The Dog in the Fight

The temperature in the high 80s with 100% humidity at mile 20 of a recent marathon, my friend Daniel glanced down as we stumbled by a line of broken, twitching bodies writhing on the side of the road, runners unable to continue. We weren't in significantly better shape ourselves--pasty, salty skin, achy and miserable--but we were still plodding forward. Ambulance after ambulance whizzed by to aid dehydrated, dazed runners. I tried not to think about that scene from Gone with the Wind. You know: the one with all the injured soldiers.

"Ah." Daniel remarked. "The race begins now."

In college admissions, families seem more and more focused on "getting in" than on what the kids can do in the classroom if they do get admitted. Donating five hundred thousand dollars to the development fund and blackmailing the dean of admissions might be useful strategies--they're not; but it's fun to think that they could be--but what happens when Percy is asked to write an actual in-class essay or to solve a calculus problem? A castle built on sand sinks pretty quickly when the tide comes in. And finding the volume of a three-dimensional solid as it expands while hurtling through space requires the reality rather than the appearance of ability.

"But 98 % of the graduates of VCU ("Vine Covered University" for the purposes of this example, rather than Virginia Commonwealth) are admitted to law school." Yes, because of who the kids were when they started, not because of what VCU did for them once they matriculated.

"Are you sure that what you do is more important than where you go?"

Yes, I'm sure. Having skill, learning a lot, and doing well at No Name U allows you to go to graduate school and do well when you're there. Matriculating at SDARU* and not being able to handle what goes on in the classroom leaves you wishing for a paddle.

If "Going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than sleeping in the garage makes you a car" then attending VCU won't transform a student of modest ability into an able practitioner any more than putting this author in a Miami Dolphins uniform will allow me to make any actual tackles.

It's not about getting in, it's about connecting and making progress once you're there.

As my clients finalize their college selections this time of year, I ask them to look beyond the hype and to focus on what goes on in the typical classroom on a typical day. Does the teaching style in the classroom match the learning style of the student?

Of course other factors of all kinds come into the calculus of making a decision about which school to attend. I would never decry the value of a football game, an outing with the outdoor club, an opportunity to make a contribution to the student newspaper or radio station. But at some point, the number of October classics in which Vine Covered University emerged victorious will matter less that whether or not its graduates can pose, research, solve, and articulate the answers to sophisticated questions.

No potential employer ever differentiated among applicants based on college hockey game attendance. No graduate school dean ever decided to grant admission based on how many formal dances were attended. The match between the quality of the undergraduate teaching and the way students learn is the critical piece. And the better the student is at learning the better.

First year biology at this university is the same as first year biology at that university is as true as suggesting that all spouses are equally good matches. (Ask anyone who has ever been married more than once about the truth of the later statement.) What happens in the classroom is what matters. It doesn't matter where you get in if you can't stay in.

Last caveat: I have written repeatedly about how competition is harmful for developing minds. Focusing on performance takes away from attending to learning. That said, you have to know whom you're sitting next to at WHHSSU**. That kid in the front row playing with his phone, the one you think is texting his girlfriend? He's not. He's using his phone to record the lecture. He asked permission of the professors when you were at the pep rally. That kid listens to the recorded lectures--sometimes more than once--while he fills in any notes he may have missed during class. Sometimes he transcribes the lectures word for word.

Sometimes he memorizes the lectures. Memorizes. As if he were an actor in a play.

Can you imagine how well that kid does on the exams? Basically every test he takes is "open book" because he has memorized all the lectures. He doesn't just know the material. He knows everything in the professor's head. Yes, he studies hard. For all we know he may even miss the occasional sporting event because he's in the library. He makes use of office hours; he gets together with friends to study; he is immaculately organized. In short, he gets the job done.

He is just like the Terminator, only more focused.

If you go to SDARU or WHHSSU, you better be ready to go toe to toe with this kid. Because that's where he goes to school and you better have the skill and the motivation to stay with him. At 20 miles out, when everyone else is cramping and barfing, when the other runners are dazed and staggering, this kid is picking up the pace, studying like a machine, learning everything.

And he's sitting next to you, studying the same coursework, doing the same labs, taking the same exams.

Wouldn't you agree that getting admitted to SDARU or WHHSSU is the least of your worries?

* Single Digit Admissions Rate University
** We Have Higher SAT Scores University

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