The high school seniors trudge up my front steps, carrying résumés and wearing uneasy smiles. They are deferential, even desperate. My children refer to them simply as "the applicants."
I think of them as the supplicants. They hope to wow me with their Student Council president personalities, their plethora of Advanced Placement classes, their capacious SAT vocabularies. They act as though I have a hotline to the admissions committee. If they can just give the right answers for 30 minutes in my living room, they figure, they'll be much closer to prying open the gates to the Ivy League.
I'm a volunteer interviewer for my alma mater, Brown University. I know the hard statistics: Only 1 out of 10 of those I meet will be admitted. It's probably worse because I live in the suburbs of New York, which are thick with Brown applicants who would look much more impressive if they'd grown up in Mississippi or North Dakota. I realize something that's even tougher to convey to these hopeful students: I have hardly any sway on campus. In the 2 1/2 decades since I earned my B.A. and left College Hill, I've barely donated enough money to buy a magazine subscription for the John D. Rockefeller Library.
Sometimes I taunt my visitors. "How much would your parents pay," I'll ask, "if I could guarantee you admission?" Or: "If you're so smart, give me an example of chromaticism and contrapuntal texture in a Wagner opera."
Blessing in disguise. OK, I don't actually ask those questions—I just think them. Because the fact is, I've come to see the admissions process as a game whose stakes really are not that high. While screening these applicants for the past couple of years, I was writing a book about the college quest. I became convinced that rejection is frequently a blessing. It's a secret I don't share with teenagers, who are too young to understand.
Two years ago, I wrote a wildly enthusiastic recommendation for a track star and AP whiz who was the son of the local hardware store owner. Brown wasn't moved. Now that he's halfway through Boston University, he tells me he can't imagine himself anywhere else. Same with the young political aficionados and chemists and rock climbers who once saw themselves as rejects. They tell me they love Tufts, Temple, Elon, the University of Texas-Austin, Penn State, and so on.
I used to see myself as a gatekeeper. These days, I feel more like a personal coach. I try to prepare these would-be engineers and doctors and diplomats for the irrational admissions process. I find that I like most of them tremendously. While I want them to receive an E-mail that starts with the word Congratulations, I need to bolster them in case it begins, "I regret to inform you ... "
I know about rejection letters. When I was 17, I simply had to go to Yale. I sent a blizzard of short stories to the admissions office. I even talked my way into a weeklong internship at the Yale Daily News. (What a goofball!) When I was accepted at Brown and not Yale, I couldn't believe I had to settle for the "doormat of the Ivy League," as some unkind soul dubbed it. A couple of years into college, when I finally stopped daydreaming about life in New Haven, Conn., I latched on to a history professor who inspired me.
Yet that's not the end of the story. My best education had nothing to do with a bunch of self-important schools in the Northeast. When I was in my 20s, I took a leave from my job and spent several months living with a family in Bogotá, Colombia, and studying at Universidad de los Andes. I was older than most undergraduates and hungry to learn. I soaked up lessons in Spanish, I devoured Gabriel García Márquez novels, and I questioned my simplistic ideas about democracy in Latin America.
And so whenever I walk the applicants out of my door, I wish them good luck with the college search. What I mean is: "It's not the name on those gates that matters. It's how you take advantage of your education ... and I bet your education will barely begin by age 21."