Admissions insanity

April 25, 2005|By Nancy Schnog

FOR TEENAGERS playing the high-stakes college admissions game, Judgment Day 2005 has arrived. Long-awaited envelopes are in the mail, along with letters that many teenagers view as the key to their success and the first day of the rest of their lives.

And given current demographic realities, which include a substantial rise in the number of qualified students applying to highly selective schools, there is a good chance that the decision in the envelope will turn many teenagers' celebratory family dinners into tear-filled evenings.

As a 12th-grade English teacher and seasoned observer of this rite of passage, I am fretful about those envelopes. Each year, I witness the same boom-and-bust cycle: kids' intense investments in high-status schools and the dejection that follows the "no thank you" letter; kids' certainty that a rejection says something dark and determining about their minds and chances for success; kids' belief, at least for some, that a thin envelope signifies overwhelming personal failure.

Given what feels like a gut-wrenching repetition complex, I wonder whether it's possible to rethink the strategies we use to play this game. Why not ask school counselors, parents, teachers and students to join to create a smoother transition from high school to college? Can we not work together to run a college admissions process in which the center manages to hold?

We can, but it means asking academically and professionally hungry teens and adults to slow down and to distinguish college illusions from educational realities.

Debrief a group of high school seniors on college admissions and you hear their sense of chronic turbulence. There's the need to deal with meeting deadlines and figuring out how not to lose an online application, multiple essays requiring students to capture their soul in 250 words, parents more fixated on, let's say, the University of Maryland than their son or daughter, children of divorce who find themselves stuck between parents who can't agree on the college list or the signature on the application check, and teens who drive each other crazy with the ubiquitous "where are you applying to college" question.

As a young woman in my class noted, "College: It's what senior year is about."

True. But from my perspective, senior year is also about watching students narrow their loyalties too early, allowing hot campus infatuations to displace cool-headed investigation into a plethora of terrific schools that might be right for them. And, sorry to say, all too often these exclusive campus love affairs have more to do with status - the glamour of the Ivy League and its brethren elite colleges and universities - than with considered exploration of where and how to acquire a top-notch education.

And when the thin envelope arrives: BOOM. Dreams crash, egos burn, self-esteem plummets. As one of my students said about the moment she realized she would never be an Ivy League contender: "All this work seems worthless if you get into a school that nobody has heard of. Then you feel your time was wasted."

Note her diction: "worthless," "wasted." Miss the flight to the collegiate heavens and four years of high school education crash to ground zero.

In a review of admissions procedures in The New Yorker, Louis Menand pointed out how freshman class selection is neither "unfair or corrupt" but "as psychiatrists say, highly overdetermined, affected by so many variables that it has become, for most intents and purposes, unpredictable." Really, should we orient kids to goals whose odds are no better than unpredictable?

Lost among these college fixations is also a key reality principle: that great education can be acquired all over this country. Read Gregg Easterbrook's "Who Needs Harvard?" in The Atlantic Monthly and say farewell to the myth that elite school attendance improves chances for future success.

"It is genuinely ironic," writes Mr. Easterbrook, "that as non-elite colleges have improved in educational quality and financial resources, and favoritism toward top-school degrees has faded, getting into an elite school has nonetheless become a national obsession." Go figure.

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau pointed out this kind of misjudgment: "Shams and delusions are esteemed for soundest truths, while reality is fabulous."

Despite a gripping national fantasy, it is a delusion to keep the faith that an elite undergraduate education is the proven road to success. It is reality that for students with intelligence, motivation and grit, myriad institutions can provide that auspicious first day of the rest of their lives. If we are going to respect the most fundamental value in education, let's keep our eyes turned to truth.

Nancy Schnog, co-editor of Inventing the Psychological: Toward a Cultural History of Emotional Life in America, teaches English at the Potomac School in McLean, Va.

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