Before Matthew Broderick was Ferris Bueller and Ally Sheedy was the weird girl in "Breakfast Club," the kids starred in "War Games," an uplifting film about global thermonuclear war and the end of all life on the planet, that sort of thing. Spoiler alert: the world does not come to a fiery end in the final reel. An out of control computer runs simulations--hence the "game" in the film's title--all of which end in the planet more or less being blown to bits no bigger than your dining room table.  Our heroes, Matt and Ally are able to "teach" the machine that the only way to win the game is not to play. The War Operation Plan Response learns that no strategic placement of jet fighters or aircraft carriers will lead to one side "winning" a nuclear conflagration. Ultimately the WOPR is able to squawk in its distended computer voice, "How about a nice game of chess?" as we stand down from Defcom Five and our empty popcorn containers hit the trash buckets .

If a computer with an unfortunate acronym (WOPR. Really?) can determine that thermonuclear war is not winnable, can loving parents of high school students come to a similarly virtuous conclusion? Here are the numbers. Not the arithmetic regarding how many Soviet nuclear submarines float off the coast of Vladivostok, but the most recent stats regarding how many kids get admission offers at selected selective schools.

Seventy years ago when Warren Buffet was rejected at Harvard (big "oops" dontcha think?), the school admitted 245 out of 278 applicants from prestigious prep schools, a whopping 88%. Fast forward to the past five years: Harvard's overall admit rate has been 6.9%, 5.8%, 5.9%, 5.3%, and 5.1%. We're talking one yes for every 15 nopes.

I have written elsewhere and endlessly about the arbitrariness of selective admissions. I have pontificated in these columns about how hard it is to predict who will be the one yep out of the stack of 15 "we wish you every success elsewhere." I have reminded my readers that valedictorian applicants with 1600 SATs who speak five languages, have patented inventions, and built nuclear submarines in their basements are routinely rejected. Today I want to help you understand how completely and utterly worthless is the whole silly process.

Because becoming that valedictorian with the 1600 SATs and patented inventions who walks on water and pees perfume can cost a kid, if not her immortal soul, then certainly her childhood. With less "perfect" credentials the odds drop off from one in 16 to significantly less. At "only" top five percent, the odds are closer to one in 50. If a kid "achieves" that academic pinnacle--first in her class--her odds at Stanford, Columbia or Princeton are still single digits. Who needs this?

Valedictorians are smart nowadays, no argument. But they also put in endless hours carrying buckets of knowledge back and forth. They learn some stuff that excites them and has meaning, but they do a ton of work that is insipid and quickly forgotten. "Top" kids are motivated, but they are also stressed and, if I may speak frankly, frequently frazzled to the point of being unpleasant to be around. There is something ungracious about the unending competition and recomputing of grade point averages.

So here's some non non-directed advice for high school students concerned about their applications to college (read: every high school student): take the AP courses that are of interest. Don't take every AP course offered just to take a shot at being graduated at the very top of your class. Develop passion and commitment outside the classroom, not a compendium of insipid community service hours. Become involved in activities that have meaning for you whether or not you think those undertakings will "look good" at Dartmouth or Rice. Read a book that isn't assigned for goodness sake. Take some time off. Go for a hike with friends. Make a minor mistake and deal with the consequences. In short, have a life. The WOPR is a machine; you, to the contrary, are a person. There's a difference.

Here's some non non-directed advice for parents of high school students: focus on your child, not on admissions. If your child loves reading, if your child loves learning, if your child is motivated, if your child is content, then the future will take care of itself. Still concerned about college? I promise you that there are hundreds of colleges that accept virtually every qualified applicant and that the kids who do well at those institutions get admitted to medical school just the same as the kids who went to the single digit admit schools.

Because the only way to win is not to play.



4 thoughts on “Wargames

  1. Sandy Furth

    Well captured on how high school students should have a high school life. They should look back on their years with fondness and delight, not as a means to an end.

  2. Martin

    Really good column! Nicely, gently put that some games are not worth the candle.
    And that, contrary to popular belief and anxiety, “elite” college may be one of them,
    and probably is for most kids. Certainly, looking at it from the side of the colleges,
    getting a nice class with enough students who can pay a reasonable amount to support
    the institution and are likely neither to burn down the residence halls or frustrate the
    faculty (too much) is what’s wanted. Most (nearly all?) of the non-profit colleges provide
    far more than most (nearly all) young people need by way of opportunities for learning,
    socializing and expanding horizons…. Beyond that, the game is prestige.

  3. Bob McGrath

    More accurate and pertinent advice, especially for parents with HS grade children getting ready to play the “admissions” game. Profound thanks.

  4. Lynn

    I just finished reading “The Schools Our Children Deserve.” I found it refreshing. My daughter who tests well, nevertheless hates testing. She likes the open-ended questions that some schools frown upon, especially when focusing on “test prep.” She was a constant “ball of stress” throughout her middle school years, and I am just beginning to realize how needless this was. She did not choose to go to Bard High School Early College because as we came to realize: “What’s the rush?!” She did not choose to attend Stuyvesant since she saw more of the type A personalities drawn to it, literally kids at age 12 waking up to study at 4:00 a.m., having gone to bed the previous night at midnight. She is enjoying her high school years, engaged in all the activities she loves e.g. piano, ice skating, swimming, loves working on projects, reading, learning, and is HIGHLY motivated. She attends a Consortium school, Beacon, and believe me when I tell you, she “dabbles” in College research, appreciates Brown’s student-centered approach, but there is no major stress involved. I love the parent I have become. in the words of Erich Fromm, referenced in the book by Alfie Kohn listed above, ” Few parents have the courage and independence to care more for their children’s happiness than for their ‘success.’ “


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