Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Lately I’ve been consumed by the college application process. (My son is a junior and our family just got back from a spring break college tour trip.) I am by no means an expert on the "getting into college" game, but I’m starting to figure it out, and I’m alternating between hope and despair about my son’s chances of acceptance into a top-notch school (which for our family includes some kind of financial aid package. The average price for a private college these days is considerable. Fifty-five thousand dollars a year at many schools. Cue horrified scream.

What’s interesting to me is how much this process is like the publishing business. Recently on NPR there was a report on the admissions process at Amherst. The way it works is admission counselors (in the writing business we call them first readers) cull through the thousands of applications (manuscripts in the slush pile). They come up with strongest candidates and present them to the admissions board (editorial department) and make their case. So much of it is arbitrary. One counselor presented an applicant who sounded phenomenal. The boy was the valedictorian of his class, had taken AP classes since he was a freshman, and had done tons of community service work. Yet he was rejected. Sometimes it comes down to a phrase in the personal essay (query letter). One student admitted he wasn’t passionate about anything. Well, forget him, they all agreed. Another kid mentioned something about chicken nuggets, which got a laugh from everyone and a place in the Yes pile. But later that Yes pile grew too big and the counselors ended up pulling some applications out randomly.

Yes. College admissions is sometimes like a lottery. These kids had already made it through the first round and the second and they still got cut. A counselor admitted the school had rejected students who ended up being Rhodes Scholars. He said it truly wasn’t a personal rejection, that Amherst had over 8000 applicants and could only take 1000. (For the record, Harvard has something like 35,000 applicants and will only accept 3000) In the end so much of the process is out of the student’s control.

Control is the key word here. Or rather the lack therof. You can have top SAT scores, a stellar academic record, and extra curricular activities up the wazoo, but there may be some other white boy from Missouri who juggles and plays the jazz sax and climbed Mount Everest last year too, so sorry, kiddo, you’re out of luck. It’s like this in the publishing business. There is a certain presumed standard of competence and talent and the rest comes down to praying your manuscript sounds like nothing else out there.

So why bother? I had this discussion with my best writing friend. She’s going through a crisis of faith and I’ve been emailing her inspirational messages and trying to talk her down from the ledge. I’ve been there before on that what’s the point ledge and it’s a discouraging place to be. Eventually, every writer has to come to terms with the reality that her dream may not come true. Seven thousand kids are not getting into Amherst this year. Oh well. They’re going to go to college somewhere. And I have a feeling they’re going to be just fine.

As for me (and I truly hope my dear writing friend too) I am going to keep writing. I have learned this lesson over the years: I feel better when I write. That’s really all there is to it. Yeah, it’d be nice to have some outside validation, an acceptance letter from my first choice publishing house in my mailbox. But like all those rejected Amherst applicants, in the end, oh well.

There’s always community college.

1 comment:

  1. Great blog. Writing is a long game. Everyone who does it feels miserable and depressed by it at some point. But as you so wisely say, writers write. And in the end, that's all you can do. If you get into Amherst great, but as I discovered (many years ago, at Harvard) that doesn't sort your life out either...it's just a small step on a loooonnnng walk.