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The Guinness Book of Academic Records

May 30, 2009

by Patrick Atwater
The Guinness Book of Academic Records

For those of you that missed it, graduation was a great success despite the lack of champagne. President Gann’s speech was awful (I’m beginning to wonder if that ravenesque staccato is some sort of cruel inside joke), but that’s to be expected by now. The event was a great success, but it got me thinking about the other endpoint on the CMC experience. Acceptance into CMC was a great day in all of our lives, but looking back on the application process, it seems like a bunch of bs. The application process seems to increasingly be just a game of surprise the administrator. Sure you got to have a baseline level of test scores and grades, but in today’s college crazed environment you need to have a hook. With so many kids with great numbers, you can’t just be brilliant intellectually; you need to have had some “wow” type experience. It’d be even better if the experience had an impact on your life so you could write an essay about it.

Of course, the admissions people make it all sound so very reasonable. Who thinks college kids shouldn’t be “well-rounded” and have “balance” in their life? But that’s not actually what they look for, is it? The admissions folk want kids who’ve done something unique and original. Putting your heart and soul into the Politics Club just isn’t the same as going to South America with your church—even if you don’t really care about clean water in Latin America. Even if the only reason you went is to get into college, and the only reason you could go is Daddy’s credit card.

The perverse effect of this is that it rewards people who are driven to get in to the point of toolishness, willing to abandon what they care about for the all-important goal of acceptance into college. As a result, we often get the pretense of having interesting students rather than the reality of having genuinely interesting people. We’ve all met people and thought, “How the hell did you get in here?” Maybe this is just me, but I often wonder how some of the CMCers I meet can be so boring having done such interesting things.

Graduate school and the slew of post-undergrad scholarships/fellowships are no better. You want to study the impact of harmonicas on the assimilation of Australian aborigines into the dominant culture? Here, take a Fulbright. I can just imagine the application committee thinking: “Wait you only saved an African village ravaged by AIDs from starvation? That was so pre-millennium. This girl nursed swine flu victims back to health in Mexico City. Now that’s edgy.” It’s like trying to break a world record; it’s easier if it’s obscure.

This obsession with absurd specialization and uniqueness recapitulates the problem with college admissions: the focus on the symbolic at the expense of the real. It’s not about the merit of what you actually did so much as its perception. New things are exciting. Foreign things are exciting. Playing on the soccer team or pushing yourself in the classroom? Not so much. Doing the latter a lot better doesn’t get you nearly as much as a little bit of the former. Academia is generally pretty awful about this, but it’s gotten particularly bad in the case of college admissions.

So in the case of college admissions, I’d like to propose a solution. Rather than letting people tell us whether they’re well rounded or not, why don’t we actually test it? We could easily have WOA-like trips for finalists over their Winter Break. Think of it as a week long interview. Although I didn’t go on a WOA trip myself, I hear they’re great bonding and character testing experiences. It’s hard to fake being interesting for a whole week. People inevitably let their guard down and show their true selves. We can find out if kids are actually well rounded or if they’ve just been good at faking interest in lots of activities. If we’re serious about getting well-rounded, interesting kids, I think this would go a long way. The current game of formative experience one-upmanship is just that: a game. Maybe its time we stopped forcing kids to play by rules better suited to an application for a Guinness world record than our young’s first entry into academia.

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