This morning, I read Claire Vaye Watkins’ essay The Ivy League Was Another Planet about the college application process for an American rural high schooler. Her story was nearly identical to my experience.
My high school had one overworked guidance counselor that also doubled as a college counselor. She was a very nice woman that seemed concerned about our futures, but there were only so many hours in the day for her. I vaguely remember my one or two sessions with her consisting of showing me the SAT testing calendar and pointing me towards the federal aid forms. Through some of confusion of mine, I didn’t think I needed to fill out these aid forms. These turned out to have been a prerequisite for many merit-based scholarships as well, which would have been useful information.
Somehow I escaped these sessions with only applying to one school, the main state school in North Carolina. I chose this school because a couple of my good friends were going there and I knew it was a “good school.” No one let me know that applying to just one university was a bad idea. I did really well in high school and not going to college if I had missed on this one application would have been a disaster.
Even the only application I filled out was a disaster-in-waiting. Like most college applications, it required an essay. I don’t remember getting anyone to proofread mine. I can barely write my name without a grammar mistake so I’m surprised they even let me on campus. Who knows, maybe they saw me as a great fixer-upper.
Watkins’ memories of taking the SAT were reminiscent of my own. The test was paid for out of pocket, and it didn’t seem to be guided by any internal force in school. It was just one of those things that we knew we needed to look into and apply to take. Afterwards, I learned from people that went to other high schools that the SAT was something that was taken multiple times and that taking preparation classes was commonplace. I took the sample test in the SAT packet and felt like I was being extra studious by even doing that. I had college friends that had studied hard for the math portion, rested during the verbal sections, and then did the inverse on another taking since you’re allowed to combine your best scores from your sittings. We could have probably figured out this strategy for ourselves, but the thing is we shouldn’t have had to. Even so, taking a $50 test multiple times would definitely have been out of reach for most of my classmates.
Our entire class also took the ASVAB. This test was administered in the school cafeteria and we got out of an afternoon’s worth of classes to take it. I did well on this test and within a week I had military recruiters calling me. The Navy must have called dibs on me as every afternoon after school, a Navy recruiter would call and we would chat. He was an excellent salesmen. He nearly convinced me that living in a submarine for months at a stretch was a completely normal life choice. The military’s rigid environment appealed to me at the time and I was probably a 60/40 split between going to college or joining the Navy. I realized this morning that if I had enlisted, I would have probably been at basic training during the September 11th attacks.
My high school ended up sending roughly half of my graduating class to college, half of those to the local community college and the other half going to a four-year school. Half of the four-year students went to Appalachian State University, which is a great school up in the mountains about an hour’s drive from the high school. I imagine the high application rate to this school was the same phenomenon that Watkins mentioned in that it was the closest four-year college to our high school and there were a lot of alumni around.
I know people who went to elite private schools that applying to college was a multi-year process with the school helping you research colleges that matched your academic needs, keeping track of application dates, paying for tests, and generally herding you through the often-confusing and always-expensive process of something that is still one of the best ways to improve one lot’s in life. Colleges in the US, I believe, are welcoming and available to everyone with the wide range of diversity and financial aid scholarships they offer but, like too many things, some are already starting a few steps closer to the finish line.