Thursday, December 23, 2010

University admissions and a 12th. grader

We want the right fit for our university” said the earnest looking young lady, a student who had been propped up in an auditorium to address the assembly of parents and prospective students gathered that chilly north-eastern morning.  She had the public speaking confidence that I could not have mustered thirty years ago.  You have to be right for us”, it is the sort of mutual evaluation that went on in arranged marriages --no clear definition for a fit--but if the groom earned enough, and the bride’s parents were solvent enough to kick in some if needed, and nobody was a criminal, then things generally got approved.  A paucity of one quality could always be balanced to some extent by a surplus of another.  There is no clear definition for a “right fit” for college here.  Great grades help, SAT scores help, largesse helps, but everything is always a bit fuzzy—a formula with a ghost variable that needs no accounting.   This was a different beast to deal with, so unlike what I had gone through—a pure meritocracy--a competitive entrance exam at the end of school, your rank determining your placement.  No amount of money could unearth a seat (at least where I went).

The US college admissions process, in contrast, was a multilayered cake.  There were the admissions for athletes, leading in extreme cases to the bizarre instance of the basketball player Kevin Ross sueing his alma mater, Creighton University, for leaving him illiterate after four years of college and a degree.  A big layer of “legacy” admissions for the children of alumni making up 10 to 25 percent of the students, which Richard Kahlenberg called “higher education’s biggest affirmative action program” in a piece in the New York Times. Throw into this mix a slice for those with stellar academic and extra-curricular performance, and you sit there wondering if your wunderkind child is wunderkind enough, where every earnest parent across this room seems to have taken a page out of the raising of Todd Marinovich.  I should have teethed my child on frozen kidneys—maybe he could have been a better public speaker.  The universities profess wanting a diverse and heterogeneous student body.  About 40% of the entrants to the Ivy leagues are from private schools.   The other 60% must be very diverse.  

Universities differ in their outlook.  A small, highly respected college bluntly informs us to expect academic rigor and hard work.  A famous North-Eastern university assures you that everything is flexible, everything is fun. You have the freedom to tailor your coursework--the patient in charge of his regimen.  The kids multi-task with parallel aspirations.  Ask them what they want to do, and you get a panoply of answers.
 I like history, mathematics, and economics”. 
I don’t know, maybe psychology, maybe writing, maybe physics. 
I want to work with horses. 
Such generalized or esoteric ambition is both refreshing and perplexing.  The heavy hand of immigrant parents weighs in at times, “I like English literature, but my parents don’t see a future outside of engineering so the good daughter that I am I will kick ass in circuit theory this freshman year at Caltech”.  Some of us don’t consider a complete human being to have formed until they go through a couple of courses of calculus.

The year ends with much anticipation.  All applications need to be completed by year end. Kids exchange notes.  They mull over strategies.  They go to sleep at 2 a.m. burdened by writing essays on “Why Brown?”, and internet chats.  Dark circles form underneath their eyes.  Their usual monosyllabic answers now condense down to grunts: you hope this diversion of intellectual capital is going straight into their essays, the torture of lapsed communication transcribing grunt for grunt, into searing, honest prose straight into the heart of Providence and “Why Brown?”.

Come mid December, the results from the early admissions start trickling in.  And a dedicated collection of kids, track the progress like that of an invading army.  Michigan declares results at 5 pm.  Chats criss-cross, phones ring.  The damage, or the victory, is instantly assessed. Dartmouth comes out and it doesn’t look pretty. Chicago declares the next day at 5 pm.  But was it East Coast time or Mid-west time? MIT came out at 9 pm last night. The early admissions do not look good this year for the school.  Everyone is an instant analyst. It seems profound to tie observations to global trends.  Early applications into brand name schools are up because of the increased competition for high value jobs. And, like the second law of thermodynamics, you can always point to the rising professional classes (and their rising, professional children) in India and China.

The first round of results are in by mid-December.  Now starts a second round of applications, lists are culled or expanded depending upon the early outcomes, plans for winter vacations put on hold.  The kids have the taste of adulthood in their mouths.  They have morphed out of their meconium days, and acquired a sense of humor.  They interpret racy jokes for you when you don’t get it.  They introduce you to Eminem and Lil’ Wayne.  They will be done with the pediatrician in another few months.

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