The American college application process reveals a bias against paid work

Harold Lloyd in the Freshman
We’ve come a long way since Harold Lloyd, in 1925, starred in “The Freshman”

The college application process is at the forefront of my brain because one of the little Bookworms is applying to college. It’s been a very laborious process, because Mr. Bookworm is more motivated than the Little Bookworm is.

Both Mr. Bookworm and Little Bookworm want to see Little Bookworm head to a good college. Their preparation styles for the process, though, are so wildly different that they clash into each other, effectively neutralizing each other. Mr. Bookworm pushes constant focus on the process, so Little Bookworm recoils. Little Bookworm demands help, so Mr. Bookworm backs off. Yet, even as they engage in a complex action and reaction pattern, each has the same goal. And so it goes, while the deadline draws ever nearer.

I’m kind of staying out of this, partly because I know that my interference will turn me into a scapegoat for both of them, should things go badly. More than that, though, I think that, if Little Bookworm can’t get through the application in a timely fashion, Little Bookworm probably isn’t ready for college. The way I see it, taking a year or two off to work, earn money, and grow up would be a better alternative than stumbling at great expense into the wilderness of America’s college system, unprepared and immature. The eventual college would benefit too, since a more mature, responsible, self-sufficient student must be an asset to any educational institution.

Except that it turns out I’m all wrong. A young relative of mine who has a business aiding kids with their college applications (and who has been helping us out, God bless her) told me that, while colleges are increasingly accepting of a “gap year” (or two) between high school and college, they do not view as an advantage a year spent working, learning responsibility, earning money, seeing how the real world functions, and maturing.  Instead, to the colleges, a productive year in the real world is considered a weird from of slackerism. If you want to take a year off and maintain your college prospects, you’d do well to pack a backpack and hitchhike randomly through Europe or to go to some small village in nowhere Latin America or (until Ebola) nowhere Africa, to foist your useless, entitled, immature self on self-respecting indigenous people, telling them how to live their lives.

Is it just me, or does this sound like our educational institutions have a bass ackwards sense of values?

Here’s the one other thing I find interesting about the application process. Let me begin by explaining that a huge number of American universities accept applications through something called “The Common Application” or “the Common App.” The Common App is an online form that students fill out with data about grades, class ranking, honors and AP classes, extracurricular activities, awards, volunteer work, sports accomplishments, and job history. This part of the Common App doesn’t ask for the applicant’s racial or religious information.

The Common App also has five essay prompts, from which the student picks one, all aimed at helping the university see what kind of person the student is outside of test scores and grades. This year’s prompts are as follows:

Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Although all students can respond to the first prompt, I view it as carefully phrased invitation to students who are not white, heterosexual, and male to identify their particular victim category. Or maybe I’m just paranoid and cynical when I read so much into the question But I’m pretty sure I’m not being paranoid or cynical at all when I see in the list of additional questions one university asks (and all universities are allowed to require applicants to write “supplemental” questions) a question asking the applicants to explain their names. The girl named “Jane” won’t have a lot of explaining to do. However, the girl named “Latik’shanw’a” probably will, as will the boy named “Juan Carlos” or the transgendered person who explains “I was Michael, but now I’m Michelle.” And yes, I’ve gotten very cynical, but I know that universities are doing anything they can to get around voter imposed restrictions on affirmative action.

At this point, I know all of you are thinking Hillsdale, Hillsdale, Hillsdale, but for a long list of reasons, that’s not going to happen.  I will say, though, that Little Bookworm’s top choice is one of the less crazy American institutions of higher education.