How to Survive the College Admissions Madness


By Frank Bruni, New York Times Columnist
Article originally published in the New York Times. 

Here we go again. At Harvard, Emory, Bucknell and other schools around the country, there have been record numbers of applicants yearning for an elite degree. They’ll get word in the next few weeks. Most will be turned down.

All should hear and heed the stories of Peter Hart and Jenna Leahy.

Peter didn’t try for the Ivy League. That wasn’t the kind of student he’d been at New Trier School, in an affluent Chicago suburb. Most of its graduating seniors go on to higher education, and most know, from where they stand among their peers, what sort of college they can hope to attend. A friend of Peter’s was ranked near the summit of their class; she set her sights on Yale – and ended up there. Peter was ranked in the top third, and aimed for the University of Michigan or maybe the special undergraduate business school at the University of Illinois.

Both rejected him.

He went to Indiana University instead. Right away he noticed a difference. At New Tier, a public school posh enough to pass for private, he’d always had a sense of himself as someone somewhat ordinary, at least in terms of his studies. At Indiana, though, the students in his freshman classes weren’t as showily gifted as the New Trier kids had been, and his self-image went through a transformation.

“I really felt like I was a competent person,” he told me last year, shortly after he’d turned 28. And he thrived. He go into an honors program for undergraduate business majors. He became vice president of a business fraternity on campus. He cobbled together the capital to start a tiny real estate enterprise that fixed up and rented small houses to fellow students.

And he finagled a way, off campus, to interview with several of the top-drawer consulting firms that trawled for recruits at the Ivies but often bypassed schools like Indiana. Upon graduation, he took a plum job in the Chicago office of the Boston Consulting Group, where he recognized one of the other new hires: the friend from New Trier who’d gone to Yale. Traveling a more gilded path, she’d arrived at the same destination.

He later decided to get a master’s degree in business administration, and that’s where he is now, in graduate school – at Harvard.

Jenna, 26, went through the college admissions process two years after he did. She, too, was applying for a charmed school: in her case, Phillips Exeter Academy. Her transcript was a mix of A’s and B’s, and she was active in so many Exeter organizations that when graduation rolled around, she received a prize given to a student who’d brought special distinction to the school.

But her math SAT score was in the low 600s. Perhaps because of that, she was turned down for early decision at her first choice, Claremont McKenna College.

For the general admission period, she applied to more than half a dozen schools. Georgetown, Emory, the University of Virginia and Pomona College all turned her down, leaving her to choose from University of South Carolina, Pitzer College and Scripps College, a sister school of Claremont McKenna’s in South Carolina.

“I felt so worthless,” she recalled.

She chose Scripps. And once she got there and saw how contentedly she fit in, she had a life-changing realization: Not only was a crushing chapter of her life in the past, it hadn’t crushed her. Rejection was fleeting – and survivable.

As a result, she said, “I applied for things fearlessly.”

She won a stipend to live in Tijuana, Mexico for a summer and work with indigent children there. She prevailed in a contest to attend a special conference at the Carter Center in Georgia to meet Jimmy Carter.

And she applied for a coveted spot with Teach for America, which she got. Later she landed a grant to develop a new charter-school for low-income families in Phoenix, where she now lives. It opened last August, with Jenna and a colleague at the helm.

“I never would have had the strength, drive or fearlessness to take such a risk if I hadn’t been rejected so intensely before,” she told me. “There’s a beauty to that kind of rejection, because it allows you to find the strength within.”

I don’t think Peter’s example is extraordinary: People bloom at various stages of life, and different individuals flourish in different climates. Nor is Jenna’s arc so unusual. For every person whose contentment comes from faithfully executing a predetermined script, there are at least 10 if not 100 who had to rearrange the pages and play a part they hadn’t expected to, in a theater they hadn’t envisioned. Besides, life is defined by setbacks, and success is determined by the ability to rebound from them. And there’s no single juncture, no one crossroads, on which everything hinges.

So why do so many Americans –anxious parents, addled children – treat the period between March and early April, when elite colleges deliver disappointing news to anywhere from 70 to 95 percent of their applicants, as if it’s precisely that?

I’m describing the psychology of a minority of American families; a majority are confused on making sure that their kids simply attend a decent college- any decent college – and on finding a way to help them pay for it.  Tuition has skyrocketed, forcing many students to think not in terms of dream schools but in terms of those who won’t leave them saddled with debt.

When I asked Alice Kleeman, the college adviser at Menlo-Atherton High School in the Bay Area of California, about the most significant changes in the admissions landscapes over the last 20 years, she mentioned the fixation on getting into the most selective school possible only after noting that “more students are unable to attend their college of first choice because of money.”

But for too many parents and their children, acceptance by an elite institution isn’t just another challenge, just another goal. A yes or no from Amherst or the University of Virginia or the University of Chicago is seen as the conclusive measure of a young person’s worth, an uncontestable harbinger of the accomplishments or disappointments to come. Winner or loser: This is when judgement is made. This is the great, brutal culling.

What madness. And what nonsense.

For one thing, the admissions game is too flawed to be given so much credit. For another, the nature of a student’s college experience – the work the he or she puts into it, the self-examination that’s undertaken, the resourcefulness that’s honed – matters more than the name of the institution attended.  In fact students at institutions with less hallowed names sometimes demand more of those places and of themselves. Freed from a focus on the packaging of their education, they get to the meat of it.

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