November 15, 2010
For many years, January 15 was an important deadline for me. College and graduate school applications were always due by then. Most of the time, I used to send in these applications at least a month before the deadline. I wanted to be sure Christmas mail would not come between me and my destiny!
So thus, my siblings and I tried our luck, without the college counselors and SAT tutors other American kids may have benefitted from. As the eldest, I filled out applications with little help, outsourcing uncles and aunts to proofread my essays. I had applied to ten universities and got accepted at three of them. I was venturing into a new cultural paradigm. Having been French educated, which emphasizes writing and analysis, I now had to take a multiple choice exam, with only one single answer that could be correct! In the long essays I wrote fore each university, I attempted to highlight my talents and discuss my extracurricular activities. This entire process was certainly challenging.
From my own experience I derived what I could to tutor my younger siblings when they had reached that major step in their lives. I bought SAT books years ahead of time for them, and sat them down every summer to prepare them in the multiple choice method. I would quizz my brothers on English vocabulary, and we would always joke that those words could only be found on an SAT exam, they seemed so obscure. I tutored my sister on the maths section, even though they were beyond her level, until she got the logic of the exam, and understood how to eliminate options till she reached the correct one. Today, I am tempted to go into the college counseling business in Dubai, to create a tutoring system that would assist international students in their college choice, help them fill out their applications in a way that would make them shine, and tutor them for the SATs.
After all the hard work, there are months of silence, when no correspondence is sent between applicant and the Office of Admissions. Each of us go back to our final year of high school, preparing for the Baccalaureat, and anxiously awaiting the Spring to hear the offers and rejections. No experience rivals the thrill of receiving a letter or better yet an acceptance in a large envelope from an Office of Admissions. I remember being in boarding school in Geneva, circa April 1988, and excitedly discovering the large envelopes from Emerson College (for media) Tufts University and Smith College. I chose the most mysterious of the three colleges, yet most reputable of them all. It was a difficult decision to choose to attend a women's college in rural Massachusetts. Yet a as soon as I accepted the offer from Smith I felt a huge burden lift off of my mind, and I knew that no matter what the outcome of those baccalaureat exams, my academic future had a certainty. Feeling less pressured enabled me to excel eventually at the Bac, and I received honors enough to propel me a year ahead in college.
However, the most memorable college acceptance letter was the one my sister received from Stanford University. She had chosen the school as an Early Decision, showing them her commitment if she were to be accepted. It was hard for her to turn her back on her acceptance to Swarthmore College however! When the postman arrived that day in Boston, where she was visiting me while studying for her own Bac examination during her Spring break, we jumped for joy at the sight of the large envelope with the Stanford Redwood tree on it. We cried and celebrated her next three years (she also received honors for her Bac and finished college on the fast track)!
I am certain that American higher education remains the best in the world. I also observe that competition is increasing as more talented students from across the world desire the same limited places offered by these top universities. I have not changed the formula for my children, understanding that the cultural paradigm will also eventually be a challenge for them. They will have the same difficulties understanding the new grading system, sitting for multiple choice exams in the English language, typing papers in college that are structurally so different from those they will write for the Bac. I am confident, that somewhere, somehow, their involvement in arts and sports will lead them to their academic destiny, somewhere on that map of the United States.