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.
Brown—along with other highly selective schools—could fill their freshman classes several times over with the same caliber of intellectual, interesting, high-achieving, passionate kids. So how do admissions officers decide whom to admit, without resorting to actually throwing darts? I believe, once it comes down to the last several thousand kids—from which 2,600 at Brown were culled for an eventual matriculating class of 1,300—it devolves to randomness.
The admissions officer who is reading your child’s application is going through a messy divorce and feeling particularly ungenerous when he holds your child’s file in his hands. Another comes across your child’s impressive high school resume at the end of a long day of a long week of looking at hundreds of impressive files, and she’s tired and cranky—so your child lands in the “denied” pile. I’m not saying the admissions people are not consummate professionals, only that it doesn’t take much to tip the scales one way or the other.
Even if these two kids would do impressively at a school like Brown—and, chances are, they would—there are hundreds, even thousands, more just like them, waiting patiently for that admissions officer who is in an expansive frame of mind, who says “yes” to this child when her colleague has said “no” to an equally qualified child. Like I said: random.
So here’s what I tell Jonah and his two younger brothers about college: the schools you’re admitted to (or not) do not define who you are; you do. There are many wonderful schools out there, and you’ll get into at least one of them, and you’ll go, and those will be your college years. You will make of them whatever you choose. You will pick classes that you want to take and study hard (or not); you’ll have some wonderful professors and some not-so-wonderful professors; you’ll make lifelong friends or temporary buddies; you’ll fall in and out of love; you’ll have both trivial and life-changing moments.
This will be your college experience. Some overworked admissions officer who’s had a bad day is not the one who decides the course of your life—you decide that for yourself. So whether Jonah goes to Brown or some other college, he will make of that what he will. And I know he will do it brilliantly.
Tomorrow: after sitting in on a history class at Brown, we’re off to Amherst. Stay tuned.