Like me (way back in 2008) millions of high-school seniors with little or no serious qualifications are asking themselves this week how they possibly managed to get into the colleges of their dreams. Was there some kind of mistake? Another applicant with a stellar resume and a very similar name? No. It's simple: for years, they - we - were lied to.
College counselors (mine at least) told us, "You have to be realistic about your options". That is great advice, and if you've got nine extra-curriculars, six leadership positions, three varsity sports, killer SAT scores, two moms, and a very large stack of old money, it's nice to hear, too. Be realistic, and apply to those elite schools! Otherwise, best to label your pipe dreams for what they are - as "reaches" - and get ready for a stellar four years in state school.
I was ready to do just that. I was a non-diverse, non-exceptional high school senior with a middling GPA and less-than-perfect SAT scores. I'd been kicked out of the Junior Statesman of America for being a less-than-serious provocateur, and nearly failed Human Development. I'd spent more time in the principal's office than in my 10th grade English class -- my major extracurricular was in-patient. Hell, I couldn't even be bothered not to forge half of my mandatory community service hours, much less start some kind of genuine charity. So, clearly, I was ready to be the most realistic motherfucker this side of Manet's studio breakfast club.
Then decision time came: I got into every highly desirable school I applied to, including the elite, top-ten University I graduated from last June. My high school college counselor, refusing to believe it (this was not realistic), made me show her the letter. I was a bit insulted: sure, maybe I was too stupid and poorly behaved to get into this school, but did she really think I was too stupid to read a goddamned letter?
It made me wonder: What had I done right over the last two years?
Maybe it's just because I'm white, that my patriarchy credentials checked out and after making sure I wasn't gay or anything, I was on my way. Despite what Suzy Lee Weiss would have us believe (or not? Apparently she was being "ironic"), having a "Tiger Mom" (read through condescending racist screen as: being Asian), a little Cherokee blood (read through nonexistent condescending racist screen as: not being white, again), and wearing a hijab (oh, Jesus Christ, seriously? Right, right: she was being ironic) are nowhere near as reliable a way to get into an elite school as being part of the privileged WASP elite. As Kendra James explains in her own response, "diverse" rejects don't even get to blame their failure on a mythical Indian quota-buster - they just have to accept they weren't good enough, or possibly that the system (the same one that produced Weiss) is a tad biased.
But I don't think white privilege helped in my case. Not to split hairs (I get plenty for being as white and straight and male as I am), but in the world of elite college admissions, there's privileged and then there's privileged. I wasn't a legacy; nobody in my family is a millionaire. The Dean of Harvard College didn't come to dinner at our house when I was a kid, and I'm not anybody's nephew. No, I got into an elite school with no advantages, no effort, and no reason. It baffles me to this day, and I'm not the only one: nearly everybody I talk to remains dazed and confused by their own admissions luck or lack thereof, from college classmates who failed to get into schools where they beat the average admissions stats by a league, to a high school friend who got into an elite, dozen-student program in New York after being rejected by Hampshire College.
I hadn't been doing anything right. I hadn't, in all honesty, been doing anything.
The truth is that college admissions are, by-(and?)in-large, arbitrary. You can blame a system stacked against whites, or one stacked against non-whites, one stacked against the exceptional, or for them, one that rewards diversity or one that shuns it--but at the end of the day, there are very few slots at top colleges and the standards by which they build a class are as idiosyncratic and frankly labyrinthine as the schools themselves. The only way in which "being realistic" or even "being yourself" can help is if yourself is somebody who accepts the reality of an impersonal, chaotic universe. And even accepting that will have absolutely no effect on your admissions chances. Sure, getting good grades, having a diverse resume, and standing out from a crowd may help, but then again, it may not: I got into (but didn't attend) the University of California at Berkley. A classmate whose GPA was a full two points higher than mine, was the President of two clubs, and might have been a little bit Cherokee was rejected and her dreams were crushed. I don't know why. Neither does she. At the time, I felt bad about it, but these days we're both doing more or less OK: our post-collegiate success has been just about as arbitrary as our admissions experience. That's how it works.
At first I believed that I didn't deserve to get into the school I got into. Then again, maybe I was wrong. I excelled there, and perhaps some of my ostensibly more-qualified peers wouldn't have. Moreover, many people who get into elite schools fail out within a year: if admissions officers were better fortune tellers, retention rates would be much closer to 100%. If my experience, and Suzy's fit, and James' ordeal show us anything, it is that there is no rhyme or reason to these things, and that any attempt to make sense of them - through serious analysis, entitled whining, or "satire" - will inevitably collapse under the weight of its subject's hulking ineffability. But that's fine: these days, college-educated Millennials across the country are working part-time in coffee shops whether they went to school in Arizona State or Harvard yard. It doesn't really matter where you got in.
If any consolation is to be found in the firestorm set off by Weiss' piece, it's this: despite the unfairness of our college admissions process, we still live in an America where even if privilege can't protect your slot at a top school from a slob like me, it can still give you a very large public forum in which to complain about it. And then go on TV and double down on your thinly-veiled racism. And then give less-privileged commentators a chance to catch some limelight by taking you to task for it. And then backtrack and say you were being ironic. And then get made fun of by somebody with better luck than you (like me). As long as we still live in that America, I think we're going to be ok. After all, publishing a piece in the Wall Street Journal at eighteen is a better resume item than almost any University's seal of approval, and hey, now that Suzy Weiss has proven her writing chops (and those of her editors), maybe she can tune up those transfer application essays. With a little luck, she can be off to the Ivy League in no time. Or not. There's really no way to know.