Despite the confidence of these courting colleges, I was still a directionless junior. So I started clocking in hour after hour with my small library of guidebooks, fretting over student-to-faculty ratios and weighing the advantages of large versus small schools. For days I would be besotted with a school. Then I would find out that it rains perpetually in the region where the school is located, or that it is a “beer and football” school, or that it got a pitiful two-and-a-half-star quality-of-life rating from Fiske. I did find my dream school, Antioch College, only to go online and discover that it was “in a period of transition” — that is, it had closed.
Choosing the right college felt like trying to answer one of those dreaded multiple-choice questions that has two right answers. You march up to your teacher’s desk to expose the flaw, and she tells you to pick the best answer. Sometimes I would simper like a child, intimidated by the gravity of the adult decisions I was being forced to make, and that would mold my future.
I began my college sojourn in earnest with a tour of Colgate. We were all handed Chipwiches, those spectacular amalgams of cookies and ice cream. That gave Colgate the early lead until I took a tour at nearby Hamilton College. Not to be outdone, Hamilton was doling out coupons for the locally famous half-moon cookies and some pretty excellent stir-fry vegetables, courtesy of the cafeteria. Admitted applicants could look forward to a pair of Hamilton flip-flops if they visited campus before deposits were due. Colgate followed up by sending me an idyllic poster of the campus lake along with a handwritten note from the admissions director.
Now I was extremely conflicted; anyone who thinks teenagers cannot be bribed with food and flip-flops does not know teenagers. And the more time passed, the more muddled my mind became.
Even harder to ignore was a Princeton Review e-mail cajoling me to patronize their Web site by offering a personalized list of colleges “looking for students like you!” And there were simply so many colleges like Franklin & Marshall that e-mailed periodically to remind me that they “look forward to hearing from you!” Others, like Ursinus College, extended a special Priority Select application deadline, after their regular decision deadline. A painless application with no teacher recommendation, no essay and no fee, it was a hard offer to resist. But I did.
The sheen of a college brochure is yet another distraction from the substance of a school. My glossy Vassar brochure boasted a student circus troupe called the Barefoot Monkeys. And though the ground might freeze over from November to April, the brochures of Northern colleges invariably depict eternal spring. The University of Vermont has an elaborate tunnel system that allows students to move from building to building without fear of frostbite. But you’d never guess it from the mail you get, filled with kids in shorts playing Frisbee in the sun.
Soon I had whittled down my options and applied to college. The letters I began to receive from colleges now were less fluffy and more portentous. Bleary-eyed and near-blind with anticipation, I would rip them open and scan frenetically for key words. Words like “regretfully,” “welcome” and “congratulations” shouted at me like McDonald’s signs on the side of the highway. Vassar and William & Mary “unfortunately” told me thanks but no thanks, while Colgate and the State University of New York at Geneseo declared it a “thrill and a privilege” to offer me admittance.
Now it was time to decide exactly where I would like to play Frisbee in the sun. I attended accepted students days at Geneseo and Colgate. Both involved guided tours, reception speeches, free prizes and current students who had “drunk the Kool-Aid,” as my dad liked to joke, milling around wearing “Ask Me Anything” T-shirts and spouting canned lines about student life. (“There are going to be big drinkers everywhere, but there is no pressure to drink here.”) My parents enjoyed the cocktail party Geneseo hosted at a historic inn, and Colgate wowed its teenage audience with an ice cream social — eating ice cream is, it seems, a tradition at Colgate — and the tantalizing promise of many more to come.
I really like my Colgate water bottle and my many nearly identical totes emblazoned with college logos. But rather than enlighten me, the presidents’ addresses and the facts that ran together like slush and the pamphlets and the complimentary ice cream all threatened to immobilize me. I was more confused than ever, but of one thing I was certain: the dogged marketing of the admissions process had left a bad taste in my mouth that no half-moon cookies or ice cream social could wash away.
After all my researching and hand-wringing, I turned down Geneseo and Colgate. And my rejections were not “unfortunate” or “regretful” but, rather, freeing.
When I found out about a gap-year program, Global Citizen Year, I did not need any prodding to apply or any encouragement to commit. I knew instinctively I would do anything to go.
I am spending my year in Senegal. College will have to wait.
Tess Langan graduated from Verona High School, in Verona, N.J., last June.