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College Admissions and The High School Psyche

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Emerson said it best: an authentic education "allows a scholar to give the world the shape of his own mind.'' But old Waldo never had to endure the 20th-century college-admission process. Harvard just said, come.

I have been teaching in public high school for 28 years, and every December and April I witness the anguish that accompanies the letters from colleges that say, "Don't come.'' Given the shock and pain that accompany these letters, I have felt compelled to hold a deferral party in December for the disappointed. We critique deferral and rejection letters, make offerings to the Buddha for better fortune in April, and consume endless numbers of hot-fudge sundaes, often the only true comfort in a cold world. Ironically, the party has created a sufficient cachet for the value of rejection, and one student who was admitted to her early choice told me that the only drawback to admission was missing the party.

Of course, I understand that colleges cannot accept all who apply, but somehow we must find a more humane and productive way to prepare students not only for college, but for an intellectual life beyond college, a life that should reflect Emerson's hope for them.

My aspirations for all my students are the same: passion for reading, writing, and ideas, compassion for other people, and some recognition that scholarship, like the human condition itself, involves struggle. I want them to know that this struggle is ultimately enriching and ennobling. I want them to be unafraid to risk, to leap, to fail. The reality of college admissions, however, often undermines my credibility as a woman of wisdom. My students, even my own son, return from information sessions at colleges and report that the profile of the ideal student is restrictive. These vulnerable, gullible students and their often frenzied parents become convinced that they must instantly enroll in the most challenging courses offered at their school in every subject, no matter that English might not be on their intellectual dance card or that calculus sends them into a stupor ... no matter that they might prefer composing music for the classical guitar rather than completing three hours per night of physics problems ... no matter that such a course of study might threaten their private life of the mind, a life that craves time and space.

So--the earnest applicant signs up for every honors and Advanced Placement course known to all living creatures.

Not only do the students find themselves consumed by anxiety, but the classes themselves and the teachers who attempt to be all things to all people become pressured to insure that every student earns a sufficiently high grade for the transcript. Because the entry on the transcript and the grade become the focus, in danger is the passion for the subject, the willingness to risk, the acceptance of struggle. Aha, I can hear you college people muttering, "if she'd only maintain her standards, she'd have no trouble.'' The simple fact of being in the classroom every day with students whose aspirations are to be accepted by a college, however, alters this view. We try mightily to help every student achieve all he or she can. Sometimes this requires enormous efforts after school, the rewriting and recorrecting of endless papers. I think I speak for my colleagues when I say that we rejoice in these efforts if we feel that the students care deeply for the subject.

But too often students spread themselves dangerously thin only so they can meet the expectations they feel the colleges have set for them. They often have neither the time nor the energy nor the resilience to rewrite and rethink, to wrestle with language and ideas, to stay with a problem until they have solved it and made it theirs. They become consumed by packaging themselves for admission. Their motivation for taking a course will not be interest or passion, but necessity. Recalculating their grade-point average becomes a daily event, and seeking out courses that will feed their class rank in a weighted curriculum becomes central in their academic decisionmaking. A cottage industry that teaches families how to beat the college-admissions system has sprung up and is alive and well in the wealthy suburbs. For rural or urban students who might not have the funds to seek such assistance, such a service is but another example of injustice spawned by our obsession with admission.

As an antidote to some of these excesses, I would suggest, then, a recalibration of the profile, a recalibration that might even be more in keeping with the kind of student colleges really want. For years college admissions seemed terrifyingly random to me until I grasped the goal of the admissions committee at most selective colleges and universities--to compose a class, to select a variety and range of students whose uniqueness will blend and form a rich and vital community. I suspect that if high school students recognized this goal, and if they felt convinced that being more selective in course choices would not harm their chances, their decisions would be far more thoughtful and personal and their preparation would be more sound. The grade-grubber, surely the most loathsome form of student, would not be eliminated, of course, but he/she would have less of a motive.

Several years ago I heard on National Public Radio of a 20-year study that followed high school valedictorians through college and graduate school and beyond. The study showed that these students, models of the restrictive profile that while perhaps not intended by the colleges lives within the hearts of high school students, did not achieve anywhere near the professional success of those students who nurtured a single passion. Two years ago I used this argument in a recommendation I sent to an Ivy League college. My student did not take honors chemistry or foreign language; in fact, he often neglected his lab book and his Spanish sentences. His class rank was not as high as many colleges might wish. This student, however, regularly read The New Republic, The Nation, National Review, The New York Times, and every new book on politics and government he could find. He spontaneously conducted teach-ins on the Gulf War and the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings in every corner of the building. Clearly, he was stirred by a grand passion, and the college, bless its heart, accepted him and is reaping the rewards of his contributions.

I can list chapter and verse of students who never take an honors course but who greet the world with curiosity and joy, but they often feel disenfranchised by the class-rank structure and the admissions process. If a college's selectivity quotient is based on the class ranks of the students who attend, then the entire process might militate against choosing the unconventional candidate. I sometimes suspect that state universities, by virtue of their size, have an easier time gathering an eclectic student body, because many of our treasures who receive the dreaded thin envelope in April find glorious havens in a larger school.

I am convinced, though, that all colleges and universities are searching for just such students to enter their freshman classes, and I am equally convinced that high schools could produce even more of these students if only we could reintroduce sanity to the public profile of the college student.

Years ago, we allowed our students to take only a maximum of three honors courses, so convinced were we that choices had to be made to maintain the well-being of the students and the integrity of the classes. Our students' admission to and success in college rivaled the best of our efforts today. A young man I taught in a regular college-prep class went on to Harvard, was nominated for a Rhodes Scholarship, and became president of CBS at age 38. I wonder if all the time he spent writing scripts, impersonating F. Scott Fitzgerald, and investigating the Kennedy assassination long before Oliver Stone slithered in would have enabled him to compile the requisite record for admission required today at Harvard.

We must allow our students to take those courses that engage them, not force them into a curriculum that saps their energy and renders them automatons rather than thinkers. No student should reject an interdisciplinary course that intrigues them because it is not weighted advantageously, or select an honors course solely because it is. Our students need rigor, of course, but they also need the luxury of time and choice to fire their spirits. We educators need to be released from our singular, often obsessive mission of preparing students to fulfill that admissions profile. We too need time to experiment, to contemplate new schedules and structures and ways of reorganizing the school day and school year. Somehow we must work together to find ways of identifying and nurturing students who fulfill Emerson's definition of the passionate scholar.

Jean E. Goddard teaches English at Wellesley High School in Wellesley, Mass.

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