May 26, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Looking Up At the Top Tier

It’s the fall of senior year, and that means missing 50 school days for the chagim, getting used to AP-level classes (whether they’re called AP or not), and best—or at least, most—of all, college applications.

I was recently sent an article (“The Ivy League, Mental Illness, and the Meaning of Life,” in the Atlantic, available here: http://tinyurl.com/m6r3jl8) that raised an intriguing yet troubling issue. Many teenagers aim to go to Ivy League and top-tier, elite colleges; they put in all of the proper work, get the right scores, do the right extracurricular, and then get in… The article, right from the get-go, lambasted the culture that seems to exist where these students must get into the elite colleges or else are doomed, so to speak. It said that was a bad thing. It claimed that these students become “excellent sheep,” simply following a path and not thinking for themselves, and thus becoming successful without doing anything meaningful. It also argued that these students become so conditioned to being successful that they become hurt and depressed when they fail later on; they always need that next “A” or new award, or else they’ll collapse, because they’ve gone so long being successful at everything.

Right now I’m not discussing where I’m applying to college, but for argument’s sake, let’s say I have plans to apply to an elite college. If so, is this true? Is it “Ivy or nothing” for me and for many others who are applying to elite colleges? Have I become one of those “excellent sheep” who is simply fulfilling a set of requirements and who can’t take failure?

I can’t speak for everyone going through the college process, but I can by what I’ve seen and what I’ve experienced myself. And at least from that lens, I would argue on all of these points.

First off, most students I’ve seen do not aim for “Ivy or nothing.” They aim for the top, true, but also are sure to have Plans B, C, D, and often all the way up to Q, ready in case. In college advisement terms, they have their “reach” schools—the ones that are hard to get into, often not just for them but for everyone—their “match” schools, which seem like a much better chance, and their “safety” schools, where they know they’ve got a good chance of getting in (and ideally, know that they’ll be happy there). In other words, most people know that they have to hope for the best but prepare for whatever happens, and to keep everything in perspective; it’s not the end of the world if you don’t get into so-and-so Elite College! This is certainly the case in my house; we haven’t done 25,000 (or so, but who’s counting?) campus tours for nothing. (We may have broken a mileage record on our car.)

But have I and my peers become “excellent sheep” by going through the ropes to gain admission to elite colleges? I would argue that “excellent sheep” is still better than “regular sheep,” “mediocre sheep,” and “bad sheep”! Jokes aside, I would think that we haven’t. Yes, there’s the boilerplate toiling through the SAT/ACT tests; that’s a rite of passage for us all. But most if not everyone I’ve seen has differentiated themselves by simply doing what they love. They didn’t try to fulfill a set of “required activities” but rather focused on stuff like choir, the school paper, their art, basketball, business and so on. And they got very good at the area they chose to focus on. I mean, I know someone who loves writing so much that he tried to get a column in The Jewish Link! (I stealthily wink at the camera.) So no, it doesn’t seem like we are “excellent sheep” following requirements or the like, but we’ve chosen where to focus ourselves and what we want to do with our time. (Worth noting: At one college information session, the admission representative said that the school looks for “well-lopsided” applicants; that is, it’s good to be well-rounded, but it’s also good to have a focus in one area if that’s what you enjoy.)

Lastly, are those who apply to and attend elite colleges conditioned to always be successful? I think that enough people experience failures in their lives even outside of the school sphere that they’ll be able to take future failures. Will it potentially hurt to not get straight A’s if that’s what the person accomplished in high school? It could, but I have more faith in teenagers being able to cope, because we’ve learned to cope in other ways whether we’ve failed before at school or not. An example from my own life—confession: remember how a few months ago I wrote about being nervous to take my permit test and to start driving? Were you wondering why I never mentioned that again? Because I failed the test the first time and have yet to take it again. It was pretty upsetting, but I moved on and focused on other things. So no, I don’t think people have been conditioned for succeeding at everything just because they’re applying to and getting into elite colleges. And by the way, I should mention that my school scores aren’t infallible either.

To be fair: I have only seen a very, very, very, very tiny group of American teenagers in my life when compared to the amount of teenagers in the country applying to elite colleges. The issues enumerated in the article I discussed above may very well exist elsewhere beyond my scope of experience. But I just wanted to give in my own two cents, based on what I’ve seen.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to working on that application!

Oren Oppenheim, 17, is a senior at Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan and lives in Fair Lawn, NJ. He spends his free time writing and reading, and hopes to become a published novelist and a journalist. He attended the BIMA Arts program at Brandeis University this past summer, majoring in creative writing and minoring in animation. You can email him at [email protected] and see his photography at facebook.com/orenphotography.

By Oren Oppenheim

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