The College Admissions Game: A Different Perspective

‘Tis the College Admission Season, when many a high school senior is getting the news about where they’ll be matriculating in the fall of 2010. It’s a sign of our culture’s interest—even fascination, if not obsession—with the “college admission game” that the New York Times has a blog, The Choice, in which six high school seniors have been writing about their experiences with the aim of “demystifying college admissions and aid.” The April 4th blog entry, A Sheaf of Rejections, But Still ‘Fabulous‘,  in which Los Angeles student Anne Paik discusses being “denied from pretty much every college on my list,” gave me pause to reflect on the whole business that getting into college has become. 

The March 31st New York Times reports that “Applications to elite private colleges rose again this academic year, despite the economic constraints on many families.” An April 1st article in the Chronicle of Higher Education casts a critical eye at these reports of universities having the “largest applicant pool ever” and notes the spin behind those college admission statistics:

“That this year’s applicant pool was the largest in the college’s history is no accident because, like many of our competitors, we have reached out to more prospective students, which is one reason why this year’s applicant pool is even bigger than last year’s record-breaking applicant pool, but surely not as large as next year’s applicant pool, which, in turn, will shatter this year’s record.”

Nonetheless, many a high school senior is looking at those statistics to justify “why” they didn’t get into the “elite” school of their dreams. Anne Paik strives not to fall into the self-pity at being rejected at various “elite” (read, Ivy League, private, mostly East Coast) universities and “only” accepted at three large, public universities in California. Nonetheless, she still feels “really hurt and disappointed” and sees those rejections as a judgement on her as “person, an individual with unique hopes and dreams,” and not just about her as a student.

Whether knowingly or not, Paik has articulated a key reason about why so much effort and emotion, not to mention dollars, gets invested in the college admission game. People think that “what college you attend says everything about who you are”: It’s not just education that you get out of going to X or Y “elite” school, it’s the promise of access to power, people, connections, opportunities; to a good life, with a good job and a future secure of worry; to a dream could true.

Paik expresses her disbelief at how so many “strong and able” students could be rejected. Don’t those “elite” universities get it? She writes:

“I’ve been looking at college admission statistics for this year, and I’m shocked by their results. How many of these colleges rejected strong and able students? Too many. And how many of these strong and able students were catapulted into the dark void of depression, were left to trudge the bleak path of despair? A good chunk of the population, I’m guessing. It’s a sad world we live in when the price of education is steeped in the regrets and rejections of thousands of disappointed students.

“However, despite my troubled introspection and psychological confusion, I’ve realized that I still believe in myself, and even more strongly now that I’ve been rejected. Nothing in life will ever be handed to me on a silver platter; I have to earn every inch of my progress. Obstacles will be placed in my path, and I will stumble a lot, that’s guaranteed. But I will never give up. College rejections will not discourage me from substantiating all my fantastic dreams into reality.

“That’s what really matters, anyway.”

Paik indeed equates getting into an elite university with the fulfillment of her “fantastic dreams.” And shouldn’t having one’s dreams fulfilled be the hard-won reward for all the energy and time and sacrifices that a high school student and her or his family, teachers, tutors, coaches, guidance counselors have made?

We’re hyper-aware of the status, value, and cultural clout that we allot to such “elite” schools. The result of doing this is a blog post like Paik’s, in which, however much she has accomplished, it can never be enough unless she gets that “elite” university stamp of approval, that promise of “the good life.”

I’m writing on this topic from a rather different sort of perspective.

First, I need to come clean. I’m  a graduate of two, yes, “elite” East Coast universities. Like Anne Paik, I’m from California and I’m Asian American. My family is middle class; almost all of my relatives went to college at various University of California campuses. Like Anne Paik, admission into one of those “elite” schools seemed a distant dream. And then I got into one such a university, back in April of 1986. A couple of years later, I went onto graduate school at another “elite” university. 

I had made it, yes? I’d never have a reason to worry, right?

Well. I did get a very good education and I’m beyond grateful to the schools I went to, and to my family for making it possible for me to go. I met my husband while I was in graduate school and could never imagine life without him. But getting degrees from “elite” universities is no guarantee that life, once you’ve got your diploma(s), is going to be handed to you on a silver platter.

I’m not a parent who has invested all their hopes and dreams on where their child is going to college. I am a parent, but of a child who is not going to college. Many students on the autism spectrum do and will attend college; in recent years, new programs have been created (some by individual schools, some by private agencies) to support autistic college students. My son Charlie is on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum. He’ll be 13 years old in May and is still struggling to learn to read, not to mention to communicate concepts like “my stomach hurts” and “I’m not sure I want that.” When I’ve noted that Charlie is not going to college, I’ve often been told that I’m giving up too easily, that one never knows, and such, and I more than appreciate these hopeful, “never give up” sentiments.

I have a bit of an insider’s view about what’s involved in going to college. I’m a college professor; I teach Classics–ancient Greek, Latin, and classical culture—at a small, Jesuit school in Jersey City, New Jersey. Many of our students are first-generation college students and first-generation Americans; English is not always their first language. Many juggle full-time school with jobs and numerous family responsibilities. Financial difficulties are not at all uncommon, with basically all of our students receiving some kind of scholarship funds or financial aid. Most of our students are very vocationally oriented and getting through all the requirements in the core curriculum can be challenging. 

My son’s educational struggles are certainly of a different sort. But if he had to take Poetry and Drama or Theology, I’m pretty sure my husband and I would be spending lots of time helping him do his schoolwork as those aren’t topics that, I suspect, Charlie would be drawn to (he’s a child who likes what he likes, and that’s how it is). 

My own college is not among those “elite” schools; we’re struggling in the face of the economic crisis, which has led to reductions in aid from the state of New Jersey, among other concerns. Our students and their families are struggling too, just to stay in college and graduate–and face a very uncertain job market.

But even more uncertain are Charlie’s prospects for a job; for what some would call “the good life.” Charlie currently attends a county developmental center. Much of his educational programming is pre-vocational, which is a good thing, as Charlie likes to be occupied and relies on structure and a full schedule of activities; my husband and I just spent the past week, when Charlie had no school due to being on Spring Break, figuring out things for him and us to do. Charlie’s interests are fairly limited, though we keep trying to introduce him to new activities. He has acute sensory sensitivities; he doesn’t like to watch movies, as the noise and smells and everything in a movie theater overwhelm him. The same goes for bowling alleys and amusement parks. He loves to be active and outside

And so, for almost 13 years, I’ve found myself standing in line with him at the diving board by the outdoor pool or walking our neighborhood streets or running back and forth in the ocean waves at the Jersey Shore, rather than spreading out my books on the B floor of the library to think and write. As a result, I’m a lot tanner than I ever was when I was in college.

It’s been quite an education to learn how to be Charlie’s mother. 

And, though I know I’d never have believed this when I was a high school senior, teaching my son to talk, learning how to help him through a really severe “neurological storm,” contemplating how he’ll be taken care of when my husband and I are gone: These are bigger challenges than anything I ever faced in college or graduate school. I’d love to see my dream of Charlie having a job, a place to live, and a community that cares for and appreciates him but I know that’s a really tall order. The effort, energy, expense and emotions are all worth it because I can’t say it enough: 

Yes, Charlie is fabulous.


Photo by David Paul Olmer.


Janice P.
Janice P7 years ago

And yet, George Bush managed to get into one of those prestigious colleges. Your academic record never did and never will count as much as daddy's money and power. If you think otherwise, you are living in a fool's paradise.

connor h.
connor h7 years ago

thanks! for anyone who's interested here are some other great sites to click for good causes

Kate D.
Robert Williams7 years ago

Elite schools are more choosy because they must pay more money to hire their famous professors who are paid large salaries. Of course elite colleges will be wanting to keep their student slots for the children of the wealthy. Wealthy parents can and do contribute a great deal of money to universities. Students who want to attend Ivy Leagues should spend their time getting scholarship funds from as many organizations as they can, even if they are going to be attending local colleges.
they should also work weekends and summers and save that money for college expenses.

gail d.
gail dair7 years ago

thanks for post

Jo Arty
Jo Arty7 years ago

I've enjoyed reading this article and remember well when my oldest daughter was looking at colleges. We were realistic and she got into the college that she wanted and really enjoyed it. She was on the dean's list her first year there. After two years, she came home and finished up at our local university. She graduated with honors in psychology and is now working on her master's degree in social work. She enjoys this type of work and got a good education. She might not make tons of money when she's done, but she will have a satisfying job doing what she's good at. I'm glad we went through all the trouble of visiting different universities and that she got into the one she wanted. I'm equally happy that our local university had a solid psychology department where she could advance herself and get a good education.

Mervi R.
Mervi R7 years ago

Great post, thanks!

Amber K.
Amber K7 years ago

This is a really well put together article, I myself am in my last year of school and am looking at prospective universities to attend. It seems that everything is so super competitive now. Our 'prestigious' medicine school down south only accepts the top 2-3% for its second year. In New Zealand getting in is piss easy, it's all about wheather you can stay in to get your qualification.

Heather B.
Past Member 7 years ago

Wonderful article. Thank you, Kristina.

Hester Goedhart
Eternal Gardener7 years ago

Thank you for sharing this.

David B.
David Breland7 years ago

I was a 9 grade drop out that went off to college at 40. 15 years later I finished grad. school with a dgree in mental health counseling; thereby, with 80,000.00 in loans I went out into the world to get a job as a counselor so that I may pay off the loans. However the only jobs that were available were working for the State of Florida as a counselor making 25,000. a year.. my daughter makes more working for wal-mart.

So the question for me has become....if an education was valued in this country, what would it look like?