Elite-college admissions offices drive professional-class parents crazy because in many respects they do not operate as meritocracies. Consider, for example, those students admitted via one of the two programs that stand as strange mirror opposites: those that give preferential treatment to the sons and daughters of alumni, and those that extend it to the children of unrepresented minorities. The latter practice suggests that generations of injustice and prejudice can be redressed by admission to a fancy college, the former that generations of inclusion and privilege demand their own special prize; the two philosophies would seem to cancel one another out, but each has its place in the larger system.
In fact, when you account for all of the “hooked” seats in the freshman class—spaces specifically set aside for kids who have some kind of recruited talent or family connection or who come from an underrepresented minority group—you accomplish, at the most selective colleges, two things: you fill a large percentage of the class (some researchers believe the figure is as high as 60 percent), and you do so with kids whose average grades and scores are significantly lower than your ideal. Now it’s time to swing a meritocracy into place; the caliber of the class is at stake. All of the unhooked students are now going to be thrown into a hypercompetitive pool, the likes of which the layperson can’t imagine. As daunting as the median grades and test scores of the typical Princeton admittee may appear, those statistics have taken into account all of the legacies and volleyball players and rich people’s children who pushed the averages down. The colleges are looking for one very specific quality at this point in the cycle: not “creativity” or “imagination” (or the ability to say funny things at the dinner table and make perceptive comments about movies—a knack today’s parents tend to call “critical thinking”); what they are looking for are the most deeply smart students in the country.
It’s sobering and humbling to see how quickly the first cut can be made among these kids, and how large the pool of stratospherically gifted kids remains, even after a few solid weeks of winnowing it down. Because the number of applicants is so big and because the competition gets stiffer every year, this cohort is dazzling. Yes, there are plenty of exhausted automatons in there, but they too will fall by the wayside. It’s not simply a matter of having sky-high grades and scores—all of the kids being seriously considered have them. Now you are looking at a deep talent pool containing many kids who are both hugely accomplished and creative, flexible thinkers. The embarrassment of riches is real; the colleges can find and admit kids who have both characteristics.
The elite colleges’ admissions officers are forever falling in love with the not-straight-A kids who write quirky, engaging essays, who clearly have garnered a particular respect and affection from their teachers, and who have done really interesting things on their own initiative. At the end of the admissions hunt, though, those kids get rejected. But their fate is not in any way a harsh one: there are other colleges in the country, lots and lots of them. Nor can you say that the country’s top colleges are creative and artistic wastelands; look up the calendar of events at any of them, and you will be quickly disabused of that notion. The bottom line is that the majority of kids applying to these places just don’t measure up, and that is a bitter pill to swallow for them and for their parents, if they have sacrificed the pleasures of a normal adolescence for the sole purpose of getting into one of the top schools.
And all of this brings us to the reason the good mothers are so furious at Amy Chua; not, really, because she has been harsh to her children. If anything, these revelations have given the good mothers something to feel better about; they would never treat their sweet children like that. Rather, they are angry because her harshness is going to rob their own children of something they fiercely want for them. They want the situation to change in their favor, but in fact the trend is against them. One of the reasons that Western, white parents of today remember an easier admissions environment at the top schools is that in their era, the schools held a dismissive attitude toward Asian students. When the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights investigated the Harvard admissions office in the late 1980s and early ’90s, it found evidence, if not of quotas, then at least of condescension toward the group. “Typical of other Asian applications,” said a handwritten note on one file; “classic VN [Vietnamese] bootstrap case,” said another. Chastened, the schools made a determined effort to read the files of Asian applicants as thoughtfully as they read those of white students. I would wager that the majority of the Asian American kids who apply to elite colleges are not marked for any kind of preferential treatment, and are therefore disproportionately represented in the group of applicants who are going to be judged purely on academic merit. Their ability to dominate in this category means that the Asian threat, as perceived by cheesed-off white professional-class parents, is in fact higher than their worst suspicions.
Chua has accepted, in a way that the good mothers will not, that most children today can’t have it both ways: they can’t have a fun, low-stress childhood and also an Ivy League education. She understood early on—as the good mothers are about to learn, when the heartbreaking e-mails and letters from the top colleges go out this month—that life is a series of choices, each with its own rewards and consequences. In a sense, that is the most unpalatable message of her book, the one that has caused all the anguish: it’s an unwelcome reminder (how can we keep forgetting this?) that the world really doesn’t lie before us like a land of dreams. At best—at the very best—it can only offer us choices between two good things, and as we grasp at one, we lose the other forever.