Head Strong: College: To be or not to be (yourself)

DEAN ROHRER / newsart.com
DEAN ROHRER / newsart.com
Posted: May 22, 2011

Jason Lamoreaux will graduate June 14 from Upper Merion High School. Last year at this time, he was navigating the college-application process, which includes the writing of a personal statement and this dilemma: Do I tell them what I think, or what I think they want to hear? Lamoreaux took what some might view as a risk. Instead of addressing world hunger or carbon emissions, he offered an honest insight into his personality.

Andrew Ferguson applauded the approach when I told him about Lamoreaux. Ferguson recently documented the charade that the college-application process has become. His best seller, Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College, is a testament to kids' adopting alternative personas that they think will please admissions officers. His own son had other ideas. He once told his guidance counselor that he wished to attend a school where he could go to a football game, take off his shirt, paint his chest in the school colors, and "major in beer."

In this sell-yourself environment, Ferguson discouraged his son from lifeguarding the summer before his senior year.

A professional college counselor "had said that there are all these things that the kids should do, you know, start a business, go to Guatemala and build wheelchair ramps in whorehouses," Ferguson wrote. "I knew he didn't have the entrepreneurial spirit, and I wasn't going to send him to Guatemala, so we were sort of at a loss, and he ended up lifeguarding anyway."

Ferguson's book highlights the application essay as a particular source of student and parental angst. Ferguson laments that the essays seem ill-suited for 17-year-olds - an unrealistic, touchy-feely search for a high schooler's most intimate thoughts.

"They ask things like, 'Tell us your most embarrassing moment,' or 'If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?' " Ferguson told me. "This college counselor told me that my son needed to dig down deep and let us hear his innermost thoughts. I said: 'Lady, he's a 17-year-old boy. He doesn't have any innermost thoughts.' "

Jason Lamoreaux's academic record at Upper Merion has included both A's and B's - with more of the latter than the former. He's carried a couple of honors-level courses. His honors physics teacher e-mailed his mom earlier this year, saying: "Jason is definitely an asset in the class; I'm glad he's here. Honors classes can be a little 'stuffy' sometimes. He breaks the mold." Lamoreaux was a cocaptain of the swimming and water polo teams this year, and likes classic rock, comedy, and summer lifeguarding. He loves the Phils.

Last year, he applied to several schools but refused to end nuclear proliferation in his essay. Instead, he discussed watching a lacrosse championship against rival Upper Dublin.

"As a swimmer and one who had to compete regularly against Upper Dublin, they had always been a powerhouse filled with pompous jerks who thought they were better than everyone else," he wrote.

". . . It was a Thursday night at Upper Dublin and the league championship was on the line. As a swimmer and water polo player, I know how it feels to not get too much support from fans except for the occasional friends who come to watch me."

"Before the game, I had put on my Spanish National water polo team flame-decorated Speedo. . . . I pulled my shorts off, and ran up and down the stands with my chest painted blue (one of my high school colors) in my flame-decorated Speedo.

"Our fans erupted. It was louder than it had been all game.

"There are a number of ways to show school pride, make a contribution or be part of a team. Not every action is remembered or even deserves mentioning, some aren't even recognizable in the scheme of things. And I do know that what I did was a little bit 'out there,' maybe even over the top to some people. But I know that what I did made a difference that day and, even if a lot of people don't remember that one thing, I know for sure the lacrosse team will never forget it. And really, that's the whole point!"

His musings won raves from Ferguson.

"An essay like this should cheer the hearts of every parent and every applicant. It shows that, despite lots of advice to the contrary, you can apply, succeed, and never surrender your individuality!"

To my surprise, it also won accolades from Leonard Krivy, who for decades has been a prominent educational consultant in Cherry Hill. "The home field advantage is relevant to many aspects of our lives," he told me. "This is a very interesting and well told perspective on home field advantage - and one with which most of us can identify.

"Jason shows accomplishments that invite the colleges' attention. He has taken well-thought risks and has confidence in his ideas and ability to follow through, and he has become part of the school's history and has made a difference," Krivy continued.

"You can write a modern-day version of the Gettysburg Address. However, unless you meet the school's objective criteria, you probably won't be admitted and the essay may not be read."

Another of Krivy's rules: "Schools like a well-rounded class, not necessarily well-rounded individuals. FOCUS ON YOUR SPECIAL STRENGTHS."

Jason Lamoreaux applied to nine schools. He was rejected at one, wait-listed at another, and accepted at the remaining seven. The head of admissions at St. Mary's College in Maryland wrote a note on his acceptance saying "how glad he was that he was wearing his Speedo."

Lamoreaux will enter Gettysburg College in the fall. And he will go places.


Contact Michael Smerconish via www.smerconish.com. Read his columns at www.philly.com/smerconish.

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