My essay on the similarities and differences between the college admissions process in the US and the arranged marriage process in India was published in India Currents.
Given the recent college admissions scandals, I am struck by their similarity to “Bachelor,” the popular American television show. The twenty-odd young women vie to be picked by the Bachelor, who is seen as the “catch.” The pursuit of admission to ivy league colleges and to other elite colleges has taken on a similar flavor — everyone and his or her uncle wants to be chosen by “the one” — college, that is. In the process, they are willing to stoop to any level — bribes, donations, cheating on tests, and gaming college athletic programs.
Thankfully, I no longer have to worry about all this. I went through the process over a decade ago when my daughter was a high school senior. At the time it struck me that it is possible to look at the college admissions process from a slightly different angle. And, it is an angle that can alleviate the stress and anxiety, and can actually help make a better decision for the long term.
Yes, I am talking about the, shall we say, more democratic Indian arranged marriage system. The old arranged marriage system has a bad name, but the way it is practiced today, it is a whole new ball game — there is free choice and the focus is on compatibility rather than on “the catch.”
When arranging a marriage, families start by identifying alliances that seem promising. Is the prospective groom well-educated? Does the groom come from a good family? When it came to colleges, my daughter and I started by identifying colleges that seemed promising. We looked at the majors the colleges offered and the size and composition of the student body.
Another important consideration when assessing the suitability of a prospective bridegroom is the town where he lives. Is it too small? Is it too far from the bride’s hometown? Will it be easy for us to visit each other after she moves away? By the same logic, the proximity of her ideal college to a large city was important to my daughter; having grown up in a suburb, she craved the bustle and energy of a big city. A requirement of mine was that the college should be within a few hours driving distance from our home so that she would be able to visit home as and when needed.
If a prospective groom clears these preliminary considerations, the next step is checking vital information such as the groom’s height and weight, income, and career potential. In the same vein, my daughter and I compared the colleges’ numerical data such as SAT scores and class rank of accepted students.
Meetings between the families of prospective grooms and brides tend to be formal and somewhat scripted events. Each family member, including the bride or groom, airs his or her views and reactions only after the meeting has ended and they are headed home. We did the same when driving home from college visits; we compared notes on the college’s presentation, the tour of the campus, and dining and other facilities. It was nice to share ideas and opinions and, through that, zero in on factors that were “nice to have” and “must have.”
The next step in the arranged marriage “dance” is the one-on-one coffee or dinner shared by the prospective bride and groom. In the same spirit, my daughter visited a friend who attended one of the colleges that she particularly liked. This was her chance to see the college without the marketing hype. She walked around the campus, visited the dining halls, the dorm and the library, and heard lore about the college mascot.
By the time an arranged marriage match reaches the next stage, a pragmatic approach sets in. Every bride need not “catch” the eye of a millionaire or a startup founder in order to be happy. The advice of the guidance counselor at my daughter’s school echoed the same thinking. She repeatedly told us parents that we should pick colleges that are “right” for our children, and that it was important to look beyond the brand names. Ivy league colleges are not for everybody; neither may a large urban campus or a remote rural one suit our particular child.
With this advice in mind, we drew up a list of colleges in three categories. The colleges in the “reach” category were ones that were more competitive and where she might not get in. The “match” category contained colleges whose target student profile was very similar to my daughter and so there was a high probability that she would be accepted. The “safety” schools were the backup plan, or Plan B.
In an arranged marriage scenario, if everything lines up satisfactorily, the bride’s family informs the groom’s family of the bride’s openness to the match. In the same vein, my daughter wrote the requisite essays, collected recommendation letters and submitted her application.
It is then time to wait for the groom’s response. Er, the colleges’ responses.
Guarding against the disappointment that would result if she was too focused on any particular college, she nevertheless had an order of preference. Even as she tried to keep her spirits up and her mind open, there was an unmistakable gloom about the otherwise mostly cheerful teenager. As the expected decision date drew near, she returned from school each day hoping for a fat envelope from “the one.”
With the arranged marriage analogy in mind, I was able to have a certain detachment and sense of humor about the whole process. I found strength in the fact that the stakes were not nearly as high for my daughter as they typically are for youngsters in societies where the competition can only be described as cut-throat.
“Whatever will be, will be” I concluded, as I told her about the analogy of her experience to arranged marriage. “We did all the research and you gave it your best shot. You are what you are, and the college that sees your strengths and admits you will be the right one for you,” I told her. And happily, unlike marriage, there will be other educational choices in the future – it’s not as if you are marrying the college that you attend at the undergraduate level!” She smiled, her tension momentarily lifted.
Postscript: My daughter was accepted by her first choice college. I emailed a friend with whom I shared the analogy to arranged marriage. She had an apt response – “the hoped-for groom approved!” Within days of receiving the acceptance, my daughter ordered the college sweatshirt. I was amused to note that she delighted in wearing it and drawing attention from her friends (and their parents) in much the same way that a young woman might have with an engagement ring! And as the “bride’s” parents, all we had left to do was worry about paying the college bills.