Keeping Secrets

I’m not a sociable traveler. When I’m on a plane or a train I would really rather read or sleep than chat with the person next to me. It’s not that I’m antisocial generally, it’s just that these are times when I can focus on catching up on that biography of Edison or back issues of The Atlantic I’ve been meaning to read. I relish being out of touch. But even more, to be honest, I usually just can’t work up any interest in a stranger’s life, and can’t imagine why someone else would be interested in mine.

This posture became particularly important when I was an associate dean of admission at Amherst and then a college counselor. Telling someone you’re a college admission officer is like revealing you’re a doctor—the other person always has something for you to diagnose right there in public.

“Oh really?” he says, “My kid has a 3.2 GPA and a 28 ACT score. Where should he go to college?” He might as well ask to have his appendix taken out right in the exit row. And of course it doesn’t stop there:

“What do you think about Gabbler College?”
“Should my kid use that Common Application? What is that, anyway?”
“Can a middle class family get financial aid anymore?”
“If my kid plays women’s soccer, will that help her get into Bigbucks University? My uncle-in-law went there, will that help?”
“I heard that Pyrex College is a real party school. Is that true?”

Personally, I’d rather take out my own appendix than have one of these interactions. I found a kindred spirit while on vacation recently. In her excellent novel, Admission, Jean Hanff Korelitz puts her main character, Portia Nathan, through an excruciating dinner party where she has to defend the college admission process to a particularly aggressive and disbelieving guest (who, of course, has a child soon to be applying to college).

Portia has been introduced as an associate dean of admission at Princeton, so there’s no escaping the grasp of her clueless fellow guest:

Obviously tipped off, [Diana] made for Portia immediately, taking the other half of a too-small sofa in the living room and leaning right in. Within moments, Portia was in possession of Diana Halsey Bennet’s entire resume, and John’s sister was already moving on to the unnaturally engorged resume of her daughter, Kelsey (field hockey captain, class secretary, treasurer of the literary magazine), who sat on the other side of the living room, looking—to her credit—horribly embarrassed.

The evening goes on like this for Portia as she tries to enjoy the meal with her lover’s family. Finally, she more or less gives up:

“Oh I’m sure your job is very hard.” Diana shrugged, looking as if she were sure of no such thing. She was also looking peevishly at her daughter, as if the looming social diminishment she anticipated were all the girl’s fault. “But let me ask you something. Why do you even ask, on the application, where parents have gone to college? I mean, if you’re going to penalize the kids for having parents who read the newspaper and take them to Europe. Isn’t it better not to ask at all? I mean,” she said, utterly missing the point, “the less you know, the more level the playing field. That’s what I think.”

Portia looked sadly at the now empty wineglass in her hand. She could not remember, really, drinking it, let alone how it had tasted, but she saw that it had been red, and she very much wanted more of it….

How many times have we as admission officers or college counselors looked into that wineglass, hoping for a hailstorm or sudden pyroclastic flow to interrupt the moment? Particularly painful is the fact that we can see the other person’s point but realize that no matter how we respond he or she will be convinced we’re keeping the secrets to ourselves. The truth is out there, says our Mulderian seatmate…Better to say you’re a ventriloquist or a shepherd or a Mafia hit man. Then you can read in peace.

A slightly different version of this blog entry appears in Admitted, the blog of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.