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The 'Crazy' World Of College Admissions


For millions of high school seniors, the college application process is almost over. Letters of acceptance and rejection are starting to trickle into mailboxes around the country. Now, it's time for high school juniors to begin the grueling race to get into college. But as Andrew Ferguson learned the hard way, they should have started earlier - years earlier.

Ferguson recently helped his son with the application process, an experience he writes about in his new book, "Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College." Andrew Ferguson, who is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard, joins us in our studio. Good to have you with us.

Mr. ANDREW FERGUSON (Author, "Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College," Senior Editor, Weekly Standard): Well, thank you for having me.

NEARY: You're not writing about getting into just any college; you're talking about kids and parents who want their kids to get into, I guess you would call it the right college, a selective college. What colleges are we talking about?

Mr. FERGUSON: There actually are gradations that people in the industry use, which is highly selective, selective, less selective and then below that. And I think that most of the people sort of in the middle-class of America really have their sights set on that selective school or even the highly selective school or even, be still my heart, Harvard or Yale.

So, this is a book not just about how to get your kid into school but about the experience of trying to get your kid into school and surviving it. And, you know, these very particular kinds of schools.

NEARY: Now, when you got started with your son, right away you came up against this feeling that you had started too late. He was a junior and you felt almost immediately this was way too late.

Mr. FERGUSON: Right, right.

NEARY: Is that true really, or...

Mr. FERGUSON: Yeah, I think it is true in a sense. How it happened was, I went to see a smart and efficient woman who charges $40,000 to parents to get their kids into school, and it's sort of a soup-to-nuts program that she gives. She gets the kids in there in junior high or freshman in high school and teaches them how to write college application essays and how to train for the SAT. And I went up to see her talk to kind of a seminar. And I had people telling me that they had started compiling their brag sheets, as they're called, kind of horrifyingly, for their children all the way back into fourth and fifth grade.

So, they'd been collecting things like videos of their athletic performances, tapes of music recitals that they done, papers they had written, mentions they might have had in the local paper. And so you just have to remember when your kid is applying to school, he's competing against parents who have been at this a lot longer than you have.

NEARY: Well, it makes you think that maybe an average kid can get into these schools.

Mr. FERGUSON: Well, an average kid can get into it because it's totally irrational. Let's say the college admissions officer thinks the tuba player in the band really stinks and they need a new tuba player in the marching band, and he goes looking through all the applications to find a great tuba player. So, it may be somebody without a great SAT score, without a great GPA but who's really damn good at the tuba.

NEARY: Well, one of the things you talk about too is that kids have to be sort of self-promoters in order to do this.

Mr. FERGUSON: Yeah. It's awful. When you start to fill out an application, a college application, which is really just a questionnaire, which is very simple to fill out, but the hard part is the college essay. The college essays are generally questions that call upon emotions that don't necessarily come easily to a kid like mine.

I was talking to one of the college counselor once and we were having a terrible time writing these essays, 'cause they were questions like, you know, tell us your most embarrassing moment or, you know, if you could be a puppy what kind of puppy would you be and stuff like that. And my son's just pulling his hair out. And I said I don't know how to help him.

And she said, well, just tell him that he has to dig down deep and, you know, tell us his innermost thoughts. And I said, lady, he's a 17-year-old boy; he doesn't have innermost thoughts, and if he did you wouldn't want to know what they were and neither would I. But this is the kind of bind that you get yourself into.

NEARY: Yeah. You almost give the feeling that you would be a bad parent if you didn't buy into...

Mr. FERGUSON: Well, I certainly would say that, but there are a lot of people around, and it was said to me. This college counselor I met, she said it sort of jokingly but she said bad dad, when I told her that we hadn't taken an SAT prep class or done a college tour yet. And he was a junior at the time. And I did feel like a bad dad, but on the other hand, I didn't sort of decide that I was going to give up parenthood or all the kinds of things that we had in our family that still bound us together.

You know, people say what's your one bit of advice, and I say you'll hate to hear it, but my piece of advice is relax. Your kid's going to get in somewhere; it'll probably be in the top three of the schools that they wanted to get into; the kid will be happy and you'll survive yourself.

NEARY: And your son did in fact get into a school that he was happy about.

Mr. FERGUSON: Yes, absolutely. Our first meeting with his college counselor at high school involved him telling the counselor what kind of school he wanted, and my son being my son said, look, I want to go to a school where I can go to a football game, take off my shirt, paint my chest in the school colors and major in beer. And you should have seen the look on that college - this was the guy who was going to write him his recommendation. I was just delighted that my son was like that.

But as it turns out, that's where he went. He hasn't painted his chest yet, but pretty close I think. And he's definitely majoring in beer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard. His new book is "Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College." Thanks. It was fun talking to you.

Mr. FERGUSON: Well, thanks for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.