Thursday, May 10, 2007

On Not Going to Harvard

I read a fascinating essay in the New York Times' parenting section last week on being Young, Gifted, and Not Getting Into Harvard. The author, Michael Winerip, is a Harvard alum who does admissions interviews for that illustrious institution. He lives on Long Island, where the number of wealthy families hoping to give their kids any advantage in life is high. Out of 40 interviews he's done, he says, only one student has actually been accepted by his alma mater. So as he meets these highly accomplished young people, and talks to them, the thought that keeps going through his head is "Another amazing kid who won't get into Harvard."

The kids certainly do sound amazing. They've scored 5s on innumerable AP tests. They've done original research for science experiments (Winerip's school science experiments, he notes, involved plants in shoeboxes). They've traveled amazing places, often for charitable reasons. They are polished. They have Googled him. They write nice thank you notes.

Winerip writes, wistfully, that the stats that were good enough to get him into Harvard in the 1970's would be scoffed at now. Maybe. But I can't help think there's more to it than that. I can Google as well; I've learned in a quick search that the author is a man from a blue collar Massachusetts background who's won a Pulitzer for his writing in the Times, is a published novelist, etc. Perhaps the admissions committee saw in him a spark of ambition that Harvard could truly help, by giving this local boy an entrance into the elite world that he then wound up writing about for the next 30 years. The upper middle class (OK, let's not mince words, upper class) kids Winerip interviews now have a million routes to success available to them. Perhaps schools like Harvard don't like to perceive themselves as just another feather in a kid's cap.

But I don't know. I do know that even as recently as 10 years ago, Harvard was still open to not-terribly-polished kids -- like myself. Maybe it helps to be from Indiana, not Long Island. The admissions committee called a high school teacher of mine (in whose class I earned a "C") to figure out what had happened. The teacher said he wasn't sure, but I'd done much better in another class I'd taken with him later on. That apparently satisfied the committee enough to accept me (I didn't wind up going, but that's a different story).

Maybe everything has changed in 10 years, but I doubt it. The New York Times magazine did a cover story in 1996 about four near-perfect seniors at one elite high school who applied to Harvard that year. Only one got in. Winerip refers to recent "tragic" stories that recount the same odds. These tragic stores have been going on for awhile. I think he's even written some. Maybe in a sea of perfect applicants, it helps to be the kid who signs your own check for the application fee, who wrote your essays during your smoke breaks in the Fazoli's Italian Restaurant parking lot, whose transcript contains a few consonents, etc.

But what I found most interesting was his observation that "I see these kids -- and watch my own applying to college -- and as evolved as they are, I wouldn't change places with them for anything. They're under such pressure." As some readers of this blog know, I am expecting a baby any day (in fact, today is my due date; the kid is taking his sweet time). My kid is likely to grow up someplace where the ambition to go to Harvard is not uncommon. I will probably choose schools for him where kids can take 10 AP classes and will likely score 5s on all of them. Perhaps it will even be a school where, as Winerip recounts, a statistician is on hand to help run the numbers on kids' science experiments (OK, maybe not -- I hope I'd make the kid learn statistics on his own and run the numbers!). My husband and I are not unfamiliar with the ways of marketing; we could probably help the kid figure out some great story of why he should be admitted to all the top schools.

But the trade-off when everything is there for the easy taking is that you sometimes lack the spark that pushed one incredibly literary kid in Quincy, Massachusetts to apply to Harvard in the 1970's. One of the sweetest things in life is to want something so badly that little else matters, to throw yourself into working for it, and then finally to achieve it. Even better: to know you achieved it on your own. In that sense, I can see why Winerip wouldn't want to change places with the kids he's interviewing. It's hard to recreate that joy.


Anonymous said...

I do think that it has gotten harder to get into top schools in the last 30 years. Three factors that I would point to include - the population has grown, more top students from the South and Mid-West apply to top schools for undergrad, and foreign students from places like India apply (if you don't get into IIT, Harvard can be the back up).

Anonymous said...

I think increased awareness among the youth today certainly plays a role.

As a child growing up in impoverished conditions on an Iowa farm a couple of decades back, I really only looked to a couple of state schools simply because I had no concept of financial aid, no idea that MIT, Harvard, etc. were remotely possible were I to be accepted. For me "elite" meant getting a slot at one of the Nation's military academies, not donning academic robes at Princeton.

As runner-up in a regional talent search in physics, I was ultimately offered and accepted a scholarship to one of the fine private schools in the Midwest. Curiously enough, I had not formally taken physics at the time since my public high school didn't even offer the course as more than self-directed independent study (though they did have five different offerings in horticulture and agriculture). Nor calcus: I had to "invent" derivatives and antiderivatives to solve physics problems on the examination.

I recall very distinctly during the luncheon following my interview that the Chair of the Physics Dept. chastised my parents for my not applying to Harvard with my obvious talent, perfect grades, long list of extra-curricular activities, and test scores. How could we explain that for us "college" was always conceptualized as Iowa State University, not MIT?

While I did go on to attend a prestigious university for graduate school, thanks in part to the recommendations of that professor, I simply never considered (nor had much access to) any perspective so ambitious then. (I didn't even know what a Ph.D. was, much less what was required to get one).

No child today, with free access to the internet and the obvious glamour of the Ivies, could possibly be so ignorant.

Anonymous said...

I think background says much about the reason one has for getting into Harvard. People who come from nontradiotional backgrounds often have a specific goal when they apply for an Ivy league college (to become an acclomplished author who tells the story of the place she came from to the world, or to join the international intellectual elite, or study organizational resarch to help organize a system for medical services in one's home country...) Kids from say, Long Island are trying to get in because that's what you do after graduating from highschool. It is expected from them that they aim for Harvard.. Thats why they try to look gifted, by competing in all those science contests and doing community work.. It is very unusual to do all that stuff where I live.

(No doubt a lot of them actually are gifted..)

Anonymous said...

While I wish the best for you and your baby, I think you might want to consider that your child may not be GT or even very bright.

I've seen too many average kids being pushed by GT or perhaps 'just bright' parents and ending up in misery.

It might be best to let your child's precious life unfold before you make plans for a prestigious university.

Chuckling said...

Fantastic comments from anonymous. And his/her story demonstrates the truth of the fact that success is determined by character and talent, not getting into an elite school.

I speak as someone who's kids, if they continue to be who they are through junior year, will get into an elite university. But I've visited a few of those campuses, and I read so much about the insane competitiveness, and I'm not at all sure that I want my kids to go to Harvard or Yale. Of course the decision will be theirs and I will support it, but I have no illusions whatsoever that the prestige of the university they attend will have anything whatsoever to do with their success and happiness in life.

As long as they do work that they care about well and have a healthy network of friends and loved ones, I'll be happy for them.

Anonymous said...

Skateboarding to Harvard

I want him to be happy. That was my reply when my wife asked what I wanted for my son on that first day. She persisted, wanting to know if I wanted him to play baseball because I liked baseball, or did I want him to be smart. None of the above, I just wanted him to be happy, perhaps because I see so many kids who are miserable. Happy he was, deliriously happy at times, almost manic, with an intensity that few infants and toddlers could match. Sometimes the intensity was too great. At about 12 months he was fixated on the stereo. He had to turn the volume up all of the way, and later he discovered the wires and connections on the back. He would focus on those, his breathing would increase and he would just stare at the mass of wires. At birthday parties, he tended to avoid other children, and go right for the electronic equipment. My wife worried, what was wrong? When language came, words flowed, and by two we saw him as just very very active, and by three he had a baby sister, and it was the activity and the intensity that was most concerning. By four he had many bumps and bruises and several sets of sutures, and we went to a Child Psychiatrist who observed him for nearly an hour and concluded that he was hyperactive, a diagnosis I had to agree with. His activity and intensity and impulsivity were driving us all a little batty. Ritalin slowed him down a half a step and gave us a breather. At the same time, preschools were difficult. At his first, his teacher kept him close and talked about how curious he was. We moved and at his second, we had the dreaded meeting with the director. We were told that he tried to flood the bathroom. I had noticed excessive toilet flushing at home and some preoccupation with water. I am curious about the function of behaviors, so I asked him about this flood. He assured me there would be no flood; there was a drain in the floor. Then he made a clockwise motion of his arm and asked why does the water always go down the drain "this way" as he moved his arm. It never goes the other way. That explained the toilet flushing, the filling of sinks, and the flooding of bathrooms. With director’s prediction of dire consequences should we not do something about a boy who will not sit in circle time and floods bathrooms, we gratefully move on to kindergarten, in the Montgomery County public schools. It was a half-day program in the morning and we paid for a second half-day in the same building a few blocks from our house. I remember the usual complaint about activity and difficulty connecting socially, but nothing extreme. He made things, he liked to build, but he did not like sports. We suffered through t ball and soccer, but he just was not social. But he was happy, and I often commented, and still do, about the party in his head, the one he rarely invites us to attend. In first grade, the teacher told me that he was the most hyperactive boy she had ever seen, but did acknowledge that he had some skills. In second grade, the best teacher he ever had, told me enthusiastically that this was the smartest kid that he had ever seen. I could breathe again. He discovered video games, and loved school, but did not get along well with other kids. He discovered educational games and tests on the computer, but did not socialize. He has never liked baseball. I follow the Red Sox by myself in our house. Our neighbors treated him as if he had a disability, and were in stunned disbelief when he was chosen for the county program for the extremely gifted. But then we moved to central Pennsylvania for three years. There the schools had much smaller class size and he was lucky enough to have a couple of peers at his intellectual level. He did make friends there and did well in the intermediate school for 4th and 5th grades. Then came middle school and Principal Floyd. Floyd liked to go fishing and discuss his impending retirement. My son's curiosity and activity level had not leveled off, and Floyd could not handle it. He spent quite a bit of time in Floyd's office and was suspended for "using a dangerous object". This was a magnifying glass given to him by his grandfather. He was trying to burn a leaf in the playground when no one would play with him. That type of curiosity needed to be stopped, otherwise there would be leaves with holes in them all over town. We moved again to Delaware. He attended a local middle school. While central PA was all white, Delaware was more diverse. He left his friends and hated the move. He took up skateboarding, much to his mother's dismay. We had a quarter pipe in the driveway, and went to skate parks. For the next three years, this is all he talked about. At skate parks there were tattooed, pieced, less than honor students. But, they were always nice to him. Everyone was always positive. There is an extraordinarily positive social quality to the skater society. He loved it, he was accepted, and he did OK. He was happy. How could I complain with a straight A student who spent his free time skateboarding in the driveway? At the same time, he soared intellectually with a couple of very good math teachers, and stared achieving at math competitions and getting some recognition. Middle school finished much better than it started. Then on to high school, the Charter School of Wilmington, one of the reasons that I chose a job in Wilmington. His first year, he did adequately. He did not have straight A grades and continued to skateboard. He was on the swim team and math team and was on the state championship math team. There was no drive to succeed at anything other than skateboarding. He did not care about class rank or Ivy League or any of those things. Sophomore year brought a transformation at the bottom of a ten-foot half pipe. A drop he had done before ended with a fractured humerus and no swim team and no skateboarding for a couple of months. He dove into math and science and emerged with higher grades and was attracted to the lure of AP tests. Brilliant and skilled teachers encouraged and honed those skills. They allowed him to place out of courses via examination and made sure he was challenged. That is the essence of gifted teaching, make sure they have mastered the basic skills and then let the child soar. I pulled into the parking lot of school one afternoon and saw a group of Charter students with large magnifying glasses attempting to ignite rolls of toilet paper, I knew he was in the right school, and what would Principal Floyd have said about this? The following summer he took chemistry at the local community college so he could move to AP chemistry. He also took lifesaving so he could have a summer job. Junior year it was AP Physics. He did poorly at the first math league competition, and wound up on his school's B math team. He focused on Physics and wound up on the national US Physics team, repeating again this year. Intellectually he continued to accelerate. He completed courses in abstract algebra and organic chemistry at the state university. As we near the end of high school, I count up what he has done. US Physics team twice, state math champ, state Chemistry prize, first place in a couple of divisions of state Science Olympiad and a gold medal at national competition, and he has completed nearly 30 college credits. His parents are aware that he is brilliant but still needs to grow in other ways. His mother who has protected him like a lioness is still prepared to defend to her death if need be. Do not say anything mean spirited about him in her presence or you will pay dearly.

He is not a straight A student but his trajectory for the past 3 years has been rapid acceleration upward. Schools took interest, and here in May, we have acceptances from Princeton, MIT, Rice, Cal Tech, Rochester and Carnegie Mellon on the table. He was wait listed at Harvard and finally accepted, but they do not deserve him. I do not think he will be happy there and that has been my wish for him, to be happy. MIT has been his dream for some time, and that is where he is headed. He loved the visits there; he felt accepted and I think he has a good chance of being happy. At the meeting for parents they said it was a true meritocracy, and that is exactly where he belongs. That's the best I can do. The Princeton acceptance floored me. When he asked to apply to Princeton and Harvard, I said why bother, I would buy you a video game instead of wasting the money sending it to those schools. But the Princeton people were very nice and almost convincing, but I don’t see him as happy there. Eating clubs do not interest him; math proofs do, as do discussions of 7th dimensional spaces. Harvard seemed preoccupied with diversity. The application came not with a description of the academics. Instead there was a six page handout on resources for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students. He want to go to a school that advances his ability above the neck, not below the waist. Those discussions occur more readily at MIT and I hope he continues to be happy in Cambridge.

Since I am a child Psychologist, others have asked me my secret. I am quite aware there are companies that promise to get children of the wealthy into Ivy League schools, there is an entire industry devoted to what we have done here. The answer is that, as parents, we have done nothing other than raise him, nurture him and kept him challenged. I wanted him happy, not high achieving. The fact that he is both is a bonus. There is no secret. Genius like his is as rare as a seven-footer with a good jump shot, or a very talented violinist. The key is to recognize and nurture that talent, and to avoid the Principal Floyds of the world, and the teachers who could only see the problems and not the talent

Doug Tynan