Saturday, February 26, 2011

Getting into College Without Going to School

This post appeared originally on Un-schooled. Kate Fridkis also blogs at Eat the Damn Cake.

I don’t remember thinking about college very much as a teenager.

OK, I thought about it, but sort of in the way you might think about a doctor’s appointment that you scheduled a while in advance. I knew I’d go. It was the thing to do. But I didn’t have to sit around wondering what it would be like.

Getting into college is a lot of work for a lot of people. And not because they aren’t smart enough. Often, it’s because theyare smart. It’s always because college is defined as the gateway to successful adulthood.


Much, much later, in grad school at Columbia University, I was amazed by the stories students still told about their acceptances. Their deliverances, really. They felt as though their lives had been saved. They could breathe again. My friend Yelena, who was one of the people describing this incredible sensation, now works at Cosmo, but before that she wrote a blog called Ivy Leagued and Unemployed. She updates it even now.

Down in Brooklyn, an average apartmentful of NYU friends all work part time as servers in local restaurants. Everyone is not-so-secretly an artist.

I think maybe I cheated the system. I’m not sure (check out my post on how bad I am at cheating the system).

My mom and I put together a high school transcript through Clonlara, a service for homeschoolers that is good at helping us get into colleges that still have totally separate evaluations reserved especially for us.* I gave myself grades. I had no idea what my grades should be, but I thought I was pretty good at most of the stuff that I did, so I was liberal with the A’s.

Mom took it very seriously. She kept saying things about honesty and ethics. Dad thought I should definitely have a 4.0. Maybe higher. He said, “You’re making it all up, anyway.” He was laughing a lot. Mom said, “We’re not making it up. We’re just doing it differently.”


I applied to two places. Princeton and Rutgers. I auditioned separately for the music program at Mason Gross at Rutgers. I was planning to go to cantorial school after college, since I had already been leading services at my synagogue for years. But you couldn’t go to cantorial school without a college degree. It felt like four years for nothing, but I assumed I had to do it. I wanted to stay close to my job and my family near Princeton, NJ, so I didn’t even think to apply anywhere else.

I got a message from some tech people at Princeton. The application hadn’t gone through. They apologized for their glitchy system. It would be up and running in a few days. I thought that was hilarious. I told Dad, “It’s Princeton! Aren’t they supposed to be good at stuff over there?” I had been auditing classes at the university for a year or two, and I didn’t like it at all. The kids got into inane debates about the wording of the text, and they were always mentioning how their fathers worked at a big firm in the city. The professors were nice enough. The one black girl in the class looked uncomfortable, and when she spoke, everyone nodded politely and then moved on. They wouldn’t argue with her, like they did with everyone else.

“I don’t think I’ll resend it,” I said, of the lost application.

No one cared very much. Or at least they didn’t object very loudly.

And I went to Rutgers, where I learned to care a lot about these things. By the time I applied to grad school, I was pretty sure that if I didn’t get into the Ivy League, I was going to have a miserable life. I’d forgotten all about being a full-time cantor.


It’s funny, the things that people care about.

Maybe I cheated. I got into college without feeling like my life depended on it. Without pouring over school rankings and frantically trying to nudge my GPA ever slightly, slightly higher. Without missing the chance to do the things I actually cared about. I got into college with grades I may not have come close to deserving. With a pretend GPA. With an educational history that couldn’t translate into a transcript in any kind of real or meaningful way.

And despite all of that, I was academically successful in college.

The New York Times recently had a piece about how ill-prepared so many NYC high schoolers are for college. It feels ironic to me, how this is such a big issue. How a surprisingly large number of incoming college freshman can’t keep up academically in their new environment. How a surprisingly small number of high school seniors have a shot at a high ranked school. How it is just so very difficult for school to lead gracefully to college, when that seems to be the thing that school tries hardest to do.

To be fair, my mom cared a lot about my college education. She drove me to Bryn Mawr and Drew and Barnard and Rutgers and Princeton for campus tours and information sessions. She poured over college rankings and fun facts and matriculation rates. She probably knew which U.S. college campus featured the most squirrels and where students wore the highest number of Ugg boots. When I was fifteen, she took me to a fine arts’ college fair, where a representative from Pratt flipped through my portfolio and said, “We’d take you, but you’re fifteen. What are you doing here?”

Maybe we just wanted to see.

So Mom cared. But my life didn’t care. My life wasn’t geared toward college acceptance (read about how I missed the SAT the first time around). It was about doing interesting things that made me feel productive, smart, and satisfied. And nothing could convince me, after seventeen years of that, that the most important thing in the world was college.

Nothing did convince me. Except, eventually, for college itself.


*There’s more to the Clonlara process than what I’m describing. I vaguely remember having to try to count the hours I worked on a new painting for, so that I could add them to my “fine arts class” credit, or something like that. I always lost track, and my relationship with the program was extremely informal. You can read more about Clonlara here.

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