Saving the World One Teen at a Time - Column on Parenting Tweens and Teens

East Coast College Extravaganza, Part 1.

by Abby Margolis Newman


Yesterday I flew 3,000 miles from our home in the Bay Area to Boston with my oldest son, for what I’m calling our East Coast College Extravaganza. We're looking at five colleges in five days. If you’ll indulge a bit of sentimentality (though I realize this is neither original nor a revelation): how the hell did this happen? Wasn’t he just a pumpkin-headed 2-year-old who used an upside-down plastic bucket as a hat?


Yet here he is, Jonah, a high school junior, several inches taller than I am, who does not look out of place among the students wandering around the Brown University campus. Brown is the alma mater of Jonah’s dad – my husband, Chris, who is at home with our younger kids. Throughout the day, I obsessively email photos to him: the sign outside the Brown Bookstore, the entrance to Chris’s freshman-year dorm, the legendary Van Wickle gates, Chris’s old fraternity. Jonah, who is about as likely to join a fraternity as I am to be America’s Next Top Model, snarkily remarks that he should pose here with a beer bottle.


Our tour guide is a young man named Jonathan, a sophomore at Brown and a graduate of Jonah’s high school in San Francisco. Jonathan is about as enthusiastic a booster of Brown as you could find, and has qualities that remind me of Jonah: kind, geeky, quirky, earnest. The campus itself is old (in fact, Brown is the seventh-oldest college in the U.S.) and gorgeous, dominated by Colonial-era red brick Georgian architecture. There are guys playing Frisbee on the main quad; I joke that Jonathan paid them in order to provide the quintessential college-guy-Frisbee-quad scenario, to make Brown even more appealing to Jonah.


But here’s the truth: nobody gets into Brown. Well, OK, a few people get in but the chances are minuscule; this year only 8.7% of the approximately 32,000 people who applied were admitted—an all-time low. It seems to get worse every year. The fact that Jonah is a “legacy” because of his dad may help, but only slightly. As anyone who has been through this process (or has read anything about this process) knows: amazing, brilliant, high-achieving, extraordinary kids get rejected by Brown and similar schools every year.


I look around at the students in Brown sweatshirts walking to their dorms, eating in the dining halls, heading to the library, and wonder about them. They look like normal kids—none seem to possess any superpowers nor have magical auras (with the possible exception of Emma Watson, Hermione from the Harry Potter movies, who is a student here).


With the recent crush of applicants (many of them more than qualified to attend Brown), what is it about these particular kids that appealed to the admissions officers, those inscrutable gatekeepers? Why these kids and not others? From everything I’ve read, I have to conclude that beyond a certain point in the process, college admission decisions become almost arbitrary.