Sam has made it very clear that he is on his way out. Our son is seventeen now, and though he tries to be nice about it—“Did you guys have a good time [all alone, without me] last night?” he asked last Sunday morning—we have trouble getting on his calendar, competing, as we do, with schoolwork, SAT/ACT/AP prep, his friends, his girlfriend, his car, Flavor of Love, I Love New York, iTunes, and, of course, Facebook. That his father and I do not really rate on this list of priorities I take as a sign of reasonably effective parenting. He’s age-appropriately independent, having successfully navigated his first job as a busboy last summer, and this summer he found respectable work again, even without signing on for the multiweek, $4,000, life-changing latrine-digging project in South America. But just as we are all learning to move forward into a new life stage—big-time separation—fate has thrown us together again for one last brief, intense period. I am talking about the college application process, and specifically the college tour.
When I was growing up in San Antonio sometime between the Kennedy assassination and the fall of Saigon, most Texans didn’t take college tours. This was largely because they went to school in-state. People thought, in fact, that there might be something a little wrong with you if you didn’t want to go to the University of Texas. I mean no disrespect when I say that UT was my safety school back then—like Sam, I was hell-bent on getting out of Texas for reasons I hadn’t really explored but that my parents bravely supported. So the summer before my senior year, we took a short trip to look at three schools in New England ( New England? I ask myself now. What was I thinking?), and we liked them all just fine. I applied to all three, was admitted to two, and chose one. Applying was sort of nerve-racking, mostly for my mother, but relatively straightforward. My mom was my only “consultant,” and when she suggested gently that my Radcliffe essay wasn’t exactly targeted to win admission, I dutifully ignored her. Of course she was right.
A nanosecond later, here I am, enduring this rite of passage from the other side—and at a pretty grim moment. As the New York Times recently noted, “A demographic bubble has produced the largest group of graduating seniors in history, and they now are facing rejection by colleges at record rates—more than 90 percent at Harvard and Yale, for example.” Texas’s top 10 percent rule, in which seniors in the top 10 percent of any Texas high school are guaranteed admission to a public state university, has made things even tighter here at home. Getting into UT’s Plan II Honors Program is now almost as hard as getting into Princeton.
Never one to pass up an opportunity for high anxiety, I have armed our family with approximately one thousand books on college admissions (Sam’s favorite is Harvard Schmarvard) and saved virtually every piece of promotional mail, which now forms a Matterhorn-like mound in my office. (Not surprisingly, given the situation in Iraq, the Army, Navy, and Marines want him too.) We have bowed to peer pressure and hired an SAT tutor and a college adviser, though not the sort who charge $180 an hour. Friends who survived the struggle but are still traumatized send me thoughtful, residual e-mails titled “More college advice.” All this insane strategizing reminds me of being pregnant, only it’s much more expensive and will, I assume, produce the opposite result.
The experts agree that the first crucial step in this process is the college tour, which is supposed to help your child make an informed decision—a noble but futile goal for a teenager, unless, maybe, you frame the whole thing as one giant shopping trip. I’m told that these days, visiting about twelve to fifteen places is the norm, though such diligence in no way guarantees a smooth, cost-effective selection process. A friend scheduled an extra trip to show her son just one more school, and at the entrance he graced her with a disgusted look, shook his head, and said, “We don’t even need to get out of the car. I’m not going here.” His peer group back at home had already told him the school—an excellent one by objective standards—was no good. And the clothes the kids were wearing were just … wrong.
Common sense suggests that any number of colleges would be a good fit for any kid (hyper parents would do well to peruse George Vaillant’s famous study demonstrating that happiness and a Harvard education do not necessarily correlate). But common sense isn’t a prevailing feature of our time; it’s been replaced by the hysteria of falling behind or, more to the point, the fear that our children will not do as well economically as we have and the conviction that the only thing that can save them is admission to one of ten exalted schools that can cost way more than $50,000 a year. Visiting a college, then, is touted as an opportunity to avoid making a devastating error—and also offers the chance to conduct the kind of research worthy of a UN arms inspector. Harvard Schmarvard borrows from a book called The Truth About Getting In to suggest a fourteen-point checklist for campus visits, including “audit a class,” “interview faculty members and students,” “eat at the cafeteria,” and “track down and keep in touch with the admissions officer liable to read your application.” Knowing her audience, the author’s very last suggestion is “ask your parents what they think.”
Sam had already narrowed his choices to schools on the East Coast, the West Coast, and maybe, Chicago. (“I love cold weather,” he insists, having never spent a winter outside Houston.) So, soon enough, I found myself planning the journey that would take him away from us forever, or at least until graduation. I mapped out our five-day East