The Longer I Live, the Less I Understand

thCollege admissions have changed a lot since I was an undergraduate. I was reminded of this recently as I applied for a place in a rigorous summer program to study John Steinbeck at a prestigious California university.

When I was applying to colleges as a high school student, everything was done by pen and paper and the U. S. mail.   You telephoned university admissions offices after school to ask for bulky catalogs because most high school guidance offices expected you to know what you wanted before you told them where they should mail the copies of your official transcripts. A few counselors may have suggested places you might like to consider based on your grades and career aspirations – if you asked – but Mrs. Gardner certainly never presented me with a spreadsheet of universities I should apply to, color-coded by such designations as “safety school” and “reach school.”

The methods by which you achieved admission to colleges were within your control, as well. Classes were generally tracked into two or three levels; no one signed up for every AP class. (There weren’t many to enroll in, anyway, since the AP program only began to flower in the mid-1970’s.) You earned your best grades in the classes you were in and took your chances.

Sitting for the SAT was of paramount importance and had been since the College Board was founded in the late nineteenth century to create a standardized method of testing that depended on “scholastic aptitude” (the test’s original name) rather than the diverse and seemingly random entrance exams given by universities to prospective students. You brought a check from your mom to the guidance secretary and signed your name on the sheet of notebook paper Scotch-taped to the counselor’s door if you planned to take either the PSAT or SAT when it was next scheduled in your area, invariably early on a Saturday morning. If you scored poorly, you could take a Kaplan preparatory course for about $100 or just practice on your own until the next sitting rolled around, usually in about two months. There was also no ACT to sit for if you found the SAT too hard. (The ACT was developed in 1959 as an admissions tool for public or regional schools, as it was believed that only the especially selective East Coast colleges relied primarily on the SAT at that time; until 2007, when the ACT was accepted by every four-year college in the country, it was seen as the lesser test.)

Then, on a crisp, fall, Saturday morning, you spread all of your documents across the dining room table and, Bic blue or black ballpoint in hand, began filling in the little boxes with the letters and numbers of your full name, birth date, social security number, and proposed major. You took the tidy Xeroxed copies of your typewritten or handwritten personal statement (if requested – not all colleges asked for one because the pool of applicants was statistically smaller; only 32% of graduating high school seniors took the SAT in 1975, so far fewer students applied to universities than do so now) and added them to the small but growing stacks.

Your parents sat down next to you with their tax returns and began a filling-in process of their own of the financial aid forms. They wrote checks for application fees. You stuffed envelopes and licked stamps. They drove you to the post office where you stood in line to mail your sleek, legal-sized, brown packets of qualifications to the bastions of higher education that you knew were going to help you achieve the future you expected and deserved. You had rolled the academic dice; now it was up to the mysterious Admissions people and the peculiar alchemy of whomever else also applied that year.

Then you waited. And waited.

When Acceptance Day came you didn’t even need to open the envelope peeking out from behind the electric bill in the mailbox; you knew from the size. Fat envelope meant you’re in and skinny one meant you’re not. It was an easy system for the faint of heart.

And this is how we did it even through my applying to New York University for a Master’s program in the early 1990’s. Fat envelope v. skinny envelope. Your fate was sealed and if it was skinny, sometimes it remained sealed and went straight into the trash bin.

The entire process had changed by the time I applied to graduate school at Columbia University in the early 2000’s. I completed application forms on Internet PDFs, paid fees by credit card, and requested transcripts via online University portals. I was accepted by email.  It wasn’t the same.

The anticipation of receiving a letter, the excitement of seeing the fat envelope adorned with the university’s seal that you knew was stuffed with congratulatory form letters, mimeographed maps of the campus, and requests for campus housing is not equaled by a single line email: “Congratulations! You have been accepted into the (year) class of (name) University.” I understand that the sheer volume of application documentation has caused the process to adapt but it doesn’t alter my opinion. The process has become soulless and empty. The magic is gone.

For the California program, I typed a resume and an essay in my laptop, saved them in digital file folders, and submitted both as email attachments. I completed and emailed application PDFs. I printed online forms requiring a handwritten signature, signed and then photographed them with an IPhone app to make new PDFs of the finished document.   And, certain that technology would fail me, I retained hard copies of everything. Not a single stamp was pasted nor envelope sealed, yet interestingly enough, the process was just as tedious as the old days and a heck of a lot less gratifying.

Perhaps knowing this, the director of the California program graciously telephoned her acceptance of me. It was a lovely throwback to a different era. I appreciated it.

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