Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Being Yourself


Nearly twenty years ago I served as chair of the Professional Development Committee for the Virginia Association of Independent Schools.  The committee’s primary job was putting together the program for the annual VAIS Professional Day Conference, and one year during my term we brought Alfie Kohn to the conference as keynote speaker. 

Kohn is one of the original “edutainers” who has made a career of writing and lecturing about education without actually working in a school.  His keynote address was a critique of grades and other external rewards, and it produced widely varying reviews.  A number of teachers found his presentation refreshing and inspirational, the best keynote in years. Others gave it the lowest rating possible on conference evaluations, and some even commented that VAIS should take his message to heart and show its opposition to rewards by refusing to pay him.

I considered the strong sentiments a sign of success.  The job of a keynote speaker is to provoke thinking, and people were clearly provoked. 

If being provocative is also the job of an op-ed writer, then Suzy Lee Weiss is wise (or Weiss) beyond her years. Weiss is the Pittsburgh high school senior who wrote an op-ed for the March 30 edition of the Wall Street Journal titled, “To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me.”  In the article, which she characterized as a satire during a Today Show appearance, Weiss argued that selective colleges lie to prospective students when they tell them to “be yourself.”

Weiss’s article drew widespread attention and criticism.  Many were offended by the tone of the piece, finding her references to diversity mean-spirited and insensitive.  I was surprised by the visceral reaction to the piece among a number of colleagues on both sides of the desk who are sick and tired of media coverage of the college admissions process that focuses almost entirely on students who don’t get into the Ivies and, like Groucho Marx, don’t want to be a member of any club (or college) that would have students like them. There were also responses from current students at Ivy League schools suggesting that clearly she must not have had the sterling qualifications that students admitted to those schools obviously possess.

I wasn’t offended by the article.  I thought Weiss failed the first rule of satire—if you use humor or satire, make sure it’s funny—but I have been guilty of the same offense too many times.  I also don’t feel sorry for her (she is apparently attending Michigan). But I think the piece touches on interesting questions about the current state of college admission, the messages we send to students and parents, and the changing nature of the work we do.

First and foremost is the question she indirectly poses.  Do we mislead or do a disservice to kids when we tell them to “be yourself,” as if “be someone else” is an option?

That begs larger questions. Is the college search process a journey of self-discovery or about obtaining membership in a club with a secret handshake? Should college be a product of who you are and what you’ve accomplished or a be-all, end-all goal? Which is more important, the name on the diploma or the college experience itself? As Eric Hoover observes in his article about College Confidential in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, the article of faith underlying that site is that your life is defined by where you go to college. I wish media coverage of college admissions didn’t accept that premise so uncritically.

College counseling is a tightrope walk fraught with danger.  It is my job to support my students in pursuing their dreams and at the same time ensure that they are grounded in reality, and the changing admissions landscape makes that hard.  I don’t know Ms. Weiss’s credentials, but I feel her pain.  This year I had five or six seniors with stellar grades and course loads, SAT scores around 1500, and the kind of character and leadership qualities that schools like mine hope to produce.  All would have Ivy League admits 10-15 years, but none got in.  All have good college options, so I don’t feel sorry for them, but I share their disappointment.

I remember talking to Fred Hargadon shortly before his retirement as Dean of Admissions at Princeton.  “Anyone who thinks we’re doing anything other than splitting hairs has no idea,” he lamented.  He talked about spending three hours in committee deliberating over 50 applications, ultimately admitting five, then the next morning not being able to remember why they picked those five. 

It’s far worse today in the age of 30000 applications and 5-6% acceptance rates.  Colleges and universities don’t add staff to match the increase in apps, reading time is decreased, and holistic review may become “half-istic.”  In such a climate, are certain kinds of applicants advantaged and others disadvantaged?

Last week at a professional conference, I had a conversation with a colleague about Susan Cain’s book, Quiet.  The book makes an argument that introverts are underappreciated in our culture, but have important intellectual and leadership strengths.  My colleague wondered if introverted kids who are hesitant to blow their own horns are at a disadvantage in the selective college admissions process.  The corollary is whether the process rewards kids who are savvy about packaging themselves.

How does one maintain sanity and a sense of purpose as college counseling becomes more complex and challenging? My answer is the same one Suzy Lee Weiss finds wanting—“Be Yourself.”  Our work should be a reflection of who we are and what we believe.  So while it makes me feel on far too many days that I am a dinosaur, I will continue to preach that the college search journey is more important than the destination, that the search and application processes should measure a student’s readiness for college itself, and that what one does in college is more important than where one goes.

 

P.S.  My cynical, tongue-firmly-in-cheek self wonders—Now that Suzy Lee Weiss has been published in the Wall Street Journal and interviewed on the Today Show, should she appeal her denials on the grounds that she has new information to add to her file?

 

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