By Frank Bruni Originally published in the New York Times, April 25, 2016
Somewhere along the way, a school’s selectiveness — measured in large part by its acceptance rate — became synonymous with its worth. Acceptance rates are prominently featured in the profiles of schools that appear in various reference books and surveys, including the raptly monitored one by U.S. News & World Report, whose annual rankings of American colleges factor in those rates slightly. Colleges know that many prospective applicants equate a lower acceptance rate with a more coveted, special and brag-worthy experience, and these colleges endeavor to bring their rates down by ratcheting up the number of young people who apply. They bang the drums like never before.
From the organization that administers the SAT, they buy the names of students who have scored above a certain mark and are at least remotely plausible, persuadable applicants, then they send those students pamphlets and literature that grow glossier and more alluring — that leafy quadrangle! those gleaming microscopes! — by the year. The college admissions office is no longer a mere screening committee. It’s a ruthlessly efficient purveyor of Ivory Tower porn.
“Colleges really go overboard,” Ted O’Neill, the dean of admissions at the University of Chicago for several decades until 2009, told me, explaining that a surfeit of applications “became a way to promote your college, and the admissions office became, in effect, a public-relations arm of the university.” Bruce Poch, a former dean of admissions at Pomona College, said that to an extent unheard-of decades ago, emissaries from colleges will fan out across the country, extolling the magic of their schools and exhorting students to come aboard even as those very exhortations lengthen the odds against any one student getting in. The emissaries are ginning up desire in order to frustrate it, instilling hope only to quash it. In other words, their come-on is successful if it sows more failure.
And those come-ons can be as breathless as any telemarketer’s pitch. An email that Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute sent unbidden to one high school senior invited him “to apply with Candidate’s Choice status!” (The boldface letters and the exclamation point are Rensselaer’s, not mine.) “Exclusively for select students, the Candidate’s Choice Application is unique to Rensselaer, and is available online now,” the email said, after telling its recipient that “a talented student like you deserves a college experience that is committed to developing the great minds of tomorrow.”
“The marketing is unbelievable, just unbelievable,” marveled Kay Rothman, the director of college counseling at the NYC Lab School, in Manhattan. “There are places like Tulane that will send everyone a ‘V.I.P.’ application.” She told me that she routinely has to disabuse impressionable students of the notion that they’ve won some prized lottery or been given some inside track.
“Colleges are actively saddling themselves with a whole group of applicants about whom they know little and who, in turn, know little about them,” Lauren Gersick, the associate director of college counseling at the Urban School of San Francisco, told me. “You have a whole bunch of people fumbling along and freaking out.”
Excerpted from “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania,” by Frank Bruni (Grand Central Publishing, 2016). For the original NYT article: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/25/insider/excerpt-frank-brunis-where-you-go-is-not-who-youll-be.html
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