William Deresiewicz is the author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.
From his Q & A with Michael Schulson at Salon:
If you talk to admissions counselors at elite schools, they’ll swear that they want bright, curious, quirky kids — not just well-credentialed winners. Are admissions counselors being dishonest? Or are the standards so skewed that those types of kids won’t even make it past the first cut?--Marshal Zeringue
I think that people who work in admissions offices really have the best intentions. I really do.
I think that they’re looking for quirky kids with something special. But every kid has to pass that bar of having really great grades. You can’t be so quirky that you say, “You know what? I’m a word person. I’ll never become a scientist, so I’m not gonna care about getting an A in calculus, because I’d rather read another book.” I mean, forget it. You can’t be that kid. Also, the kids that do get in have become so good at gaming the system. They know how to look like that kind of person. Kids know how to manufacture the appearance of being an interesting person. That’s not the same as being an interesting person.
There are more than 20 million Americans enrolled in some sort of college or university program right now. Only a fraction of them are going to these elite schools. I guess my question is, “So what?” How much does what happens in this narrow channel of elite education really matter?
First of all, Harvard only admits about 2,000 kids a year. But about 35,000 kids apply. I know this is a rough estimate, but James Fallows has an essay about this from a few years ago, where he estimates that 10-15 percent of American high school students are caught up in the selective college admissions process.
That is roughly 400,000 kids a year. They’re still worth talking about. And then, actually this does impact everybody, if only because...[read on]