Early Indecision

Kevin Nguyen’s little sister is applying to colleges, and he discovers, to his horror, that the process is even more stressful in the internet age.

My poor sister Olivia. A month ago, she reblogged this Arrested Development GIF on her Tumblr with the caption “college applying anxiety INITIATE.” She’s in the thick of the college admissions process, which somehow has become even more kafkaesque and humiliating since I was in her position eight years ago.

The most memorable thing about my college admissions counselor was how he asked if my parents were “boat people,” after learning that I was of Vietnamese heritage (aka after seeing my last name). Once he assured me that serving in Nam gave him license to ask this, he wrote down a list of universities for me, scored them from one to three based on how hard it would be to get in with my middling SAT scores, and sent me on my way. I applied to nine schools total, none of which had appeared on this list.

I wasn’t an ambitious college applicant, but I took offense to the subjectivity of the schools I had been assigned (many of the schools were in rural areas, even though my only criteria was a city environment). And how could my chances be so easily reduced to one of three numbers, scribbled on a whim? If there’s something that’s implicitly wrong about the college process, it’s how we attempt to give it numerical order to tame its ambiguity.

But I was just as responsible for the same sort of laziness. I poured hours into researching schools in The Fiske Guide to Colleges , a popular phonebook-sized tome known for its scoring of major schools around the country. Colleges have long eschewed these ratings for being unscientific, and sometimes even fixed. Yet I, like many prospective college students, took these ratings to heart because it made the headache of applying and deciding between schools all that much easier.

While looking up schools for my sister in this year’s Fiske guide, I peeked at my alma matter, the University of Puget Sound: on a five-point scale, it received 3.5 pencils for academics, three telephones for social life, and two $-signs for expense (which reminded me of sorting restaurants on Yelp). While the Fiske guide even concedes in its introduction that “no complex institution can be described in terms of single numbers or other symbols,” nor are these “precise or infallible judgments.” And yet this doesn’t stop the Fiske editors — and those behind the Princeton Review and Kiplinger’s — from attributing largely meaningless and subjective ratings to schools. (I personally enjoyed my time at Puget Sound and found my education more in line with the Princeton Review, which gave it a flattering 92 for academics and 88 for campus life, both scored out of 100.)

As everything in our lives migrates to the digital realm, we are becoming increasingly data-obsessed. We like numbers, but we rarely ask what they mean. Counts of Facebook fans, megapixels, tomatometer percentage, and apparently number of pencils — what do these things actually represent, besides our own laziness? As consumers, we want to know what’s “better” immediately, but nothing encourages us to do our homework.

College shopping, as it turns out, has moved online too. While I was looking things up in Fiske, my sister was using a website called Naviance, which lets high school students look up colleges and organize their applications online. It also encourages students to plug in their GPAs and test scores to calculates their likelihood of getting into specific schools, plotting them on a scattergram alongside former students from their high school.

I suggested Wesleyan College to my sister, since I have a close friend who does nothing but talk about how much he loved his time there. We looked up Wesleyan in Naviance, which reported that my sister’s ACTs were slightly lower than the school’s average for admission, and many students from her school with similar GPAs had been rejected. I explained that it was just a calculation, that it didn’t take into account the fact that she was a great writer, talented artist, varsity athlete, and soup kitchen volunteer. But she seemed overwhelmed and defeated by what she was being told by an ugly graph.

I can keep telling her that everything will work out, that in hindsight, she’ll realize that not getting into her first-choice school is not the end of the world. But the last thing a teenager wants is their distress to be treated with condescension. A teenager’s pain is unique and singular, and yet it must be understood by everyone around her.

That’s probably why Tumblr makes such a good outlet. Maybe I am overstepping my bounds as a concerned older brother, but I tend to track Olivia’s mood based on what she reblogs. She recently renamed her Tumblr “and i fall, i fall, i falter” (which, after some googling, are lyrics to a song by City and Colour, which, after more googling, is a band of some sort). Over the past few months, Olivia has been posting fewer wistful, faraway landscapes and more images of cracked mountain ranges and crashing waves.

But I sincerely enjoy my sister’s site; she has a great aesthetic sense. Lately, Olivia has been reblogging more abstract art, moving away from the clarity of photographs to something more muddled and ambiguous. Maybe she’s starting to see the beauty in uncertainty?

A week ago, beneath a photo of a forest, she wrote:

I have 18 days to finish this application for my dream school.

This is happening.

Images taken from Olivia’s Tumblr

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.