Elephant in the Room

The Choice, a New York Times blog about college admission, has begun a series of answers to questions posed to Harvard’s Dean of Admission, Bill Fitzsimmons. Those of us who have worked in the field for more than a few days will probably know how to answer the questions from nearly 900 respondents. What’s remarkable is that even though there are dozens of books, articles, websites, counselors, and other methods purporting to reveal the “secrets” of college admission, the questions and assumptions are the same as they have always been.

The admission process is the elephant being discussed by the blind men: each one “knows” what he’s feeling—a tail, an ear, a leg—but no one knows the whole thing. Some insist that most spots in a Harvard class are reserved for wealthy donors or legacies; others believe that the deck is stacked against public school students (Interestingly, Fitzsimmons, himself a Harvard alum, is from a blue collar background). Another demands to know that applying for financial aid will have no impact on a student’s chances, yet another asks how Harvard’s process can “reward diversity without committing a type of reverse discrimination.” The tone of the questions ranges from Harvard-induced bliss at having been accepted to outright skepticism, with some dark rumblings from fringy types about why Harvard “gives away” so many seats to “foreign born” students.

Underneath all these comments are two questions that vary according to whether you have a child of college-going age or not: “How can my child reach the inner circles of wealth, connection and power?” and “Why can’t Harvard [or other appropriately big and powerful school] fix everything that’s wrong with our social system?” These are both unanswerable and mutually exclusive, which is what makes college admission so much fun.

Ultimately, however, the pleas to Fitzsimmons add up to what used to be addressed to philosophers: “How shall we live our lives?” Parents of second graders want to know how to plan lives that will result in Harvard attainment; a high schooler worries that if she leads an “authentic” life she may be disadvantaged by someone who has polished and “created” hers; those without Harvard genes lambaste a policy that seems automatically to reward those who have them. We want answers that will assure us that life isn’t random but has some direction and meaning. But in expecting “Harvard” to provide those answers, we avoid the more difficult task of wrestling with them ourselves, which is why philosophy is so hard.

Of course, one big mistake is to assume that only Harvard can address those questions. As college counselors and admission officers never tire of saying, the “best” college is the one that will challenge you appropriately, open your eyes to new ways of thinking, and help you develop and broaden your talents as you take your place in the world ahead. Plunging full-on into college life will be rewarding no matter where you are.

A true story: While I was in the Amherst admission office, one of our tour guides told us that her parents had pressured her mercilessly to apply to Harvard even though she wanted to attend Amherst. They had never heard of Amherst and insisted that Harvard was the place she’d go. After much haranguing, they finally prevailed upon her to visit Harvard and take the tour. At the end, a visitor asked the tour guide, “Is there anything you’d change about your Harvard experience?” The guide replied, “I would have gone to Amherst.” The rest, as they say, is history; hers, anyway.

Despite our best efforts, college admission remains an enigma wrapped in a mystery stuffed in an elephant. We just need to remember that we’re dealing with flawed human beings and human systems. But Americans expect answers, not more questions: Socrates was executed for being annoying, remember–he wouldn’t last ten minutes in an admission office. And no matter what answers Fitzsimmons gives, they won’t be the ones questioners are looking for. Even Harvard can’t supply those.

A version of this essay appears on the NACAC blog, Admitted.