Category Archives: College Admissions

Seeing Surprises

WheIannmen my son was very young, he told me he’d drawn a dragon on his play table. They weren’t his first marks there, so I needed to know what color he’d used to find this dragon amid the commotion of his earlier flailing. He held up a green marker, the color of new moss. I saw shapes in green, unclosed boxes, drunken circles, sinuous lines attached at one end.

Then I recognized what he meant. The shape was the first real, perceptible thing he’d drawn. The dragon was there, its eyes and scales and a second color—a lurid red—fanning from its mouth. They were flames, he said. I saw that.

Next week, my son graduates from college and a similar revelation lurks—funny how individual days amount to something recognizable at last. All the evenings at the kitchen table sighing over math problems or another wacky paragraph of The American Pageant or an online physics quiz led to something too, his graduation from high school four years ago.

But that I witnessed. Now I only see college pictures—he’s dressed up, standing with friends at a party, or hidden in sunglasses attending some sunny celebration. I don’t see him work or study, don’t experience the marks of knowledge and understanding amassing and something forming in the mess.

Over the phone, he sometimes tells me about a class, paper, or lecture but usually impatiently, always assuming—rightly—my limited comprehension. I like to think he believes me capable of understanding, but I’d have to be there to truly get it. Not being there sometimes seems the central quality of our new relationship, and, of course, I miss him.

And, thinking about his graduation is a little like realizing every mark on his play table is one unnoted image. When children are born, no one says you’ll discover they’re strangers. No one mentions the alien things they do and make and think on their own, quite apart from anything you give experientially or genetically. No one says they will surprise you or that, ultimately, it’s all surprise, a cascade of shock starting with the first identifiable word.

I know my son is anxious about what’s next, and in these times I don’t blame him. His mom and I are nervous too, but mostly we’re proud, happy to accept whatever credit people want to give us for who he’s become, but well aware he’s responsible. His voracious curiosity began the moment he opened his eyes and has hardly paused since. He and his sister are the brilliant lights of our lives.

Once he learned to speak he talked all day, from the moment he woke to the moment he slipped into sleep mid-sentence. Like any parent I still see that little boy when I look at him in tie or tux, but I also know everything he’s made himself. I’m sure he worries it isn’t enough, and some employer will ask for more. I hope he can put his apprehension aside and pause to celebrate his accomplishment. My wife and I care less about what others might want from him and more about what he wants, his continuing desire to learn and do and play and work and feel.

We are in awe of our beautiful stranger.

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Filed under Aging, Ambition, Anxiety, Art, College Admissions, Desire, Education, Epiphany, Essays, Home Life, Hope, Identity, life, Love, Meditations, Memory, Nostalgia, Parenting, Play, Resolutions, Thoughts, Tributes, Visual Art

Grubbing, Categorized

midnight_oil_SSI warn you, I may sound mean-spirited. We teachers pride ourselves on hope and, even in the inkiest darkness, look for light. You may not believe me, but there’s light here too… in the perverse hope these cynical appraisals of students arise not from their character, but from us—from me—and expectations we perpetuate.

This post started with a student in one of my first years of teaching, one of the most diligent and conscientious I’ve ever met, a model of exhaustive effort. She’d never think of merely meeting expectations and added her own requirements to whatever rubric I created. She labored as if she were digging to escape her own grave and looked at me as an acolyte might, scrutinizing each gesture and murmur, every hint of expectation.

Yet she enjoyed almost nothing. Little of her industry seemed to spring from a desire to learn. The final mark measured her achievement and stood as its solitary value. Marks—evaluations intended to affirm her successes and motivate growth—became another reckoning. If she didn’t do as well as usual, she felt worthless. If she did well, she worried about the next assignment.

Though she’s an extreme example, her perspective lurks everywhere, and I can’t help blaming grades. My experience in independent schools, schools filled with ambitious students, teaches me that grades affect every aspect of students’ lives. Some of the people I teach transcend grades—they are the rarest, most beautiful birds—but the rest fall into broad types, sometimes into more than one type depending on the term’s progress:

The Glad-Handers learn, perhaps at home, that having a warm relationship with teachers assures positive results and so hang out after class to ask another question, offer another response, check-in on the instructor’s interests. As endearing and charming as these students are, you wonder where they fall on the faking-to-making scale. And you never know.

The Shotguns seek subjugation. Enough information, verbiage, and will, they believe, will subdue a teacher. Volume, volume, volume evinces hours of elbow grease and midnight oil. Finesse doesn’t fit this student’s modus operandi nor do focus, purpose, and spirit. The aim is to be undeniable, diligent enough to be deemed worthy of an A, despite the absence of interest or curiosity.

The Accountants possess the finesse the Shotgun lacks and know exactly where they stand numerically, doling effort according to a desired result. If the situation in one class demands an 85.5 to maintain the current mark, the accountant turns to more vulnerable averages. Schooling is a zero-sum game—with only so much effort to give—so Accountants think strategically.

The Scavengers add and subtract points on a test or quiz to find mathematical errors. Catching a mistake or debating an evaluation erodes a teacher’s resolve and yields incremental advantages. And extra credit or revision or corrections are golden. Even when the original outcome is outstanding, extraordinary, impressive, Scavengers want any point available. Nothing can remain unclaimed.

The Righteous rely on emotion. Ultimately, the Righteous say, education isn’t about numbers but opportunities. “Don’t you know,” they ask (or their parents ask), “how ambitious I am, what schools I aspire to?” Only monsters deny hope, and so each situation demands reconsideration: is this mark something a Teacher can live with… because Teachers are in the business of encouragement… right?

As I said, cynical. Fortunately I’m not describing everyone, not even—on a good day—a majority. Yet few students escape altogether. At some time or another, marks lead them into one of these roles.

And I, as the point carrier, reserve the greatest censure for myself. We teachers made this game. We enforce its rules. We call scores and standards and admission—and other extrinsic rewards—the greatest goals. We offer few terms besides the numerical and alphabetical.

Marks have only abstract value, but we’re petrified of what students might do—more accurately, might not do—if we give grades up and say learning is intrinsically satisfying, fun. We state (over and over, more to ourselves than to them), “You do know, don’t you, that learning, and not a grade, is the point?”

Then we hand them a report card.

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Those Letters

463px-symbol_thumbs_downsvg.png A statement students never hear—our disappointments and not our triumphs make us.

In the next few weeks, some seniors at my school will learn colleges they want do not want them. For a few, it will be the end of desperate hope they tried not to feel. For others— having already seen themselves as part of a school through fandom or family— the rebuff will require redefining themselves. For most, it will be their first serious rejection.

As everyone is away on spring break, the seniors will tend their own wounds, but, even if school were in session, they would have to reconcile themselves. It won’t help to tell them, as my colleagues and I often do, that if we were applying to our alma maters in the current admissions climate, we might not be accepted. It won’t help to blame the system, though colleges’ relentless marketing superheats the process and sets students up for disappointment. We can’t evoke fate and any sort of meant-to-be’s, nor offer stories of how this moment won’t seem so important ten years from now, nor can we cajole them to reject a school that, up until that letter arrived, they’d esteemed highly.

And, frankly, I’m not sure any of those consolations should work. You can convince people how to think, but has anyone ever succeeded entirely at convincing someone how to feel?  You have that argument with yourself, and winning or losing it is far more consequential than any momentary reassurance.

Of course, not all the news will be bad. Some students will see hard work rewarded or unlikely hopes fulfilled. We shake their hands and slap their backs. College decisions, like another stage of a rocket, may blast them into new territory and a new sense of themselves. We know what to say to them. Nothing could be easier.

No one would think of telling them that disappointments and not triumphs make us. Reminding them they will not always be so lucky would be in terribly bad taste, and who, at that moment, wants to be reminded this result is really a new trial, another task at which they can succeed and fail?

But I confess I’m tempted.

I often find myself admiring the rejects more. If I can’t congratulate them, I can at least commune with them. They come to understand what I’d consider reality—that it’s not what we’re given but what we do with it that counts. Everyone my age has experienced disappointment or tragedy, and, speaking for myself, I’ve grown stronger through those experiences. Knowing no setback is final fills me with genuine optimism for seniors who don’t get their first choice. Successes born of discontent are often sweeter than simple good fortune. They can develop resilience, resourcefulness, and a sense of humor their classmates may come to envy.

“There will be little rubs and disappointments everywhere,” Jane Austen said, “and we are all apt to expect too much; but then, if one scheme of happiness fails, human nature turns to another; if the first calculation is wrong, we make a second better: we find comfort somewhere.”

Though they won’t accept comfort from me, the disappointed seniors may find it in their own hearts, which will ultimately be more valuable than anything I might offer.

We’d all like to choose our paths, but we can’t see the wider world that way. The recipients of bad news would never accept my saying so, but they may be the lucky ones.

I don’t grieve for them—they carry my greatest hopes.

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Dear College Admissions Officers,

I hope you can accept this critique in the spirit it’s intended, as advice from someone who believes in the wide choice of colleges in this country, who recognizes the noble and important purpose higher education serves as an instrument of social mobility.  I know I’m not an insider and hope my suggestions won’t sound presumptuous or naïve.  My view is admittedly limited to what I’ve seen teaching at a small independent school and applies only to that finite (and growing more finite) group of truly selective universities and colleges.  However, to someone who experiences the effects of your marketing, your approach to applicants, and your sometimes baffling decisions, the college application process seems a terrible mess.

Here’s what I see:

  • Students applying indiscriminately to large numbers of schools—Though the common application (thankfully) makes applying less arduous and time consuming, being able to shotgun applications delays students’ decision-making.  Many are not really making decisions at all.  Why not apply to ten or fifteen schools when fees are such a small percentage of the cost of college?  Many students decide to decide later and then select from what turns up in April—hardly the optimal, thoughtful process anyone ought to want.
  • Despite growing numbers of applications, the list of schools students apply to seems to be shrinking—Many students aren’t doing their homework to find schools most suited to their skills, interests, and aspirations.  Seniors busy trying to make the grades to qualify for admission naturally fall back on schools they recognize, places with name brand cache.  Because students can decide later, their search falls on the same schools over and over.  Few discover the little-known but wonderful schools who’d rather fund effective education than massive marketing campaigns.
  • Admissions decisions seem more and more capricious—Phantom applicants must make it difficult for you to determine who’s really out there.  It must be tough to say if your acceptance letter is one of five or one of fifteen.  Yet, though you may be admitting more students to reach your yield, the percentage of admits remains essentially the same, and students who thoughtfully apply to four or five schools are at a distinct disadvantage.  You may admit many phantoms before you get to—if you get to—the student who really wants you for the right reasons.  From my angle, you sometimes pass by good candidates and accept disinterested students, which is neither good for you nor good for students’ faith in a meaningful, just procedure.
  • Because students are delaying their shopping to see where they’ve been lucky, nearly all the decisions are yours, not the students’—Right now, the college admissions process seems to create a mass of confused and anxious supplicants.  Instead of embracing an exciting moment in their lives when they might feel empowered to make their first adult decision, applicants feel acted upon.  They see themselves as judged by arbitrary power, as if luck, not twelve years of effort, determines their status and value.

I know you can’t solve all these problems—other players like parents, standardized testing (plus parasitic tutoring services), private and school college counselors, and even teachers like me add pressure to the process.  You may not want to do anything that would shrink your choices.  However, if you are—as you say you are—interested in the education and personal development of young adults, you need to encourage them to make more thoughtful and selective decisions.  You need, at very least, to make the process sensible and, as much as possible, predictable.

To that end, I have eight suggestions:

  1. Open up more about your process—Your rationale for selection is entirely your own, but it needs to be a discernible rationale. Any change undertaken to demystify your work will help make decisions sensible and aid applicants trying to decide if they stand a chance.  You publish average test scores and GPAs and might publish even more numbers—the number of candidates and a thorough statistical summary of who was admitted.  Many high schools are already keeping historical statistics for their own students, but a comprehensive and authoritative document from your end would help immensely.
  2. And, along with numbers, applicants need to know how you reach your decisions, what factors you value and isolate—The absence of a transparent, rational process encourages students to believe in magic. Explaining how you choose freshmen will discourage some potential applicants, but those files will no longer clutter your office either. With fewer applications, you can read more thoroughly and thoughtfully.  Transparency will also keep you honest.  Above all, if you are not need-blind, please say so.  Students who require aid must be able to identify schools that may want them enough to defray their costs.  It seems unfair to lead needy students on.
  3. Compile a list of schools that typically contribute to your freshman class—For some of you, this change may be openly admitting what you do covertly, implicitly, or haphazardly.  Your list of client schools does not have to be comprehensive or exclusive.  You might choose to reserve a substantial majority of your spots for “at large” candidates, but identifying schools that contribute to your freshman class (in coordination with my next suggestion) would refocus your attention on schools rather than individuals while exerting positive influence on secondary education.  I’m not suggesting a new old boys network, quite the contrary.  Your selection of a troubled school might prove inspiring for students there and induce the school to find candidates who will add to the diversity of your freshman class.
  4. Indicate how many students from those schools you can reasonably accept—This number would not be a quota, but a cap or upper limit that would help applicants better understand their chances.  You may choose not to accept that number—you might decide not to accept any—but students in schools like mine might apply less frivolously if they recognized a line forming ahead of them.  They might join another line if they saw fewer people waiting there.  A few might even step out of line to give a better chance to classmates more devoted to that school.
  5. Investigate ways for students to communicate their level of interest—What if students had 30 interest points to distribute among their applications?  Though distributing the points might add another decision to the pile, it would be in the students’ pile, where it belongs.  It might compel applicants to do their homework more carefully and reduce the number of applications they file.  Those interest points might help you predict yields more accurately as well.  You will know when you are taking a chance by admitting a student, and, to me, it seems fair you should share risk.
  6. Eliminate early action and early decision—If you truly want students to make careful and thoughtful decisions, you must grant them time to do so.  You flatter yourself in believing all early candidates want you exclusively.  Some do.  Many simply want the process over with.  Early decisions also create issues of equity and fairness, as early admits often appear to be judged by different criteria than “regular” candidates, adding to the general mystery of the application process.
  7. Reduce or eliminate deferment and waiting lists—These categories demean students.  Rightly or wrongly, most see them as non-decisions, a way of saying, “We don’t really want you, but if we’re strapped for bodies…” They cast you as self-serving and make your marketing materials appear craven and hypocritical.  You try to be nice, but it appears you don’t care about the good will of those you ultimately reject.  If you are serious about your educational ideals, you ought to.
  8. Limit your marketing and redirect it to distinguish your institution from others—High school seniors receive an overwhelming amount of information about colleges, more than they can possibly read or study, some of it from places they have little hope of attending.  Recognizing that colleges may have more common than uncommon elements, you can still highlight what you see as your particular mission, your distinctive niche.  I know about the arms race of the last few years—you don’t dare advertise less—but, make no mistake, your advertising is harmful to the people you court.

As I said at the beginning of this letter, these suggestions may be naïve, unrealistic, or presumptuous.  You may feel the current process serves your interests well, and, after all, what motive do you have to reduce your pool or encourage more students to apply to rival institutions?  Behind all these suggestions, however, is an earnest plea to lessen what’s duplicitous and mysterious in your work.  As someone who has nurtured and encouraged the students you accept and reject, I only want to see them treated with honesty, integrity, and respect.

Yours sincerely,



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