Chapter Fifteen, The Mother Son College Odyssey

I’m starting this post from the waiting room at the Admissions Office of Amherst College. Eli is sitting across the room, writing an english essay. He sat in on an advanced chemistry class while I visited the financial aid office (Amherst is the only school we visited that offered a meeting at financial aid–and I can see why–they have a generous, transparent financial aid program–what you see is what you get. It was a very educational meeting, to learn how financial aid works and to see how all the factors fit together.) Eli came in from his class. “How was it?” I asked.

“I didn’t understand a word of it.”

“Do you want to sit in on something else this afternoon?”

“No, I’m done sitting in on classes.” He opened his laptop and started on his homework.

“Do you want some lunch?”

“No, I’m okay.” He put his head back down, uncommunicatively. But he is communicating. I can hear him. He’s done. He wants to go home.

Driving to get here from Robin’s house, we got a better sense of Northampton and the surrounding area. It’s like another Santa Cruz, except with winter. You get that feeling everywhere you look–from the street kids hanging out downtown, the kind of shops and bulletin boards and restaurants and grocery stores. Last night I told Eli he should go to Amherst just so I can eat in that vegetarian restaurant again. The food was that good.

Later: Eli continued to ignore me and went back to his calculus. But a half hour later, when they came in to announce the tour, he got up and came along. I let him pick which tour guide he wanted. He chose a junior girl. (“I’ve learned to always go on the tour with the oldest student.”)


Amherst has a spectacularly beautiful campus. It was the most idyllic setting we’ve seen on this trip. Students here experience four distinct seasons. On this spring like day, there were Adirondack chairs all over the grounds with students slouched in them studying or chatting. Walking through campus, we had a view of the amazing Pioneer Valley. It’s a bucolic heaven.

Amherst also had the most beautiful buildings, dorms, dining hall and classrooms of any school we visited. The dorm buildings were particularly impressive and non-institutional. A coffeehouse had a huge fireplace with chairs all around it. Everywhere we looked indoors and out, was beauty.

As we listened to our tour guide, she emphasized that one of the benefits of a small liberal arts school is the relationship students can have with their professors. Classes are very small and everything is taught directly by professors. Amherst even has a program we learned about called TYPO, Take Your Professor Out, where the college pays for you to take one of your professors out to dinner so you can get to know your prof in a different way.

Here are some of the other things we learned on the tour:

·      Education at Amherst includes lots of discussion, dialogue, and lots of reading and writing.

·      99% of students live on campus all four years.

·      There’s a bike trail to Northampton and hiking trails all around campus.

·      There’s a nature preserve on campus and a wonderful natural history museum. The natural history museum is full of dinosaur bones and includes 200,000 items that have been collected by Amherst professors and students over the past 200 years. Included are 20,000 dinosaur footprints, the largest collection of its kind in the world.

·      Amherst is known as “the singing campus” because so many people are into singing. There are six a cappella groups and tons of theatre opportunities through the college consortium.

·      Amherst has the second highest tennis court-student ratio of any college, second only to Stanford.

·      Amherst’s biggest competitor is Williams College.

·      The largest lecture hall we saw was not large at all.

·      Frats were banned at Amherst when the college went co-ed in the 1970s.

·      There is an extensive orientation program for first years. Entering freshmen come 10 days early and get to choose among an array of bonding experiences including white water rafting, day trips, staying on campus and many others. Our guide said it was a very memorable, special time on campus.

By the time the tour wrapped up, it was in the mid-eighties and hot! I was wearing cords (all I brought) and sneakers and socks. Thankfully it was time for the admissions talk—indoors. I said I’d listen and report back to Eli. He headed to Admissions to do more homework.

Although I wanted to leave with Eli (I was sick of these talks, too), I stuck it out until the end and I’m glad I did. Joy St. John, Associate Dean of Admissions, gave a fabulous presentation. She began: “When I have to boil Amherst down to its core, we’re part of a small, selective group of liberal arts schools who share the following attributes: we’re small in size, our focus is on undergraduate education, we’re a residential learning community, we encourage students to take a broad, liberal arts education instead pre-professional training, and we provide undergraduates opportunities to do research.

“Amherst is distinguished by two ten-letter words, curriculum and consortium. We have an open curriculum. There are no distribution requirements, no general education requirements. We’re one of five schools in the country who have a purely open curriculum.

“And we’re part of a consortium of five colleges in this area: Smith, University of Massachusetts, Bryn Mar, and Hampshire College. We share resources, benefit from each other’s cultural events and activities, and students can cross-register at all five institutions. So you get the benefit of small college in terms of classes, a close-knit school, and a residential setting, yet you benefit from the added resources of a college community with 30,000 students.”

Here are some other facts I learned from Joy:

·      There is no engineering program at Amherst.

·      There’s a 15% admission rate and 30-40% of those say yes to the school.

·      Financial aid covers travel abroad even if the program costs more than a similar time period at Amherst.

·      Amherst offers a special January term, much like MIT, where students can take specialized classes like EMT training or glass blowing, do research for a professor, travel, put on a play, do internships, and the like.

·      There are free buses between the five colleges in the consortium.

·      There are 704 classes offered at Amherst; if you expand to include all the offerings in the consortium, there are 6000 class offerings.

·      There is no credit for AP classes because that credit is usually used to waive large introductory survey classes and those don’t exist at Amherst.

·      You can bring recipes you want cooked to the dining hall and they may make them for you. There is a stir-fry station and a Panini station where you can create your own dinner if you don’t like the night’s offerings.

·      The dining hall sponsors an Iron Chef competition every year as well as other special seasonal events.

·      If you’re on financial aid, you can take music lessons or singing lessons for free.

The thing I loved about Joy’s talk was that when she got around to explaining the admissions process, I finally learned how highly selective schools pick their applicants. I now understand why getting into these schools is a total crapshoot—and how the crapshoot works. I feel as if a light went on.

Here’s how it goes—last year 8100 kids applied to Amherst. Of those, Joy said, 85% were qualified and capable of doing the work. Those 85% had to be whittled down dramatically—so being good enough was definitely not enough. “Our job,” she said, “is to take the bounty of applicants and mold and shape them into a freshman class that interests us and that fulfills and reflects the goals of the institution.”

Each admissions officer is assigned a region and they read two thousand applications. She said with that number, “reading” isn’t really the right word—scanning is more like it. Then she added. “We know what to look for. For instance, if a guidance counselor says a particular student is the most gifted student he’s seen in the last thirty years, and he says that two years in a row, we’re going to disregard his recommendations.”

Two admissions people read every application and write a summary for each that answers the questions: “Is this student academically qualified?” “Will he/she be a good citizen?” and “What’s distinctive about this individual?”

Once all the applications have been read, the Dean of Admissions puts out a list of enrollment priorities for the next year. Some are broad; some are very specific. Last year there were 40 items on the list. These characteristics can include things like, “women interested in physics,” or “soccer goalies,” or “tuba players,” or “we want people who are the first ones in their families to go to college,” or “speaks a foreign language at home,” “has exceptional intellectual vitality,” “has won a national award,” “is from South Carolina,” “wants to study classics,” and so on.

Joy added, “I don’t let myself fall in love with any of my applicants until I get that list because students have to meet one or more of those criteria. Ten more points on a standardized test isn’t going to make any difference.”

Once the admissions people get the list of priorities for that year’s freshman class, they select kids who meet that criteria and reject the other. Then the reps from the different regions bring their selected applicants to the table and hash out which of them will actually get in.

“I’m telling you this because I want to emphasize the randomness of the process whenever you apply to a highly selective school. A less selective school might say, ‘We’re going to take every national merit scholar.’ Or ‘We’ll take everyone who got over 24 on the ACT test.’ But here, we’re working with a pool of applicants who have all made the intellectual cut. If we took everyone with perfect SATs, we wouldn’t have a balanced class, so we don’t take all of those kids. Whether you get in is based more on who you are than on your grades and test scores. One year we might be looking for an intellectually vital French horn player, but next year we’ll already have that covered, so if your thing is French horn, you’d be out of luck. Grades and scores don’t get you to the table. Who you are gets you to the table. Once you get to the table, if you’re one of ten women who want to study physics, we may go back to test scores to distinguish between you and the other applicants.”

I was blown away by this recitation. Why kids get in and don’t has always been a mystery to me. I raised my hand and asked, “Does this only happen here? Or is this typical.”

And she replied, “Every school does a version of this, depending on the volume of applications, the level or selectivity, and the priorities of the institution.”

There you have it, crapshoot defined. You can’t mold yourself into what they’re looking for. You can just be yourself and hope for the best.

I returned to Admissions, picked up Eli, and we headed back to Robin’s house, picking up propane and ice cream on the way. Eli disappeared upstairs. Robin loaned me a pair of shorts and we spent an hour walking Amara around the neighborhood, in her stroller.

Robin speaks 6 languages fluently enough to be a translator (as well as several others not as well) and works for the UN in hot spots doing mediation and trauma work all over the world. This has been her life for the past 20 years. She married a world-class Pakistani musician ten years ago and is a true international citizen. But she keeps a home base here, and teaches International Relations at Brandeis. “I’ve sat in on those admissions meetings,” she told me as we walked. “And I can’t tell you how many kids get in because of their charisma. Essays and charisma. That’s what it came down to at Brandeis. All the kids are smart. So it was essays—and charisma.”

P.S. Eli has ruled out Amherst because there’s no engineering department there. He doesn’t know if he wants to do engineering, but he wants to go to a school where he can explore it. And we decided to bail out on visiting Dartmouth tomorrow. It would mean five hours of driving (for me) and getting up early for Eli. And then there’s the fact that Robin insists that Dartmouth is full of a lot of preppy, rich, drunk, depressed, conservative people. We’d already decided to bail before she said that, but that sunk the nail into the coffin.

Eli’s looking forward to sleeping in. I’m going to visit with Robin in the morning before she takes off for work. Then I’m going to find an internet café in town so I can post this. Mid-afternoon, we’ll head to Marblehead, outside of Boston, in time to have dinner with my literary agent, Charlotte Raymond and her husband, Alan, tomorrow night. Then we pack up, get up very early Friday morning, and fly home!



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