Anxious About College Decisions? Frank Bruni Has Comforting Words for You.

The Times columnist Frank Bruni says you do not have to attend a college with a less-than-10-percent acceptance rate to succeed.

Comments: 22

  1. My heart goes out to all those poor prep school kids being rejected from Harvard, but my even greater sympathies to those accepted.

    We need to start teaching our kids two things:
    1: Going to a "good" school, doesn't make you a good student. You have to work for it.
    2: After college, there won't be a single person in the world that cares about your academic performance. (Unless you're going into further schooling)

    Learn to live and live to learn.

  2. Believe it or not, kids who go to prep school today do work for it. Near perfect ACT scores (without expensive prep courses) and near perfect grades from what is considered one of the top prep schools in the country no longer gains you admission to these highly selective schools. These kids are, indeed, good students by all measures, and they work unbelievably hard for their grades. They also become extremely independent and self-reliant as boarding students at these schools. I would challenge any student out there to stand up to the top students at these schools. Their work ethic is firmly in place, and their intellectual ability is well-documented. Unfortunately, the admissions officers at the top universities are so focused on building diversity and catering to development applicants, athletes and legacies, there is no longer space at these schools for some of the very best students in our country. Maybe you're right that our sympathies should go out to those who are accepted.

  3. Please, it's not necessary to denigrate the experience of kids who are accepted to elite schools ("my even greater sympathies to...") in order to appreciate Bruni's message here. That's not his point at all. As he says in the podcast:

    "Those schools can be enormous advantages, and I take nothing away from the young men and women who get into them, because it usually is a reflection of formidable talent and a whole lot of work. But I'm saying it certainly doesn't matter as much as society is telling us that it does. But I also think it might be okay to say it doesn't matter period, because the way you use your college years--if you are blessed enough to have those years at any of hundreds of terrific colleges and universities in this country--the way you use those years, it's going to mean everything. And to believe that which door you walk through is more important than the way you spend your time on the inside of the room...? Yeah, I think that's really flawed."

  4. @Susanne - all the studies show that above a certain threshold there is no correlation between grades/test scores/et al. and graduation rates or future success. Those you claim to be taking places due to "diversity" have themselves exceeded the required threshold.

    You should be careful that you attitude does not infect whichever of your offspring failed to get into their first choice college and give them a chip on their shoulder about being passed over. As frank points out the person is more important than the college.

  5. I think this nation is due for a terminal cerebrovascular accident: there seems to be a stranglehold attitude everywhere—for prestige, for success, for fashion, for fame, for wealth, and to borrow the phrase from the Book of Alcoholics Anonymous—for More. Life has never been so rigid and unspontaneous as in this present era we are living. The level of competitiveness seems to be a cousin to the level of violence that we live with on a daily level. Fear of failure before you even start your life — these children will have burnout (just talk to dotcommers from the 90s and 2000s) more than a thirst to grow intellectually and spiritually.

  6. This is a crazy, multi-faceted arms race. Hyper-anxious parents goading their kids into applying to so-called elite schools. Increasing numbers of Chinese students competing to get into the same schools, many with sketchy bona fides (the recent example of the SAT cancellation in China due to widespread cheating comes to mind). From the Chinese perspective, there is nothing wrong with a beg, borrow or steal approach to getting into a "good" American school. As they see it, a college is only a name to be obtained by whatever means necessary. The irony is the Chinese covet US colleges because they still have a reputation for being merit-based, unlike Chinese schools. But the Chinese may have an valid, existential point - if we attribute ascribed status to a certain echelon of colleges, haven't they just become like any other fashion accessories, Gucci? Prada? Stanford? Hopefully kids will eventually listen to some common sense in the midst of the insane tumult, and realize most colleges are fine. The real challenge is to find the best school to fit your needs and learning style, not the school with the shiniest name recognition, or that gives mom and dad cocktail party bragging rights.

  7. Ivy league Admission is not an indicator of your worth. They had never been selecting the best students. They fill their seats to meet various quotas and calculations to optimize their financial and political standing. Any student in the top 10% is qualified to be in any school and can do quite well in any school. What you become in life is determined more by destiny. What helps a person be truly successful in life is having the right perspective about life. When you are at the end of your life, what you gave is a better measure of your worth than what you got.

  8. Not every top 10% student in high school is ready for college.

  9. Without posting a resume, I can say that my experience in higher education has included every possible position from professor to dean to other administrative jobs to setting admissions policies.

    And every single bit of my experience tells me that Frank Bruni is far and away the most informed and perceptive observer of college and university admissions policies and, for that matter, the whole range of issues affecting the academy.

    Most importantly, he has zeroed in on the most insidious and soul-killing part of the whole admissions madness, i.e., the fact that applicants connect the whole ridiculous process with their sense of self-worth,

    I don't look forward to the questions I'll probably face at the pearly gates about why so many of my colleagues and I publicly defended the soundness of admissions policies that were about as rational as a dart board.

  10. If the point Frank Bruni it saying that there are a lot of great colleges and universities that do not reject 90% of applicants, he's right. No one has to graduate from Harvard or Yale to get a great job or live an interesting, rewarding life. But that is not the same as saying that where a kid goes to school does not matter.

    Sitting in a classroom with 20 to 25 students, where there is no place to hide and everyone is engaged, is not the same as sitting in a classroom with 100 to 200 to 300 students.

    Being taught by professors who prioritize teaching over research is better than being taught by professors who have to prioritize research over teaching or who use post-doctoral students to grade your work.

    Going to a school that encourages students to take art history on the way to a Bachelor's degree in biology, psychology or economics, that graduates most students in 4 years and few struggle to graduate in 6 or where the athletic program is a source of pride but not the source of pride is a good thing.

    Too often high school students and their parents dismiss schools that do not appear in top ten lists or that have names that are unfamiliar. But that does not mean that all schools offer the same experience or challenge their students in the same way. Where you go to school may not determine who you will be, but that does not mean where you go to school is unimportant -- only that there are more than 10 great options.

  11. For students (and families) with modest means admission to an elite school offers a major advantage that many 'less desirable' can't: Grant based (rather than loan based) financial aid. Graduating debt free makes a huge difference to a 22yr old.

  12. As the head of a small law firm, I vividly recall a gathering at our local bar association, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where the conversation turned to our kids' college applications. The crowd was made of experienced, tough, successful trial lawyers, entrepreneurial heads of firms, sole practitioners, or inheritors of the family legacies -a smart, entertaining, secure bunch of individualists, living self-directed lives in a prosperous local familiar community. Happy people. The discussion, though, was of their kids who were all applying for Ivy League schools. When the discussion turned away from the kids to ourselves, and our colleagues, it turned out that almost all of us had attended state universities followed by Temple University Law - of course we had. The state schools were affordable. Temple Law is in our city; it was a school designed to produce just the scrappy locally-attuned individualists we now are. It also was law school we could pay for ourselves, which we almost all had. We had so much in common. I felt sorry for the kids - as if they were being cast adrift from life rather than into it, as we were when we considered college.

  13. Excellent podcast. But there was a question I had that wasn't answered. Don't the people hiring you after college take note of where you went to college? I noticed that critics both A.O. Scott and Frank Rich both had Harvard degrees and worked for the the Times. How many University of North Carolina graduates has the Times hired?

  14. While this is true for those who have families who can pay for college (and I do understand this is mainly the audience for this book), those who rely on need-based financial aid should focus on schools that provide 100% of their demonstrated financial need in order to avoid large amounts of debt. Only around 70 to 75 schools provide 100% of aid with no or small loans. And of that 75, give or take a few, most are the elite schools with the very admit rates you speak of. I imagine these families would have a hard time deciding to go into 50 to 100 thousand in debt for a public university with a 6 year graduation rate of less than 50% or going to a community college first where nationally less than 40% get a 2 year degree within 6 years. I realize there are a few jewels out there with solid financial aid at strong if not elite schools but most no or low income families have little ability to research and find these schools in such a complicated system or receive assistance from school counselors who have hundreds of students to serve. This current system of college and financial aid is broken for all.

  15. Frank Bruni's common sense is .... well, sensible.

    What drives parents like me to really look for a name brand or highly regarded school is that we are pretty sure that the dynamics that led to all those successes Frank shows us no longer apply. Companies recruit at fewer schools. Automated resume readers can be programmed to just discard all applications from schools other than a select few. Frank Bruni's own choice was between two really top notch institutions - UNC or Yale, both of which will launch a great future. The point he makes about cost is paramount. For a family like mine, even a state school can cost so much that we will carry debt - although less than a private school. But still too much debt to be able to afford six to eight months of sending out hundreds of resumes.

    Bruni's lament that college has become a check mark on a resume instead of an education is spot on. Businesses made college a necessary hurdle or bottle neck to be navigated, and a lot of the really amazing learning gets lost in the core that students do their best to ignore.

    It is a total arms race for those of us with FAFSAs that amount to about 40% of our take home pay. And the thing about an arms race is that it can be risky to be the first person to disarm, especially if no one else follows suit. I agree with every thing Frank Bruni says, and I still don't know if it is a good idea to step off the merry-go-round.

  16. Frank Bruni always offers such incredible insight on the issue of the college admissions process. Having graduated from an intense college prep school where I was under ridiculous amounts of pressure, his articles and this podcast are a breath of fresh air. People have become so wrapped up in college "brand names" that they lose focus on what is really important. I didn't get into my Early Decision Ivy League school and was devastated. While now I am still at a great university, I look back on the stress I put on myself with considerable indignation because I now know that- as Bruni asserts- it is not about the place, but the person. For those who were not accepted to their first choice, take his advice!

  17. I would love to see an article in the Times highlighting the college admissions process and experience of students in other developed countries. Start with Canada, for example. I understand it is a simple application focused on a student's high school grades (shocking I know!)

  18. How ironic. On the very same day that the NY Times published this article about stopping the madness of college admissions, it also published another article about an overachieving teenager, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, who applied to all eight ivies as a stunt and was accepted by every school.®ion=CColumn

  19. I tend to agree with Mr. Bruni's thoughts on this, and the Times certainly features them. So why has the Times started this whole High School program that everyone knows exists simply for upper middle class kids to pad their resumes? Are scholarships offered? Are there ads anywhere else that isn't the New York Times, which may not be read all that much in the South Bronx or Brownsville? Stop the madness indeed.....

  20. Excellent advice. Don't let the decisions of colleges define you. Define yourself. So what if you get into a second tier, or even third tier college. It's nothing to shed tears about. Make the most of where you are at all times. These other colleges also have excellent faculty, okay not everyone, but most professors and teachers there are approachable, and will be anxious to help you move forward.

  21. As a retired teacher of high school students -often IB/AP classes, I agree with the advice of "make the most of where you land." However, it is naive to think that corporations / law firms/ medical schools - you name it - don't look at the school issuing the diploma on an application. Just the name gets you "in" places. Students know this. Parents know this. Of course, ambition gets you somewhere, but a diploma from one of THE schools gets your foot in the door. Then that door leads to another door to another... So, yes, you become what you become based on adaptation; however, it saddens me to see highly qualified people denied even interviews because they were not "well degreed" - meaning top tier something or other. Their resume is not even considered. We can be philosophical about this looking back but the truth is - where you go does provide access.

  22. I love the book and am in full agreement – and would take the argument further. I think the chances of receiving a good undergraduate education are better at a non-elite (and especially a non-Ph.D. granting) school. I attended and now teach in the Cal State system, and attended Columbia for my Ph.D.—so I’ve seen both sides of the issue. I owe much to my Ivy League graduate education, where I worked with dedicated and terrifically bright people. But I felt better prepared for that high-level work having attended a Cal State. I think I also came out of the Cal State system with more self-confidence, and probably just plain happier with my chosen path. It would take a small book to detail the reasons for the contrasts, but I would much rather my daughters attend an undergraduate-focused public university, than a school that is either highly selective, or dominantly Ph.D-granting (or worse still, both). The “elite” schools are great choices for graduate studies, but for an undergraduate program, turn the US News and World Report rankings upside-down, then look for schools that have strong departments in the areas that interest you.