When my parents entered high school in the 1970s, it was not expected that they would attend college at all. None of my grandparents had (they came from working class backgrounds or families struck hard by the Depression), and so the degrees that my parents eventually earned were not foregone conclusions. At 18 years old, my mom and dad had little money, no connections, and limited guidance. They went where they were offered scholarships or to nearby universities within commuting distance.
This family history was the first seed of my ambitions to reach an elite college: While my parents didn’t have the opportunity to go to an Ivy League school and would never even have dreamed of applying, I did, and I had to take advantage of that possibility. This tiny thought was constantly reinforced by the atmosphere of my large, competitive public high school outside Philadelphia, from the day I entered ninth grade convinced that I had to enroll in AP Biology or fall behind, through the pressure-cooker of senior spring in 2009, when the library was filled with tables of students gossiping, bragging, and crying about admissions decisions.
The process battered almost everyone’s self-esteem. To us, a rejection letter meant that we were failures—not smart enough, not talented enough, not special enough. It felt, as so many things do when you’re 17, apocalyptic, as if our futures were over before they had begun.
What I failed to realize then was that my parents’ stories offer an alternate lesson than the one that I chose to absorb at the time—they both succeeded in their careers without brand-name degrees. Because what had limited them wasn’t limiting me, I thought I had to go after what they hadn’t been able to pursue. Instead, I could have focused on the example of their lived experience: If you are motivated and passionate, you are likely to succeed, no matter where you go to college.
In his new book, “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania,” New York Times columnist Frank Bruni takes on this very same myth: that an elite college education is not only necessary for adult achievement but inherently better than every other option—a fast-pass to wealth and success. In “Where You Go,” Bruni examines the circus the college admissions process has become in the U.S., tackling everything from U.S. News and World Report’s rankings to the SATs, and the plummeting acceptance rates among elite schools.
Bruni’s conversational, reassuring tone is apt for a book billed as an “antidote” to pre-college stress, and it’s at its best when he’s marshaling statistics or relating stories of thriving alumni from less-than-prestigious universities. For anxious high school students and their often more-anxious parents, the book’s anecdotes about CEOs, entrepreneurs, and politicians whose academic careers began somewhere outside the Ivy League’s exalted circle really are a cure and a wake-up call. It’s fine to encourage kids to work hard on their applications, to study for the SATs, to improve their grades; what is wrongheaded is to send the message that only one kind of diploma can guarantee the achievement of their future goals.
I was one of the kids who took this message to heart. I was waitlisted at my top choice, and for years a sense of inadequacy washed over me whenever I remembered my failure. I had gotten into other “good” schools, but all I could think about that April was the one that didn’t want me. I was sure that I was missing some greater opportunity, that the students who been accepted must be more intelligent and accomplished than I was. In my mind, the admissions committee was comprised of omniscient judges, able to perfectly assess who was more deserving.
Perhaps the most convincing section of the book uses statistics to focus in on all the ways that the admissions process is rigged—and while these chapters won’t reassure the students (or their parents) who insist on the relentless pursuit of the Ivy League, its facts and figures offer some comfort for those of us who have already been through the game.
If you combine all of the students who received special treatment in admissions—for athletic talent, legacy status, or the location of their hometowns—those students would make up 55 percent of an average class. Legacies in particular have an overwhelming advantage: If your parent attended the school you’re applying to, you have a 45 percent better chance of finding that fat envelope in your mailbox come April. At Harvard, for example, the acceptance rate for primary legacies is 30 percent, five times higher than the general rate. Reading these numbers, laid out so persuasively, made me realize fully for perhaps the first time that my teenage beliefs about the admissions process were mostly wrong, further off base than I’d ever suspected.
While most of the book lives up to the title, what falls a bit short is Bruni’s analysis of the culture that created the admissions circus, and a tendency to reduce all elite schools to one flattened stereotype. I took issue with the chapter ‘Strangled with Ivy’ in which he quotes Wiliam Deresiewicz, the author of a book about the Ivy League called “Excellent Sheep.” In “Excellent Sheep,” Deresiewicz slams his former students at Yale as spineless and robotic, bent on securing straight As and cushy jobs in finance, and apathetic about serious scholarship and soul-searching.
But because of the system’s near-total sway, many brilliant, resourceful students do land at elite colleges. To be sure, the system also excludes worthy candidates and lets in less-deserving ones in their place, but this doesn’t mean that the Ivy League and its “peer” schools are entirely bereft of creativity and motivation. It's just as wrong to categorize all of these students as fragile automatons as it is to tar all state school graduates with the stereotypes associated with their alma maters.
When Bruni goes looking for the admissions mania’s origins, he wanders far from the topic, sometimes in insightful ways and sometimes in unclear ones. He argues that the widening gap between America’s rich and poor may be part of the problem, pointing out that with so much to gain by membership in the upper class and so much to lose by forfeiting it, colleges seen as a route to wealth and status carry more (perceived) value. He suggests that American parents’ declining confidence in the country’s future has made them desperate to lock down any advantage for their offspring that they can—and a fancy degree is believed to offer one huge, expensive advantage.
Despite this mounting torrent of pressure, it’s important to remember and restate—to both parents and their teenagers—what was once an obvious truth: There are and have always been many paths to a fulfilling, successful adulthood. Most of them don’t begin with an Ivy League acceptance letter. If you know a high school senior who’s wound up with worry over the decisions to be handed out in the next few weeks, consider giving them this book. Remind them that self-worth can’t be determined by a panel of strangers in an ivory tower. Tell them that easy victories don’t forge true character, but learning how to overcome disappointment does. Where you go is not who you’ll be—it’s something that I wish someone had told me.