This summer I visited Columbia University with my mom. We were listening to the prospective students ask questions at the general information session, having survived the bulk of the presentation, which we both thought was unnecessarily monotonous.
“I wished they had played a video,” Mom said, concisely summarizing the problem with the talk.
People asked the standard questions – about financial aid, housing, and student life – but the most memorable question came from a disgruntled-looking mother sitting with her dormant-looking son.
“What is the median salary of your graduates?”
To start, this question violates the first rule of Asking Questions During the Asking Questions Part: Never ask the admissions officer any numerical or other strictly objective question. Not only could you easily find the answer online and are therefore wasting everyone’s time, but the admissions officer will never give you a satisfying response. Based on my vast experience attending and analyzing college visits, I have surmised that the only numerical information admissions officers will readily give is about financial aid. Ask them about minimum SAT scores, average GPA, or rate of admission, and they will revert to Political Mode and give a non-answer, such as, “We use a very holistic evaluation process, so we don’t have minimum requirements,” or “To be honest, I’m not sure what our statistics were this year.”
You’re not fooling me, Equivocating Admissions Officer. You may be fooling Joe “Got a 350 on his SATs” Schmo or Jane “Got a B in one class and will never forgive herself” Doe or Mrs. “Crap! I need to get my underachieving kid into a college so convince me that it can be done” Smith. But I don’t buy the idea that an admissions officer doesn’t know basic stats about the school he or she works for.
Of course, they’re trying to get as many kids to apply as possible and don’t want to scare anyone off. If they made a statement at the beginning of the session like, “Before we begin, I’d like to make everyone aware that our middle 50 SAT Math Scores range from 770 to 800. Take a moment and let that fact resonate with you, while you can still spare yourself from this info session,” a bunch of people would probably leave. From an optimistic perspective, admissions people want to be positive and encourage everyone to reach for the stars and believe in themselves. Cynically, it is in their best interest to have the lowest possible acceptance rate to be competitive with other schools.
However, this question comically resonated with me (meaning: forced me to stifle laughter for the remainder of the presentation) because it was both out of the blue and embarrassing to the kid. If it was my mom, I would have been embarrassed the way you get embarrassed when you accidentally spot the book Your Spirited Child: A Workbook for Success on the family bookshelf and wonder what exactly they mean by “spirited.”
Essentially, what the mother was asking was, “If I pay a quarter of a million dollars to send my kid to your fancy school, will he just end up living in my basement anyway? Can you turn my spacey, underachieving teen into a financially successful adult? I don’t want to drop a few hundred dollars a day for four years if you can’t guarantee that your college education will rid me of this surly person-unit.”
Probably in that case the answer isn’t what the mother would want to hear, or what the admissions officer would ever say. Columbia can’t reform her slob-child. He’d never get in in the first place. Because, of course, her son has violated the second rule of Asking Questions During the Asking Questions Part: Do not let your parents ask questions. You are supposed to be posing as a strong potential candidate for admission. Your job is to convince everyone around you that you have dragged your parental unit along to this college visit because you are so desperately interested in said college. You must hide the ugly truth that it was your mother’s idea and she basically set up everything for you.
Let’s be real: not many high school students are actively and independently seeking out college visits. I’m certainly not; parental reminders are the only way my college visits happen. But I, unlike you, slob-child, am doing everything I can to appear otherwise. Unfortunately your cover is blown if you’re totally checked out and your mother is asking about median salary. Busted. Wait a minute … are you sleeping? How dare you do what all of us wish we could but have the politeness to refrain from doing.
(Brief side note: I actually did fall asleep during an information session at Boston College. I was wearing sunglasses and a coat with a large, furry hood and figured no one would notice. I woke up a while later only to the disappointment of Still Being at the Boston College Info Session.)
The admissions officer, a woman in her mid-twenties, was taken off-guard by the disgruntled mom’s question. I perceived that she too was trying not to laugh. “Well, I’m not sure exactly what the number is,” she said, “but I’m pretty sure it’s quite good.”
A sophisticated “I don’t know.”
I give you a hard time, slob-child and corresponding mother, but ultimately you have provided some much-needed entertainment during an otherwise dull information session just like all the others. In my family’s college-visiting experiences, we’ve heard countless times about “our unique, holistic evaluation process” and the “300 clubs and activities, including 57 a capella groups.” We’ve heard too many college histories. At this point we’ll just assume that some man donated a lot of money between the years 1800 and 1950, and that’s who countless things are named after. We don’t need to know specifics.
We do, however, desperately need some comic relief, and for that I thank you.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.