College Admissions Case Study

Mark's profile was stellar: Five APs as a senior including Advanced Placement Government/Economics, AP English, AP Calculus; AP Psychology; and AP Biology. He had 1400 on his SATs: CR, 690; Math, 710. He wasn't a starter on his high school basketball team but he worked harder than some of the taller boys with more talent. In addition, Mark was an extraordinarily likable kid. I knew his recommendations from his counselor and both teachers would be strong. Most importantly, he worked hard in the classroom too. All in all a great kid, the kind you hope your daughter will bring home. (Years in the future, of course.)

Regular readers of these newsletters will be familiar with my philosophy for these high profile kids: "Hope for the best, plan for the worst." Apply to a few "top" schools, and, if HYPS* says "no," then matriculate someplace equally wonderful but not at the top of the current pecking order. My usual college admissions client is much more challenging: lacking in self esteem, concerned about low SAT scores, missing some credits, hoping to skip her senior year of high school, worrying about the suspension from school, thinking that there is no college that will accept her. Something.

Mark, to the contrary, breezed across every hurdle. List of extracurriculars? Check. Deadlines under control? Check. SAT-I, SAT-II scores sent? Check. Smooth as his lay-up. Until it came time to write the essay for Wake Forest. "Describe the book that you have read outside of class that has had the greatest influence on you and why."

"Mr. Altshuler," Mark began nervously, I've read The Scarlett Letter.

"Great 'Baby Daddy' novel," I agreed.

"And I've read The Great Gatsby..."

"Didn't much care for that one."

My Philistine remark didn't dissuade Mark from communicating what was on his mind. He was on a mission. "I've read Huckleberry Finn, 1984, Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, "Hamlet," Their Eyes Were Watching God, Beowulf, Gulliver's Travels, The Canterbury Tales, A Tale of Two Cities, Dubliners, No Exit, Things Fall Apart and Cancer Ward.

"Good for you, Mark. That's quite the impressive list. Let's chat and let me help you figure out which one you want to write about."

Mark looked at me as if I had the letters "Stoopid" emblazoned on my forehead. "You don't understand," he said. "The essay asks me to write about a book I've read outside of class." Mark cast his eyes downward. "Mr. Altshuler, I've never read a book outside of class."

***

What are concerned educators and loving parents to make of this conversation? First, I'm thrilled that Mark is ethical. He won't lie about his curriculum and write an essay about an assigned book. Second, my hat is off to his teachers. Their choices are age appropriate and globally aware. If there is any such thing as "Books Everyone Should Read" then Mark's teacher's for the past three years have got the list.

But doesn't it make you sad that this honors student--this good, hard working kid who has done everything he's been told since the day he started school--has never read a book outsider of class? I wonder if he's ever had a day when he had nothing to do--no basketball practice, no homework for his AP classes, no prescribed activity--when he could wander around, spend some time outdoors, and let the world pass him by as he devoured a Raymond Chandler or a J. K. Rowling.

Something is gained from the way these kids are processed, packaged and turned into products in the admissions game. But something is lost too.

As always, I'm eager to hear your thoughts.

* HYPS. "Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford." A few more schools--Duke, Brown, Cornell, Amherst, Swarthmore--could be added to this list but the acronym isn't as pleasant to pronounce.

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