Swimming In An Elite Academic Pond

Deresiewicz ties that clubbiness in part to the admissions process. One of the chapters that will haunt the dreams of high school students and their parents describes the author’s experience on the admissions committee at Yale. Each school composes its committee differently, and at Yale, faculty members rotate through the admissions committee for one day a year. In that sense, they are still admissions outsiders compared to the full-time, professional admissions staff who read hundreds of files a day for months on end. No wonder, then, that the pros have their own secret language. He mentions hearing terms slung around like Top Checks, Good Rig, Ed Level 1, MUSD, Pointy, PQs, TX, SR, and other shorthand that is as foreign to him as Druidic runes, and to an outsider, of course it would be. Fueled by junk food (yes, the dean of admissions powered through on Doritos, as I did too back in the day – the Lime Doritos were particularly yummy), in his description they also sound a lot like the Tina Fey character in the movie Admission, minus the trap door she swings open when she’s in the process of dinging some poor applicant.

MANY APPLICANTS DON’T GIVE SCHOOLS A VERY GOOD APPLICATION TO WORK WITH

Having read plenty of files and sat at those kinds of tables, I know that the description is not horribly far off, but his once-a-year experience is still the view of an admissions outsider, and by necessity doesn’t capture the rapid-fire inner monologue and assessment that goes on while a full-time admissions officer evaluates files. Admissions officers make brutally hard trade-offs all day long, and many presumably promising candidates don’t give them a very good application to work with. Whatever the criteria are that admissions officers must use by school policy, they do so quite ably, as he acknowledges.

Among the last and most helpful chapters are some that encourage readers to consider some of the less leadership-obsessed/careerist schools, “one that’s going to care about you, not the new MBA program in the Gulf,” although he doesn’t discuss them in any detail. He points readers towards a book called Colleges That Change Lives, and another called Hidden Ivies. Both are good investments for high school students in search mode. To that batch, I would add another great book called Cool Colleges: For the Hyper-Intelligent, Self-Directed, Late-Blooming, and Just Plain Different.

Deresiewicz also includes solid life advice for students trying to figure out their purpose and their future. He is absolutely correct that elite schools could do a much better job helping their students get a good grasp on all the possibilities after graduation. That so many of them default into consulting, investment banking, and law school says as much about the poor quality of career services at the Ivies as it does about the lack of imagination of the students. The best piece of advice in this book is for students to spend some meaningful time figuring out who they are outside of school, whether in a gap year before college starts, or after college before they go rushing off to one of those default jobs or into grad school. There are plenty of ways to lay low for a while to do some soul-searching. As a former law school admissions officer, I can assure you that no elite grad school in its right mind would hold that exploratory time against you. In fact, it will make you a stronger grad school applicant when the time comes.

SOUL SEARCHING IS DONE BEFORE, DURING AND AFTER COLLEGE

And to any twenty-somethings feeling lost, I would say: That’s perfectly normal. If you claim to have it all figured out by now, I wouldn’t believe you. Ideally, you do that soul searching before, during, and after college, but lots of people get it wrong,  and that’s always been true. They don’t call it a “mid-life crisis” for nothing, and you’re not a “sheep” or “stunted” if you haven’t figured out your purpose in life by the time you finish college.

As part of my job (I’m an independent educational consultant, another group of people subjected to the author’s wrath), I work to help young people figure out why they want this degree or that one, why they want to attend this school or that one. I try to ask hard, uncomfortable questions, and to build a little buffer zone to protect their soul-searching from crowdsourcing (a temptation for a lot people, young or old). And if you sometimes find yourself feeling anxious or isolated or unhappy, that’s what, in the olden days, we used to call being young, or just plain human.

This book is very much worth reading, if you can muscle through the gratuitous punches and the deep cynicism. Do focus, instead, on the set of valuable questions he encourages you to ask yourself about what you want out of college, your career, and your life. As companion books to help with your exploring, I would also recommend Po Bronson’s What Should I Do With My Life, Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft, and Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Whether an Ivy plays a role in your life or not, you will ultimately figure it out.

Anna Ivey is founder of Anna Ivey Consulting

Anna Ivey is founder of Anna Ivey Consulting

Anna Ivey is founder and president of Anna Ivey Consulting, a prominent admissions consulting firm which offers advice and counsel to applicants to college, business and law schools.