College Applications – Still Absurd

With some recent encouraging efforts to right the ridiculous financial metrics of college attendance, let’s not forget how rapidly other aspects of the college experience continue steaming into absurdity. Andrew Ferguson offered a prescient corrective in the Weekly Standard – here’s a telling bit:

A further symptom of college madness, as I should have known already, is the professionalization of childhood. As the number of applicants increases, competition for the most desirable schools becomes cutthroat, so the ambitious, forward-looking parent will design his child’s teenage years to accumulate experiences that will gild a resume – also called, with disarming candor, a “brag sheet” – and inspire the admiration of a college admissions committee. The nationwide mania for high school Advanced Placement courses is one consequence of childhood resume-building; the alarming rise in “voluntarism rates” among high school students, particularly in their junior year, is another.
As I’ve now come to learn, more often than not the AP classes don’t earn the advanced place in college that students expect. But this doesn’t matter – just as no one seems to mind that volunteer work done purely for the sake of personal standing isn’t voluntary by any common definition and certainly isn’t evidence of the selflessness that voluntarism is supposed to denote. The bizarre illogic of these schemes is part of what it means to go college crazy. That goes double for the economics of the thing: Average tuition has vastly increased in the last generation, as any parent soon discovers, and the increase in tuition has increased demand for student aid to pay the tuition, which colleges then feel compelled to raise to pay for the increased student aid.

After reading Ferguson’s piece, I happened immediately upon yesterday’s New York Times, filled with a slate of enfevered articles on college applications – proof, as ever, that there’s no problem in society that the Times doesn’t actively encourage. Consider a few of the bizarre behaviors and practices surrounding college that show no sign of slacking, and are in fact becoming common practice for responsible students.


We see a continued mania in the pursuit of college applications advice; a Times article profiles one college consultant who charges $4,000 to 5,000 for student for applications assistance, offers a raft of hand-holding services. “By senior year, she is contacting them weekly to remind them about deadlines, to brainstorm ideas for college essays and to review their applications. She tries to prepare them for their interviews by staging mock sessions.”

We see continued clubby relations between private school guidance counselors and elite admissions departments, which the Times points out is “a level of support taken for granted at private secondary schools, where parents paying $30,000 a year keep power counselors on speed-dial and count on their connections to admissions directors.” The article points out that private school counselors make particular efforts to know admissions officers. Tell us something new (we remember that playing Squash can help our admissions chances).
We see admissions hysteria permuted, for the accepted student, into internship mania. “Internships are no longer optional, they’re required,” says Peter Vogt, author of Career Wisdom for College Students and an adviser to MonsterTrak.com.” The Times of course furnishes a cold-eyed look at this internship phenomenon – they state “if you haven’t applied for yours yet, you are late.” Oh dear, what to do? Well, high-level connections help:

“Personal connections, family connections,” says Hilary Dykes, a sophomore at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, to describe what it takes. “Most people want to say it’s not, but it really is.” Ms. Dykes spent last summer at a financial services firm in Greenwich, Conn., in an “unofficial internship” procured through a friend of her family’s. She prefers not to name the company because she doesn’t want to share her contacts.

Well I don’t blame her – but I’m not sure how much her discretion is proof of enterprise or career skills.

We see the literal auctioning of internships to parents, able to purchase their children slots at Harper’s Bazaar and the publisher of Ladies Home Journal and Fitness.

Parents have shelled out thousands to give their children the opportunity to file, fax, answer telephones and attend events in their bosses’ stead. “She wants to go into the fashion industry, but she’s not sure what aspect she wanted, and I thought it would be great for her to find out what she wants to do,” explains Kathi Cline of Tuxedo Park, N.Y., who used Charitybuzz to buy her 16-year-old stepdaughter an internship at Harper’s Bazaar as a Christmas present. The $4,500 went to the New York Restoration Project, an environmental organization that was founded by Bette Midler.

Essential preparation for the workplace, right? This example is particularly egregious, and ultimately revealing of the character of much of the internship racket. Just how distant is an auction from the cozy familial arrangements endemic to the internship racket? At least the auction is admirably direct; it makes no pretense of rewarding merit, highly unlike the countless internships gained through nepotism that now masquerade as genuine accomplishment.

We see, despite an encouraging increase in well-paid and generally available internships, a larger landscape in which internships remain highly dependent upon connections such as those above, or, more importantly, the ability to work for no or little pay. The Times story points out that “for most students, an internship still means draining someone’s bank account (the student’s or the parents’) in exchange for a resume line.” Those parents who were willing to spring for $5,000 applications counselors are unlikely to think twice about bankrolling any number of internships their children obtain, but vast numbers of poorer students – who are expected to make money to fund their own education in summers – are out of luck. The competitive disadvantage at which lower and middle class students operate in this internship game was cited in justifications for several universities’ recent financial aid increases. That’s an encouraging step for Harvard, but in this particular, it’s sorely to be hoped that other colleges don’t follow suit. To make internships financially available for all students is a quixotic goal; wouoldn’t colleges be far better served puncturing the inflated regard in which internships are held – and giving students a chance, after years of sundry resume padding, hired college counselors, required volunteerism, and meretricious obscure sportsmanship, to learn or do something they actually care about? But that would be too much to ask, wouldn’t it.

Anthony Paletta

Anthony Paletta is a freelance writer.

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