Apodaca: March Madness of a different sort

It's March Madness time!

I don't mean the college basketball tournament, although the annual rite of collective lunacy to which I refer does involve college, and it is a tournament of sorts.

It's the anxiety-ridden, teenage acne breakout-prone, parent stress-attack month when high school seniors across the land await the final news on their college applications. The Sweet Sixteen in this case would apply to the often outrageous number of schools some kids apply to.

I could go on all day milking this metaphor — the Final Four represent the top schools in a student's bracket — but you get the picture. It's a stomach-knotting, high-stakes, profoundly whacky competition that makes a mere basketball tournament appear practically zen-like.

In the scope of the entire crazy college admissions process, which now begins in earnest somewhere around preschool, March of senior year represents the culminating moment of all the agony. The applications have long since been submitted and by month's end most, if not all, of a student's choices will be known. It's the educational equivalent of purgatory.

Here in Newport-Mesa, where expectations of success run high — and by that I mean your neighbors look like they want to send a condolence card if your kid only gets into a state school — students about to graduate endure constant grilling: Which schools did you apply to? Which have you heard from/gotten into? Have you decided? Are you excited?

Parents engage in their own stressfests and incessant discussions over their children's college prospects. Few of us can resist the urge to worry, brag, make excuses, overanalyze or second-guess as we await the big did-they-get-in news.

We fall victim to the emotional vortex of this annual ritual even though we understand logically that it has long ceased to make any sense. Our children have been subjected to all manner of psychological torture, from the ridiculous mental gymnastics of the SAT to the onslaught of mixed messages and conflicting advice. (Hey kids, make sure you take the most academically rigorous courses possible. But avoid stress!)

On Thursday, test-prep firm Princeton Review released its annual "College Hopes and Worries Survey," which found that 69% of student applicants and parents felt a high degree of stress over the college admissions process. So that's how that advice goes over.

(Parents, if you read just one book on the subject let it be the hilarious and enlightening "Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course on Getting His Kid into College," by Andrew Ferguson.)

Truth is, we've been told repeatedly — though I'm not sure any of us were listening — that it really isn't any harder to get into college today.

But what is happening is testament to the vast human potential to accept irrationality, and then continue feeding it until it's reached monstrous proportions. In the case of college admissions, the game appears so much harder mainly because students today apply for many more schools than their predecessors.

This practice stems from the modern notion that each student must include a few "reach schools,'' some "safety schools" and a large list somewhere in the middle. That development obscures the fact that there are just as many available seats overall — if not more — for college applicants than in decades past.

More to the point, this practice allows colleges to market the heck out of their acceptance rates, which have shrunk considerably at some institutions as applications have surged. The lower the acceptance rate, the more exclusive the school appears. Even schools that once took anyone who could fog a mirror now boast of a "world-class reputation."

As students blanket colleges with application confetti, admissions representatives are given lease to indulge in some major mind games. During one college visit after another, I was most impressed by the expert passive-aggressive marketing ploys, with messages that amounted to "We're so great you should apply here, but we're so great we might not allow you the privilege of paying $50,000 a year to join us." And cue the panic.

Do low acceptance rates equate to academic quality? We all seem to operate on that theory. But — call me a heretic — isn't it possible that the elite schools we yearn for our children to attend are as overrated as the University of Kentucky's basketball prospects this year?

Take UCLA. I wouldn't dare criticize my beloved alma mater, and my older son got a great education there. But in all honesty, UCLA's reputation is partially built on the fact that it receives more undergraduate applications than any other school in the country — this year the total was a mind-numbing 99,559, setting yet another record.

While that gives UCLA some serious bragging rights, and lends an aura of high standards, it's hardly proof that my degree is worth any more than a school with a higher acceptance rate. And this is only one means of manipulation; many of the factors on which college rankings — and parents' opinions — are based are as subjective and downright silly as People Magazine's choice of the "sexiest man alive."

I'm now on my second go-round as a parent dealing with the insanity, and I'm still flummoxed by the whole process. Thankfully, my high school senior is a flexible sort who will undoubtedly thrive whichever way the dice land.

At least that's what I keep telling myself.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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