College Calling

It starts directly after the results of your PSATS are returned to you, and, at first, you are terribly flattered. After all that fussing and worrying, a nice, shiny catalog inviting you with open arms into its depths is exactly what you need to feel special in this post-test time of insecurity. When a second letter arrives, your head begins to swell. You may even begin to call your friends and ask them how many college catalogues THEY have received. Then you find yourself insisting how much cooler that pamphlet from Bridgewater is than your buddy’s Harvard notice. But eventually, the ruckus dies down and you turn your attention to the mall and away from the mailbox.

But that doesn’t stop them. They come in droves, beckoning you to far-off places, promising that you’ll never have to see your parents again. They tell you that they have been studying your star charts and have decided that you have been destined for Montana since birth. And they set out to convince you in such a creative fashion, with such insidious strategies, that you can’t help but read them all.

The first gimmick college letters use is a slogan, which they usually slap on the front of the envelope to get your attention. My favorite was Beaver College’s “Transcend Mediocrity” and also ” … there is no one quite like You, there is no place like Manhattanville,” which just made me feel all good and tingly inside. Other accosting previews were a bit frightening. Cedar College hit me with: WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO TO CHANGE THE WORLD? on its front cover.

How am I supposed to know? I’m sixteen years old for goodness sake!

These pamphlets try to hook the reader in the very first paragraph by showcasing their assets. For Cornell this was, of course, “Cornell College offers you a distinctive way to learn” with a review of its one-course-at-a-time program. The University of Miami tried a more direct approach, which is sure to make any beach-loving kid drool.

“Let’s be honest,” they taunted. “You may be considering attending a college in a wintry climate. And you might be distracted by the tropical beauty of Florida. If so, the University of Miami is not for you.”

Like heck it isn’t.

The absolute best of the mail bunch were the truly ingenious eye-catchers sent to captivate one’s interest. Bennington College’s idea was to send out little squares of paper on which the student draws a picture of him or herself and a short, wacky description of their personality – sort of like a very personal baseball card. Then they sent some of the replies out to other possible students, asking them to do the same. One student’s view on life?

“It must seem odd among precision type and careful justification to see a single sign, a letter, carried by the impetus of its own inspiration, to fall over the margin and stand sole in the watcher’s eye, and it would seem to me that the symbol would be remembered in moments to come that we stood alone, whether by mistake or acceleration, over the edge. The odd becomes immortal. Here on the edge stand I.”

I suddenly feel very shallow.

The University of the Arts also chose to acquaint me with some of its students. One picture showed a girl staring passionately into the camera, as if her life’s goal was sitting behind the lens. “I don’t just make jewelry,” she says. “I help the body speak.”

Hartwick College in New York sent me a small comic book featuring the SATs embodied as an evil pig which chases a screaming student off the page. They end their college-search story with a Scarlett O’ Hara-ish creature staring out at a lovely building saying: “My dream come true. Tara?” The building answers back: “No, Hartwick.”

By the time the college mail waterfall slows to a trickle, the clueless student is generally no better off than he or she was before. With all this “interest in your development,” one begins to feel like something growing at the bottom of a petrie dish. But, perhaps, reading about various schools isn’t exactly a waste of time. The student can decide whether he or she is more impressed by a big or small place, a rural or city setting. Any step, no matter how small, toward that golden valley called “Decision” is an important one.

So, pleasant reading, my fellow college hunters! And may your brochures be entertaining! f

Reviewed in 1995