Personal Letter of the Day

"We feel a particularly strong responsibility to admit students who are not only qualified but who are ready to continue the crucial business of educating themselves. You have been selected by our faculty and admissions counselors because you recognize the pleasure — the absolute joy — to be found in active, creative learning. Our decision was not based on numbers but on your achievements and your words, a difficult determination to make but one that gives proper honor to the University and to you."

A few lone institutions, worthy of the highest praise for their courage to ignore U.S. News and World Report, are able to evaluate the person, not the file. I couldn’t be more grateful.

Merit-Based Scholarships

Higher education caters to the privileged and the elite.

I remember reading an article on this topic which bolstered its point by revealing a new trend by colleges looking to attract top students: offer merit-based scholarships out of their scholarship money, regardless of whether they’re financial aid candidates.

I’m fortunate not to need financial aid for college. Today a college offered me an annual $5,000 scholarship if I attend based on "potential to make unique and strong contributions to [college name]’s student life."

It’s a very generous offer and will be on the table when I make my decision. But I know that my receiving this money means money not going to other economically disadvantaged applicants.

Thick Envelopes, Thin Envelopes

I’m receiving thick envelopes and thin envelopes in the mail. They are starting to trickle in.

The dean of admissions at Kenyon College — a prestigious liberal arts college — has a nice NYT op/ed today on how they and many other schools need to practice affirmative action for men. Guys, rejoice!

When the process is over, I’ll blog about how it turned out. The process and standards have changed so much, that if you’re over 30 and don’t have teenage kids you will be in for a big surprise! I will tell all soon.

The Reading List for Every Educated Person (and Core vs. Open Curriculums)

Every March, it seems, David Brooks issues his college / education advice to "students" (really their NYT reading parents). Today, Brooks offers his pity to Harvard students and advocates a broad, liberal arts foundation essential for every educated person. In going through the college process, I’ve encountered many interesting approaches to education, most of which I disagree with! Generally, there are two main schools of thought: one is a based on a core curriculum and one is based on student flexibility to construct a highly personalized course load. The core curriculum folks — most famously the U of Chicago and Columbia University — say that not all knowledge is equal. They consult the classics. They say it’s as critical for biology majors to know about philosophy as it is for English majors to know math. The open curriculum folks — most famously Brown University and Amherst College — argue that students need to be engaged in their intellectual development and courses should respond to their itches.

I’m not on one side of the fence, since both have their strengths. Brooks, being a University of Chicago alumnus, concurs with Peter Beinhart’s piece (which I blogged last week) that some Harvard students — and anyone from an open curriculum school, really — can end up "without the kind of core knowledge that you’d expect from a good high school student," and required courses can be "a hodgepodge of arbitrary, esoteric classes that cohere into nothing at all."

Here’s what Brooks says every educated person must read, regardless of college, but especially if you go to a core curriculum school:

  1. "Reinhold Niebuhr. Religion is a crucial driving force of this century, and Niebuhr is the wisest guide."
  2. Read Plato’s "Gorgias." As Robert George of Princeton observes, "The explicit point of the dialogue is to demonstrate the superiority of philosophy (the quest for wisdom and truth) to rhetoric (the art of persuasion in the cause of victory). At a deeper level, it teaches that the worldly honors that one may win by being a good speaker … can all too easily erode one’s devotion to truth — a devotion that is critical to our integrity as persons. So rhetorical skills are dangerous, potentially soul-imperiling, gifts."
  3. Take a course on ancient Greece. For 2,500 years, educators knew that the core of their mission was to bring students into contact with heroes like Pericles, Socrates and Leonidas. "No habit is so important to acquire," Aristotle wrote, as the ability "to delight in fine characters and noble actions." Alfred North Whitehead agreed, saying, "Moral education is impossible without the habitual vision of greatness."
    That core educational principle was abandoned about a generation ago, during a spasm of radical egalitarianism. And once that principle was lost, the entire coherence of higher education was lost with it. So now you’ve got to find your own ways to learn about history’s heroes, the figures who will serve as models to emulate and who will provide you with standards to use to measure your own conduct. Remember, as the British educator Richard Livingstone once wrote, "One is apt to think of moral failure as due to weakness of character: more often it is due to an inadequate ideal."

  4. Learn a foreign language.
  5. Spend a year abroad. "All evidence suggests this, more than any other, is a transforming experience for students that lasts a lifetime."
  6. Take a course in neuroscience. (ie – this is going to be big!)
  7. Take statistics.
  8. Forget about your career for once in your life…You’ve got to burst out of that narrow careerist mentality. Of course, it will be hard when you’re surrounded by so many narrow careerist professors building their little subdisciplinary empires.

Trying to Distill Myself For a College Interview

I’ve done a half dozen college interviews with local alumni or admissions reps and on the whole they’ve gone really well. In-person interactions definitely work to my advantage. At first, the interview follows the normal contours. "What is your favorite class?" "What do you do in your free time?" "What do you do at school?" But soon enough we trek off the beaten path as I try to explain who I am and what I do in 45 minutes.

My approach for these interviews has always been to be casual and avoid "talking points" or anything else that reaks of superficiality. The upside to this is I establish an authentic, genuine bond with the interviewer. The downside is that when I don’t stick to a script, what I say reflects what’s on my mind – which is pretty much everything under the sun analyzed in multiple ways with ten different parenthetical asides and then a few counterarguments and a few more anecdotes.

Consequently, in virtually all of my interviews, I’ve just instinctually talked a mile a minute about what I’m thinking about: entrepreneurship, religion, emotional intelligence, Americanism, books, morality, etc etc. It probably has made no coherent sense!

The story of my life, at the moment, is the world of ideas with impact – finding them, creating them, analyzing them, challenging them, discussing them. I can think of no more honest – or messy – way to present this story than talking about the ideas themselves. Besides, this is far more interesting than mundane topics like "favorite class at school"!

How Am I Supposed to Answer This in 250 Words?

From a college app: "Describe your intellectual interests, their evolution, and what makes them exciting to you."

The whole world! Exciting! Interesting! Mystifying!

For Adults, The Cachet of Your Diploma Rises and Falls

Throughout the college process, I’ve never been terribly interested in the cachet associated with a college’s name. I’m fortunate to be in a position where people can judge me by what I’ve done, not by what school I go to or will go to.

What’s fascinating for me is hearing what adults – people in their 40’s and 50’s – think about how "good" certain schools are. The problem is a lot has changed – both the colleges and the process – since they were applying. So schools that were once "3rd tier" are now much much better. If you went to one of those 3rd tier schools 25 years ago, that school may very well be much better, earning you more points on the cachet scale right now.

If you’re a graduate of schools like Duke, Middlebury, Macalester, USC, Washington U in St. Louis, Claremont McKenna, Tulane, Rice, Northwestern, etc. the stock in your diploma has risen to among the premier in the country (not like it matters!). With more and more people going to college, there is a new wave of top notch colleges, and it’s making many older alumni around the country smile.

People Are Starting to Hear About Early Decisions

I didn’t apply early, but some friends did. Emotions are running high. Some outcomes are shocking, some uplifting, some depressing. Big takeaway: crapshoot. I’ve heard about strong, solid kids who have impeccable integrity getting turned by the school that would be a great fit. I’ve heard about kids who have cheated their way through high school and getting into a "brand name." Ugh.

College Essays (A Spoof in the New Yorker)

Christopher Buckley’s spoof college essay in the New Yorker put a smile on my face.

I’m applying to colleges this fall. For essays where I must create the prompt, I am using Joan Didion:

“I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package, I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.” – Joan Didion, Commencement Address at U.C. Riverside

The essays are where I get to pontificate…but it’s very hard to set yourself apart here. After all, everyone is coached on every aspect of the app. Hell, you can even be coached for the SAT. There’s no doubt in my mind that many essays are written or re-written for kids by parents or tutors.

I was exchanging emails with an admissions officer a month or two ago, and mentioned this frustration. I put forth this challenge: if an admissions office read my blog for the 20 minutes or however much time they spend reading a file, they would find out who I am (and whether I’d be a fit) much better than a typical admissions package. In fact, for any high school senior who has a blog, I bet their blog (or a Google search of their name) would be much more helpful than overly polished perfection.

Alas, obtaining additional "color" is a low priority. Most colleges want to move up in the rankings, which means accepting the highest GPA/board scores students as possible.

Slate Kicking Ass With "College Week" and Other Articles

Slate consistently strikes me as one of the most engaging magazines around, including print. This week they’ve done a great series on College Week – a series of articles on higher ed. One of the sub-topics is a series of brief essays by academics on how they’d improve higher ed. The best are Steven Pinker (always fascinating, no exception here), Alan Wolfe (he touches on why morality should be central, something I’ve talked about on this blog), Georgia Nugent (morality, again). Elsewhere in College Week, there’s a good kicker on college journalists which humored me as I run the paper at my high school; an interesting list of the first books that famous intellectuals/stars fell in love with; students ranking professors online. Finally, there’s a piece on the pervasive nature of laptops and wi-fi in the classroom, and all the associated distractions. Most of my blog posts during the week are done while I’m in class – there are a lot of boring moments! A couple days ago I exchanged emails with a teacher where, after emailing him, I jokingly said "What else am I going to do in class?" He responded: "I dunno, maybe take notes, or some dumb conformist shit like that?" Indeed.

Elsewhere on Slate…The Explainer tells us how to create your own town. This is something I’ve always wanted to do – create some town in the midwest when I’m 60 years old. You know, a tight-knit community of like 60 citizens.