My son was just accepted to his first college. He has more schools to hear from, but, needless to say, this was cause for celebration. His education will not end at High School. With some good fortune, he will get admitted to a few other schools and get to make a decision where to attend. How will he make this decision? Well, that would require that one understand the inner workings of the male teenage mind, which is, of course, a great mystery.
For guidance, I thought back to my own college decision process. I was fortunate enough to be accepted at 4 pretty decent schools: the University of Pennsylvania, Duke, the University of Virginia, and the College of William and Mary. How did I decide? Well, William and Mary was out because it was too small. How did I know it was too small? No clue? Buh Bye Bill and Mare. UVa was quickly eliminated because the kids in my high school class (I lived in Virginia) who really wanted to go to UVa wore green pants with ducks on them. At the time, I had hair down to my shoulders and rocked out to Lynyrd Skynyrd and Led Zeppelin. Green pants were not my thing. OK, so size and green pants eliminated two schools – that’s deep analysis folks. What about Duke?
I visited Duke with my dad in late April on a picture perfect sunny day – like 75 and not a cloud in the sky. Like, real deal “Carolina Blue” (yeah, I know that’s UNC – simmer down you Dukie dorks). For weeks leading up to the visit, people had been telling me how beautiful the Duke Gardens were. I couldn’t wait to see them. Only, I never saw them. Well, technically, I guess I saw them, but my eyes were swollen shut with allergies so I never really “saw” them. Furthermore, I was just one giant ball of sneezing snot that whole day. Oh yeah, and the students we met were largely a**holes (not totally inconsistent with the legions of Duke basketball fans I’ve met in the intervening years). Adios Duke.
Then, I visited Penn in the heart of downtown Philadelphia. I took the train up and my sister, who was then a sophomore at Swarthmore College outside Philly, met me at the train station and hung out with me. It was a picture perfect Philadelphia spring day, which is to say it was about 45 and raining like piss. But, we had a blast. I really don’t remember how or why. We asked a student where to get lunch and she sent us to Smokey Joe’s (which I later learned as a student is only referred to as “Smokes”), describing it has having a “pub-like atmosphere.” To this day, Amy and I joke about the pub-like atmosphere. When we toured dorms, the students invited us in and offered me stuff I probably wasn’t legally allowed to have in the spring of 1980.
I chose Penn. It made little sense. Duke is beautiful. Charlottesville is beautiful. Thomas Jefferson was the architect of the nation. Philadelphia is the armpit of the nation (sorry Philly friends!). Ben Franklin was a drunk. But, for reasons I cannot finger to this day, I chose Penn. None of my friends or teachers could believe it. But, it was the right choice and I’ve never questioned it once (OK, maybe once or twice when Duke wins yet another NCAA tournament and Penn bows out in the first round after getting the automatic Ivy League bid). It was just right.
This time around, I’ve had the opportunity to be a spectator to the process with my son. His process for eliminating or getting excited about schools seems equally random, and I mean that in the most sincerely positive way. But, what has really amused me is how the colleges and universities market themselves to students or, in many cases, bungle the marketing. I saw most of this on the tours my son and I took. For example, if I were the head of admissions at a university, I would divide every tour group in half, boys in one group and girls in the other. I would then have the cutest female tour guide volunteers take the boys around campus. Yeah, I know, all my women readers are currently spewing expletives at their computer (or iPad or whatever device you use to read my drivel) right now. But, I am telling you with confidence, that would get a group of 17 year old boys immediately jazzed about your school. And, I would keep the visits to classrooms for the boys’ group brief. Show them the gym, dining halls, food courts. Then call it a day. You think I’m kidding? After every college tour, my son commented on how many eating options there were and how well situated they were on campus. He had it figured out – at any point on campus, how far am I from food? But, what did you think of that cool new chemistry lab they built? Huh? What? Oh, I didn’t notice that? Since I haven’t toured colleges with my daughter yet, I don’t know what their group should visit and, believe me, my daughter is a great athlete so her tour will definitely need to include the gym too. But, for now, I’m opining solely on male admissions. I think colleges are missing this badly.
Let me close with one last piece of advice for colleges…..and a few stories from our visits. Colleges: know your audience. I understand that political correctness may prevent you from splitting off all the boys and giving them hot-looking female tour guides, but at least get the low-hanging fruit right. My son and I visited a few small liberal arts colleges. At the time, he was seriously considering playing Division III baseball and he was a very solid prospect. At each of these D3 schools we visited, his HS baseball coach had set up a meeting for us with the head baseball coach. Those meetings all went very well and got my son pumped up. On one of these visits, we went from the coach’s office straight to the tour. The nice young man leading the tour took us to the music hall. When we got there, he spent fully 15 minutes telling us about each of the 7 different a capella singing groups at this school, with the pitch of enthusiasm increasing with each description. Just as my son and I were about to go into a deep sleep, our guide blurted out, “A capella singing is to our school as football is to Ohio State!” Later in the tour, when our guide tried to describe the athletics at this school he said, “well, I don’t really know much about sports, but I do know we have a quidditch team.” NEXT!
The last story took place at another small liberal arts school. This tour guide seemed to be doing a little better here and my son was reasonably engaged. Until the guide started talking about the vegetarian co-op. Again, the guide got quite animated when he discussed how one gets admitted to the vegetarian co-op (who knew you had to apply). He said, “unlike most schools where you just apply in writing and either get accepted or not, here you have to either put on a play or write a poem or sing a song about why you should be in the co-op.” I’m pretty sure my boy and I both laughed audibly.
So, in the end, my son will make a good decision. Nobody will likely understand it, but him. However it turns out, we sure are proud of him.