Two weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Suzy Lee Weiss, a high school senior who had received the short end of the college admissions stick. In her essay, Weiss argues that the common admissions rhetoric of “Be yourself!” is misleading, complaining that the advice is only helpful for tri-varsity athletes with nine extracurriculars and two moms. Understandably, the editorial swept across the Internet. Gawker’s Caity Weaver published a 1,000-word exegesis in response, tearing down Weiss’ argument bit by bit.
But the backlash wasn’t unwarranted. What takes Weiss’ editorial from the familiar rants of spurned high schoolers to something genuinely discomforting is her flippant tone regarding … everything. She blames her rejection on mostly external factors (“My parents gave up on parenting me”), whines about diversity’s role in the admission process and mocks the notion of charity. Even more troubling: her claim that, had it helped her cause, she would have lied about her sexual orientation, created a fake charity or pretended to have Native American heritage (this, according to her, involves wearing a headdress to school). Weiss’ cynicism doesn’t make her any more sympathetic.
But Weaver also gets it wrong. She writes, in response to Weiss, that a good SAT score is a “very reasonable requirement for college admission,” as if cramming hundreds of stressed teens into a stuffy room for five hours — making them answer questions that some have argued are easier for certain demographics — gives anything other than a very narrow definition of “aptitude.” Weaver also assumes that Weiss interpreted the “Be yourself!” dictum as “Do nothing,” despite the fact that Weiss never mentions anything about her own resume. Asserting that hard work is a requirement for admission is one thing; shaming someone for being lazy with very little evidence is another.
Discounting the grosser parts of Weiss’ essay, there is some truth to it. Though Weaver correctly points out that “Be yourself!” is not the only advice colleges give to applicants, the criteria for admission still seem vague. This is probably insolvable; each college, each applicant, is far too different to determine a universal standard for a student deserving of acceptance. Still, there is a general notion that hard work and passion — or at least the appearance of those virtues — have high value for college admissions officers. This leads to the problem of high school students resume-building to game the system, doing for the sake of doing. Weiss’ sardonic attitude could be read as a reflection of this mentality.
The problem seemed especially intense at the boarding school I attended. In addition to the hypercompetitive spirit that drove so many perfunctory activities — the line, “Well, it’ll look good for college,” was tossed about regularly — the prestige of my high school undoubtedly made certain students feel entitled to admission at an elite school. This only resulted in more hurt feelings when things didn’t go as planned, when hard work didn’t pay off, when nothing in the world seemed fair.
Weiss’ grumbling leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but I understand her frustration. We are so intent on finding out why (“WHY?”) we were told no, why we aren’t good enough and whether there is anything we could have done about it. A similar desire pervades Yale, whether it’s stressing out about summer internships, society tap or grades. We want to feel validated. We want to feel appreciated. Rejection causes us to look inward and dig up aspects about ourselves we might not want to find.
Two years ago, I discovered I was deferred from Yale’s early action pool. My reaction was similar to Suzy’s (minus the racism): I felt personally attacked, frustrated, unappreciated. As time wore on, as it will for Suzy, I became less beholden to a judgment made on a 500-word essay and three numbers. At Yale and beyond, we will experience rejection, whether it’s fair or not. Given that constant, I’d rather try to keep perspective on what I can change rather than agonize over that which I cannot. I hope Suzy will learn to as well.