College Admissions Craziness: Frank Bruni on How to Avoid It

Use your common sense. Don’t get caught up in the hype. Focus on the facts, not the stereotypes. Be honest with yourself.

Those are just a few pieces of advice from Frank Bruni, op-ed columnist for The New York Times, to students and their parents caught up in the emotionally challenging college admissions process. In his new book, “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania,” Bruni examines the intense pressure so many feel to get into the handful of elite and highly selective colleges. He questions the wisdom of such an approach, says that the college admissions system is broken and uses both research and stories of incredibly successful people to illustrate how the importance people place on attending certain universities is misplaced.

Bruni spoke recently at a Family Action Network event in Northfield and another at Glenbard West High School to talk about his book and how having tunnel vision about getting into schools like Harvard, Yale and Stanford doesn’t make sense.

Studies show that attending an elite university is not an automatic key to success in life, despite what many students and parents think.

“Admission into an exclusive and selective school is not the be-all, end-all and not make or break. But we are acting like getting into them is everything,” says Bruni. He explains that a student’s effort and drive, both in school and beyond graduation, determines success, not a diploma.

He says that stereotypes, not reality, often guide the conversation about selecting a college, although the facts do not support those assumptions. Gallup polled business leaders about hiring and how they weighed factors when determining whether to offer an applicant a job. Approximately 85 percent of those leaders characterized field knowledge and work history as very important. In contrast, a mere nine percent of them said that an applicant’s alma mater is very important.

Moreover, only a quarter of the nation’s governors attended highly selective universities, and of the top 10 companies on the Fortune 500 list, only one CEO attended an Ivy League school. Several of the CEOs on the top 10 list attended state universities.

Despite those statistics, Bruni says approximately one quarter of students hire outside help with their applications. “What message are you sending kids when you do that?” Bruni asked. “Is it that purchasing an advantage is fine? Any advantage can be bought?”

“Kids hear the message, ‘I can’t do it on my own,’” he adds.

Bruni calls for a new approach to the college admissions process. “We need to broaden our conversation about how one chooses a college,” he says. “Maybe the right way to choose a college is to find one that will challenge you and broaden what you know today.”

Bruni observes that many students opt to attend a university with a student body that looks similar to their high school, which is a mistake. ”Whatever you are going to do, you will be dealing with people different from high school classmates and understanding that will make you more successful,” he says.

He also expresses concern that diversity is not typically factored into consideration, be it in the U.S. News & World Report ranking or by individual students, but he says that whether or not a school is a force for social mobility matters.

“Many look for a college that is an extrapolation of high school and will be comfortable. The future of this country, however, hinges on how well we manage diversity,” Bruni says. “College is a great time to make sure that we are fluent in diversity, but too few kids are doing that.”

Another factor he considers important is the number of students at the college studying abroad, noting that the experiences and stories they bring back enrich the campus. “You want a student body that is inclined to see the world,” he says.

The recommendation he makes to parents is to help kids consider what is best for them, including the realization that not all kids do best at competitive, elite schools. He shares that parents should talk more about how students spend their four years at college, instead of just focusing on where they enroll. He also says they should talk with kids about how to maximize the opportunities available on campus.

“It’s not where you go college, it’s how you go to college,” Bruni says.

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