When the college admission essay becomes a family affair

With tickets just impossible to get, I propose to the family that we hold our own inaugural ball.

"You mean a dance?" Posh says.

"I never said that."

"What about dinner?" she asks.

"Tonight?" I say.

"I mean at the ball," she says.

"We're having a ball?"

Yes, we're having a ball . . . a blast . . . a rollicking good time. The other night, I get home from work to find the little girl and her mother screaming at each other over another college application deadline. Me, I like yelling. It's one of the primary reasons I got into the newspaper business.

"Mom, just leave me alone, huh!" screams the little girl. "Just leave me alone!"

In her defense, the little girl works harder than I do. She wakes up early, attends meetings before school, after school and during school. She also captains the tennis team and serves as business manager for the yearbook. What a slacker. If she were a little older, she'd run for governor.

Kids today honestly amaze me. Somehow, in her busy day, my daughter also finds time to send about 1,000 text messages, most of which go to her sassy little friends and consist of exchanges such as:

"Wud up?"

"Hangin'. 'Sup with U?"


On this particular day, she text messaged me during class:

" 'Sup, Dad?"

"Hangin'," I answered, though it takes me a bit longer to send an actual text message than it does for her. In this case, "hangin' " took me about 20 minutes to tap out on my phone.

Anyway, she goes on to ask me if I can give her a hand with her college essay that evening, which is a Friday. I used to reserve Fridays for "date night," during which Posh and I would sit in front of the TV sharing a $4 bottle of Ripple till I passed out around 8:30. Such is romance in America these days.

So, I agree to help the little girl with her college application, or at least to double-check the punctuation.

Now, this is a sensitive issue among parents -- just how much to get overinvolved in the college application process. Some parents get overinvolved a little. Others get overinvolved a lot.

This is a significant change from when I was 17. Honestly, I don't think my dad even knew where I went to college.

"Where'd the mouthy kid go?" he reportedly asked one day.

"He went off to college," someone explained.

"Oh," he said.

"Two years ago," the person added.

Today, with college admissions tougher than ever, parents are involved every step of the way. They sign the kids up for SAT tutors, they line up special writing instructors for the essays, which have become an integral part of both the SATs and the application itself.

One of the hottest hot-button topics is parents who write the application essays for their children. That's correct, they pen the whole thing themselves. Is it the right thing to do? It's certainly one of the best lessons in cheating you could possibly give a kid.

At our house, we don't do that. As you may have suspected, English is not our first language -- screaming and invectives are -- so even if we wanted to help our daughter, we'd be hard-pressed to really make a difference.

We've had to resort to other tactics to help our daughter get into her dream school. In our case, we've hired Philip Roth.

You may have heard of Mr. Roth. Winner of a Pulitzer Prize, he is one of the most celebrated American writers of the last 50 years. "Portnoy's Complaint" is a benchmark book. Once, it was required reading on every college campus. Now if college students want keen insights into human behavior, they just read one another's Facebook pages.

But Mr. Roth still has chops. To the question from DePaul University, "What goals have you set for yourself?," he writes:

"What is a goal, but a tool to keep the middle class at bay until it realizes -- at an advanced age, after far too many martinis -- that the American dream is capitalism's great bait-and-switch, a relentless and sultry tease?"

When I asked Mr. Roth if he could lighten it up just a little, to make it sound like it came from the keyboard of a 17-year-old girl, he wrote:

" 'Sup, dude? Wanna hang?"

So, as you might suspect, we're still working on our daughter's college essay. Just to be safe, we've called in Updike, Irving and Keillor.

For there is something more at stake here than merely getting into a decent school. There's some life lesson on really going after your dreams -- at all costs, moral and otherwise.

Plus, if it all works out, we'd like to have Irving or Updike attend our inaugural ball.

To read more columns, go to latimes.com/erskine.


Copyright © 2018, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World