This week I rewarded my productivity by reading a totally engrossing, satisfying novel: Jean Hanff Korelitz’s Admission. Korelitz's deftly-written novel, which portrays a Princeton admissions officer, isn’t a parody of the ridiculous ways that desperate students (and their parents) try to win acceptance into Ivy League colleges (hint: baked goods will be eaten but will not help a student get in), but a moving novel that centers on the double meaning of the title. As one character explains, “Admission. It’s what we let in, but it’s also what we let out.” The main character, who has been guarding a traumatic secret, avoids her own feelings by engrossing herself in the narratives of aspiring applicants. One of the side pleasures of the novel is reading the excerpts from fictional application essays that begin each chapter. They range from the poignant, to the trite, to the sublime.
While the main character’s deep responses to these applications will resonate with all of us who regularly read student papers, the novel raises larger questions. How do we define academic “success?” What happens to teenagers when we expect them to show evidence, not of promise, but of extraordinary achievement when they are only 17? Do we believe that our current system of higher education is a meritocracy? If not, what is the value of an elite education?
Parents of college-bound high school students will shudder when they read in this novel how difficult it has become to gain admittance into highly selective colleges. “These impressive, compelling kids, enormously likable kids -- they’re the ones we don’t take. This amazing, extraordinary kid, that’s the kid we take.” With an increasing number of college-bound students, each generation faces a higher bar. Select colleges also encourage (and even recruit) students to apply purposely in order to increase the total number of applicants, and thereby to improve their ranking. It’s not enough to be a well-rounded, academically strong student; according to the novel and to other nonfictional analyses of admissions trends, colleges are more interested in composing a heterogeneous freshman class made up of disparate “markers.” A college might not need another well-rounded student with a high g.p.a., lots extra-curricular activities, and glowing letters of recommendation; perhaps they need a tuba player or would rather admit a math genius who floundered in other subjects. (The concept of the well-rounded student, by the way, was a response to the increasing number of Jewish students whose top test scores were winning them entrance to Ivy League colleges at an alarming rate in the 1920s.) So much for a meritocracy.
Full disclosure: I did not attend (nor even think to apply to) an Ivy League college. I did not experience the incredible pressure to achieve perfect SAT scores and grades while simultaneously excelling at sports and engaging in heroic community service. I was unmotivated in high school and my (divorced) parents had no money, so I was quite grateful to be accepted into a competitive state university where I flourished. My younger sister, on the other hand, worked diligently through high school and received a full academic scholarship to a good (if not Ivy) private college. However, she was exhausted from working so hard in high school, and from the pressure of managing the rising costs that her “full” academic scholarship didn’t quite meet. In the end, my sister did not enjoy college.
What do I dream for my own child? Although I went to a large state university, as an educator, I’ve learned the value of small, liberal arts colleges. Yet, as a previous blog mentioned, college professors (along with many other parents) may find it difficult to afford the tuition of a private college. A recent article in U.S. News and World Report indicates many colleges admit giving preference to students whose parents can afford the tuition. Affluent students already attend better high schools, are coached and encouraged by educated parents, and enjoy countless opportunities to increase their odds of getting into a selective college. My daughter will have the advantage of living in a “print rich” home and having a mother who is a professor who can guide her through the application process. I hope that she has abundant choices, but I also hope that she does not equate her intelligence with the status of the institution that “accepts” her, and equally I hope that she doesn’t assume she is smarter or better than those who had worse fortune.