This year, I need to get in to college
The counsellor is annoyed, the teachers recommendations are due. How many extracurricular are you going to put down?
This is what most reporters, bloggers and conscientious people will worry about in the year 2012 - Imran Khan, terrorism, Pak-US ties and Afghanistan.
And this is what a certain demographic of 17 to 18-year-olds across the country will care about in the year 2012 - college.
And yeah, Imran Khan, he’s a cool guy.
It is now January 2 and the biggest firework or patakha that anyone this age can face is a blank Word document for a college essay.
Today, I know the following - the admission dates for the Institute of Business Administration, the zipcode of various locations in Karachi for admission forms, how to slash a 700 word essay into 300 words and make it work. The fact that people can now memorise their father’s debit card number is a sign of how many transactions have been conducted online to pay for PDF forms to actually reach respective colleges. Ask me who inspires me, and I’ll regurgitate for you. Want to know my greatest strengths? Ask my friends: we’ve shared and mulled over respective pieces of writing, wondering, how at the age of 18, having never been asked before, why everyone is suddenly so interested in our lives - both college admission officers, and the rest of Karachi.
There are 18 million people in this city, and that figure is enough so that even when the bracket of college-going students is a very slim and minute percentage in the wider context of things in Pakistan, you still feel surrounded. 1% of 18 million is enough to have this scene repeated in various homes, with various people:
“My son got 11As in his O-Levels and is now applying to Canada” waves an ominous auntie over the table, as she passes me the raita at lunch.
A friend complained that if one more person asked him, “Beta, kya karnay ka irada hai (What do you plan on studying)?” at a family gathering, he’d show up with a pre recorded message. Applying to college is not just about career choices. It’s about lifestyle changes, about family, about countries. You get to hear a lot of people say, beta, study one thing in the UK for three years; no, no, four years in the US will be much healthier for the child; are you mad? You’d have to be a millionaire to pay for the US! Go to Canada, much cheaper. Green cards, residencies, passports are open discussion. So are bank accounts and financial aid.
It’s strange, given that most of us are what I call “the firsts”. The first one in the family to go to college, the first girl to go to college, the first girl to go to college outside of Karachi, the first boy or girl in the family to go outside the country.
And yet: Few going aboard want to come back, but many an essay will read like one.
Clichés drive us: your essays will be on arranged marriages, terrorism, and poverty.
That scant few have actually witnessed it is beside the point.
If you type in Pakistan on a certain Canadian school’s admissions website, down will drop about nine high schools, because that’s where Pakistani students are from. That’s it. Contrast that with the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) website which has everything from Aitcheson to Mansera Public High school listed on it.
Competition, mind you, seems tougher for Pakistani schools. The medicine students chill out this time of the year, but come March or April, it’s Aga Khan University Hospital or Dow University of Health Sciences. The competition is fierce - school days are bunked to study. A phone call at 3 am - “I don’t even understand where LUMS mailing labels are!" and then again at 4 am - “Dude, this website is so confusing”. The counsellor is annoyed, the teachers recommendations are due. How many extracurricular are you going to put down? Do you even have any? And we’re back to square one - soul searching, during your last year of A-Levels, with deadlines due, and exams pending.
Ah well. The more you learn, the better right? Yes, it is possible to have a green passport and get into foreign universities (take that, dire pessimist in my math class). No, I will probably never figure out what my favourite quote is, or what my personal philosophy is. Are we set up to think that way? I think of chemistry and biology students struggling to come up with something not related to chemistry and biology, that the personal space section on the LUMS website will be reason to edit, edit and re-edit.
But, as Pakistanis, we are driven, to the point of madness. A friend narrates having a showdown with her mother over whether to include the phrase “I am a leader” in her essay. Lo and behold, the umpteenth Facebook status: when is the AKUH test? Is anyone taking tuitions for it? What about the LCAT? The SAT?
As January 2 goes by, I have now seen, across the spectrum, conditional offers from UK applications arrive, clicked the submit buttons on applications, attended workshops held by Hong Kong University. As the new year arrives, a collective group of students will breathe a sigh of relief that half the school year is over. For these students (what a small minority, and yet how awfully important), 2012 will be about getting into college.