I have a 17 year-old son, so this fall is college application season around our house. Granted, I applied to college back in the Paleozoic Era, but I’m still shocked by how much the process has changed. First, it’s so much harder to get into some of these schools! I did my undergraduate at Stanford, which would probably never admit me today, since my SATs were mediocre. Second, I applied to like three colleges, whereas students nowadays seem to go for around ten. The rise of the Common App makes doing so somewhat easier, but each college still seems to require its own extra essay or set of questions. And nowadays, kids are encouraged to visit the colleges they’re interested in, so there’s that.

How many colleges did you apply to? And, as a bonus question, do you happen to remember the topic of your college essay? I’m borrowing/stealing that second query from the Wall Street Journal’s “Tao Jones” columnist Jeff Yang, who’s working on a book about the subject (I can’t remember my own essay topic, btw, and am not even sure we had to write one back in the day).

ALFREDO: I, too, have a 17 year old, David, and am just coming down off full blown panic mode, during which I made the thoroughly middle class move of hiring a “consultant” to help us narrow down college choices, help us find money, help my son write an essay (learning to perservere by playing on a perenially losing football team; I have no clue what my own essay topic was), and, more than anything else, trying to buy myself some peace of mind that I have done EVERYTHING I could to be a good parent and give our son all the support he needs. Back in dinosaur times, I applied to two schools – got into one, didn’t get into the other – decision made. Now my son is looking at 10-12 schools, taking the SAT for a third time, attending college fairs, and a spring break road trip to visit colleges has been booked. And as I finally began to calm down and realize everything will be fine, he will get into college, we will help him pay for it, his life won’t be ruined, the consultant tells me, “Eh, don’t sweat it, it’s GRAD SCHOOL that you really gotta worry about.”


IRIS: I agree that the whole college process seems more difficult and with a lot more hoopla these days. I also applied to three colleges total and there was none of the flying around the country to scope places out like my friends seem to be doing with their kids. In fact, my parents were of the motto “just pick the cheapest one,” so I ended up going to a UC with a loan that was paid off before I even graduated through work study and a scholarship. I can’t recall exactly the essays I wrote, but I think one was about the book “Testament of Youth” which is a memoir of a young British woman (Vera Brittain) who lived during World War I and basically had a sucky time with both her fiance and brother dying in the war. But I suppose it was very apropo because her main objective was to go to college during a time when it was rare for women to go to college. Even her parents opposed it. She eventually realized her goal after the war, obtained her degree and became a journalist. I had watched a PBS adaptation of the book, so I was very enamored of her and the book at the time.

ROGER: I found the whole college admissions process insanely stressful. I applied to a bunch of schools – probably 15+. Luckily I got into a few that I wanted to go to.

As for my essays, I can’t remember what I wrote about. It took me weeks…months to write them. What I found most demoralizing is that a friend of mine stayed with me for a weekend so that we could motivate each other to finish our college essays. His goal was to finish all his college essays during his two day stay. Mine too. Come Sunday night, the guy literally finished all his essays. I had not even fully completed one. I felt like a dumb minnow compared to my insanely word-gifted friend. He got into Stanford. I didn’t. No surprise there. I had to settle for Harvard. Haha! Just kidding. I didn’t get into Harvard either. I fail as an Asian. Fail…

Screen shot 2013-11-04 at 12.04.58 AM

PHILIP: It does seem like getting into college is a more complicated process these days. When Alfredo first mentioned hiring a college admissions consultant–I didn’t even know such a thing existed. Even something like the SAT sounds like it was more difficult now than when I took it. back then, it was just two sections where you can score a total of 1600 points. Now, I hear there’s a third section that’ been added and a perfect score is now 2400. Definitely don’t envy what the kids have to do these days.

EMMIE: I applied to seven schools. I can’t remember the topics, but I do recall that my essays were atrocious. I wrote one of them minutes before dashing out the door to a football game on a Friday night (the night the app was due – I dropped it off at the post office at 5:56 pm). While scribbling my answer onto the application page (good students knew to draft, revise and type it on a separate piece of paper), my pen ran out of ink so the answer ended up part blue ink, part black ink. I wrote the last two sentences while my friend was hollering at me to hurry up and get into the car, since we had to perform a dance routine at the game.

The weird thing is (I say weird considering my effort regarding the essays), getting into a good college was important to me – though only because it was important to my dad. I did a billion things in high school partially because I thought the activities, posts and achievements would look good on the applications. I had a bad work ethic, though – I always left homework to the last second and did a shoddy job on most of it, and this carried over into the way I completed the applications and studied for the SAT/ACT. I felt that I’d seriously let my dad down when I only got into three of the seven colleges. Ah well. Sorry, pops.



  1. You guys make me feel like such a slacker. I only applied to one school, and since they had sent me an early admissions application, it was only a one pager, no essay questions. it was a good thing I got in, since my backup plan was community college & transferring. Naturally, my hardass Asian mother blamed my laziness on my American half rather than my Japanese half.