How did we get here? How did the college admissions process, the fulcrum on which the system turns—casting its shadow back over childhood and adolescence and forward over college and career, shaping the way that kids are raised and thus the people they become—how did it assume its present form? It is not a phenomenon of the last ten or fifteen years. The difference between today’s elite students and those of twenty or forty years ago, despite what many like to think, is only one of degree. If we want to understand where the system comes from—which means, where we come from, because at this point most of the American professional class has gone through it, most of its upper middle class, most of its leadership class, the people who direct our government, our economy, our culture, and our institutions—then we need to go back to the start.
In fact, we need to go back before the start, to the Gilded Age, the last decades of the nineteenth century. Contrary to popular belief, the Ivy League colleges were not always the rich-boys’ finishing schools they later became. Before the Civil War, they were relatively small, relatively local institutions. The few young men who went were certainly gentlemen’s sons, and gentlemen-in-training themselves, but a lot of rich boys didn’t bother, and besides, in a largely agricultural society that was still fragmented into regional economies, there weren’t that many rich boys to begin with.
After the war, as E. Digby Baltzell tells the story in his classic study, The Protestant Establishment, things began to change. Industrialization exploded, creating new fortunes and a new plutocracy. The railroad knitted the country into a single economy. The old regional elites became
aware of themselves as a national elite and began to take steps to reinforce their class identity. New money needed to be socialized into gentility; all money needed to defend its social boundaries against the great unwashed, many of them Catholics and Jews, who were flooding the cities from Southern and Eastern Europe. Anti-Semitism and anti- Catholicism took hold in the upper class. The caste that Baltzell would eventually make famous as the WASPs, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants —another phenomenon we regard as eternal, but that dates, in fact, from this time—began to crystallize. “Anglo-Saxon” was very much part of the point: the English aristocracy, which the nation had rebelled against a century earlier in the name of equality, became the model for a new, American aristocracy.
The WASPs created a whole range of institutions for themselves. Exclusive resorts like Bar Harbor and Newport were up and running by 1880. The first country club was founded in 1882. Groton, not the first New England prep school but the first to be established in emulation of the venerable English public (that is, private) schools, opened its doors in 1884. The Social Register began publication in 1887. The Daughters of the American Revolution was founded in 1890. Soon the aristocracy was fleeing the cities for new suburban enclaves like the Philadelphia Main Line. The country day school movement followed.
One institution the WASP aristocracy did not create but did transform. Now was the time when Harvard, Yale, and Princeton assumed the moneyed shape of legend: the Harvard of the “Gold Coast” of private dormitories; the Yale of Stover at Yale, a famous campus novel of the time; the Princeton of F. Scott Fitzgerald (which gentrified its name from the College of New Jersey in 1896). Elite colleges, where affluent young men could mingle with their peers from across the country, played a crucial role in inculcating mores, establishing connections, and certifying graduates as members of the leadership class. As colleges sought to entice a new kind of customer by dispelling their bookish image, extracurriculars—especially athletics, and most especially the “manly” sport of football, which was invented in its current form at elite schools at exactly this time—began to play a central role in campus life. Business boomed; Harvard expanded from 100 students a year in the 1860s to more than 600 by 1904. Academics were out—something only “drips” or “grinds” would bother with. Parties, pranks, and snobbery were in, as social life was taken over by the prep school crowd, which came to dominate numerically, as well. The Big Three, as they were
baptized in the 1880s, became “iconic institutions,” in the words of Jerome Karabel, setting the fashion for campuses across the country.
But soon there was a problem, as Karabel explains in The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Admissions were based on entrance exams. On the one hand, kids from feeder schools would often be let in no matter how badly they did. (Of the 405 Grotonians who applied to Harvard from 1906 to 1932, the school rejected three.) On the other hand, because the subjects covered, particularly Greek and Latin, were not available in public schools, the majority of high school graduates—and back then, there weren’t that many to begin with—were automatically excluded. The social tone was preserved, but academic standards plummeted. By 1916, all three colleges had dropped their classical language requirements. Enrollment from public high schools soared—but public high schools, especially in the big cities, were increasingly populated by Jews. Columbia, the cautionary example, cut its proportion of Jews almost in half, from 40 percent, in two years, but not before experiencing a permanent exodus of upper-class families.
The Big Three were not going to let that happen to them. A whole new set of admissions criteria was developed to hold back the Semitic tide by making sure that the “right sort” of student got in: letters of recommendation, alumni interviews, the preference for athletes and “leaders,” special treatment for sons of alumni (that is, “legacies”), an emphasis on geographic distribution, and a devaluation of pure academic ability. Better midwestern Protestants, even if they weren’t all the sharpest tools in the shed, than “greasy grinds” from Brooklyn. Princeton started requiring applicants to submit a photo, since you couldn’t always tell from the name. “Character” became the explicit ideal: manners, looks, tone, being a “Yale man”—all once guaranteed by where you went to school, now enforced through a subjective process of evaluation (and the admissions offices that had to be created to conduct it).
The system endured, largely intact, until the 1960s. The Big Three continued to be dominated by prep school graduates; most of their students still came from wealthy families; unofficial quotas kept the Jewish numbers down; the old-boy, handshake, feeder-school culture remained in place. As late as 1950, Harvard received only thirteen applications for every ten spots, while Yale’s acceptance rate was 46 percent. You knew if you were welcome, and if you weren’t you didn’t bother to apply.
But already by the 1930s, forces had started to gather that would eventually destroy the old way of doing things. James B. Conant, newly installed as president of Harvard, began to take steps to raise academic standards, increase access, and tap the nation’s talent pool. To identify the bright young men who would, to be sure, only supplement the school’s existing clientele, he turned to a recently developed “psychometric” test: the SAT. Conant was a reformer, not a revolutionary. Change was incremental over the next three decades. The average SAT score at elite colleges before World War II was around 500, right in the middle of the distribution; by the early 1960s, it had risen to about 625.
The revolution came at Yale that decade under Kingman Brewster. Like Conant, Brewster recognized that if the American elite was going to retain its position (and the country it led, its preeminence), it would have to make itself accessible to rising social groups—and that, if for no other reason than their own self-interest, the colleges that trained that elite would have to take the lead. Changes were happening in American life that the Big Three could no longer ignore. Within a couple of years of assuming the presidency of the university in 1963, Brewster had elevated academic promise to supremacy among admissions criteria, shunted aside the ideal of the well-rounded man in favor of the “brilliant specialist,” reduced the preferences for athletes and legacies, eliminated the checklist of physical characteristics that had played a role in the admissions process (resulting in a drop of nearly half an inch in the average height of the incoming class), ended the college’s cozy relationship with its feeder schools, removed the Jewish quota, and instituted need-blind admissions. Affirmative action was introduced by the last years of the decade. In 1969, the school became coed.
Brewster had demolished the old system at a single blow. The school’s alumni forced him to reverse a few of his reforms, particularly those concerning athletes and legacies, but the point of no return had been passed. Nineteen sixty-five, the year of Brewster’s revolution—which was also right around the time the baby boomers started to arrive on campus —can be taken as the pivot, in college admissions, from the old aristocracy to the new meritocracy: from caste, “character,” and connections to scores and grades.
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And that is the origin of the system that we are still living with today. Yet things are not as different from the old procedure as they seem. Never mind the preferences for athletes, legacies, and others. Brewster, and everyone around the country who followed his lead, expanded access on a monumental scale, but they didn’t really discard the old criteria, for the most part; they simply supplemented them. We don’t ask applicants to do something different now; we ask them to do almost everything they used to have to do, plus a whole lot more.
Think of what we want from kids today, if they’re going to be admitted to an elite college. We want them to be, not athletes exactly, not performers at the highest level, but sportsmen, in the old term, people with a certain skill and grace—a demand they satisfy, in some cases, by playing games that derive from the prep school tradition (fencing, crew) and that exist nowhere else in American life. We want them to develop a measure of artistic ability, to engage in the kind of idiosyncratic self- cultivation that was a hallmark of the upper-class ideal, with its resources of leisure and culture. We want them to be personable—or as people used to call it, clubbable—so we still require an interview and letters of recommendation. We want them to demonstrate a commitment to “service,” which is nothing other than a modern echo of noblesse oblige, and generally undertaken in the same spirit of benign condescension. And we want them to be “leaders.” It’s not enough to participate in student government, say; you have to run it. You have to be president of the theater club, or captain of the baseball team. You have to come across, in other words, as an oligarch in training, just like the private school boys of a century ago.
But to all this now, to an admissions process that was designed to select for an upper-class profile, we have added Brewster’s requirements for academic excellence—which, as we saw, was decidedly not a part of the upper-class profile. Now we have the whole regime of SAT, AP, GPA, National Merit, and so forth. Now our kids must have the qualities of both an old aristocrat and a modern technocrat. No wonder they’re so busy, and so frantic.
The only thing that’s changed since the mid-1960s is that everything has gotten inexorably worse: the admissions rates lower, the expectations higher, the competition fiercer, the pressure on students greater. Once the starting gun of meritocracy was fired, it was everybody off to the races. Already by 1968, acceptance rates at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton had fallen to around 20 percent. By 1974, according to Nicholas Lemann in The Big Test, “a whole culture of obsession” with SAT scores had
developed in American high schools (a fact that I remember well from the talk of my older siblings, who were going through the system at exactly this time). The expansion of the college-age cohort in the 1970s intensified the pressure, as did the number of students actually finishing their degrees, since the more BAs were out there, the more imperative it was felt to be to distinguish yourself by going to a big-name school.
By the end of the decade, Lemann says, affluent families had started to game the system with SAT tutors, application-essay “advisors” (that is, ghostwriters), strategic alumni donations, and other tactics. Colleges were letting it be known that they wanted to see as many Advanced Placement courses as possible on high school transcripts—and if you were going to be ready for APs by junior or senior year, you had to start accelerating as early as middle school. As the baby boom passed out of the system in the early 1980s, colleges began to recruit prospective applicants more intensively. The deregulation of the airline and telecommunications industries helped make the higher education market fully national, since now it was cheaper to send your child across the country and to stay in touch once she was there. Early admissions programs, which lock kids into specific schools, grew ever more important as a way for colleges to gain an edge against their rivals.
Then came the earthquake: U.S. News & World Report, a weak third among American newsweeklies, debuted its college rankings in 1983. Admissions statistics had long been regarded as a measure of institutional prestige, but now there was a single set of figures that encompassed every college in the country, a single number that defined the status of a school. Already in 1987, a delegation of college presidents asked the magazine to stop, but it was too late, because it was too profitable. Now the madness shifted to a higher gear. The decade saw the explosion of the college admissions industry: test prep, tutors, guidebooks, consultants. The writer Caitlin Flanagan mentions a book called How to Get Into an Ivy League School (1985), among the first of its kind. According to Tom Wolfe, “the pandemic known as college mania” began “to show its true virulence” in 1988.
The point is not which date is right. They’re all right. Pick any moment over the last half century and things will be worse afterward than they were before. In the last couple of decades, the admissions pool has gone from national to global. The decline in the college-age population reversed itself in 1997, reaching boomer levels once again within a decade. Schools are ever more adept at juking their admissions stats, using aggressive marketing practices to gin up larger and larger
numbers of applicants, many of whom they know they’ll never admit (the so-called “attract to reject” strategy), just to lower their acceptance rates. Nor is it only a matter of status; schools, like other businesses, borrow money, and credit rating agencies take admissions statistics into account. No less than corporate profits, the numbers are expected to get better every year.
Perhaps most crucial, in creating the feeling that the last couple of decades represent something new, is the fact that we’re into the second generation now. The parents of the kids who have been going through the system since the early 1990s are products, increasingly, of the system themselves. People who sent their children to elite colleges in the 1970s and ’80s were much more likely to have gone to less prestigious, often public universities, or not to have gone to college at all. Now we’re dealing with a cohort of meritocratic professionals for whom a different sort of life is inconceivable. What was once an opportunity has become a necessity. There is only one definition of happiness, and only one way to get it.
Since 1992, admissions rates have fallen by more than a third at 17 of the top 20 liberal arts colleges in the current U.S. News ranking, and by more than half at 18 of the top 20 universities. They have fallen from 65 percent to 14 percent at Vanderbilt, from 45 percent to 13 percent at the University of Chicago, and from 32 percent to 7 percent at Columbia. Early applications rose at Duke by 23 percent in 2011 alone, on top of a 14 percent increase the previous year. In 2013, Harvard, Stanford, and Columbia, which each admit fewer than 2,500 students, all received more than 31,000 applications, over 50 percent more than they had only six years earlier.
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If those of us who went to college in the 1970s and ’80s no longer recognize the admissions process, if today’s elite students appear to be an alien species—Super People, perhaps, or a race of bionic hamsters—that is only because the logic of the system that was put in place in the 1960s, when the genteel bigotry of the old boys’ network gave way to an egalitarian war of all against all, has been playing out for that much longer. When I graduated from high school in 1981, the kids who got into the most prestigious colleges took about three AP courses and did about three extracurricular activities each. Now the numbers are more apt to be seven or eight of the former and nine or ten of the latter. When
I sat on the Yale admissions committee in 2008 (faculty members rotate through for a single day), kids who had five or six items on their list of extracurriculars—the so-called “brag” in admissions lingo, it was the first thing the officer would mention when presenting a case—were already in trouble, because that wasn’t nearly enough. In Privilege, Ross Douthat refers to a fellow student who had twelve, “a typically jam-packed Harvard résumé.” I once had a freshman advisee who had done eleven APs.
None of this, I should say, is the fault of the admissions offices, which are acting on instructions from on high. During my day on the committee, I was deeply impressed by the staff. Admissions officers not only plow through thousands of folders during the long winter months; they are intimately conversant with the geographic areas for which they are responsible. We were doing eastern Pennsylvania that day in my subcommittee—suburban Philadelphia, essentially—and the junior officer in charge (it was only one of his regions), a young man who looked to be about thirty, was familiar, to a remarkable level of detail, not only with the high schools and the guidance counselors, with whom he had developed relationships over countless recruiting trips, but also with the alumni interviewers and outside readers who assisted with the territory.
It was spring; early admissions had already been done. Applicants, each represented by a long string of figures and codes (SATs, GPA, class rank, numerical scores to which the letters of recommendation had been converted, special notations for athletes, legacies, diversity cases, and so forth), had been assigned a single cumulative score from 1 to 4. The 1’s had already been admitted; when I asked to see an example during the lunch break, I was shown the winner of the Intel Science Talent Search, formerly known as the Westinghouse. Threes and 4’s, which made up about three-quarters of the remainder, could get in only under special conditions: a nationally ranked athlete or a “DevA,” an applicant in the highest category of “development” cases (that is, children of very rich donors, who get admitted under almost any circumstances). Now we were adjudicating, for the most part, among the 2’s. In six hours of committee work, we disposed of somewhere between 100 and 125 cases, or about three or four minutes per applicant, looking for 10–15 admissions to fill out the rough allotment of approximately 40 for the region.
The junior officer presented each case, rat-a-tat-tat, in a blizzard of admissions jargon that I had to pick up on the fly. “Top checks”: the top
boxes had been checked in every category on the letters. “Good rig”: the transcript exhibits a good degree of academic rigor. “Ed level 1”: parents have an educational level no higher than high school, indicating a genuine hardship case. “Lacrosse #3”: third on the coach’s wish list. “MUSD”: a musician in the highest category of promise (“Distinguished”), indicating a potential professional career. “T1”: first letter; “E1”: first essay; “TX”: extra letter; “SR”: guidance counselor. We listened, asked questions, dove into a letter or two, then voted up or down (“we” meaning three admissions staff altogether, a member of the college dean’s office, and me, who mainly deferred to the pros). Huge bowls of junk food were stationed at the side of the room to keep our energy up. The dean of admissions—who looked like Ben Stein, and who could really spin an application folder—seemed to subsist on a diet of Doritos.
With so many accomplished applicants to choose from, we were looking for kids with something special, “PQs”—personal qualities—that were often revealed by the letters or essays. Kids who only had the numbers and the resume were usually rejected: “no spark,” “not a team- builder,” “this is pretty much in the middle of the fairway for us.” One young man who had piled up a truly insane quantity of extracurriculars, and who submitted eight letters of recommendation, was felt to be “too intense.” On the other hand, the numbers and the resume were clearly indispensable. I’d been told in the orientation that morning that successful applicants could either be “well-rounded” or “pointy”— outstanding in one particular way—but if they were pointy, they had to be really pointy: a musician whose audition tape had impressed the music department, a scientist who had won a national award.
So almost everybody had to be well-rounded, but that means something very different now than it did in the days of Dink Stover. The older ideal, the prep school boy, was indeed displaced by Brewster’s brilliant specialists. Now the colleges talk about assembling a well- rounded class by bringing together a variety of “well-lopsided” students: a junior journalist, a budding astronomer, a future diplomat, a language whiz. Those ten extracurricular activities that a typical admitted student has will not all go in ten different directions. Three or four or five will represent a special area of focus: math or art or student government. You have to be great at one or two things—but you also have to be really, really good at everything else: “well” as well as “lopsided.” You may already know that you aren’t going to be a scientist or anything else that involves advanced mathematics, but you still have to sign up for calculus
(“good rig”), and you still have to ace it (class rank, GPA). You might be one of those “passionate weirdos” who’d rather spend his time writing poetry or computer code, but you have to play your instruments and do your sports and join (or better yet, start) your clubs and rush around from thing to thing. You have, in other words, to do it all: get A’s in all your classes, compete for leadership positions, pile up the extracurriculars—be a Super Person.
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That is why the college admissions process—and the people it produces —have become unrecognizable in recent years. External factors like globalization and even U.S. News are only the smaller part of the story. The main thing that’s driving the madness is simply the madness itself. “The resume arms race,” as it is invariably called, is just like the nuclear one. The only point of having more is having more than everybody else. Nobody needed 20,000 atomic warheads until the other side had 19,000. Nobody needs eleven extracurriculars, either—what purpose does having them actually serve?—unless the other guy has ten. So like giraffes evolving ever-longer necks, our kids keep getting more and more deformed. Just what they’re going to look like in another twenty years is anybody’s guess.
The system, it should be said, goes well beyond the most prestigious schools: the HYPSters (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford); or the eight members of the Ivy League; or the Golden Dozen, as Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus refer to them in Higher Education?, the Ivies plus Stanford, Duke, Williams, and Amherst. The greatest extremes —the fattest resumes and the most anorexic acceptance rates—will always be found at the same few schools, but as my travels and conversations over the last few years have shown me, the mania exists, albeit at lower temperatures, at a much larger pool of institutions. The students I met at the University of Virginia may not have had nine or ten extracurriculars on their resume, but they did have six or seven. The ones I talked with at the Honors College of the University of Mississippi may not have done seven or eight APs, but they did do five or six. The logic and the values are the same across a wide array of schools, even if the level of ambition, or aptitude, or neurosis, or parental wealth is not.
It’s one big system, after all. Those thirty-three thousand students who are now turned away from Harvard each year go somewhere else. As of 2012, sixty-five colleges and universities could boast acceptance rates
of 33 percent or less. Add another two or three dozen places that are close to the line, or whose rates are higher for one reason or another (women’s colleges, for instance, which necessarily draw from a smaller pool), and there are maybe a hundred schools that can plausibly be said to belong to the elite. But even that underestimates the size of the phenomenon. I have heard from people at a variety of regional liberal arts colleges—schools that are not “names” in any sense, but that enroll a lot of bright and ambitious students—and they have told me that the issues are the same there, too. James Fallows estimates that about 10–15 percent of high school graduates are caught up in the competition for spots at selective schools. That amounts to something like four hundred thousand kids a year. It is to the kind of childhoods those kids endure— the parents, the high schools, the inner life of excellent sheep—that I turn in the following chapter.