College applications: round three | Two Decades of Kids and Counting | Sally Torbey | Palo Alto Online |

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By Sally Torbey

College applications: round three

Uploaded: Apr 11, 2014

Our family has survived our third child applying to college. He plans to study at a University of California campus in close proximity to a beach, and he is thrilled to have this opportunity. I am happy and excited for him, but I am also questioning whether the end justifies the means. In the eight years that our three older kids have been sequentially applying to college, the process has become more time consuming, expensive, and opaque, as well as less accessible to students with socioeconomic or other challenges. I have been fantasizing about a different high school experience for our youngest two children, high school without the stress of applying to college.

I imagine them not obsessing over grades or selecting courses to maximize their GPA, but learning to acquire knowledge and insight. The hundreds of hours spent test prepping, taking SATs, ACTs, SAT IIs and APs, and filling out applications with endless essays could be spent doing a tantalizing array of alternative activities. They could commune with nature, read for pleasure, volunteer for a cause near and dear to them, hone a skill, or pursue creative, athletic and artistic endeavors. Rather than filling out forms listing their extracurricular activities, searching for something compelling to say in 700 words about their lives, or pondering college essay questions such as "Are you a geek or a nerd?" or "Describe a street", they could read memoirs and seek inspiration to follow their passions from folks who have lived lives of purpose.

School vacations could be spent visiting sites of historical, recreational, environmental or cultural interest, instead of attending yet another college information session extolling the unparalleled opportunities at that particular institution, whose study abroad, research and summer internships sound just about like every other college.

The other night at dinner I shared this fantasy of application-free high school years with my family. No one was particularly interested in my ranting until I stumbled upon the financial implications of foregoing college applications. I proposed that were they to decide to attend community college (no SATs, teacher references, college visits or essays required), and then transfer after two years to a four year university, we would give our kids the money that would have been spent on tutoring, test fees, application fees, airplane tickets, hotels, rental cars and the higher tuition costs. Instead of enriching the tutoring industry, the College Board testing service, the college coffers, and the airlines, our kids would have a tidy sum to put towards graduate school, starting a business, or a condo down payment, all without any sacrifice of their educational experience and future career opportunities. This offer seemed to get the attention of our youngest, but probably because she was mentally calculating how long she could live in Hawaii on this windfall.

I am glad we have a few years before having to tackle this issue again, although the discussion of college applications actuallly starts when students choose their 7th grade math lane. I hope that the college application process might be streamlined and improved, although I am unaware of any such efforts. The current system is serving other interests over that of the students. Is test prepping and application writing the best use of students' time, or should these vital years be spent on more developmentally appropriate, academic and enriching activities?