This post is a reflection on some of the insights I culled from Irena Smith’s new book, The Golden Ticket: A Life in College Admissions Essays.
The book is a memoir a Jewish immigrant from the Soviet Union, who got a PhD in comp lit, taught college, became an admissions reader at Stanford and then a $500/hour private admissions counselor in Palo Alto. In light of her latter experience, she frames her memoir as a series of essays in response to real college admissions prompts that she encountered over the years. It works well.
I’m talking about the book here not because of the life story but because of how it vividly portrays the craziness of elite college admissions in the US and the damage it’s doing to the process of education and the mental health of students. In this sense, it resonates with the op-ed that Deborah Melizia and I wrote recently about these issues. But her account of admissions-obsessed parents is made particularly poignant by the struggle she and her husband had with their own children, particularly their first-born child who had severe autism. She understands the desperation parents have about making a good life for their children, but she’s upset about how narrowly the American meritocracy has defined the good life.
Their desperation was David’s and my desperation when we pushed Jordan to “touch blue,” when we set up carefully scripted playdates, when we held tortilla chips out of reach at Chevy’s so he would ask for them, when we badgered Noah about living up to his potential, when we drew up behavioral contracts with Mara. At our core, we’re exactly the same. Every parent wants their children to land well in the world. We want them to be seen and to be recognized and to be, yes, accepted, whether that means making it to Yale or making eye contact, getting into Princeton or getting out of bed.
Smith recognizes that she too is infected with the Palo Alto overachiever disease.
Frankenstein is a book about what happens when a man tries to make a baby without a woman. That’s what I tell my students when I’m six months pregnant, and though they dart furtive glances at my expanding bump, no one says anything while we discuss Mary Shelley’s long history of miscarriages, stillbirths, and deceased children. And while I haven’t articulated it to myself, like Victor Frankenstein, I want it all: an academic career, a baby, a child whose disability my husband and I will bravely confront and vanquish. We’ve bought a house in Palo Alto, the place where everyone has to be good at something, and that’s what I’m going to be good at: being the woman who can do it all.
After working for years with students who are striving feverishly to meet their parents’ expectations and get into one of the tiny number of insanely selective colleges, she seen it all. She finds that in places like Palot Alto, it is no longer good enough just to a really good student. You have to be super special.
This cuts to the core of the debate about meritocracy. Assigning people to social positions according to individual merit is at heart a good thing — a huge improvement over the old system of inheriting position from your parents. The problem comes when the system becomes so competitive that huge advantage accrues people for gaining just a small edge in accumulating academic merit badges.
Fueling this competition is the realization parents have that the only way they can provide social position to their children is through education. Doctors, lawyers, and engineers can’t pass their occupations on to their children. Instead the children need to work their way through the same hierarchy of academic credentialing that their parents did. And while these children have a lot of advantages in this pursuit — cultural capital, knowledge of the system, financial resources, connections — they are also confronted with smart and ambitious poor kids who are climbing up through the system. So everything comes down to schooling, and every increment of educational advantage is important. You can never have too much of an edge. The result is that only a few colleges are good enough for your kid. Smith says the acronym some parents use for the right college is HYPS: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford.
Here’s how she addresses this issue:
Toughest of all are what I privately call “average excellent students”—students with high grades, high test scores, the right roster of extracurricular activities (a varsity sport, robotics, debate, a summer internship arranged through a friend), and no spark. What distinguishes them (or so they, or their parents, think) is their desperate, visceral need to get into Yale, or Stanford, or MIT and to settle for nothing less. When I suggest possible additions to a college list that is so aspirational that it verges on the absurd, a student’s mother gives me a scornful look and says, “We’re not here for Purdue.”
I make a ninth-grade boy cry in my office when he tells me he only wants to go to Stanford and will do whatever he needs to do to make that happen and I tell him that while this kind of ambition is admirable, he still might not get in because admission to Stanford is less of a meritocracy and more of a lottery. If, on the other hand, his goal is to get a good education, there are hundreds of other schools to consider. His mother cuts me off and asks, “But what if you’re captain of three varsity sports teams?” “Are you?” I ask the son. “No,” the mother cuts in, “But we could say he is. Who’s going to know?” And then to the son, with a sideways look of pure hatred in my direction, “Don’t worry, buddy. We’ll figure it out.”
The moms at Trader Joe’s, which is across the street from Palo Alto High School, look slightly dazed, like the Lotus Eaters. I look at them and think, We’ve all eaten the lotus leaf; we were all duped; we all bought into the hollow dream of safety and success. We moved to Palo Alto because the schools were good, and the schools devoured our children like Polyphemus devoured Odysseus’ men, spitting out their bones. It’s not just our family; it seems that no one’s kids are happy. Almost every parent I speak to, at work or outside of work, says that they moved here for the schools only to find that the schools stretched their children to the breaking point, that all the joy has gone from their eyes. They say in a half-whisper that their heart skips a beat every time they hear the train whistle followed by a police siren.
This last is a reference to a grade crossing next to Palo Alto High School, where for a time students who were feeling the pressure of academic competition would throw themselves in front of oncoming commuter trains. For a year or so, as I rode my back through this interection on the way to campus, I would see security guards, whose sole job was to keep students from killing themselves.
College admission in highly selective colleges and universities gives the lie to everything students and their parents have been led to believe: the aspirational narratives of the American dream, the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps Horatio Alger story. You can do all the right things—prenatal vitamins, Baby Einstein, enrichment classes, “gifted and talented” programs, piano, violin, soccer, swimming, baseball, basketball, private school, voice lessons, math camp, band camp, debate camp, private school, SAT prep—and not get what you were expecting, indeed, what you may have believed you were entitled to. College admission is arbitrary and howlingly unfair. As a matter of fact, it’s a lot like life.
No one wants to hear that you can do all the right things and not get into Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Caltech, MIT. No one wants to live in a world where causality is not a thing, where rules don’t apply. No one wants to believe that doing all the right things guarantees nothing. They tell me about their neighbor’s son or their cousin’s daughter, the one who spent the summer at Johns Hopkins or who started a nonprofit or who took this one class and is now at Harvard, and the unspoken hope is that I will figure out some kind of magic potion or formula to get the kid into Harvard too.
When I started working as an independent counselor, the neediness used to set my teeth on edge. I fantasized about screaming, “Do you know what I’m dealing with at home? Do you really think your daughter’s A- in AP US History is a crisis? Did you really need to title your email “URGENT IMMEDIATE REPLY REQUESTED” because your son wasn’t admitted to a summer program that accepts about 2.5 percent of all applicants?” Now I nod in recognition—not because I don’t think they’re being absurd (I do), but because I get it.
Here’s her concluding rant:
Dear Rising Senior, Listen up: Arnold Spirit Junior from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is getting in and you’re not, even though he’s fictional and you’re real. Why? Because you’re googling things like “how do you get into a highly selective college” and he lives on the rez with bullies, an alcoholic father, and more heartbreak than you will experience over the course of your entire life. And yeah, you are actually the lucky one, because even though he’s getting in and you’re not, he doesn’t have parents who can pay full freight for four years at a private college. He never had tutors or SAT prep classes or $120 sneakers for just kicking around. But it’s so stressful to be you, you protest. It’s not fair. This kid has natural gifts: he’s bright, a talented graphic artist, and a member of an underrepresented minority. You play trumpet in the school band and have mostly A’s and an engineer dad and doctor mom who drive you to the local community college where you’re taking statistics to boost your GPA and nothing exciting ever happens to you.
I am not trying to rub it in. I am simply a little bird with a message. I should also point out that there are well over 2,500 colleges that would be delighted to admit a teenager who has not taken a dozen college-level classes before graduating from high school; fled political repression; navigated the world entirely alone, rejected by everyone; fallen down rabbit holes; invented anything; or sheltered fugitives. But you don’t want any of them, do you? You want the top ten, maybe the top twenty, if you’re feeling expansive. Maybe you’ll “even” go to Berkeley, as a student once told me he might do if Harvard and Columbia don’t work out.
And don’t get me started on your parents—parents who use HYPS as a synecdoche for highly selective schools, who talk about “packaging” and “messaging” and “positioning” as though you were a product ready for launch, parents who second- and third-guess everything, who are riddled with anxiety and angst, who worry that you don’t have a “spark,” who want what’s best for you but who also want bragging rights come April of your senior year. It’s enough to drive you to drink. (Me, that is; you’re still underage.)