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No Pain, No Gain

October 13, 2002|Michael Cieply | Michael Cieply, a Los Angeles journalist, writes frequently about the film industry.

Some weeks ago, about 80 fretful parents gathered at an exclusive Los Angeles prep school to hear a Yale University admissions officer tell, among other things, what he looks for in the all-important personal statement that accompanies most college applications.

Winning essays, said the officer, often described the plight of disrupted families. The struggles of migrant workers, for instance, had scored big in the admissions process. So had the woes wrought by an alcoholic or drug-addicted parent. Indeed, a favorite statement told of a girl who earned straight A's, even though both mother and father had AIDS. "I don't know how she did it. I was in tears when I read it," the Yale man said.

Finally, one listener had the temerity to ask a question shared by many in the audience: "What about kids without trauma in their lives?"

The not entirely reassuring answer: "There's room for kids like that too."

College application season is here, and it promises to be one of the saddest on record, given a growing tendency by some of the best schools to allot prized slots, at least in part, to students who have met and conquered great adversity.

Late last year, the University of California instituted a "comprehensive review" process under which applicants get extra points for overcoming handicaps like parental divorce, a ghetto upbringing or debilitating illness. The system is meant to help the disadvantaged without violating a voter-mandated ban on race-based selection. In effect, it simply formalizes a good-hearted impulse shared by Yale and other Ivy League schools, where the ability to make your bleary-eyed application reader weep has already become a powerful factor in the admissions game.

Inevitably, such policies have sent a shiver through better-heeled applicants who can't always find a sad story to tell. "There's confusion among students who have not had a huge crisis in life," said a dean at one relatively prosperous Westside public high school, who asked that neither she nor her school be identified. "They say, 'What do I write about?' Sharing your family moments of crisis may become a crisis when they don't have that moment."

You have to wonder whether college essays will begin to resemble the composition by the rich kid in the old joke who was asked to write a story about poverty. It began: "Once there was a very poor family. The mother was poor. The father was poor. The kids were poor. Even the maid and butler were poor."

A private school mother I know tells of a Chinese student who is despondent because his parents, having long ago fled communist oppression, have been too successful to do him any good on a personal statement. The worried mother of another preppy, on hearing that my 15-year-old son was in a presumably more adversity-rich public school, actually said: "Then you're lucky. You'll do OK."

Richard Shaw, Yale's dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid, said any such panic of the privileged reflects a fundamental misreading of policies at his school and most others. "It's much bigger than that," Shaw said when told of parental concerns about his admissions officer's L.A. speech. "We look at kids who are precocious in playing the violin, at leaders in forensics and so on."

In any case, students at premier Los Angeles academies like Harvard-Westlake School or Marlborough School will surely continue to reap powerful advantage from superior instruction, small class size and, above all, from deep-running liaisons between their college counselors and the admissions staff at trophy universities--Harvard, Yale, Princeton and such--for which they've long been "feeders." This year's must-read book for the college-bound, "The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College" by New York Times reporter Jacques Steinberg, describes in fascinating detail how key prep-school advisors can pick up the phone to call old friends and bend the admissions process in favor of proteges at a school as prestigious as Wesleyan University, of which he made a case study.

And yet there is something unnerving about a system that would try to level the field by encouraging our young to make an asset of their woes. Do we really want university admissions to become the stuff of an "Oprah" show?

According to the above-mentioned public school dean, many students--with a dignity not yet snuffed by the culture of victimhood--are reluctant to share intimate stories of family trouble, even when it would clearly help them on an application to UC Berkeley or UCLA. "Is this something you really want to tell?" she asks, before they advertise personal problems that, once committed to an essay, can't be called back.

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