The College Derby
Andrew Ferguson's delightful plea for sanity about college admissions.
I have this problem. I can't read self-help books. Like everybody else, I've experienced my share of life challenges—"life challenges" being the self-help euphemism for "problems"—and I would never pretend not to need any help in facing them, solving them, or at least getting through them. I accept the principles of, and am myself no stranger to, modern psychotherapy. But whenever I try to cope with one of life's predictable stress points by reading a self-help book, I can't manage it. My eyes glaze over. I think "This person is an idiot," or "This person thinks I'm an idiot," or "Maybe I am an idiot, because I can't follow this." Within minutes I toss the book aside and start digging around for a decent novel.
What I've come to believe is that psychological advice isn't worth much if it isn't rooted in personal experience. So instead of reading self-help books I read memoirs about the kinds of experience I'm trying to cope with. It doesn't especially matter whether the author went about confronting his problem in a sensible way, nor even, necessarily, whether the author came out of the experience with a clear understanding of what he did right and what he did wrong. For instance, just about the last person I'd look to for personal advice about anything is Joan Didion. But when my wife died six years ago, I devoured Didion's best-selling memoir about widowhood, The Year of Magical Thinking, and then for good measure I read the script she wrote when she adapted it into a one-person show starring Vanessa Redgrave. (If asked to blurb either, I'd write, "Loopy but compelling.") I read Donald Hall's lovely book of poems about his wife's death, Without, and Hall's more tedious nonfiction reworking of the same material, The Best Day, The Worst Day. I read a mediocre book called Widow written three decades earlier by a publicist for Little, Brown named Lynn Caine, and a brilliant book—the gold standard on widowhood—called A Grief Observed, written four decades earlier by C.S. Lewis, an author I'd previously avoided like the plague. Some of these books were more helpful than others, but all provided some form of "self-help." Meanwhile, a stack of self-help books pressed on me by well-meaning friends gathered dust.
Nobody has ever attempted a humorous memoir about widowhood, probably for very good reasons. But when facing life problems that fall well short of grieving for a lost family member, or surviving imprisonment or physical torture or sexual abuse, or losing your life savings, or enduring grinding poverty, or surviving some great cataclysm of nature or some fierce terrorist attack, or discovering some ghastly family secret—in other words, when muddling through more garden-variety miseries of the sort that seldom provide fodder for best-selling nonfiction narratives—I recommend the genre of the humorous memoir. We could all stand to lighten up about everyday traumas, and a book that invites us to chuckle more and "work through" less, while imparting nuggets of useful information here and there in a self-effacing narrative context, is the best kind of self-help guide I know. So thank you, Andrew Ferguson, for publishing Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College as my oldest child enters the final phase of the college-applications triathlon.
Perhaps you think that applying to colleges is an ordeal only for the applicant. That's how I remember it back in 1975, when I applied to colleges. I didn't visit a single college with my parents. My grandfather went on the Yale tour with me because he happened to live nearby. My sister drove me from Berkeley, where she was an undergrad, to Stanford, and enlisted her boyfriend's childhood friend Larry Diamond (then a grad student, now a well-known Stanford expert on democratization abroad) to show me around. A few other colleges I visited through the East Coast summer school I attended the summer before my senior year. All my college visits took place either the summer before or the autumn of my senior year, and they were probably more extensive than was the norm for that time.
That world has vanished. When Ferguson visits Katherine "Dr. Kat" Cohen, a pricey college-admissions consultant and author of The Truth About Getting In, she is fretting about getting her nine-month-old into the right day care center in Manhattan. "How many schools have you visited?" she asks Ferguson. This is only halfway through his son's junior year! "None," Ferguson replies. "Oooooh," Cohen replies. "Baaaaaaad daaaaaaad." When Ferguson and son finally begin making the rounds, the author discovers that the function of the college tour is to obscure every conceivable difference between this school and the last one you visited. (When my son and I made the circuit we heard the same anecdote—about a kid who failed to notice that the spell-check on his application essay changed "tutor children" to "torture children"—told by two different admissions officers at two different colleges.) "There are," Ferguson writes, quoting his composite tour guide:
More than 500-250-475 student clubs and organizations on campus. At least one of these is eccentric, ironic, or tongue-in-cheek: the Disciples of Bob Barker, an Iggy Stooge Marching and Chowder Society, or the Montgomery Burns Fan Club. We have twelve, seventeen, or thirteen a cappella groups, more than at any other school. But if you can't find a group that's right for you, write up a proposal, bring it to Student Services, and you can get it funded within a week.
Which of course raises the question: If these colleges are all essentially the same (at least within the nonacademic realm, which is all the tours really talk about), then why spend an entire year fretting about not getting in to this one or that one?
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.