“These guys have got it all figured out. They charge you $60,000 a year and make you compete for 500 slots,” said my husband on the way home from our first college visit with our high school junior.

’Tis the season for acceptance and rejection and hunting for the perfect college and … the perfect prom dress.

Last week, like thousands of parents all over the U.S., we started shopping for the perfect college – putting off the prom dress shopping for one more week. And, as expected, we, as in I, fell in love with the most expensive one: a beautiful 100-year-old campus with stone buildings, gorgeous manicured walkways and a Harry Potteresque castle. Its front yard was the Atlantic Ocean.

After following our charming student guide, who walked backward for the entire two-hour tour, losing her beat-up Birkenstocks only five or six times, I understood that you get what you pay for.

I felt sure that we could drop our kid off at this majestic institution for four years and it would be the best experience of her life and, if it wasn’t, we would withhold our payments, stomp our consumer feet and ask for a refund. Sixty thousand dollars a year, if we could cough it up, would buy some seriously good customer service and surely an L.L. Beanesque return policy.

One hundred percent satisfaction guaranteed, thank you very much.

Sucked in by the magical spell of this “very selective” (their words, not mine) liberal arts college, I wondered, could this be the golden ticket to the greatest college experience ever?

Not likely.

Not any more than an expensive dress and extravagant invitation to prom will guarantee the greatest prom night ever or evah, for that matter.

By the way, when did the invitation to prom become a bigger deal than the actual prom? Brave souls – we’re talking Joan of Arc brave, Herculean brave – who risk rejection by asking someone to prom take an even bigger risk by making a public display of their intentions.

The process of asking someone to prom, these days, could go something like this: Plane banner flying over school with the words: “Will you go to prom with me?” Or making “the ask” in front of the entire school population.

If only there were a database, like selecting the perfect college, that listed the kids who had been asked to prom and the kids who had not been asked, therefore creating the perfect prom match-ups. Gyms would be filled with heavenly constellations of gods and goddesses in Easter-colored gowns and ill-fitting tuxedos. Spray tans and spiked heels would rule the skies.

Saturday, all over the country, high school juniors are taking the standardized test that will determine which colleges they apply to – the dreaded SATs. Most of them have spent weeks preparing and worrying about the outcome of this one test, but will it really make or break their future?

Not likely.

SATs, a permanent record that determines college worthiness; and prom, a permanent record that you once walked in heels, drove a good car and/or wore a tux, are both fixed events that provide passage from childhood to adulthood.

The college of their dreams and the dress of their dreams may seem like the path to nirvana at this stage in these young people’s lives, but ultimately it comes down to the character of the buyer and his or her bravery in the face of standardized tests, asking someone to prom and surviving rejection.

Twenty years from now, with the clarity of perspective, they will look back as we do now at the visual records of these important young adult events and ask themselves, “Why did I worry so much about prom, SATs and college, when I should have been worrying about my hair?”

Jolene McGowan lives and works in Portland with her husband, daughter and dog and has no plans to leave, ever. She can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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