Earlier this week my wife and I were walking through the front lobby at Staples and up the little incline toward the guidance offices when we heard a familiar voice. It was the ubiquitous Dee Hychko, calling out, "Here come the Hermans -- again."

Well, if that didn't say it all.

Our two older sons were Staples grads in 1999 and 2002, respectively, and we certainly did have a bit of a been-there, done-that feeling as we headed for our appointment with our youngest son's guidance counselor, to initiate round 3 of "the college process." Although whenever we act like know-it-alls, our youngest is quick to put us in our place. "This isn't the 1940s anymore," he'll say. "Things have changed at Staples since when Matt and Greg were there."

Still, in January, when we gathered for the College Night for parents of juniors conducted by Staples Guidance, most of the people we knew acknowledged that we'd been around the block a time or two. "You don't need to take notes," one dad kidded. "You've already written the book."

He was referring to Accept My Kid, Please! A Dad's Descent Into College Application Hell, the humorous memoir I wrote a few years back about my experiences going through "the process" with my oldest son. At the time of these wonderful pre-Naviance-era adventures, our youngest son was just 5 years old. He used to have to raise his hand at the dinner table to get a word in edgewise, so fixated was everyone on our eldest and his college applications. At the end of the book I talk about my dread of having to go through the ordeal a third time -- though back then it seemed so far down the road that I could joke about it. Of course, we blinked -- and now that third time is here.

I also wrote, after describing my harrowing escapades with our two older sons: "I'm convinced -- since all things are cyclical -- that the pendulum will swing back one of these days, and that by the time [our youngest] has to apply to college it'll be just grades and SATs again -- period. No scrapbooks. No letters of support from teachers and coaches. No `showing interest.'"

Remind me not to look for work as a futurist.

One of the things that seems most ironic to me this time around is that the insane lengths my wife and I (and everyone else!) went to 12 years ago -- the very measures that get the biggest laughs when I do readings from my book -- have now actually been accepted and codified as The Right Way to Apply to College.

For instance, when I show audiences my oversized "War Board" on which I rated 36 colleges and universities in terms of location, size of undergraduate body, SAT scores needed for admission, etc., etc., -- they roar. Well, take a look at page 14 of the "Post Secondary Planning Guide 2009-2010" put out by the Staples High School Guidance Department. All right, they call it a "College Comparison Chart" -- but it's basically my War Board. (By the way, the Staples handbook runs 34 pages, lest anyone thinks he or she might be entering a simple process.)

Another example: my fellow lunatic parents and I, circa 2000, would gather clippings about our brilliant, athletic, and well-rounded offspring and lovingly put them together in scrapbooks for college admissions offices. Now, the "Parent Brag Sheet" is actually listed among the forms to be turned in to the guidance office (okay, it's "optional") -- right in there with the signed transcript release form and the secondary school report form.

Also, back in the day, when "the competition" would ask where our child was applying, and how he did on his SATs, we'd find ways to dance around the questions, trying to reveal as little critical information as possible. Now, we're told flat out: What your child scored on his standardized tests, and where he/she is applying, is to be treated as confidential.

To be fair, there are a few things that are a little easier this time around. For one, our oldest son, now 28, takes the youngest on a lot of his college visits. They'll make it to a football game or a basketball game, hit the campus hangouts -- beats going with your dad and having him ask questions about the freshman retention rate.

Also, we're not really as stressed as we were the first time, and even the second. Not that where our son goes is not important to us. Not that we don't care as much, or want the very best for him. It's just that, well, he is a third child ...

Still, we shouldn't get too relaxed. We don't want to let ourselves fall behind. According to the guidance handouts, the February and April breaks would be good times for college visits, so I guess we ought to plan some.

I just can't tell you where.

Westporter Hank Herman shares his Home Team column every other Friday in the Westport News.