Before the college application process went haywire

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni is getting a lot of attention for his new book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania (2015), which urges young people and their families not to buy into the huge anxieties and nuttiness that surround the college application process. In essence, he’s saying that the people and communities that we bring into our lives have much greater bearing on life satisfaction than getting into a prestigious school.

I think the overall message is a sound one, but the topic is more complicated than first meets the eye.

A good number of friends around my age have gone through this process with their children. Especially for high school students aspiring to attend a highly-ranked school, the college admissions game has become a significant, part-time job for them and their parents, one wrought with adolescent emotions, adult anxieties, and difficult cost-benefit assessments.

Sadly, I don’t think this will change, especially in an America where families in the middle and upper-middle classes are fearful of their ability to maintain their stations in life, college costs have gone through the roof, and the promise that the kids will do better than their parents is looking more and more precarious.

As a non-parent, it’s easy for me to claim from my detached perch that I wouldn’t buy wholeheartedly into that mania, but in truth it’s very, very hard to ignore this dynamic. And the peer pressure and social expectations for young students and parents alike are significant in high school settings that are turbo-charged about college placement.

Nevertheless, as a nostalgic creature by nature, does this make me a little wistful for the days when the college application process wasn’t so riddled with anxiety?

As a high school senior, I assumed I’d go to college, but I took the process rather casually. I visited a few schools in my home state of Indiana, and I ended up applying to only one, Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana. It was a smaller school, emphasizing the liberal arts, and it seemed comfortable and close enough to home. I figured it would be good enough, and it appeared that my chances of admission were strong.

I was accepted, and that was the extent of my college “search.” Easy peasy, right?! Isn’t this a perfect example of how low key the college application process was back in the day?

But herein lies the truth behind much nostalgia: It becomes a little, well, rose-colored fictitious. Even before the U.S. News rankings of colleges became ubiquitous and top 10/50/100 lists of schools started popping up everywhere, there was a rough sense of which schools were considered among the elite. And my story of applying to only one school and basically assuming I’d get admitted is exactly that, only mine. In the meantime, thousands of others who had more focused aspirations and their sights set on certain schools were sweating out the process.

In fact, five years later, I would ramp up my own anxieties when I applied to law schools. I was considerably more invested in the process, and I took active responsibility for researching law schools and identifying which ones might be good for me. Now, that’s the generic description. In truth, I became obsessed with the whole deal, and full of the kind of self-absorption that can inflict an ambitious young person during such life chapters. The moment I received New York University’s letter of acceptance, I pretty much knew I would go there, as I had many reasons to believe it would be a very good match for me.

So how do these schools look in the rear-view mirror some 30 years later? I’ve written on this blog many times about my experiences at Valparaiso (here, for example). My relationship with it has changed much for the better over the years, in large part because I have a greater appreciation for the quality education it gave me, and I have treasured friendships from those years that I know will be lifelong. As for NYU Law School, I am deeply grateful for the experiences, friendships, and opportunities it provided. In many ways, it was the right place at the right time for me. (You can read a bit more about that, here.)

As I reflect on all this, maybe Frank Bruni’s title — Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be — is overstating it, even if we welcome its underlying message. Many of us have been shaped profoundly by the schools we attended, though not necessarily because they were/weren’t considered “prestigious” in the eyes of others. The deeper questions associated with the college application process are more vital and complicated ones, fostering considerations about how much we should allow markers of prestige to shape our beliefs, decisions, and experiences.

In sum, for anyone who believes that upward mobility and “success” are, generally speaking, worthwhile aspirations, but that a good life embodies much more than collecting trophy lines on resumes, this conversation may be rife with honest and very human contradictions and inconsistencies. Easy peasy it ain’t.

2 responses

  1. David, I really like this line: “Many of us have been shaped profoundly by the schools we attended, though not necessarily because they were/weren’t considered “prestigious” in the eyes of others.” In the region where I went to high school, there were two universities. The counselors at my school told everyone *never* to attend one of them, because, in their view, all the faculty there were radicals and that meant no one who graduated from there would ever get a job. I didn’t go to university until seven years after I finished high school, but guess which university I chose? 😉 And I had a tremendous time there and got an excellent education (and a job). It bothers me when perceptions of prestige and reputation become more important in choosing a school than a school’s other qualities.

    1. Fiona, yes, that’s exactly the kind of personal story — a success story, I might add — that is being drowned out by this obsession with conventional reputation and rankings!

      I don’t blame people for using these markers as guides for their choices. I would, too. But they should be our servants, not our masters.

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