By Christine Burke
My son and I sat huddled on the couch, our heads practically touching, as we reviewed his online Common App before he sent his transcripts and portfolio to the colleges he’d chosen.
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As we reviewed each section, my exasperation grew. There were just so many minor details, from making sure our address was correct to entering in my credit card information for every application fee. Not to mention double-checking that his essays were uploaded and that his portfolio video didn’t exceed the time limit.
About an hour into the process, my patience was all but gone.
“You know I did this by hand, right?” I asked him.
“As in, I wrote my address on a paper application, printed out my transcripts on a dot matrix printer, and stapled them together before I mailed them with an actual stamp,” I said, hoping to make the point that life was just easier in the 1990s.
“Yeah, well, from what you’ve told me, you also wore babydoll dresses, construction boots, and your hair was about a foot wider than it is now.”
Fair point, son.
But, after two hours of tedium with the Common App (and don’t even get me started on the FAFSA form), I couldn’t help but reminisce about my high school days and the relative ease with which I applied to college in the 90s.
Applying to College in the 90s vs Now
I can distinctly remember watching Beverly Hills, 90210 on my tiny black-and-white television as I thumbed Seventeen magazine’s prom issue in my bedroom.
As the cast chanted, “Donna Martin graduates!” during the episode where Donna almost didn’t graduate, I eyed the giant U.S News and World Report Best Colleges and Universities tome across the room and decided I could ignore my college search for a few more weeks.
My future could wait: Finding the perfect prom dress could not.
I don’t recall discussing colleges with my parents beyond the passing mention of the ones to which I was thinking of applying.
I took the SAT exactly once. And my results were mailed to me three months after I’d taken the exam by hand, with a number 2 pencil.
My transcript didn’t include AP classes because only one was offered at my high school. And I wasn’t made to feel guilty for skipping AP Biology.
I found my college applications in a grey file cabinet in the corner of the guidance counselor’s office. And if they were down to the last application for your chosen school, the secretary made a photocopy for you.
I filled out the tri-fold applications by hand, using a pen and my best penmanship, and wrote my essays on our Commodore 6000 word processor that my parents had bought at Radio Shack.
My letters of recommendation detailed that I was captain of the Band Front, that I had a 3.9 GPA, and that I was a member of the National Honor Society. That’s it. That was the recommendation. Because I wasn’t expected to have an extensive list of community service activities, clubs, and different sports on my resume.
My father wrote checks for the application fees because electronic payments didn’t exist.
Each application was carefully folded into a business envelope and addressed to the registrar’s office of the college. I added extra postage to make sure my applications made it on time.
As I waited for my acceptance letters, I would paint my nails in my best friend’s bedroom as we discussed our college dorm décor. We’d have posters on the walls, pink and teal comforters, and milk crates for our sweaters under the bed. Oh, and a mini fridge, of course.
Every day on the way home from the bus stop, I’d open the mailbox chanting, “Please let it be thick, please let it be thick.”
Everyone knew that a thick package from your college of choice meant an acceptance
As the acceptances (and rejections) rolled in, somehow, the senior class just knew who had gotten in to what schools. The halls of my high school were filled with whispers and we pitied the kid who suddenly wasn’t wearing the college sweatshirt he’d worn all year. There were no Instagram selfies, no tweets, no #InsertYourCollegeHereBound hashtags.
Just thick or thin envelopes, and a scream at the mailbox when the envelope was thick.
Recording your reaction to an acceptance letter to college wasn’t a thing in the 90s because, let’s face it: the amount of apparatus required to capture our glee on VHS just wasn’t worth it. And, besides, who would even watch it?
After I accepted a spot at my first-choice school, I spent the summer before college buying things like dry erase boards, ice trays and Chef Boy-R-Dee microwavable meals.
I learned my roommate’s name in a letter sent by the college and didn’t meet her in person until Move In day. My new roommate and I coordinated who was bringing the phone and the microwave.
And, on the day I moved into college, it was all okay. As it will be for my son.
Even if filling out college applications with my son process feels more chaotic, overwhelming, and stressful than when I applied to college in the 90s.
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But I’m pretty sure his dorm won’t have mint green pedestal sinks that were mounted to the pale-yellow tiled walls in 1964. Because, let’s face it, some things really have gotten better with time.