By Ms. Rachel Jacobs
When I applied to college in the mid 1980’s, computers were barely a thing and certainly not found in most households, cell phones didn’t exist, and long-distance phone calls cost real money if they were made before 11pm. (Between 11pm and 8am, the price per minute was discounted.) The U.S. Postal Service dominated modes of communication between college and applicant, and guidebooks were the main way I learned about colleges. That might sound like a science fiction novel compared to how high school students learn about and apply to colleges today.
Like many high school juniors, I, too, took the PSAT in 11th grade and signed up for the College Board’s Student Search Service. Later that year, scads of college viewbooks (think glossy marketing brochure) arrived by mail at my house. Already knee-deep in college searching, I loved looking at these brochures and learning about the colleges, some of which I’d never heard of. (It’s not an accident that I’m in the career I’m in.) During the summer after 11th grade, I made a list of six colleges I wanted to apply to. Some of them I had visited in the spring of that year and others I toured in fall of 12th grade. Pulling out my guidebooks, I looked up the mailing address of each college, hand wrote postcards requesting an application packet, and dropped the post cards in a mailbox. Then, I waited for the mail. Eventually, fat envelopes arrived at my house, containing an application booklet. I recall some of the colleges included a thick course catalog, too.
Now it was fall of 12th grade and I had some work to do. Deciding I was not going to apply anywhere under an early decision deadline, even though I had a favorite college, I knew I had essays to write, six application forms to fill out, and papers to organize to bring to my high school guidance counselor and teachers, who would be responsible for mailing recommendation letters, forms, and transcripts to six separate institutions. I had to give them stamped, addressed envelopes and make sure they received everything with plenty of time to spare. We were all obligated to meet a January 1 deadline.
I remember many a weekend night (or was it just a few weekdays between Christmas and December 31?), sitting at my dad’s typewriter—yes, you read that correctly, and it’s a good thing I had taken a summer typing class and knew how to use Wite-Out—copying over the hand-written essay drafts I had worked on over the previous many weeks. Six colleges times six different main essay prompts plus additional essay questions the colleges might have asked. It was a lot of typing. However, the colleges accepted handwritten or typed essays, and after a certain point, I gave up on the typing and wrote at least one college’s essays in painstakingly neat handwriting.
Once the applications were mailed off in late December to the colleges with a check for the requisite application fee included, which ranged from $15-$25, I waited. Until April 15. My decisions didn’t all arrive on the same day, and I had received some decisions in the mail a few days before April 15, but the decision from my favorite college was expected on April 15. I remember it like it was yesterday. I hurried home from school on a beautiful sunny day to return to an empty house (parents at work, siblings away at college), collected the mail, saw the envelope, took it out back to sit in the sun and take a deep breath, and pulled out the letter to read I had been admitted. And then what? I don’t know! I can’t remember. I probably called my mom at her office and then told my dad. I’m sure they let me call my siblings at dinner and not wait until after 11pm or the weekend, when we usually talked to them.
Even though I knew that this was where I wanted to attend college, I went to their Admitted Student Day, didn’t go to the ones for the other colleges where I was admitted, and declined the one wait list offer I received. My journey was over. Or had it just begun?