The End of Childhood, Part One: The Common Application as Introduction to Petty Bureaucracy

I’m no longer working with high school seniors on college applications, but there are a few godchildren and cousins close to my heart who face the passage this year, so I’m getting to peek over their shoulders as the applications are released. Seems the Common Application has reverted to the limited space format for the “Activities” section that it ran with for a while in the mid-2000s, if I’m remembering correctly, offering this-or-that choices for applicants and a measly 100 characters in which to compose. Gone is the 250-word “Tell us about your most significant activity,” in which young people could finally go on about their dancing, piano playing, lacrosse. You can practically hear the screeching tires as hard-charging students everywhere, having developed passions and talents for a decade or more, find there’s no opportunity to so much as describe the instrument they play. Their energies will overflow onto resumes, a document once reserved for school graduates who were actually looking for jobs—now yet another piece of the application to fret over, re-format, and finally attach before submission.

Maybe the Facebook generation, comfortable with yes / no / it’s complicated as the sum expression of the possibilities of human romantic connection, won’t be troubled by this. But in my experience, data forms such as this, in a medium as important as a college application, are insultingly reductive. It’s like the people in charge are looking at you through the wrong end of the telescope. Presumably this is done in the name of efficiency, but it causes students to run smack up against the stony indifference of bureaucracy—a surprising element of early adulthood for which there is little preparation.

The students who are sweating their applications to top colleges will have been raised to pursue their unique interests, to build on a range of skills and to explore as widely as their schedules and communities allowed. This seems an appropriate preparation for college: higher scholarship is nothing if not the increasingly focused pursuit of the individual and the idiosyncratic, and one hopes to have some context for exploration. Now the strivers are being processed like cheese. It’s not personal; in fact, it’s impersonal, and that’s precisely the problem. I’m reminded of those endless clipboarded forms in a medical office, which invite you to answer Y/N if you have ever had chapped lips / cancer / a baby. The trivial and the traumatic are given equal (and appallingly slight) weight. To even engage in such an exchange feels like a betrayal of self. This is simply not what it feels like to be a person. You don’t just circle one; there’s a story there, and a lot of feeling, and it has shaped who you are. This can’t be captured in binary form, and anyone who asks about it in such an amoral way doesn’t deserve to know.

(My mother, when completing these forms for her children’s pediatrician, in the space marked Sex, instead of “M” or “F” used to write, “No.”)

College applications are not cancer, but there is a malignant sort of oversimplification that leads to a sense of commodification—that my athletic activities are like everyone else’s athletic activities, or my volunteering is like everyone else’s volunteering, or my violin, my peer counseling, and so on—which has a way of making even the most curious and accomplished students feel like they are nothing special. And this seems of a piece to me with the way the entire college application process has come to resemble less an opportunity for colleges and students to find one another than a grueling and depersonalizing test—for the students who must apply, feeling one of faceless hordes; and also for the colleges, who are frantically trying to keep a dozen plates spinning, balancing tuition levels with financial aid with diversity with rankings with campus investment with athletics with global reach with graduation rates and so on and so on…

The Common Application is forever telling students, less is more. But the impulse to write it out—to attach a resume, to land an interview, to send in cookies—this isn’t an impulse to show off, in my experience; it’s a desire to be true to the richness of one’s interests and energy. To give the first 18 years of life a fair hearing.

It’s one thing to be told, You’re not good enough. But to be told, We don’t really want to hear about it, after all?

The analogy is not complete, but it’s a fun thought experiment to imagine what the Common Application for colleges might look like, if colleges had to apply for the attention of top students:

Name of College or University­­­­­__________________

List your top seven majors ___________________________________________________

List your top seven tenured faculty members (emeritus and adjunct not included) _________________________________________________________________________

Number of Rhodes Scholars produced in last four years ______

Number of Marshall Scholars produced in last four years________

Number of Fulbright Scholars produced in last four years_________

Percentage of last fours years’ graduating classes currently in full-time employment_______

Percentage of last four years’ graduating classes admitted to their top-choice graduate programs______________

Please discuss your most significant academic offering below (250 words)

Please discuss your most significant extracurricular activity below (250 words)

Tell us more about yourself (650 words)

Supplementary questions:

Why are you the best college for me? Please be specific, taking into account my interests, academic background, and talents (150 words)

Has the university granted a degree to any of my immediate family members? If so, give name and year ____________________

Feel free to attach a photo (we recommend a lovely building, lawn, or quadrangle. Please avoid sending pictures of iconic architecture we may have already seen; we want to know what sets you apart, what makes you tick)

We look forward to reading

Of course it’s ridiculous to imagine any of the terrific colleges and universities at the top of the US field reducing themselves to questions such as these. Though they do have to contend with the annual college rankings. I used to think these were a cruel driver of applications madness, causing universities to shift away from the more complex rewards of education and toward immediately measurable returns on campus and reputation investment. But they might also serve as a reminder to colleges of the cruelty of reductive evaluation, how it feels to be rendered in hours per week, points per section, and yes / no.