College Letters Fat and Thin
Published on: April 18, 2012
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  • Daniel M. Ryan

    Back in the olden days, getting into college was much easier. My dad went to Assumption (now part of the University of Windsor.) Here’s how he got in: my grandfather picked up the phone and called the university President. Within twenty-four hours, my dad was in Windsor and was matriculated.

    Me? I had to apply to the University of Toronto in January of my senior high-school year. Four months from application to acceptance.

    I tell you: things went more swiftly in those sleepy bygone days…

  • Walter Sobchak

    There is simply no reason to allow this travesty to continue. The colleges have done enough damage to the citizens level of trust in their fairness and judgment to justify a complete Congressional overhaul of the system.

    First. The colleges desire to engage in individual judgment, as if they could see into the kids hearts, is just a cover to manipulate the system for favored constituencies inside and out side. Accommodating donors, and influential alumni is one problem. The “legacy” admission is a well known scandal. Athletic admissions are another.

    Second. There is a growing, and in my estimation, well founded, belief that the colleges are engaged in trying to create a national elite based on cleverness and conformity to their own mores, that exclude not just minorities but other large swaths of the population like rural persons, and religious persons.

    Third, the current system of admitting students before they have completed the seventh semester of their eight semester high school educations devalues their senior year and deprives them of the opportunity to grow.

    My proposal is simple. The colleges should be allowed no more discretion than in setting the minimum academic requirements for their students. The requirements should be objective and public like SAT or ACT scores, and High School class ranks. The schools should be required to set the minimums on the basis of recent successful graduating classes. Any student who meets the minimum requirement should be eligible to have his name entered into a lottery for admission to that school. When the day comes to notify successful applicants, the eligible names can be picked out by a random program on a computer. The winners will be offered admission. If not enough accept, more names can be drawn.

  • disillusioned one

    A warning to the high achieving high school kid from a student currently in a good school.

    In fact if you went to a high school like Exeter, Stuyvesant, or the typical rich-waspy suburban high school, its quite dissapointing how even a supposedly “elite” college isn’t all that different academically from high school (barring the more diverse social-economic-racial mix). Most of what you gain out of college will be a result of your own efforts rather than experiencing the spoon-fed curriculums in most universities and high schools.

    Firstly: there are still people smarter than you, but most people will probably be less driven, and less intelligent than you hoped. This is true where I’m at and my best friends at Harvard and Yale have confirmed it as well. In my high school class of 400, 20 or so students ended up at top tier universities, and 5 of them I would consider truly intellectually curious. In my current college dorm of 400 people, I think maybe 50 are. In fact, most of my peers don’t even ever go to office hours to chat with their nobel prize winning professors….

    Granted I’m sure people change over time and have the “oh snap” moment when they realize they haven’t been living to their full potential, but its very frustrating how you hope to be surrounded by a different group of people who seek more challenges and then you realize your still in the same type of bubble.

  • dearieme

    Aye, it’s a struggle in Britain too. Whereas in my day I just applied to the University I wanted to attend: they replied, admitting me “to any Faculty”. There you are: Medicine, Law, Science, Vet Med, Arts, Social Science or Music – the choice was mine. Though God knows why they were prepared to admit me into Music, since my piano lessons had proved a fiasco. Perhaps they took the view that no-one doomed to fail would be daft enough to enter the course. I should explain: “fail” was a very common concept then – if you performed badly you were thrown out.

  • John Barker

    I have learned that some selective colleges send letters of interest to thousands of students whom they have no intention of admitting. These very flattered young people apply and are overwhelmingly rejected but they serve the purpose of inflating the ratio of applied to selected applicants, thus enhancing the image of the college. It is also apparent that the children of prominent families are enrolled even when they appear to have limited academic abilities and questionable character traits.

  • BillH

    It’s real simple. Everybody just band together and don’t submit any applications to any college. By June, colleges would be advertising on TV like used car salesmen or class-action lawyers. (When I entered Butler U. in 1953, I just went out to the campus on registration day with high school records in hand, and registered. If they had an application process, I didn’t know about it.)

  • Bart Hall (Kansas, USA)

    Perhaps the most dangerous trend of all is that rather than teaching our children to fail forward we do everything possible to prevent them from failing at all, ever.

    It’s been going on for well over a generation, and the predictable result is General Motors.

  • ms

    My son’s college application process last year came directly from Bizarro world. We live in California, and since we are comfortably off but not rich, decided that the UC system would best fit his needs. It has repudedly excellent schools and in-state tuition. We were not worried about admission because this was his resume in a nutshell:

    2200 SAT
    34 ACT
    4.6 GPA
    790, SAT II, World History
    710, SAT II, Physics
    Numerous volunteer activities and extensive service hours
    Well crafted and articulate essays
    Key Club VP
    Accomplished pianist
    Completion of several internships

    We should not have been confident. With these qualifications, he was rejected by Berkeley, UCSD, UCLA and Davis. If he had not added UC Santa Cruz to his application list at the last minute–a not-very-selective place that did accept him– he would have been deemed unworthy of the UC system.

    It was terribly painful to watch as his hopes, dreams and confidence plummeted with each thin letter. Puzzled by all this, I went online to do some research about UC admissions and learned that all the UCs use a “holistic” evaluation system now. This means that they put little weight on objective measures and a lot of weight on subjective things like “hardship” and other challenges as presented in essays. In essence, they are using the universities to advance a social agenda to some degree. There is a lot of incentive to exaggerate or make up the “hardships” in these essays for obvious reasons. The universities certainly don’t have the resources to investigate these tales.

    Oddly, these universities have a 55-45% female to male ratio, and yet rejected a fine applicant like my son. The best reason we can figure for the rejections–you might expect one or two, but not so many–is that his essay turned off the application readers. It was about how his family (we are rather educated and intellectual, for better or worse) and his musical education (he is very gifted in music) have affected his life. I guess that screams “rich and privileged.”

    This was a horrible experience and, as you can imagine, we are pretty cynical about the college admissions process in our family now. The good news is that my son is pretty much what his resume would lead you to believe and is doing very well.

  • erp

    I beg to differ with the good Yale professor. Yale grads may never to heard of again in the public sector, but just the fact of it, puts them in a select group forever after, no matter what screw ups they become.

    It’s not only the Ivy league, it’s the big league and saying otherwise is silly.

    Getting in means you’ve made the cut. What you do with it is another matter entirely.

  • thibaud

    ms – no expert here but what I’ve heard from multiple sources is that the UC admissions process is now so competitive that a fair amount of luck or arbitrariness is to be expected. This is why kids today now apply to a dozen or more schools.

    If it helps any, there are thousands of others in your shoes. You can find some good discussions at (use the search feature to narrow the list of discussions to the UC system). Some of the people on collegeconfidential have some pretty deep insights into the workings of the system, and can reduce some of the mystery and opacity for you.

  • Anthony

    RELAX: “The college derby may be your first encounter with real competition, but it won’t be your last…and competition and striving for real excellence aren’t actually that alien or disturbing to kids. Winning and losing are part of the kinds of games that kids love to play, and educators through the centuries have seen the importance of harnessing that human drive to compete in order to motivate kids to learn….Look ahead with an optimistic attitude and an open mind, and you will find that even very painful disappointments often turn out to be blessings in disguise.”

    The aforementioned WRM is most solicitous advise one can offer children enveloped in maximal testing – you are indirectly telling them that grit matters additionally; now only if at 17, 18, and 19 years of age (period of identity seeking), “young letter openers” are able to immerse advise.

  • Alex Weiner

    “Years later, after Peter built and sold PayPal, he reconnected with an old friend from SLS. The first thing the friend said was, “So, aren’t you glad you didn’t get that Supreme Court clerkship?” It was a funny question. At the time, it seemed much better to be chosen than not chosen. But there are many reasons to doubt whether winning that last competition would have been so good after all. Probably it would have meant a future of more insane competition. And no PayPal. The pithy, wry version of this is the line about Rhodes Scholars: they all had a great future in their past.”


  • WCOG

    I would say that our first brush with reality comes much earlier than that if you’re in a system that ‘tracks’ kids the way my high school (Township HS District 214, represent!) did. When I was in seventh grade and eighth grade my parents were all over me about the testing we underwent because that would determine what classes we were allowed to take in high school and that in turn would determine what sort of university we got to attend. While they needn’t have worried (#humblebrag), it was a portentious experience. From then on, really, your destiny is basically set forth: you will go to a good college. I remember looking around our ‘History of Western Philosophy’ class (tought by a former professor of rhetoric and Brookings fellow) and realizing that these same 40 (or so) kids were in all of my classes and that every one would at least be going to a pretty good university. We get separated by ability at earlier and earlier ages these days, it’s pretty compelling evidence for Charles Murray’s thesis in his recent book.
    Kids from this class are all now engineers and applied scientists (in industry), journalists, or still in graduate school studying mathematics, economics, law or applied science (for careers in academia). The lack of diversity in employment is actually kind of startling. A few did crash and burn in college because of drugs or whatever, but not many. Just my two cents as someone who went through this selection experience four years ago.

  • “It’s particularly hard on a lot of young Americans because the college admissions process is the event that demonstrates how much they are surrounded by hypocritical lying weasels.”

    Oh. I thought you meant the ones who lied or otherwise misrepresented themselves while building up their resumes.

  • “We get separated by ability at earlier and earlier ages these days,”

    I like the idea of large central high schools with ala carte curriculum. Every student gets to choose which courses he wants to take regardless of what the teachers or tests say.

    [OTH I’d like to see a lot of mandatory industrial arts classes for all. 😉 ]

  • Ok, here’s my true story for what it’s worth.

    football team whose steady girlfriend was the captain of the cheerleaders. Then in my senior year something happened: an assembly was called for what turned out to be a democratic referendum on the question of whether or not to set aside an area on campus where students could smoke.

    The principal, after explaining the purpose of the assembly, which seemed very odd, then proceeded to give a long speech on all the reasons why this would be a very bad idea. At which point he put it to a vote to the entire student body. First he asked for a show of hands of those who agreed it would be a bad idea to have a designated smoking area. A sea of hands went up. Then he asked for a show of hands of those who favored the idea. I didn’t personally favor the idea or disfavor it but was offended by faux democratic proceedure in which only one side of the issue was presented. So as a kind of instinctive protest on the spur of the moment I stuck up my hand together with three or four hoods in the back of the gymnasium.

    Well, we were barely back in home room before there came a call for me to go to the principal’s office. There I was met by the principal and the high school football coach, who demanded to know why I had raised my hand at the assembly, and I explained. When I showed no remorse they threatened to write an unfavorale letter of dis-recommendation to the only college I had applied to. (Regular letters of recommendation were already sent). I said fine, it was a matter of principle, and a few weeks later I got my rejection from Harvard explaining that based on my academic record I was likely to be only a B student at Harvard.

    Looking back I think Harvard was correct. Not that I would have been a B student, as events were to prove, but that I was not Harvard material. There was a genetic flaw in my character — looking back I think it was genetic, not a choice of free will — and I was not the kind of student they were interested in.

    In an unreflective moment I had made one of the biggest decisions of my life.

  • Bill

    Back in the day, MIT’s acceptance letters were thin – just one page of “congrats, you’ve been accepted to the class of 19xx, you’ll get more information later..”

  • freuchie

    I highly recommend the book “Crazy U” by Andrew Ferguson. It’s about his efforts to get his son into college and his research on the admission’s process. Wonderful book. Bottom line, at an elite university, one third of the spots are filled by legacies, on third by the need to fill sports teams, and one third by minority needs. If you are not a minority, athlete, or legacy student, you are really swimming upstream to try to get in, 34 ACT or not.

  • ms, don’t fret, your son will do just fine. The one thing they didn’t tell you about on the application is that higher ed is now sports crazy. Not only do you need to have all the qualifications of your son, he’ll also need to be training for an Olympic sport.

    However, there is one thing that is not valued a bit these days….jobs. They are so busy with massive piles of homework, 2-3 hours per day of sports, activities and community service (yes, volunteering is now REQUIRED, lol) that the whole system has gone haywire. Kids have zero idea of the real world, how to make money. As an employer, I’ve seen this many times, people who attended Ivy League schools have a sense of entitlement and just coast once they get out. Of course, that’s when the real work begins.

    One more thing to add about the California UC system; they are now bringing in more students from out of state and limiting in state students. Out of state students pay substantially more than in state students. It’s all about the money.

    What’s a parent to do? Success is the best revenge and that has more to do with instilling good character and hard work. There are no short cuts to those in life.

  • Toni

    About and to disillusioned [email protected]:

    True intellectual curiosity is rare, period, especially once people get caught up in jobs, marriage, kids and other complications.

    I worked at the top level of journalism for 22 years. In all that time, I had two conversations — one with a male billionaire, the other with a female multimillionaire — which ended with the other person saying, “I haven’t had a discussion like that since college!”

    Well, I never stopped wanting to have discussions like that. At least I got to ask questions for a living.

    You’ll find intellectual honesty is as rare as intellectual curiosity or maybe rarer. One Hemingway novel ends with a line of dialog, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” I’ve always strived to separate what is pretty to think from what is TRUE. Not what will flatter me or suit my pre-existing biases or protect my finances or anything else that doesn’t apply to everyone equally.

    This is hard to do, which is why it’s rare. But it’s extraordinarily helpful — certainly in my job, to do unbiased reporting — but also emotionally. When, at age 28, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, I never said, “Why me?” Why not me? Look around. Bad things happen to good people all the time, and if something bad has to happen, better it does so in the US than in Bangladesh or Bolivia or Botswana.

    Ahem. I can digress and dilate, can’t I? Short version:

    The most important thing about anyone is character. Next is intellectual honesty, and if you get to run into other intellectually curious people in your life, you’re lucky. Assuming you stay intellectually curious yourself. You may or may not.

  • Toni

    This essay is written as advice to high schoolers applying to college. Do any high schoolers read Via Meadia?

    The closest such reply so far is disillusioned [email protected], but he or she is already in college.

    But parents of high schoolers do, so maybe it’ll be passed on.

  • orthodoc

    MS, you are absolutely correct. Your son’s lack of “hardship” is what did him in.
    For any “highly selective” school, about 30% of admissions go to legacies, 30% go to athletes, and 30% go to visible minorities (read, black and hispanic). A white or Asian kid without connections or athletic prowess has about a 2-3% chance of admission to highly selective schools.

  • John Burke

    Of our 44 Presidents, 22 held degrees from Yale, Harvard, Princeton or Columbia. Look at the backgrounds of any group of Americans who have succeeded at the highest levels — Supreme Court Justices, Nobel-winning scientists, Fortune 500 CEOs, etc. — and you will find a similar dominance by graduates of Ivies and other leading universities like Stanford, Duke, Berkeley, etc. This should surprise no one although Mead seems surprised that more “quirky” types are not making it to the top. The highest performing 17 year olds are kids who are smart, work hard and are ambitious. What a bunch of losers!

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @John Burke: for most of that period, the Ivies didn’t have competitive admissions. If you were white, male, could pass the admissions exam, you were in. They were elite institutions in the sense that only the social elite could afford them in most cases, not because they self consciously recruited an intellectual elite. The students in those schools today are quite different from the ones who used to go there — better certainly in some ways, but not at all the same.

  • SR

    My son is weighing the decision now- having been rejected by all the Ivy Leagues, even though he has 50+ dual enrollment college credits with calc 1, 2, 3, linear algebra, 400 level physics, arabic, a published math paper rethinking one of the fundamentals of physics, 2240 SAT, 33 ACT.. The list goes on. For cryin’ out loud, he didn’t get in to Emory, BC, or UMichigan, let alone the Ivies. Yes, he got into a few others, but this is ridiculous!

    Thank you for your words of encouragement, I know God works by opening and closing doors, and we have to accept that. But he has worked so hard!

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @SR: Learning how to work hard towards a goal, and how to keep going forward in the face of disappointment will mean more for your son’s happiness and success than anything he could learn in an Ivy League school. You, and he, have every reason to be proud of these accomplishments.

  • The Sanity Inspector

    Andrew Ferguson’s book Crazy U has some wildly funny stories about the college admissions process.

  • teapartydoc

    “Education” is a crock. I’m one of those rebels. Bottom half of my class in high school. Hated every minute of it. Wore Mickey Mouse ears to graduation. Top SAT score. Trouble in college because I didn’t have a clue as to how to study (never had before), but ended up with a double major in biology and chemistry in the days before there was a biochemistry major. Med school. Surgical sub-specialty. Will retire in a few years. I read more than most students and continue to learn everything I can. I still hate school, and think that if Satan himself could have devised a system to screw up society he would’ve made the public school system and universities we have just the way they are now.

  • FC

    May the envelopes be always in your fatter.

  • Externality

    @John Burke: for most of that period, the Ivies didn’t have competitive admissions. If you were white, male, could pass the admissions exam, you were in.

    Of course, the definition of “white” was very different back then; it might be more accurate to say that ‘if you were a WASP, male, [and] could pass the admissions exam, you were in.”

    When Jewish-, Catholic-, Eastern European-, and Southern European-Americans started applying in large numbers around World War I, the Ivies (and many elite liberal arts colleges) changed the rules. Objectively graded admissions tests and criteria were replaced with “holistic” admissions, legacy admissions, hard and de facto quotas, and “gentlemen’s agreements” to protect the Ivies’ WASPish character as long as possible. Anything to keep “those people” out.

    As late as the 1980s, one still encountered alumni representatives and interviewers, and less frequently, admissions officers, who thought it humorous to tell disparaging Polish jokes, to stereotype Italian-Americans as having Mafia ties and potentially dangerous, to tell a Greek-American family that students whose name the representative could not pronounce (such as theirs) were not admitted, etc. When students and their families objected or looked annoyed, they were accused of lacking a sense of humor. Some of the worst college representatives were, ironically, the most studiously politically correct when it came to affirmative action, African-Americans, and Hispanic-Americans.

  • Charming Billy

    I know college admission is much more competitive than it used to be, but I still take heart from my own experience: Failed a year of high school, graduated 314 out of 317, made it to community college, where I started to work hard and transferred to the local “public ivy” and ended up with two graduate degrees. Not to mention all the pot I smoked in high school or my arrest on unrelated charges when I was 17.

    I sure as heck don’t want my kids to take inspiration from my troubled adolescence (they won’t know about any of this till they’ve established themselves in some career, be it professional or “blue collar”, but everything I went through tells me that worrying about what college you’ll get into is wasted time unless you’re prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that are actually presented to you.

    PS My grand dad and great grand dad were Yalies who made gentleman’s Cs. But they were fortunate to be New Haven natives and quite handsome at a time when that was a consideration or admission. Still, they did alright by themselves and their country. What does that say about the current admissions policies?

  • Charming Billy

    @ms “In essence, they are using the universities to advance a social agenda to some degree. ”

    What university admission policy doesn’t advance some kind of agenda?

  • MarkD

    I learned more at Parris Island than I did at University.

  • David

    The story is interesting and helpful.

    As a California father of a high school sophomore, I find this subject fascinating. In particular, the whole UC admission conversation. It seems to follow many of my suppositions.

    Question: I am a “wasp” I suppose, but my wife is a Brazilian and my son is a US and Brazil citizen. As a “Latino” admissions’ applicant, can he possibly expect different and significant treatment from a “wasp” in the admissions realm? Is there a way to utilize this effectively?

    Thanks for any help.

  • ms

    @Charming Billy–I guess I naively thought that a student’s accomplishments, and the likelihood that they could succeed at a particular school, would be the most important factors. I know–stupid of me, especially since my husband and I are both academics.

    @David–Yes–I think your son will have a leg up. I believe there’s a place on the application for that designation.

    @SR–I’m so sorry about what happened to your outstanding son. It’s just so awful to see their excitement about college turn to disappointment. It’s also very unfair. But he is obviously a very together kid and he will do well in life.

  • Charming Billy

    @ms “I guess I naively thought that a student’s accomplishments, and the likelihood that they could succeed at a particular school, would be the most important factors.”

    But that’s exactly how the parents of the poor albeit bright and gifted minority student with less than stellar grades and accomplishments who, rather than your son, was admitted to UC Berkeley see the issue. As far as they’re concerned, there’s a fair, more or less objective, standard of merit and their bright and gifted child met this standard.

    In any case, what’s “subjective” about hardship? The cold hard facts of a poor person’s life look pretty objective to him or her. Why should they be ruled out as subjective?

  • David

    @Charming Billy & @ms- Higher education- and maybe California in particular- does seem at times to be a skewed and expensive system. (A bubble that will burst eventually?) And the fact that certain groups get benefited more than other groups seems wrong on many levels. I may be able to make it benefit me, but it seems wrong.

    But is that the case everywhere at this point? Is there a good source for information regarding schools that offer good teachers and reasonable prices and not pursuing agendas?

    I ask this as a father starting to do his “homework”. It seemed simpler in my college days…

  • ms

    With all due respect, Billy, now I think you are being naive. I’ve taught at these schools. Many of these students are not very bright. Some are, but you feel very sorry for the ones who aren’t that got in on a sad story because they are floundering. They’d be better off at schools where their classmates are at their level and they could have a chance at being at the top of the class.

    David’s questions really get at the heart of the matter. He’s worried and wondering how to assure that his son will be able to go to a good school, but he doesn’t know what he can count on because admissions are arbitrary. He can’t teach his son that hard work will pay off because he has no idea if it will. Admissions has devolved to the point where no one knows what to count on or how to plan their life. Students are taught instead that the way to get what you want is not to work hard and excel, but to have a hardship or make one up.

    One father, who was disappointed that his daughter did not get into her chosen school, told me that he wished he had told her to claim in her essays that he had abused her so that she would be admitted! I was shocked and told him frankly that his daughter’s character is worth more than going to the best college in the world. Nevertheless, I think the current system greatly encourages mendacity. Once you get away from a straight-forward reliance on a student’s accomplishments, that’s what you get.In short, arbitrary admissions benefit no one.

    The other problem is that the real world is by and large not arbitrary in these same ways. I think students would be better served if college admissions mirrored the type of competition they will encounter when they graduate.

  • Charming Billy

    @David, given the over supply of PhDs, it’s a buyer’s market for higher ed. Even a podunk directional state school (i.e. South East or North West State University) can have their pick of competent to high quality applicants. I think just about any college or university that meets the usual accrediting standards is “good”. Whether a particular school is good for your kid or mine is an individual matter.

    Pursuing agendas — well, you’ve got to take your chances anywhere.

    I think the University of Texas system no longer practices affirmative action and it’s certainly good; some campuses are better than others, but all the main ones, Austin, Dallas, Arlington, and San Antonio are fine. I’m an alumnus and former employee of this system and would send my kids there if I lived in Texas.

    I have worked and taught at community colleges, as well atttended them. I wouldn’t write them off, either.

  • jaed

    As a “Latino” admissions’ applicant, can he possibly expect different and significant treatment from a “wasp” in the admissions realm? Is there a way to utilize this effectively?

    Oh my yes. It will be a huge asset to him in admissions. Although this may sound odd, it will likely be a greater advantage (assuming your wife’s maiden name “sounds Latino”) if he uses it as part of his name. Also, if he can come up with a way to bring up “struggling with his racial identity as a Latino of mixed race” or some such stuff in his admissions essay, this will also be helpful.

    (All this is assuming there still is a higher education system in a year or two, of course. I’m starting to wonder.)

  • Charming Billy

    Affirmative action benefits minorities that are already middle class. It doesn’t help the deserving poor, who still start out at the bottom in community colleges and move to local four institutions — state schools and little RC schools. And I’ve never seen affirmative action place the undeserving poor in a spot that would’ve been taken by a more qualified student. It’s a middle class gravy train that’s kept going by middle class minorities whose kids would do as well in college as any other middle class kid. Being a middle class minority who benefits from affirmative action is probably as fair and as helpful as being wealthy enough to have tutors and outside test prep classes.

  • ms

    Well if they help people who don’t really need it, what is the point? Let’s just go back to merit admissions. I think plenty of minorities would qualify and they would have the satisfaction of knowing they got in on their own merit. My son, BTW, did not have tutors or outside prep classes.

  • Meanwhile . . .

    “A Formula for Failure in L.A. Schools:
    Because they can’t pass algebra, thousands of students are denied diplomas. Many try again and again — but still get Fs.”,0,5363803,full.story

    “Implementing this plan [to require Algebra II] has been delayed, year-after-year, in large part due to one elderly black lady on the School Board, Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte. Her view is that a lot of her constituents aren’t college material, but she’d like them to be able to go through life as high school graduates, which is a lot better than going through life as a high school dropout just because they aren’t college material.”

  • Hadley Baxendale

    Note the comments that want to “fix” the system to make it more fair. This is just more of the same. Colleges ought to be able to admit whomever they want, whenever they want, for whatever reason. College is not a right. There are enough colleges and enough variety that anyone who wants to go, can.

  • stan

    “In many cases, for the first time in their lives, students come into contact with the tough realities of the competition for success when the college process begins.”

    Sports, lots of them. Unless the PC police have twisted a particular activity all out of shape, high level youth sports are a real introduction to the realities of competition. Get your shot blocked back in your face and all the self-esteem [scatological comment] mommy can offer won’t change the life lesson. If you can’t hit a curve, daddy’s connections can’t help you. And when the big, strong, fast kid knocks you on your [rear], you have no choice but to figure out pretty quickly what your shortcomings are.

  • David

    Perhaps sadly, we will probably play the “game” as rules and “way of doing things” seem to indicate. Like most parents, I of course want my son to get into the college of his choice.

    “His choice” may be the big question. Intellectual curiousity, character and social interactions are very important. But also important is education and being job relevant after school. That is where I hope to help steer him.

    It seems to me that some schools are living on their reputation to an extent and the tuition money students spend doesn’t always go towards their actual experience. That is what I hope to avoid as much as possible. Good luck in California, I guess.

    Private schools perhaps do avoid this a bit? And do have better teachers? At a cost, of course. But perhaps that’s money well spent and can be off-set a bit with scholarships or grants.

    @Hadley- I agree that colleges should “admit whomever they want”. My concern is that whomever they want is often tainted by rules and regulaions that come with any outside money they get. That seems a good way to pollute the waters. Certainly college isn’t a right, but shouldn’t the admission process tend to be independent of outside agendas and be decided by the school itself?

  • David

    @stan- I agree from experience that sports can teach competition and reward personal achievement. But outside of recruitment and scholarship sports, do colleges recognize and reward that in the admissions process?

    Once again, I’m trying to figure out what buttons to gently push in my son’s life to both enhance his personal growth and to enhance the breadth of his admissions realm.

    Simple, right?

  • ms

    I think colleges should be able to admit who they want, but at the same time, kids ought to be able to count on some basic rules in the run-up to college. These rules should be: Work hard, do well in your classes, be a good citizen, do well on your placement exams, work to maximize your talents. There is plenty of opportunity for those who have disadvantages. The community colleges here in California are inexpensive and lead to the better schools after two years. It might seem like a good idea to use sad stories as an equalizer, but like many seemingly good ideas, the downside carries a great cost in terms of tempation and character debasement. Better to have understandable rules that more or less apply to everyone, though I understand that there will always be some subjectivity to the process.

  • David

    @ms- I agree that counting on basic rules is a good feature. It seems that perhaps the pressure is to get away from traditional basic rules and to follow the guidelines mandated by outside forces to ensure money and avoid issues that may or may not have anything to do with your child’s education.

    For instance, it would be nice if federal money was driven by the desire to better the country by simply educating students and mandates were kept to a strict minimum at that level.

    At any rate, I will play whatever game I must play to get my son into a good college. Sometimes, knowing how to play the game is half the battle. Which can be a shame in the education area. Quality is not rewarded sometimes.

    If you have taught in California, any information on colleges you like would be appreciated.

  • ms

    It really depends on what he wants to study. UCSD is excellent for science, Berkeley for humanities, UCLA for film, Davis is also good for science and I think engineering. Usually the websites give you some idea about the specialties of the various universities. My advice would be to send out a lot of applications, including some out-of-state. If he’s a good student, he should get some financial aid to cover out-of-state tuition. Also, I think the Ivies, Stanford and other private schools give a lot of financial aid, even to people who have a pretty high income (6 figures) so that if your child gets in, they may not be any more expensive than the UCs. We’re right at that sour spot where we make too much money to get aid from private schools, but too little to afford them without help–hence the reliance on the UCs. One interesting thing–if you are a grad of one of these elite schools and want to get your child admitted, find a thousand or two to donate to the school. Universities like to favor the children of grads, but only if they kick in once in awhile. If you are a grad and don’t donate, expect a thin letter. Oddly, financial aid and donations don’t really affect one another, so if you are in the right bracket, you will still get financial aid. The very best of luck to you and your son! WRM is right–kids find their way in life even if they don’t get into the university they dreamed of attending.

  • thibaud

    @ms – if it’s not too late, you might consider applying to some private schools and some out-of-state public schools that are looking to poach top graduates from California with new merit-based scholarship programs funded by recent multi-million dollar gifts. Here are a few top schools that may well be affordable if you snag a scholarship:

    USC – now gives out 40 full tuition scholarships each year under the John Mork scholarship program

    Princeton and Chicago – both have greatly increased financial aid in recent years to the point where for many students, they’re almost as cheap as the public ivies

    U-Texas – recently announced program to lure the “Vince Young of physics” ie top academic talent away from the ivies with full-tuition merit scholarships (cf “Texas Exes” program)

    U Virginia, U No Carolina, Duke – all have free ride merit scholarships aimed at a small number of top students.

    Don’t give up. Go to for more tips and info from a community of tens of thousands of parents in your shoes.

  • Ron

    Well! Maybe I haven’t given my son’s college counselor enough credit. My son is extremely bright and doing very well at an elite prep school. Still, his counselor is pitching schools that I never thought he should consider.

    He happens to be the exact opposite of the typical ivy bound junior: he is all about the academics and knows exactly what he wants to study – a “boutique” subject that almost no one takes. No real sports, not much volunteering although lots of arts. You know where he might end up? Oxford, because all they care about is academic passion, and he has that in spades.

    I went to Princeton back when and it galls me that my son, who is so much smarter than I am, might not get in. And the legacy isn’t even a tiebreaker these days.

  • Soviet of Washington

    If you think the undergrad application process is bad, don’t even think of trying the Medical School admission process. Except for public in-state, most have single digit acceptance rates (i.e. rates comparable to current HYPSM) from a generally pre-winowed applicant pool.

  • ms

    @Thibaud–Thanks–wish I’d talked to you last year! A scholarship to one of those places would have been wonderful. I guess I should have included the rest of the story, however. I was so annoyed about the whole debacle that I wrote a longish letter to the Chancellor of the UC system and every regent. I did not do this thinking that it would change any decisions, but just because I wanted them to think hard about the whole crazy system. I received a response from the Chancellor with a vague defense of the status quo.

    My son had been waitlisted at one school, UCSD. Within a very short time, still in April, before accepted students were even required to respond, he was accepted off the wait list. I was very surprised, in part because I had not even asked them to change any decisions, I just wanted them to know that the current system encourages some pretty negative behaviors and discourages good ones. I didn’t even really want him to go to any UCs after the whole experience, but he wanted to study science, which is very strong there. And I’m happy to say that he’s done very well and really likes UCSD.

  • David

    @ms & @thibaud- Thanks for your input. As a father, any information I get is useful. Sorry to perhaps pester people with questions about the process or about destinations at times.

    @ron- It is an “interesting” and challenging process at times, isn’t it? Knowledge is power? It’s a shame when talent has a chance to be over-looked.

    @Soviet- I have always heard that Med Schools are hard to get into and rare to be removed from. Sort of the opposite of many law schools? I have a nephew and his wife doing their residencies. Boy, do they look tired.

  • David

    @ms- Bad news and good news.

    “…a vague defense of the status quo”, followed perhaps by real and relevant action.

    So, if you get lucky, there is hope and change after all? Whoda thunk it?

  • thibaud

    @ms – well, that’s wonderful news – you’ve made my day. Congratulations. All’s well that ends well.

    Anyone who knows about neuroscience in particular understands that UCSD is one of the top 5 or so neuroscience research institutions in the world. It’s also world-class in most of the other life sciences. (There’s a reason that San Diego has more biotech firms per capita than any large city on the planet).

    Your boy is in great shape. Here’s hoping he digs into his courses and has a great life.


  • Boritz

    >The teachers are no longer putting all the kids’ drawings up on the wall and giving everyone gold stars. Suddenly, some kids are winners and other kids — aren’t.<

    As Ronald Reagan told us, the facts of life are conservative. So liberals (especially)are insulating their kids from this until they can no longer. I hope and suspect this gives conservatives an advantage.

  • David

    @Boritz- I live in Northern California.

    There are many people who seem at war with how things really are and how they think they should be. Rather than change because something proves to be a good idea, they want change that fits an agenda.

    Fascinating, in a way. Costly, at times. But fascinating.

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