THE COLLEGE APPLICATION PROCESS, PART II: THE WAITING GAME
BY ROSIE REEL
“Have fun in the Land of Admissions!” my daughter said, victoriously, as she “hit submit” one last time. “Farewell, Common App!” she said as she closed down her laptop.
Finally! I thought.
Honestly, I had grown pretty annoyed by this on-line form that claimed to be “Common”. Ever since it had weaseled its way into our home, it had managed to take center stage. I couldn’t wait for it to leave us alone. It had become this obnoxious house-guest who had overstayed its welcome. So naturally I imagined it would come as a huge relief when our daughter announced its departure. It had been up to her to do the dirty work: to kick out this nosy thing. It was her responsibility, not anyone else’s. She had answered the questions, completed the essay, and attached the recommendations. It had been so darned demanding!
I pictured the farewell as good housekeeping, like swatting away a house-fly or flushing a stink-bug down the toilet. I really couldn’t wait for her to get rid of this pesky form that was becoming way too “Common.”. We had started to feel the pressure of the college process and the application was the first thing I could blame.
And so, accordingly, when she said good-bye after releasing it to the real world, we really did feel relieved. What would come next? I expected this relief to linger a bit–maybe a week of calmness–or if being really optimistic, at least until our daughter heard back from admissions–that was how I imagined I’d feel anyway.
Maybe I ought to have read books or articles on it, like a mother does when she has a newborn and seeks advice from someone other than her family, someone who can offer an unbiased opinion. Because in reality, a feeling of calm after a storm was not the case. Sure the application send-off offered relief –for about a day. Little did I know how unsettling this next stage–The Waiting Game–would be.
After the final application had left our house, it had invited–unbeknownst to us– another intruder: this one was called Anticipation. And, like its predecessor, this one had managed to overstay its welcome. As it turned out, this “common app” was more like a “complex app”: It served as a base of knowledge on the applicant, utilizing the data for a broad range of admissions departments. And in so doing, it managed to leave behind a bundle of mixed emotions.
This waiting-to-hear-back stage was the start to a whole new world. It was a step closer to figuring out what would become of this process. The reality of it all meant that our little girl would soon be leaving for her own world. It would be a lucky place if she chose it after it had accepted her: and hopefully a healthy fit. In a few short weeks–which actually seemed like forever–she would learn and decide on where she was to spend her future for the following four years. Which college accepted or rejected her was pretty serious business.
Outside of our home, everyone was talking about college: where they applied, who got in, who got rejected, who had committed. Every day, my daughter would come home and break the news–completely excited–about who got accepted where and if they were actually going. She didn’t talk about the rejections, I don’t think anyone did. She was sincerely excited for her classmates about where they were going. Some of the news surprised us. I wondered if other students who were not heading to college cared so much. My daughter’s friends were all planning to go: but I knew this was not typical of every high school. I hoped she did, as well. She said she did. But I doubted she would ever know that other sort of pressure: of being on the outside, watching everyone around you worried about where they might get accepted or rejected: as if that’s the only thing in life, but knowing you were not part of this particular student body.
The pressure the applicants felt had to be intense: It offered a huge lesson on coming to terms with competition. My daughter was genuinely interested and excited for her friends on their plans. But quite naturally, she was anxious about it all, especially during this stage of waiting to hear back. While everyone she knew seemed to learn where they got in, and had grand ideas of where they would attend, or what they would be doing with their lives after graduation, whether it was working or helping with family, they all seemed to have a plan. But she was still waiting, waiting, waiting.
I tried to put things into perspective.
“There is no mystery, no suspense for the other students who know where they’re going” I consoled. This was after about two days of waiting: what felt like two years.
“It will take awhile, but you can’t just jump to the back of the book,” I told her.
This was the Waiting Game and it could not be rushed.
It felt very non-fiction. My daughter was now one step closer to being a college student.
She had sent off her application to a handful of colleges: a few were a reach, a few not so much. Gratefully, I had no doubt she would “get in” somewhere. But what I never would expect–amidst the hoopla of this college application process–was how much pressure she would experience.
This had to be the most tormentous stage in the college application process. Would it be an acceptance, a rejection, or a wait-list?
“Where’s your daughter going?” friends, family, acquaintances, strangers interrogated. “Waiting to hear back!” I’d answer with forced cheer.
I tried to remember this was not about me: this was about my daughter. I was representing her in these instances, as parents do, as PR agents do, as people who are about to lose their minds do.
“Have you heard back? Did she commit?” the questioning continued. They were so curious. They asked in person, by text, over the phone.
“Any day now!” I’d answer in-person, by text or on the phone: it helped to stay optimistic. But in reality, all of the waiting to hear back was getting old and making me feel old. Actually, The Waiting Game was making me feel ancient. Who were they, these evaluators, these judges: who was on the admissions committee at these colleges, anyway? I had no desire to meet any of them–they were like members of a cult that would be taking away my daughter.
This Waiting Game was taking way too long.
“Should I call them?” she asked me, though she knew the answer. Of course not, even though her best friend had heard back from just about everywhere she applied.
“It’s just a rat race!” I told her. Did I just say that to her? With each passing day, I was growing more and more cynical! I wanted to sound upbeat like a decent, cool parent. But it was not that easy. The process so far– figuring out where to apply, actually applying and now anticipating a response– had been nothing like my experience when I applied to college, which was unremarkable, to say the least. I reminisced: how nice– practically relaxing– in those days of applying to college– to flip through the glossy college brochures. They had arrived in the mail after I requested them by checking off places that sounded nice, from a cute postage-paid index card advertisement I had found at the guidance counselor’s office or from somewhere totally random like 17 Magazine. I admired the pictured students’ smiling faces– and clothes. I would apply. Then after hand-writing the form using the best pen I owned, I sealed the huge manilla envelope, and placed it carefully next to the bills in the mailbox. I thought for sure I’d be rejected due to my white-out correction but I had made a mistake, crossed it out, and didn’t have time to request a new application. Otherwise I’d miss the deadline. Everyday I opened that mailbox after school and brought in the mail. Finally, I heard back. It felt like forever. It really was a long wait.
Today, just about everything comes back quickly, no dwindling around. So this Waiting Game felt intense. At least applicants did have an idea of when they’d hear back. On the day their response was expected, they constantly checked their in-box. According to my daughter, sometimes students would learn during a class: a sudden “Yes! Awesome!” had hopefully complemented the lesson. (The wars and tragedies in Lit. did not lend themselves too well to these outbursts: unless these were rejection letters: “Oh no! Damn–I mean Dang!”) Some students had learned how to contain their reactions. Had they been hardened by it all: this brutal process of elimination? For everyone, I imagined this waiting period felt all-consuming, regardless of how they reacted. I wondered if my daughter studied at all during that time. How could she possibly focus on anything else?
At home, in the real mailbox, we kept receiving paper mail from new colleges, still requesting my daughter to apply. These mailings from other schools only made the waiting period feel worse, as if they were offering some hope to a sad situation, like a constellation prize.
All along, I tried to keep things in perspective. I realized worrying about a college application was an issue some would do anything to have. Some dreamed of college but could never go: they couldn’t afford it, they had to care for family members, they lacked the support or confidence to even try. Or what if they, themselves, had personal issues that prevented them from applying. What if their grades prevented them from getting accepted? Many were not interested in taking that route: those brilliant students who looked forward to learning a trade or wished to pursue a career that did not require a college education.
Staying aware of people of different circumstances and backgrounds throughout the process, seemed to lighten up things. It let us realize how individualized the college application process really was. So, staying down-to-earth, I tried to rationalize. Not everyone went to college!
While my daughter understood this angle, she still felt the pressure. It was everywhere! Two of her older cousins were college students now–and Ivy League! So, not only was she feeling competition at school, but from within her family, as well. As a parent, I could avoid this sort of pressure if I wanted. I was able to feign the unheeded advice about this college application process. This was about my daughter, not them. I suppose I was actually trying to protect her. But really, I knew: how could she not have heard and felt this added pressure during this waiting period? It was unimaginable.
Competitiveness was part of this whole college application process. I suddenly noticed other students wearing college sweatshirts. I had no idea whether they had been accepted to these schools they advertised. My daughter did. All the students did. Everyone knew from the news of acceptance being broadcast in social media, whether or not that was a positive thing: it just felt like pressure and competition to me, as a mother. I suppose my daughter had grown accustomed to this sort of sharing of knowledge. As long as she could handle it, I could too: or try anyway.
My daughter would be hearing back from the colleges any day now with a formal letter on her laptop. I wasn’t sure how she would tell me the news. But then it would certainly be posted all over social media. I would purchase the sweatshirt online and wear it everywhere. I would no longer need to answer the questions about where she was going. I could forgive the way the application had caused havoc in our lives.
I pictured the scene after learning our daughter got accepted to college: I pop the champagne and pour it into tall flute glasses. It bubbles and overflows until we sip the sweet foam from the glass rim. “Congratulations!” We toast to her. We laugh, we hug. We are so, so proud. And just thinking about it, I feel a little younger.