April rolling around means that high school seniors across the country have opened a few emails that have either crushed or completed their dreams. I'm talking of course, about the enragingly intense process known as applying to college.
Suzy Lee Weiss, in addition to following in the footsteps of great humans like Seann William Scott, Neil Patrick Harris, and our very own Stevie Chay Vaughn, wrote a letter in the Wall Street Journal chiding all the colleges that did not accept her. She cites the usual suspects--the disconnect between "being an individual" vs. colleges expecting you to be President of seven clubs, not being raised in a war-zone, etc. A bit whiny, but at the same time there's an "at the same time" here. Which is, that this process is hella ridiculous. But to reverse that "at the same time," there's a reason for that:
Colleges tell you, "Just be yourself." That is great advice, as long as yourself has nine extracurriculars, six leadership positions, three varsity sports, killer SAT scores and two moms. Then by all means, be yourself! If you work at a local pizza shop and are the slowest person on the cross-country team, consider taking your business elsewhere.
Well, yea. The whole point of being selective is that you can select people that are good at stuff. That's called a meritocracy.
I also probably should have started a fake charity. Providing veterinary services for homeless people's pets. Collecting donations for the underprivileged chimpanzees of the Congo. Raising awareness for Chapped-Lips-in-the-Winter Syndrome. Fun-runs, dance-a-thons, bake sales—as long as you're using someone else's misfortunes to try to propel yourself into the Ivy League, you're golden.
Having a tiger mom helps, too. As the youngest of four daughters, I noticed long ago that my parents gave up on parenting me. It has been great in certain ways: Instead of "Be home by 11," it's "Don't wake us up when you come through the door, we're trying to sleep." But my parents also left me with a dearth of hobbies that make admissions committees salivate. I've never sat down at a piano, never plucked a violin. Karate lasted about a week and the swim team didn't last past the first lap.
College admissions is no different than getting a job that's hard to get. If you really want it, find a way to add value. What seems to be wrong about this is that it's predicated more on blame rather than actual action. I understand you don't want to write some shit that's all like "I did this, and that, and 42 other things," but how are you valuable? You can't just be valuable for being the age that you are, and perfunctorily going through the motions of your circumstance.
Then there was summer camp. I should've done what I knew was best—go to Africa, scoop up some suffering child, take a few pictures, and write my essays about how spending that afternoon with Kinto changed my life. Because everyone knows that if you don't have anything difficult going on in your own life, you should just hop on a plane so you're able to talk about what other people have to deal with.
Or at least hop to an internship. Get a precocious-sounding title to put on your resume. "Assistant Director of Mail Services." "Chairwoman of Coffee Logistics." I could have been a gopher in the office of someone I was related to. Work experience!
To those kids who by age 14 got their doctorate, cured a disease, or discovered a guilt-free brownie recipe: My parents make me watch your "60 Minutes" segments, and they've clipped your newspaper articles for me to read before bed. You make us mere mortals look bad. (Also, I am desperately jealous and willing to pay a lot to learn your secrets.)
There is a lot more to be said about the whole process, but going to an Ivy League or similar caliber school is simply a value proposition. It's also your first real lesson in figuring out how to tweak the realities of the system to best fit your needs and desires. It's not enough just to understand it--embellishing the right amount is an art in itself, as is figuring out what's the best way to approach all this. I'm NOT saying that if you work your ass off and devote all of high school to getting into Dartmouth you'll get into Dartmouth--a lot of it comes down to where you're from, how you were raised, how the admissions person is feeling that day, and blind luck. But it's like a power play. Fire at the goal and it'll eventually go in. Good colleges tell you to be yourself because it's the easiest way to weed everyone out. A lot of the best candidates will understand this, but more importantly realize that "themselves" could never be translated onto a few pieces of paper. You do what you need to do to position yourself, and then once you have the power (in this case, get accepted), you'll be in a position to do what you really want. Sought after things require crazy sacrifices and tradeoffs. It's life. It's the entire premise of Game of Thrones.
More importantly, if you think your life is ruined because you didn't get into that prestigious private school, think again. Outworking/being the smartest person at a large state school will do a lot more for you than being an average person at a prestigious one. Also, once you graduate that shit barely matters. It's not where you go, it's what you do. Sure good schools help you get your foot in the door, but staying in that room is another story. If you're truly talented, you don't need to give a shit. You'll let your game do the talking.