Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Dear Brother: Here's How to Get Admitted to Harvard (if you want)

This is part 2 of a 4-part series addressed to the author's brother, discussing the author's perspective on "elite education".

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Dear brother,

Yesterday, we talked about the (for some) counterintuitive fact that an elite education isn't just for those with elite pocketbooks. (Fun fact: for 90% of students, Harvard is cheaper than state school.) Today, we're grappling with something a bit more meaty.

Deresiewicz's swipe at the financial cost of an Ivy education is delivered offhand, but his critiques of Ivy League admissions policy are full-throated. We, he alleges, were admitted not because we demonstrated true passions and talents or showed any real promise as peers and fellow-students-to-be, but merely because we were "manufactured" to be "fit to compete in the college admissions game."

Well, to borrow a phrase, "it almost feels ridiculous to have to insist that colleges like Harvard" attract truly talented students. What, an admissions committee with basically free choice of the nation's graduating seniors, some of the business's most talented officers, more than a few decades experience, and a year-round mission to see through the ploys of Ivy-at-all-costs parents to the true character of applicants...is just going to fail at their single job? Paint me skeptical.

To the contrary, I'm sure Mr. Deresiewicz would be ecstatic to hear that writing an essay about your all-expenses-paid service trip to Guatemala is a really easy way to get your application canned; if instead you wrote about "waiting tables so that you can see [that] you really aren’t as smart as everyone has been telling you," you'd have a much better shot at convincing the committee that you're actually an interesting person. They're in the business of admitting interesting people, remember, not mindless GPA-and-public-service drones.

Don't just take it from me; J.D. Chapman, a highschool educator, write in rebuttal to his fellow Yale alumnus, also in the New Republic:

As for the former point, I am only able to offer my own counter-anecdotes. After more than a decade of working with admissions offices, I feel them to be at least somewhat representative. Many elite schools in the United States ... have relatively large and considerate admissions staffs, and aren't as easily buffaloed by rich kids’ made-to-order summer trips and falsely inflated lists of extracurricular accomplishments as he implies.

I routinely get calls from admissions officers from these kinds of schools, to discuss at greater length the unusual applicants whose biographies don't follow such a pattern. Those officers tell me that they want exactly the sort of students Deresiewicz implies that they don’t, curious oddballs who have taken risks and learned unusual things. They're expressly searching for people who are not, to quote the article, “out-of-touch, entitled little shit[s].” I do not get the same feedback as often from other kinds of schools, especially state institutions which cannot afford to hire or retain qualified admissions staff in the same numbers.

And, for that matter, a counter-anecdote of my own: Deresiewicz may have spent "a daylong stint on the Yale admissions committee", but I don't have to remind you that both of our parents have for years served in the Harvard Admissions office's volunteer interviewing corps. They've been getting briefings for years on the sorts of qualities Harvard Admissions is looking for in students, are on a first-name basis with the regional admissions officer for central Maryland, and took me to dinner with Dr. McGrath, Director of Admissions, a few years ago. All this to say: if anyone outside of 86 Brattle Street knows how this game is played, they do.

It's no coincidence that they never once told us we should do more extracurriculars (remember endless talks about cutting activities back to only what's truly important to us?), never once tried to send us to sub-Saharan Africa to build houses or libraries or schools (thankfully), and, (annoyingly, I thought at the time) asked us critically why we were bothering to join waste-of-time honor societies. It wasn't negligence or ignorance on their part, I promise you that.

Here's a hypothesis: Harvard admits a disproportionate percentage of legacy applicants (it's true) because upper-middle-class-Harvard-graduated parents know what applying to college is -- and is not -- really about. That inequality is truly tragic, and it most certainly isn't helped by insider commentators writing for the New Republic insinuating that such resume-stuffing is actually an effective way to game the system. Chapman drives the point home:

I don’t know many people [in Roanoke, Virginia] who think it will be the end of the world if their child doesn’t attend an Ivy. Around here, I have my hands full explaining that it might be beneficial to attend a summer language academy, or that looking only at colleges within a two-hour drive might disadvantage a child. I suspect that my experience is the more common one in America, if not among the New Republic’s assumed readership. For families like the ones I serve, [Deresiewicz's] article seems misplaced to the point of destructiveness.

After all, if everyone tries to get in by winning the rat race, of course the rich kids are going to win, while everyone else kills themselves trying. But if our nation's elite colleges are going to become a truly equal-opportunity chance for our nation's youth, we need to publicize the secret that our parents told the two of us, long ago: You don't get into Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Brown, Tufts, Chicago, MIT, or any of their ilk by being a mindless drone with perfect numbers -- you get in by being recognized as a truly interesting person with good enough grades to prove you'll thrive on campus. (Well, I'm not 100% on that last school, but I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.)

I'll leave you with advice from Drs. Fitzsimmons, McGrath, and Ducey, of the Harvard admissions committee:

So the problem can often be well-meaning but misguided parents who try to mold their children into an image of success they value; and their children, being moldable as they are, often get on board and go along with the program before they have any capacity to make such a choice for themselves. Yet the paradox is that the only road to real success is to become more fully oneself, to succeed in the field and on the terms that one defines for oneself...

The fact remains that there is something very different about growing up today. Some students and families are suffering from the frenetic pace, while others are coping but enjoying their lives less than they would like. Even those who are doing extraordinarily well, the “happy warriors” of today’s ultra-competitive landscape, are in danger of emerging a bit less human as they try to keep up with what may be increasingly unrealistic expectations... [M]any would benefit from a pause in their demanding lives. Let us hope that more of them will take some sort of time out before burnout becomes the hallmark of their generation.

That's "Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation", written in 2000, and getting seemingly more relevant by the year. So be happy, Will, they're on your side, too! Now, can we all get together and fix the misinformation problem?

Join me tomorrow when I share stories about the best -- and the worst -- things I found out about my classmates when I arrived here.

This is part 2 of a 4-part series addressed to the author's brother, discussing the author's perspective on "elite education".

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