughter turned to a friend visiting from St. Louis. "Have you started thinking about college yet?" The reply came, "Yes, and it's frightening." And this girl had just finished 10th grade.
First, there are courses to prepare for, the Scholastic Aptitude Test and then courses on how to get an interview at a college and then courses on how to pass the interviews. Visits to colleges for the prospective student have become de rigeur. "A physical visit? Stunning!" said a friend of mine only a year or so behind me on the college treadmill. There also are chaperoned tours to colleges in particular sections of the country, sponsored by private groups.
Then there are college programs before school starts to help students develop study skills. And, of course, there are the guidebooks -- necessary, but seemingly limitless in number. Getting In can definitely be Big Business.
But the bigger problem is how to cut through the hype, the blitz of brochures, and know that the choice that you've made is the right one.
Our family always had planned to put real thought and planning into the process, but it is speeded up when the mailman brings his daily load of brochures.
Part of the "blame" for that rests with our daughter, who signed up for the College Board's Student Search Service when she took her preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test early this year. The program passes along a student's name to college, and no sooner had she put down her stubby yellow testing pencil than the deluge of "personalized" computerized letters began.
Some colleges are giving the Big Sell as the number of enrollees continues to drop, and if you are both a woman and a minority, the choice becomes more difficult.
Do you choose a predominantly black school or a predominantly white one? Do you choose a coed school or a women's college? As black college students they know they'll pack not only slacks and sweaters, their parents' anxieties and expectations, but also doubts about their abilities from some insensitive whites. Some seem to expect less of a student who's not white, or question whether a black student is enrolling merely because he or she benefited from some quota or "special" program.
A number of predominantly white colleges have prepared special brochures for prospective minority students. Still, it is ironic that about 90 small black institutions continue to award about the same number of baccalaureate degrees to blacks as do about 1,500 predominantly white institutions.
Many of the women's colleges have faced all the questions and aggressively argued their case in true Madison Avenue style.
Says a publication of Wheaton College, in Norton, Mass., one of the top 10 women's schools: "A study of women listed in Who's Who of American Women showed that graduates of women's colleges were more than twice as likely to have been cited for achievement as women graduates of coeducational colleges."
By contrast, Spelman College in Atlanta, a predominantly black women's college, gives a softer sell.
"You will study in an environment conducive to inward reflection and self analysis which is necessary for determining who you are."
The choice of a college is difficult -- and probably more important than most students understand. Long after our daughter has walked onto a campus, figured out the names of the various residence halls, and worried about her grades, the choice will affect her life, her future, her friendships.
The secret is in the match-making: the match that's right for her goals, values, talents and future life. But if the recent past is any indication it's going to be a rough year as she tries to pick the right college. Next to that chore, a marital match truly will be duck soup.