Saturday College Book Club Two-fer: Excellent Sheep and Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be

Posted: September 26, 2015

I was speaking with a parent today who was concerned about her children getting into a “good” college.  Turns out by good, she meant Ivy. Obviously, the Ivy League schools (plus Stanford) are the Trump Towers of higher education—the biggest brand names—but like Trump Towers, they’re very expensive, difficult to get into and not the best fit for everyone.

This idea was really brought home for me in a couple of fascinating books: Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz and Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be by Frank Bruni. Both books attempt to calm the mania surrounding the top-ranked schools in the country, but they come at it from different directions.
Deresiewicz is a former professor at Yale. His book is essentially two halves. The first half chronicles what happens to those kids who have been told since infancy that they had to get into an Ivy. Those kids whose every waking moment has been overscheduled with extracurriculars (even in middle school!) that are designed to be impressive to Ivy League admissions committees. Clearly all of Deresiewicz’s students made it into Yale. But what happens next? According to the author, these students are left with almost nothing. They’ve achieved this one goal—a goal their parents set—and now don’t know how to set goals of their own, or even what they want out of life. They don’t even know who they are as people because they haven’t had time to think about it, much less articulate it. “Isolated from their peers, these kids are also cut off from themselves. The endless hoop-jumping... that got them into an elite college in the first place--the clubs, bands, projects, teams, APs, SATs, evenings, weekends, summers, coaches, tutors, leadership, service -- left them no time to figure out what they want out of life.”

Frank Bruni picks up this mantra and explains to students (and parents) that Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be. The parent I was talking to is squarely in Bruni’s sights. Where You Go... is not only an indictment of the Ivy-mania that has students applying to sixteen colleges and spending their childhoods carefully calculating the odds of this activity or that class getting them into Harvard, but he also explains exactly how and why colleges have become so selective. He happened to use both my undergraduate colleges as examples of how things have changed since the mid-1980s. Northwestern University accepted about 40% of their applicants when I applied; they accepted 13% of 2014’s applicants. Similarly, the University of Michigan accepted 67% of their applicants when I transferred there and now accepts only 33%. The difference is huge!

Bruni makes the case that the school you attend is less important than what you do there. Are you active in the campus community? Have you done internships or studied abroad (or both)? Have you connected with your professors in ways that allow them to mentor you? All of these things are what will get you your first job after graduation, or get you into graduate school, not whether you went to Harvard or Hard Luck University.

As I told my parent, whose daughter is still in middle school, yes, you can’t take calculus senior year if you don’t take algebra early, but the Ivy League are only nine of the more than 3,000 colleges in the US. And they may not be the right ones for your student. Parents need to worry more about finding a best fit college (or colleges) and keep an open mind about that school’s name or location.

Have you read either Excellent Sheep or Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be? What did you think?

Send this blog post to someone: