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Education

Erika Christakis has an idea for how we might be able to shed some light on what's needed to succeed not only in college, but in life. (Nati Harnik/AP)

It’s April, ‘tis the season of embittered commentary about the “unfairness” of the elite college admissions game. High school senior, Suzy Lee Weiss’s acrid reflections in the Wall Street Journal, “To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me,” simply express, with more wit and rage than most, what tens of thousands of American kids and their families are asking themselves: Is this system rigged?

There might be a better way. Last year, Vassar College inadvertently sent acceptance letters to 76 students who were supposed to have been denied admission. The errors were corrected within hours, though not soon enough for some excruciating heartache to those whose fortunes were cruelly reversed. But this fiasco could have been an opportunity for an interesting experiment to see what would have happened to those accidentally-accepted-but-actually-rejected students if they had been allowed to enroll.

We’ve tacitly encouraged these capable, talented teenagers to hustle and conceal, to exaggerate and weasel, and sometimes even outright cheat, their way into a coveted berth on the Ivy League ship…

It’s an open secret that a large percentage of applicants to elite universities are fully qualified to attend. So, admissions committees of these colleges could safely agree to accept five or ten percent of the applicant pool randomly, without telling anyone who they are, and then track them over a period of 10 or 20 years. Such an experiment could shed light on the experiences and preparation needed to succeed not only in college, but in life. How would those randomly chosen students fare academically compared to their carefully selected peers? Would their majors and transcripts look different? Would they pursue different careers? Would they be the “creative change agents” we keep hearing about in glossy college brochures? Might they become more loyal alumni donors? Who knows?

But it’s worth answering these questions.

Most educators are sick of the admissions arms race and its downstream effects on an increasingly stressful, truncated high school experience. As elite colleges tap an ever-broader and deeper applicant pool, including more international and low-income students than ever before, high-performing students are turning to increasingly baroque methods to distinguish their high school records. Spearheading a non-profit while maintaining a 4.0 GPA feels like yesterday’s news; these days, students feel like they need all that, plus two deaf parents and a history of childhood cancer.

As Ms. Weiss noted, “Colleges tell you, ‘Just be yourself.’ That is great advice, as long as yourself has nine extracurriculars, six leadership positions, three varsity sports, killer SAT scores and two moms. Then by all means, be yourself!”

It’s no surprise that those spurned by the Ivy League (which would be 94.2 percent of Harvard’s applicants this year) are frustrated. But underlying the frustration is also a nagging sense that the costs of reaching for the college admissions brass ring may simply be too high.

It’s become a cliché to bemoan the anxiety, neediness, and self-doubts of young people, but as a Harvard College administrator living and working (as a “house master”) among 400 high-achieving undergraduates, I see the toll every day that our punishing demands on young people have produced.

By the time they get to college, our students have already spent four years (or, more) on a hamster wheel of adult expectations, so we should hardly be surprised that they lack the confidence or gumption to pursue their own dreams. When I propose something mildly subversive to a student, like spending a sophomore summer doing manual labor rather than working in an investment bank or at an unpaid internship in Washington, all too often I’m met with a look of horror, as if I’ve suggested they jump off an ocean liner in the middle of the Pacific, during a cyclone and with no life boat.

How would randomly chosen students fare academically compared to their carefully selected peers? Would their majors and transcripts look different? Would they pursue different careers?

And why should they feel otherwise when we’ve tacitly encouraged these capable, talented teenagers to hustle and conceal, to exaggerate and weasel, and sometimes even outright cheat, their way into a coveted berth on the Ivy League ship? What do we expect when we’ve encouraged high school seniors to do every single thing except be themselves?

Skeptics will quibble that a totally random process would be untenable; some applicants simply lack the preparation to succeed. In that case, the admissions committees could do an early initial screen to weed out people who don’t meet a basic threshold test. But the experiment will only work if it’s done in good faith, and that would require accepting students randomly.

If we find, as some educators already suspect, that the skills that get a kid into an elite college are not necessarily the skills for a vigorous, intellectually and personally meaningful life, then this high school rat race is for naught. That’s a frightening thought, but it might be just the course correction we need to convince parents and their children that there is more to life than what’s found within Ivy-covered walls.

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  • ChristineL

    One thing I don’t understand about all the hue and cry about Ivy league admissions is this: Why doesn’t everyone stop obsessing about getting into Ivy league colleges? Is a Harvard education really THAT much better than a U. Mass education? I attended two state colleges and one private (Fitchburg State, U.Mass, Framingham State and B.U.). I did not find the caliber of the teachers or students at B.U. to be any better than those at U.Mass or Framingham State.)

    • Current Harvard Sophomore

      What the ivy league provides is more than simply good classes. It is the whole environment that fosters collaboration between faculty and ambitious students. The powerful almuni netwrok and the rich resources that are availed to students to pursue whatever they want to. It is the higher level seminars and tutorials that enable you to interact with distinguished faculty at a level unparalleled at larger schools, the rather intense clubs through which you can be coordinating something of international significance, or even the fireside chats with world leaders in all sector who are always visiting the ivy league for various reasons. Therefore, you are right that you will not find much difference between an intro level calculus class at Harvard and most state schools, in fact some state schools might even do a better job at it, but that is not what distinguishes the two.

      • Tangible

        As a “current Harvard sophomore” you may not be ideally positioned to comment on what really goes on at other schools. You certainly seem to have absorbed from those around you the collective self-regard that characterizes too many denizens of the Ivies.

        Your comments about the value of the Old Boys (and now Girls) Network are sadly quite accurate. But your comments about rigorous education and exposure to great minds are simply provincial.

        It’s not your fault. You are a product of the system that Ms. Christakis describes so well, programmed from early life to see Harvard and its ilk as the only goal worth pursuing. Someday, I hope, when you see your “sophomoric” comment on the eternal Internet, you will have a good laugh at how narrow your view was back in your undergrad days.

        • http://www.facebook.com/richard.wood.777 Richard Wood

          Excellent rejoinder, Tangible.

      • http://twitter.com/SamBrown1000 Sam Brown

        From an alum to the sophomore – LOL. Most faculty, as I’m sure you know or will soon learn – want nothing to do with you. But if you consider collaboration with the grad-student TA’s to be the same thing, then yea, I guess you’re right. Oh, and the fireside chats, really? I got to ask a question at one of ‘em once. But alas, I don’t feel all that special, wa wa :-/

        Harvard is different because you have to be a LOT more self-directed to succeed there than at other schools. The professors are great at scholarship but suck at teaching and the guidance system is non-existent. You have to have a brain to figure all this out and the maturity to not get distracted by your own hype. Harvard does open doors, no question, but you gotta have a plan for AFTER-graduation, and use your time as an undergrad to perfect that plan and to work towards achieving it, instead of basking in the glow of having been admitted to a fancy school. (Or else you’ll be severely depressed when you leave campus, buddy.) So, just sayin.’

        • SG

          I agree with Sam Brown on many accounts about the experience in the Ivy League. I attend Brown University and I feel as though, despite its Ivy League reputation, the school is very different from say Yale or Harvard. I feel as though professors (even the university president!) actually care about me as a student, and as a person. That’s not the case elsewhere. Directiveness and goal setting–things that students learn to do in high school more and more–are key skills to survive at a school like Harvard or Brown. “Being yourself” just won’t cut it.

  • http://twitter.com/AbhaG Abha Gallewale

    I’m a college senior working in Undergraduate Admissions. While I can’t assume that our admissions process works in the same way as Harvard, it is still an elite, top 25 university with lower and lower acceptance rates each year. I can understand Suzy’s frustration – I was there myself just four years ago when I was waitlisted at Harvard and Penn and didn’t understand what I could possibly do to tip the scales in my favor. And while I certainly have my own issues with college admissions processes, I don’t think the argument against it can be as straightforward as she believes it to be. You don’t have to be curing cancer or inventing the next big thing to attract attention from these schools. The biggest thing I look for when I interview applicants is that they are deeply passionate about something. And no, it doesn’t have to be something extraordinary or wildly unique that has the potential to save the world. It’s about seeing that spark in the student’s eye that tells you they care about something greater than themselves. That they’re not applying to my university simply to get that college degree from a top school, but to enrich themselves to further their passions, accomplish a goal, or help someone else. Sometimes, it’s not about the story, but how much the applicant believes in their own story.

  • ClientRage Administrator

    Suzy’s expressions go beyond wit and rage. Her comments are downright offensive in the way they stereotype the populations she claims to envy. I understand she is in pain, but I can’t give her credit for the way she approached it, witty or not.

  • http://twitter.com/Emily_atwork Emily Gaudette

    First, girls go Ivy League, women go Seven Sisters. :)

    Second, young college students aren’t getting a full experience if they’re not involved in community outreach and/or “manual labor” as mentioned in the article. I wouldn’t have been the same person if I hadn’t worked food service jobs through college, doing dishes and waiting tables. You need a full sense of the working world, even as a self-professor “scholar,” as so many students at liberal arts colleges are.

  • Princeton Guy

    Having spent 4 years at Princeton, I would agree with Suzy Lee that the people there are not really good people. Anything to get ahead..

    • http://twitter.com/SamBrown1000 Sam Brown

      may be you should have made other friends?

    • http://www.facebook.com/richard.wood.777 Richard Wood

      Did you graduate?

  • http://twitter.com/SamBrown1000 Sam Brown

    I applied to Harvard last minute and attended because they gave me a boatload of financial aid for which I am eternally grateful. So, to be clear, my extra-curricular activities and science awards from national competitions, contrary to Ms. Weiss’s obnoxious suppositions, were NOT motivated by getting into an Ivy. I just really liked science and was really good at it.

    I’m 10 years out, and the name alone has opened more doors than the most accomplished accomplishment at UMass ever could. So, yea, it’s not just hype.

    There are folks at Harvard (and everywhere else) who only care about getting ahead. There are also many (white, Midwestern) folks at Harvard who are sincerely passionate about the world around them. And there certainly ARE folks at Harvard (and everywhere else) who do crazy stuff ala Ms. Christakis’s suggestions. You just can’t generalize about the Harvard undergrads or the Harvard experience that easily. (Even if you were a House Master. Or may be the quadded folks are different :)

    I’m also glad that Ms. Weiss didn’t get in. She is too cynical and narrow-minded, and folks like that shouldn’t get ahead because they don’t care about anyone but themselves, which makes them useless and really annoying.

    • ImperatorMachinarum

      Go easy on Ms. Weiss. She’s young. She seemingly has enough potential to become an informed, productive, and positively impacting working adult one day.

      Likewise, I hope the same for you as well…and believe me, based on what you wrote, one can be forgiven for thinking you’re not there yet either.

      :)

  • Lokwal

    Its interesting that to respond to the negative article in Forbes you have to be a member of some social media. This is exactly what Miss Weiss was talking about in her article

    • reinzig

      Are there high school students that aren’t involved in social media?? (and it’s the Wall Street Journal)

  • reinzig

    Really interesting. I bet that the admissions officers who rejected her are reading her letter and praising their good judgment.

  • Blonde02

    She is spot on with her assertions. I was one of those people who started charities and volunteered for the sole purpose of padding my college apps. I knew what I needed to do early on to overcome my “saltine cracker” status, and while the ivy leagues were out of my price range, I can tell you my insincere efforts paid off.

  • MelissaJane

    As the mother of two 6-year-olds, I have already had to make my peace with making choices for them that will not lead to an Ivy League track. I think that’s insane. But I am convinced that heading to an elite college at 18 is not the only path to a successful and fulfilled life, and I hope that they forgive me for not putting them in the sports and extracurriculars that they already need to be experiencing if they’re going to be the kind of students those schools will admit a dozen years from now. I hope they’ll find their own paths, pursue the things that interest them, spend a fair amount of their childhoods playing and being bored and reading books and making up games and squabbling with each other, and maybe take a few years to work at McDonald’s or volunteer or flounder around before they go to college.

  • delijdewolfe

    Suzy’s letter was not a “satire” piece. It was an appeal to spite and an appeal to pity. She railed and stereo-typed throughout the entire piece not only at the schools, but questioned the merits of the students themselves. As if they earned acceptance by faking it.

    Yet, the most telling factor in this story is that Suzy’s sister (a former WSJ editor) encouraged her to write it after Suzy wasn’t accepted (only 7% of 26,000 applicants made it) and then pulled strings at the WSJ in order to have Suzy’s “satire” piece published, which helped her land acceptance to several top 10′s.

    The fact that she got the publicity on her sisters merits shows that she isn’t as vanilla as she would like to claim. Satire is a reflection of honest observation. Her article and motives were disingenuous, insulting to her peers, and insincere. I hope that it isn’t a permanent reflection of her character.

    • Evelyn Garver

      BRAVO

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002644397738 Lior Samson

    Yes, college admissions are rigged. So is life. Unearned privilege and unfair handicap is the nature of the human condition, and knowing someone to open the side door will always be one route to getting on stage. Even without an explicit roll of the dice in the admissions process, randomness reigns. A dean might have an unconscious bias or reads your essay after a series of blockbusters or drops the folder in one stack rather than the other. You get in, you don’t. It’s the right school, or it’s not. And some lucky student might even whine her way through connections into scoring a published opinion piece in the WSJ, while a better writer with more years of polish and practice can catch the editor on a bad day. That’s the breaks, but at least Suzie Lee is getting a head start on a career as a journalist or writer–or a whinger.

    –Prof. Larry Constantine (pen name, Lior Samson)

  • tstag

    Just be yourself
    .
    I believe (having been interviewing college applicants since 1976) that “Just be yourself” is true.
    .
    The applicant who gets into Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, MIT, Cal Tech, etc. (the top 50 or so universities across the USA), are “preordained”, in the sense, that by the time these applicants are in 5th grade, they have established educational goals, drive, determination, etc. etc. etc. regardless of what their parents direct them to do.
    .
    Indeed, the true student at these universities (who is Not legacy…) can’t be directed by their parents. They don’t need SAT classes. They don’t need to be told to take AP or IB or honors classes….. they do that because They want to be challenged in the manner to which they believe they are accustomed.
    .
    They sign up for summer programs and Then ask for some help in attending (from their parents).
    .
    These students are Self Driven.
    They could live in a Cave and study by torch light, and they would still attend Harvard or Stanford or Cal Tech. .
    .
    They have “preordained” themselves………
    .
    For the remainder (the vast majority)? Yes, they have to have some assistance in directing them to the remainder of the colleges and universities.
    .
    But those at the top 50 or so? They have been headed in that Self-Determined direction since elementary school. On their own, without any assistance from parents or teachers. Indeed, most of those applicants could Teach their high school classes…..
    .

  • sjw81

    yes she was overly snarky and offensive…not witty. although i agree with much of what she wrote. what is really really rigged is the whole financing of colleges, loans that are given to anyone who wants them so colleges dont fear that the loans will ever be defaulted on, they took care of that. cant happen. so colleges just increase teh price year after year, making the housing bubble look small…but it will burst soon enough .

  • Tulane Gal

    Ms. Christakis fails to mention that her status as a Harvard alumna, employee, and spouse of a well known Harvard faculty member helped win her son a coveted spot at Harvard. While she criticizes the “rat race,” she appreciated its benefits enough to throw her son into it and grab him a spot.

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