11 min read ⌚
An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania
Want your kid to be admitted to Yale or Stanford?
Well, let’s face it: chances are he or she probably won’t be.
Frank Bruni explains why – and why this is not at all a big deal.
The title is the message:
Who Should Read “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be”? And Why?
Nicely written, Frank Bruni’s book targets three different types of audience:
• Prospective college students who want to get a degree from an Ivy League college;
• Parents of prospective college students – and even kindergarten tykes – who think that only an Ivy League college guarantees success and a bright future for their children;
• Everyone who cares about the state of the American educational system.
If you can see yourself belonging to one of these groups – both now and in the recent future – don’t hesitate to pick up this book. It’s important that you do.
About Frank Bruni
A Few Somewhat Ignored Lists That Matter a Lot
“There’s a widespread conviction, spoken and unspoken, that the road to riches is trimmed in Ivy and the reins of power held by those who’ve donned Harvard’s crimson, Yale’s blue and Princeton’s orange, not just on their chests but in their souls,” writes Frank Bruni in the first chapter of Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be.
However, not much research is necessary for one to realize that nothing can be further from the truth. We know it sounds strange, but bear with us for two or three lists.
Let’s start with the Fortune 500 list of 2014, the last one to appear before Bruni’s book was published (there are some changes since then as far as the bottom half is concerned, but they are irrelevant to Bruni’s case).
Back in 2014, the largest ten US corporations by total revenue were, in order, Wal-Mart, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Berkshire Hathaway, Apple, Phillips 66, General Motors, Ford Motor, General Electric, and Valero Energy.
Here’s the list, in the same order of schools where these companies’ CEOs have got their undergraduate degrees: the University of Arkansas; the University of Texas; the University of California, Davis; the University of Nebraska; Auburn; Texas A&M; the General Motors Institute (now called Kettering University); the University of Kansas; Dartmouth College and the University of Missouri–St. Louis.
Yup, that’s right: just one Ivy League school on that list!
OK, you might say, but what about our presidents?
The last five of them are all Ivy League graduates: Donald Trump got his degree from Penn, Barack Obama from Columbia (and Harvard), both Bushes got their degrees from Yale, and Clinton from Georgetown and then Yale Law.
Widen the circle a bit, however, and you get the full – and much more important – story:
• Ronald Reagan attended Eureka College, a tiny school in Illinois that, in 2014, was ranked only 31st among “Regional Colleges (Midwest)” on the infernal U.S. News & World Report survey.
• Jimmy Carter moved around during his undergraduate and graduate years, landing not just at the U.S. Naval Academy but also at Georgia Southwestern College and Georgia Tech.
• Richard Nixon got his bachelor’s from Whittier College in Southern California.
• Lyndon Baines Johnson got his from Southwest Texas State Teachers College.
And the same holds true about many presidential nominees, whether Joe Biden, Paul Ryan or John Edwards. Who knows if it is actually a good idea to mention Dan Quayle’s education – the guy couldn’t spell “potato” right – but he made it to the White House and “was a mere heartbeat away from the presidency… by way of DePauw University in Indiana and law school at Indiana University.”
The Unsung Alma Maters
Well, to paraphrase the title of Frank Bruni’s words, the point is that the university you decide upon doesn’t, in turn, decide upon your future:
In other words, there’s no pattern. None at all. But in so many of our conversations about success and so many of the portraits that those of us in the media paint of accomplished individuals, we insist on divining one. And we often go with the obvious, equating achievement later in life with time spent earlier in rarefied enclaves. It’s a cleaner narrative than saying that anything goes. It’s a more potent mythology: There are the round table’s gleaming knights, chosen young and charmed forevermore, and then there are the vassals who make do on the other side of the moat.
To make the point even clearer, Bruni cites the so-called Platinum Study by sociologist D. Michael Lindsay published just a few months before his book.
The study involved interviews with over 500 American leaders, over half of which were CEOs of major corporations, and more than 100 of which were leaders of major non-profit groups. The leaders also included many government officials and even a few former presidents. The study, expectedly, aimed to discover where all these leaders “came from, how they reached their destinations and how they thought and behaved once they arrived.”
“I fully expected that we would see that a large percentage of people had gone to highly selective schools both for secondary and higher education,” Lindsay told Bruni.
However, as he wrote in his study-inspired book A View from the Top, “while we often assume that the most direct path to national influence goes through major academic universities (such as Ivy League schools), nearly two-thirds of the leaders I interviewed attended schools that are not considered elite institutions.”
Throwing Darts: Everything That’s Wrong with USA’s Educational System
Determined to get into one of the dozen or so most selective institutions of higher learning in America? Rethink your determination—or at least hear out Frank Bruni’s opinion on that subject beforehand:
No problem—as long as you’re the winner of a national science contest, the winner of a national singing competition, a Bolshoi-ready dancer, a Carnegie-caliber harpsichordist, a chess prodigy, a surfing legend, a defensive lineman who led his region in tackles, a striker who scored a record number of goals in her soccer league, a published author and I don’t mean blogger, a precocious chef and I do mean molecular gastronomy, a stoic political refugee from a country that we really loathe, a heroic political scion from a country that we really love, a Roosevelt of proper vintage, a Rockefeller of sufficient relevance, or Malia or Sasha Obama. If none of those descriptions fit and you don’t have perfect scores on every standardized test since the second grade, your visions of Stanford would more correctly be termed hallucinations.
Of course, the above is an exaggeration, but not by much.
And here’s why.
#1. Adjusted acceptance rates
Back in 2015, only 5.1% of 42,167 received by Stanford got back an acceptance notice.
So, that’s just 1 in 20 aspirants. And bear in mind that the other 19 weren’t “slackers, stumblebums, unhinged gamblers or delusional narcissists”—but “accomplished secondary school students for whom Stanford wasn’t and shouldn’t have been a completely ludicrous wish.”
But how attending an Ivy League College got to become such a “ludicrous wish”?
Well, quite simply, it was what the Ivy League Colleges wanted to achieve. You see, scarcity (as Robert Cialdini taught us) is one of the six universal principles of human behavior, and, unfortunately, one of the main things taken into consideration before a college ranking is published.
Even more unfortunately, scarcity can be manufactured, and this is precisely what Stanford, Yale, or Princeton are doing: they are simultaneously attracting more and more applicants and lowering the acceptance quotes.
To use the words of Ted O’Neill, the dean of admissions at the University of Chicago for several decades until 2009 – a while ago, a surfeit of applications “became a way to promote your college, and the admissions office became, in effect, a public-relations arm of the university.”
#2. Irrelevant rankings
If you think that factoring admission rates is the only thing that’s wrong about college rankings, think again.
“Make no mistake,” wrote Jeffrey Benzel in an article, a dean of admissions at Yale, soon after stepping from this job in 2013. “The publication of college rankings is a business enterprise that capitalizes on anxiety about college admissions.”
While choosing a college is indisputably more important than buying a household appliance, he went on, “college rankings systems all take a far less thorough and scientific approach than Consumer Reports does when testing vacuum cleaners. Another problem with rankings is that they allow the dominant player—U.S. News & World Report, a magazine that has actually gone defunct and exists now only as a purveyor of rankings—to exert undue influence.”
Believe it or not, more than 20% of the score that U.S. News assigns a school “reflects what high school guidance counselors think of it and the regard in which presidents, provosts and admissions deans at other colleges hold it.”
And how can anyone have in-depth knowledge about any school other than their own? In addition, how does U.S. News measure a college’s “reputation,” another thing that gets calculated into the final ranking? And how does the money a university has relates to the quality of the education it offers?
And yet, the very existence of rankings system makes students opt for the higher-rated universities, despite the fact that some of them may not be the best choice for them on a more important, subjective level.
#3. Legacy bias
But the above two are certainly not the only obstacles. A third one is that some of the aspirants are children of previous Ivy League attendees – or are somehow connected to alumni of the institutions.
This is what’s called legacy preference and is what allows some families and people to hoard opportunities.
Don’t believe that?
You don’t have to, because it is a well-known fact: according to a study done by Michael Hurwitz in 2011, legacies had a 23.3% better chance of admission than non-legacies. Even worse, “primary legacies” had a 45.1 percent better chance.
In other words, between two identical candidates, if a non-legacy has a 30% chance of getting into a certain university, a primary legacy will have about 80% chance, i.e., will almost certainly get an acceptance notice.
Is that… fair?
Speaking of fairness—is it fair that these legacy families are usually very rich, to begin with?
Once again, you don’t have to take Bruni’s word for it: according to a study conducted by former Yale alumni, Rebecca Fabbro, 48% percent of Yale’s students (yes, that’s half of them) are coming from families who make more than $200,000 per year, i.e., are in the top 5% in the USA.
In other words, it’s a self-perpetuating and very vicious circle: the rich gain acceptance at Ivy League colleges because of their connections, and their children because of their legacies.
Obsessive Parents and As Obsessive Children
However, because even poor parents know that getting into an Ivy School College is a one-way ticket to success, they are willing to do anything to get their children any type of advantage.
Of course, in a market-based society, that amounts to the establishment of numerous institutions that are willing to help them – and earn quite a lot of money in return.
You need nothing more but a single piece of information to realize how crazy things are: because getting the head start has become an obsession for parents, there are organizations (in plural!) which offer “guidance and test preparation for kids vying for admission to selective grammar schools, kindergartens, and even preschools.”
One of them, the Aristotle Circle (founded by a former investment banker who had done her undergraduate work at MIT before getting an MBA at Columbia), receives $450 for every hour of tutoring.
No wonder that Michael Motto, a former admissions officer at Yale, once received an application from a highly impressive young woman, who thought it was smart to mention, in her application essay, that she once preferred to urinate on herself so as to not pull herself away from an intellectually stimulating discussion with her French teacher!
That’s not something one should admire, Motto notes. It’s something that needs to be properly treated.
Just like the entire US educational system.
Key Lessons from “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be”
1. The American Educational System Is Deeply Flawed and Biased
2. Your University Doesn’t Define You: It’s What You Do There That Does
3. Widen Your Horizons: Choose a College That Doesn’t Suit You (but Sparks Your Curiosity)
The American Educational System Is Deeply Flawed and Biased
Every year the U.S. News & World Report publishes a highly influential Best Colleges ranking. And every year prospective students eagerly await its publication so that it can help them in their decision which college to attend.
However, due to the rankings system being highly unscientific and subjective, and due to the fact that the admission process is demonstrably biased toward the rich, the white and the legacies, many students end up not only rejected but also depressed and directionless.
The point of an educational system, of course, is the very opposite.
Your University Doesn’t Define You: It’s What You Do There That Does
On the bright side, the CEOs of most Fortune 500 companies, many politicians and vice presidents, numerous Nobel Prize winners, and creative geniuses have never attended an Ivy League College. In other words, all of them have succeeded despite joining minor and relatively unimportant universities.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone because numerous studies have revealed that much more important than the university you choose is the way you spend your time there. Being deeply and actively involved in campus activity or group, for example, has been shown most decisively to be a significant factor in one’s happiness later in life.
So, don’t just dabble around in activities trying to fill out your resume. Join smartly. Connect. Experience being a part of something. That’s something happiness is made of.
Widen Your Horizons: Choose a College That Doesn’t Suit You (but Sparks Your Curiosity)
Speaking of happiness – the more diverse a university is, the more likely it should result in one’s contentment. College should be all about leaving your comfort zone and experiencing range: elite schools, usually, achieve quite the opposite.
“College,” writes Bruni, “is a singular opportunity to rummage through and luxuriate in ideas, to give your brain a vigorous workout and your soul a thorough investigation, to realize how very large the world is and to contemplate your desired place in it.”
One more thing while we’re here.
Believe it or not, according to a nationwide Gallup poll, only 9% of business leaders deem the ranking of your college a “very important” employment factor. 85%, on the other hand, think your field-relevant knowledge is the most important employment criterion.
Do you still think that not getting into an Ivy League College spells the end of your life?
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“Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be Quotes”To all the high school kids in this country who are dreading the crossroads of college admissions and to all the young adults who felt ravaged by it. We owe you and the whole country a better, more constructive way. Click To Tweet Does a prestigious college make you successful in life? Or do you do that for yourself? Click To Tweet It’s not where you went to school… It’s how hard you work. Click To Tweet I think there’s a conceit, a myth, that you can go and sit in a university and things will come to you. They don’t. You have to go to them. (Via Condoleezza Rice) Click To Tweet You told me that ‘enthusiasm inhabits his every gesture.’ If that stays true through this crazy college crossroads and remains the case beyond it, he’ll be a graced man. Probably a happy one, too. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be is more than just a good book – it is also a useful book. In fact, to anyone who might take it as seriously as Bruni intends it, it might also prove to be a life-changing book.
True, some parts of it sound a bit forced and the book, overall, falls prey to some biases – especially the survivorship bias – but, all in all, it is a book one should definitely read before making a decision on his future education.
We promise you: Bruni’s book will certainly make the process easier.
Learn more and more, in the speed that the world demands.