Wednesday, August 05, 2009

An Admission (Officer's) Essay

USC has become a selective school, and so when parents find out that I teach here, they ask me the trick for getting their kids in. I tell them, "have your kid take hard classes and get good grades."

Anyway, such questions remind me of the following:

Kid comes into an admissions office, says, “I’ve got an act for you.” Admissions guy says, “What kind of act?” Kid says, “A family act.” “OK, how does it go?” Kid says, “High-school junior spends $4,000 on a Princeton Review class and SAT scores go up 120 points—now he figures he doesn’t have to go to Nos. 10–15 on the U.S. News list but can get into 1–10, so the mother takes a second job to pay off the Princeton Review and buys the Platinum Package from an independent college counselor for $30,000 so Junior can be advised about when to help his fellow man and how best to package the experience, and when to take power naps. Father, meanwhile, talks to the accountant, finds out that even a home-equity loan won’t bring enough cash to get the kid into the right summer program to help repair castles in Carcassonne as a community-service project, without which Junior won’t get into colleges 1–10, to say nothing of having the money to send the boy to Tibet to practice spinning prayer wheels as proof of his spirituality and concern for diversity and international harmony, and besides there is the tuition for sophomore daughter’s harp camp in Maine. So he decides to sell the car, which means mom and dad have to use the Metra to get the younger brother to his 2 a.m. hockey practice, which he’ll need if he wants to use the athletic hook to get into an Ivy or at least a Little Three, a trip that takes one parent away from Junior’s homework—the family has a pact that at least one parent will write at least one draft of each required paper due senior year, and Junior has carefully chosen the “most challenging” senior coursework—AP stats as his math, AP psych as his science, History of the Vietnam War as the social science, Literature of the Vietnam War as the English elective, and Reading a Balance Sheet as preparation for his college internship, which he means to be the culmination of his liberal-arts education.

Parents are working so many extra hours and spending so much time on the Metra train on the way to hockey practice that sister is ignored and stops practicing the harp, thereby settling for a future without a prestigious college education, hence, perdition, has herself heavily tattooed, drops out of the Key Club, joins a heavy-metal harp band, and spits venomously whenever Junior pulls out his SAT word list and adds another entry to his online collection of homonyms. Metra goes on strike, little brother can’t get to hockey practice, is kicked off the team, begins to think of a future at the community college or emigration to Germany where he can join an apprentice program for tool and die makers, and Mom and Dad begin to feel strains in the marriage but vow to stay together to see Junior through the second round of the SAT IIs, because they know that with support, and coaching, he will be able to get an 800 on the writing exam unless he is tempted to be either original or imaginative, which would result in a lower score and his having to settle for, heaven forbid, a state university, which means no job at Goldman Sachs, so why bother to go to college at all?

Father finds that he begins to daydream of the time when he carried Junior’s egg on his toes beneath a flap of his own skin during the long Antarctic winter and vows that the boy will never go to college in a windy and frigid Midwestern city where, if the egg drops, cracks will reveal the icicles that had been his not-yet fledgling son, and in his identification with the fragile frosty egg decides that we will only apply to Duke, Emory, UVA, and, of course, Dartmouth if we can get in—damn the cold, they are rated 7th in U.S. News. All the while, the mother swims under the ice eating enough chum to regurgitate meals for her newly hatched chick to make him strong enough for cross-country practice, which should look pretty good on the application despite the fact that his little webbed feet limit his speed, and he finds that flopping on his belly to slide along the ice doesn’t really improve his time. Family meets and decides to prune away younger brother and sister to help foster the blossom that they wish Junior actually had turned out to be, they sell the home and move to Kazakhstan, hoping that geographical diversity might work the trick at any, please, just any, top-ten college or university, and they are last seen deciding to which school they will apply Early Decision.”

The admissions guy looks at him and says, “Wow! That’s quite an act—what do you call it?”

“The Meritocrats.”

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