Several years ago I was teaching The Great Gatsby to a class of eleventh-graders at Harvard-Westlake, a private school in Los Angeles. We began our discussion with a consideration of Tom and Daisy Buchanan. The students more or less understood Daisy. These were teenagers from Beverly Hills and Brentwood and Encino, kids for whom Daisy, with her particular collection of pleasures and discontents, her fluttering dress and her voice like money, was not entirely beyond the realm of experience. Tom was another matter.
"What's he like?" I asked. A hand shot up: "He's highly intelligent." I looked at the boy who said this with some puzzlement. He had just read the chapter in which Tom sputters out the theories—"scientific stuff"—that he has gleaned from a book called The Rise of the Colored Empires, among them that "it's up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things." This is not the sort of opinion with which children from Beverly Hills and Brentwood and Encino tend to be sympathetic.
"What makes you think he's so smart?" I asked. The boy replied, "Because he went to Yale." I burst out laughing and then gave the class a little lecture regarding the way that Ivy League schools have changed in the past several decades—about what a Yale degree suggested about someone fifty years ago as opposed to what it suggests today. That despite the current admissions crunch there are still plenty of nimrods collecting Yale diplomas was a life lesson I decided to let them learn out in the field.
A couple of years later, when I became a college counselor at the school, I was introduced to such odd and inexplicable notions about colleges that I felt nostalgic for the good old days of explaining that holding a Yale degree doesn't make Tom Buchanan a genius. I had assumed, naively, that the new job would be easy. By every objective measure our students were among the best-prepared for college in North America; in a typical year a quarter of the class attends either an Ivy League school or Stanford University. More impressive, the ones from the bitter bottom of the class were going off to colleges that most high school seniors can only dream about.
I had no idea what I was in for—no idea that the confident, buoyant students for whom I'd had such great affection when I encountered them in the classroom would so often turn into complete neurotics the moment they crossed the threshold of the college-counseling office. Or that their parents, who had always been lovely and appreciative when I was teaching their children, would become irritable and demanding once I was helping them all select a college. Granted, every year there were families who impressed me with their good cheer and resourcefulness in the face of the thorny admissions climate. But invariably a core group seemed to be teetering on the brink of emotional collapse. What I was observing, I later discovered, was a common phenomenon among the families of college-bound students of a certain social class, one aptly described by the psychologist Michael Thompson in a justly famous 1990 essay titled "College Admission as a Failed Rite of Passage." College admissions, Thompson wrote, "can make normal people act nutty, and nutty people act quite crazy." Bingo. I had inherited a Rolodex full of useful phone numbers (the College Board, a helpful counselor in the UCLA admissions office), but the number I kept handing out was that of a family therapist. "Maybe he could help you a bit," I would say gently after yet another unexpectedly combustive family meeting. I could have understood the forceful nature of the families' emotions if the stakes had been higher. If the child had a single shot at a scholarship and a college education, and a letter of rejection meant that he or she would lead a fundamentally different life—that was a situation I could imagine being rife with heartache and regret. But when the sting of a Bowdoin rejection was lessened (the same day) by the salve of a Colby acceptance, when a rejection from Dartmouth meant the student would be off to Penn—where was the horror? If a family had the wherewithal to send a beloved and supremely well prepared child off to one of the hundred or so first-rate colleges in America, the resources to offer a semester abroad, the connections necessary to facilitate a wonderful summer internship in New York or Hollywood or Costa Rica, and the ability to bankroll, without blinking, all of graduate school, then what was the source of these unstoppable tears?
Each of the hot hundred colleges held a certain position in a vast and inscrutable cosmology that only the students and their parents seemed to understand. The very names of schools I had always considered excellent made many students shudder—Kenyon, for example. They would snap briskly to attention if I said "Williams" or "Amherst." So why not Kenyon?
On the other hand, schools that I had never considered particularly dazzling turned out to be white-hot centers of the universe. In vast, high-achieving droves, for example, these kids wanted to go to Duke. Fine, but here's where I couldn't figure them out: they were dying to go to Duke, but Chapel Hill left them cold. Why? They couldn't put it into words exactly; it was as inexplicable and irreducible as falling in love. They would do whatever it took to get themselves to Duke—enroll in as many AP classes as they could, stuff their heads full of Robert Lowell poems and differential equations and plein air paintings, invest untold, unrecoverable hours cramming for standardized tests that a growing number of admissions experts hope to abolish altogether.
Certainly, I understood why students who had worked so hard and done so well would want to go to schools like Harvard and Princeton, but many places seem to be prestigious simply because student fads and crazes have made them hard to get into. Brazenly capitalizing on the whims and passions of teenagers seems a questionable practice for institutions dedicated, in part, to the well-being of young people. Here's how Rachel Toor describes her former job as an admissions officer at Duke in her new book, Admissions Confidential:
I travel around the country whipping kids (and their parents) into a frenzy so that they will apply. I tell them how great a school Duke is academically and how much fun they will have socially. Then, come April, we reject most of them.
The university devotes a considerable amount of money and effort to recruiting BWRKs ("bright, well-rounded kids") only because denying them boosts the school's selectivity rating. Although Toor seems disillusioned by the task of pumping up application rates, she also seems to believe that some measure of a school's worth can be found in the number of students it rejects.
Although the books devoted to "elite" and "top" and "highly selective" college admissions currently make up a vast literature, the very notion of a how-to manual devoted to the secrets of blasting one's way into the Ivy League is, in fact, a relatively recent phenomenon. The 1961 book The Ivy League Today, for example, was much more concerned with "Ivy mores and conduct" than with test scores and personal essays. The first chapter, "The Couth and the Uncouth," approvingly described the Ivy Leaguer's "amused tolerance" of the nationwide craze for all things Ivy that had begun in the late fifties. Ivy fashion "became an absolute uniform among the college students of the nation," Frederic Birmingham, the book's author, wrote. "It was also adopted by nightclub comics, prizefighters, delivery boys, and gangsters appearing before Senate committees, although these usually muscular gentlemen emphasized a snugger fit at hips and thigh."