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.