Tuesday, September 19, 2017

What happens in Cambridge

Normally, a Harvard news story causes my eyes to glaze over. These stories receive a lot of attention in the press generally, and fascinate whichever subset of my Facebook friends went to Harvard, but their broader interest - for those who've never so much as applied to Harvard in any capacity - is doubtful. It might have some - if there's some bigger story hinted at - but if the stakes hinge on exactly what's happening at Harvard, it's like, why does the algorithm think I want this information?

If this is also your attitude towards Harvard stories, you should push past this and read about Michelle Jones's near-admittance to their history PhD program. Also Heather Mallick's response. It's an upsetting and compelling story all around; I'm really just going to look at it from one side-note but I think important angle: admissions.

It can seem, to rejected applicants, that US universities are looking for against-all-odds narratives, and turning away kids who've had it easy. (I discuss the notorious Suzy Weiss 'humor' piece in the book.) This is not the case. It's easier to get into elite colleges if you're super-rich and your parents will buy the school a gym. There's this odd dynamic where privileged-ish kids think they're being rejected for being insufficiently tragic, when in fact it's far more likely to be because they're insufficiently rich and well-connected. I'm thinking here more about college admissions, but maybe this applies, a bit, to grad school? Maybe?

At any rate, where college is concerned, there's this sort of track where a handful of students from poor backgrounds get to attend elite schools, but often only in exchange sharing (sometimes very publicly) their inspirational stories. (While the NYT scholarship program itself sounds great... does the NYT readership get the familial dirty laundry of well-off applicants? OK, of the ones who don't opt to be profiled in the lifestyle section?)

The stories need to be PG-rated tragedy, though. Again: inspirational. Nothing that would be a liability. The narrative has to involve the family being a mess, but the applicant him- or herself being a sweet, somewhat nerdy kid who's basically like the other incoming freshmen, but with less money and more character. Even more of an innocent, where ordinary teenage misdeeds are concerned, than an equivalent posh kid.

When colleges reject applicants who come across as privileged (voluntourists, proud SUV owners), they're not making it harder for the privileged to get in, but, rather, penalizing moderately posh applicants who didn't (couldn't?) pay for a tutor to tell them not to write their admissions essays about a vacation... while happily admitting the very rich. Similarly, a different route to admissions is about obstacles-overcome, but not really. Some obstacles, ones that in no way tarnish the image of the applicant. It can't be a faux-obstacle, but it also can't be something that makes the applicant seem like the source of the obstacle.

A grad school applicant who had murdered her own child? This is a liability obstacle. It's also - with the full picture of this student's background, and how she came to be pregnant in the first place - a depressingly unsurprising outcome of life circumstances about as tragic as they come. Hers is an inspirational story in some respects, but not in the way that works as a sound byte, or for all audiences, because - as is so often the case when obstacles are overcome - it's messy, and upsetting, and not just inspirational. And so we arrive at the other end of admissions hypocrisy - maybe not an intentional, cynical hypocrisy, but a hypocrisy all the same.

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