April 18, 2004

"Getting-Into-College-Camp." The NYT has a new entry in its continuing series of stories about how students today are working too hard. They need to ease up and enjoy life more--that's the theme. Today's article is about--horrors!--high school kids who spend a couple weeks in the summer living in college dorms in places like Boston and LA and taking a bunch of classes about writing good college applications and managing the SAT. But they aren't hiking! They aren't getting enough fresh air!

"How far can the frenzy over college admissions go?" wails Times reporter Tamar Lewin. The dean of admissions at Pomona College in California offers Lewin a quotable quote: "This is just sick ... I can't imagine how it's going to help, and it sounds like such a ridiculous waste of money that it distresses me that parents would be so obsessive-compulsive." Well, that's a tad hysterical. Admissions deans ought to look into their own failings, not criticize students who are trying to get throught the barriers they set up. And I say that as someone who managed to get into a good law school despite the fact that I was clueless about how to do the application, had no idea of the importance of the personal essay, and, not even realizing I could type out extra pages and writing only what fit in the space provided on the application form, told the simple truth about what was going through my head about going to law school! (And what was going through my head was cringe-inducingly lame!) I would have loved to have had a way to talk to someone who could have explained what is involved in putting together a competitive application. That said, when I read application files today as an Admissions Committee member, I try to look through the application and see the person. There are some people who don't come from a background to know what a competent advisor would tell them or even to realize that they could have gotten some advice. That these people still can prevail because of the facts in the file certainly doesn't mean that there is no reason for any given applicant to do what they can to present a good file. For people who do not come from an underprivileged background, a poorly prepared file can convey the impression that they are not mature or dedicated or hard-working enough.

Exactly why is doing a little summer course so terrible and "obsessive"? If the real point that admissions dean is making is that summer camp is expensive, so the underprivileged lose out, he should deal with that disparity himself, by reading files carefully and taking account of deficiencies in applications that are traceable to lack of privilege. But don't knock students who just work hard at perfecting their applications! And don't act like living in a cool city for two weeks with other kids your age is terrible because you ought to be out hiking. Personally, I'd rather "hike" around a cool city. To be able to discover a city, with kids your age, while you get some advice about something that is making you really anxious: I would have loved to have done that as a high school kid! With that anxiety tended to, there are still ten weeks left to the long summer for long hikes in the woods--though I bet far more of that time is spent indoors, watching movies and TV and playing video games, while the parent who sent you to get-into-college camp is hounding you to go out and get some fresh air!

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