Monday, November 15, 2010

Selecting for Cynicism in the Ivy League

I did high-school in Chile, graduating in 1985—but I only got around to applying to U.S. colleges in 1990. When I finally did apply, I was a flat broke 22 year-old—naturally, I applied only to need-blind schools: There was no point in getting into a college I couldn’t afford. So I pinned my college hopes almost exclusively on Ivy League schools, because all of them had need-blind admissions. 

Baker Library Tower
Dartmouth College
This wasn’t as fool-hardy as it sounds. I had the grades and the test scores—99 percentiles. But what I later realized made me so attractive to admissions committees was that I’d done stuff: Travelled through the Peruvian jungle, complete with a run-in with Shining Path guerrillas. Protested the Pinochet dictatorship, and gotten sprayed by a guanaco (water cannon) for my troubles. Lived through a 7.7 earthquake. Taught English as a second language. Written a first novel.

(I’d also done a few things which I realized wouldn’t go down so very well with the various admissions committees—like arranging my first FMF threeway at 19, brokering a sizable pot sale at 20, and other such adventures. These achievements I kept to myself.)

So when the envelopes from the various admissions committees finally got to my mailbox, they were all fat—I was lucky enough to have my pick of schools.

For fairly ridiculous reasons mostly having to do with the nearby Skiway and the shiny computers every freshman was supposed to get on arrival, I chose Dartmouth as my school. When I got to Hanover as a proud member of the Class of ‘95, I was surrounded by kids who were completely different from me.

Not in their brains or even their backgrounds. Most of them were—like me—private school kids of well-to-do parents. Most of them were—like me—incredibly smart, yet fairly arrogant about those smarts. Most of them—like me—had read pretty much everything, and could talk—knowledgeably—about just about anything.

But there was one big difference between me and my peers:

Community service, and volunteer work.

All of my peers in the Class of ‘95 had done boatloads of community service and volunteer work, before arriving in Hanover: Either reading to blind elderly people in nursing homes, or volunteering at the local homeless shelter. Fundraising for the Make A Wish foundation, or candy stripping at the local AIDS clinic. Going door-to-door for Amnesty International, or Greenpeace, or the World Wildlife Fund—these kids had done all these things.

It wasn’t just the ordinary American clubs and organizations that these kids had joined: Not merely 4-H, or the Boy Scouts (actually, there were precious few who had joined either one of those organizations). And it wasn’t short-lived trivial causes, like saving abandoned puppies for one Sunday afternoon in the year.

Just about all my peers at Dartmouth had joined socially aware charities and causes, and had devoted quite a bit of their free time to them. Quite a bit of work to them, often as much time and effort as if these causes had been paid part-time jobs: Ten to twenty hours a week devoted to these causes was not uncommon. 

At first, I was rather intimidated by all this do-goodism—obviously: I was a hedonistic little shit. To me, “doing good” meant scoring some Thai stick, lining up a hot girl for the weekend, and being on a first-name basis with the doorman of coolest club. 

But reading to blind people? Cleaning the diapers of old people in a nursing home? Teaching parolees whatever? Hell, I didn’t even know any parolees . . . except maybe my dealer.

So naturally, I was rather awed by all this do-goodism—at first. This do-goodism seemed to render my peers morally pure in a way that I could never be—

—that moral awe of mine lasted all of half a day.

Chatting with my new classmates on my first day in Hanover, I quickly learned that none of this do-goodism was genuine. That wasn’t my verdict—it was the verdict of my peers: The very ones who had done all this do-goodism admitted to me that it was not genuine—had never been genuine.

It was all done in an effort to get into a “good school”.

Since I’d done my high-school in Chile, I was completely ignorant of all these calculations—so my new classmates gave me an education. Very casually, as we hiked to Moosilauke Lodge—a trek every Dartmouth student makes before classes start—my classmates told me the ins and outs of extra-curriculars, and which were necessary in order to get into an Ivy League school:

One of the extra-curriculars had to be in a sport, varsity being the best. Another had to be a “leadership” extracurricular, like student government, or debate, or at least the presidency of some high-school club or other. One or two “creative” extra-curriculars never hurt, like glee-club or band or theater.

But community service or volunteer work was key: Any student serious about getting into an Ivy simply had to do community service or volunteer work.

Four years of high school meant eight “community service” extra-curriculars—one per semester. Anything more would seem like you were a “dabbler”, and therefore “weren’t serious”. But anything less would show a “lack of commitment”, which was equally bad. And the extra-curriculars had to be more or less aligned: You couldn’t read to blind people one semester and then go save the whales in the next. Rather, you had to work on saving the whales in one semester, and then volunteer to work on an organic farm in the next: That showed you were “environmentally aware”. Or else you had to tend a soup kitchen for the homeless, then read to the elderly in the next semester: That showed you were “socially engaged”.

My fellow Dartmouth students, as well as students at all the other Ivies that I would get to know over the years, did all this do-goodism as a requirement, in order to get into a good school—an Ivy League school.

They did it in order to get ahead—and they were openly encouraged to do it: Not just by their parents, but by their high-school guidance counselors, their college prep advisors, even the visiting admissions deans of the very universities they were applying to—

—it was simply part of the admissions process: “It’s like taking calculus,” I still remember a girl named Debra, from Nebraska, telling me on the bus ride back to Hanover from Moosilauke Lodge. “You have to grind it out, and get it over with.”

What is cynicism?

It’s the belief that people act for purely self-interested reasons, rather than out of honorable or selfless motives.

If you are encouraged to do certain highly visible “community service” and “volunteer work” for no other reason than to get something that you want—in other words, if you are encouraged to “do good” in order to get into a prestigious university—what does that teach you? What does that teach the youth of a country—especially the best and the brightest—the ones with the most promise?

We usually think of cynicism as an affliction of the world-weary and the jaded—a malady of people who have lived long enough, and seen enough enough, to be turned into cynics. They’re usually self-aware: They are men and women who have watched their innocence fall by the wayside, milled away over the years by the acts of selfish people—including their own—leaving them thinking that all is done for selfish, base reasons, no matter how seemingly pure the act.

To the cynic, no matter how selfless an action seems, at bottom, it is selfish and base. That’s why a cynic is such a sorry thing: He sees the world in the lonely monochrome of shades of selfishness. To a cynic, all surface hides retchedness and deceit. To a cynic, there is nothing good or decent or wholesome behind any act, no matter how seemingly noble or selfless. Neither love, nor goodness, nor beauty, nor insight can exist to such a worldview—to the cynic, all is selfishness. All is base and without honor or goodness. All is for sale.

One thing people don’t realize about cynics is, they are inherently conservative. 

This is key: Cynics don’t believe in anything—nihilism is the nasty undertaste of the cynic’s bitterness. So since they don’t believe in anything, they don’t believe in changing things for the better. To the cynic, there is no “better”—there are only changes as to whose selfish benefit is being affirmed, and whose selfish benefit is being denied. 

That’s the terrible worldview of the cynic—a perspective that leads to decay and death, nothing more, because to the cynic, there is nothing to aspire to.

And that is the education that Ivy League freshmen learned, in order to acceed to those ivy-covered towers—that lesson learned has become the necessary fee, to advance to the highest echelons of American society, and power: There is nothing noble and good to aspire to—it is all selfish and base.

At the time that I spoke to Debra, on that bus ride back to Dartmouth, I thought she was so clever, to have maneuvered the system so as to get her way.

But now—as a grown man—I’m fairly horrified by that conversation with Debra: I’m horrified by what it revealed. About her. About the other students on the bus. About all the people percolating up through the Ivy League.

I’m no historian of American higher education: I have no idea when simple academic merit was replaced by this perverse con-game of community service and volunteer work. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it was an outgrowth of the student movement of the 1960’s. Did the required do-goodism become necessary for admission in the ‘70’s, or in the ‘80’s? I have no idea—all I know is, when I matriculated at Dartmouth in the fall of 1991, it was the way things were.

And it’s the way things still are, among admissions to the elite schools in the United States: A system that inculcates a core cynicism of frightening power. If anything—because of the cut-throat competition to get into Ivy League schools today—it’s worse than before.

Now, this would all seem to be so academic, this discussion of cynicism among Ivy League students—but it’s not, and for a very simple reason:

These people who have been taught such a powerful lesson in cynicism are the very same people who make up the leadership classes of the United States today.

This sensibility—this cynicism—informs today’s politics. In fact, every political and economic decision we see today is colored by that monochromatic cynicism. In fact I would argue that nothing that America’s leadership does today—in any field—can be understood without realizing that it is coming out of a deep wellspring of cynicism. 

A lot of people—thoughtful but marginal people, who have no power in America—are so surprised that Barack Obama seems more concerned with the appearance of progress, change and reform, rather than the actuality of progress, change and reform. Many people—especially non-Establishment center-leftists—seem flummoxed that Obama has continued so many of George W. Bush’s illegal and immoral War On Terror measures; indeed, has not merely continued them, but expanded many of these measures, such as the authority to assassinate American citizens abroad, at the president’s whim. Something not even Nixon dared dream of—yet which Obama’s administration is defending tooth and nail.

Me, I’m not a bit surprised—in fact, I anticipated Obama’s moral timidity insofar as real change and reform on the one hand, and conservatism when it came to continuing Bush administration policies regarding torture and executive power on the other. I’m not psychic—but I did anticipate the half-measures of the Obama administration’s policies. Or rather, I anticipated the superficiality of so many of his “reforms”—be it health-care, financial reform, Afghanistan, Iraq, and so on and so forth.

I anticipated them because I know the type: Obama was a type I saw at Dartmouth all over the place. So is Timothy Geithner—Dartmouth class of 1983. So is Ben Bernanke. So are all the people in leadership positions today in America.

You see, the cynic is timid: He can’t go beyond the status quo. He won’t go beyond the status quo, because he doesn’t believe in anything beyond the status quo.

The problem with the United States today is, the status quo is leading the country right off the cliff. Financially, militarily, morally—the status quo is a death sentence, for the United States. America has to change directions now.

But it won’t. Because the leadership class—in politics, the press, business, finance—is made up of these timid cynics that were taught so well in the Ivy League.

I’ve mentioned my monster novel, The Green of the Republic, a few times here and there. This is what it’s about: My ridiculously long novel is about the education that these poor sods received.

The book is—of course—a tragedy. A tragedy is sad because you in the audience see how the characters’ actions will lead to their downfall—yet you cannot prevent it. You can only observe.

So we observe. 


  1. Holy Smokes are you ever right! I am helping my daughter apply to colleges now (not Ivies)and the pressure to have lots of community service is greater than any grade requirement. Not only that, but professional grade portfolios are becoming the norm and those things are all parent driven and computer enhanced. This is crazy!!! I was Dartmouth Class of 1980 and I think the only community service I did was 2 months of candy-striping in 10th grade to get out of gym. I'm not even sure I listed it on the application! Now the high school yearbook is put together by a teacher, but everyone is working at a foundation or nursing home somewhere. I told my kids, if you are going to work, please get paid as college costs have gone through the roof and you're going to need it.

    I'm pretty sure I was in some government classes with Geithner, as I majored in government too, but if I was, he was not memorable...

  2. Gonzalo: This is an excellent observation.

  3. In Tom Cruise's "Risky Business", running a whorehouse turned into the asset that got Tom's character into the university that he wanted, when grades failed.

    I'm sure there's a lesson in that story somewhere, too.

  4. The lesson from "Risky Business" was: sometimes you have to say, "What the fuck!" and make your move.

  5. Yeah, I don't know, Gonzalo. You aren't talking about true cynicism. You are talking about what true cynicism rejects. REAL cynics in the tradition of the Diogenes don't jump through little hoops set up by the established powers so that they may get to join in the looting. REAL cynics are defeated idealists, or possibly idealists heavily tempered by reality, who HAVE seen things and done stuff and detest the true state of things. Diogenes lived in a tub, begged for a living, and taunted everyone. Hardly Ivy League material. You need a new word here. You are really describing the species of "useful idiots" not cynics. Otherwise, great article.

    Now, about this three-way, I think we'd all love to see a little elaboration here.

    Yours in True Cynicism,

  6. Great piece, GL. And yet, it seems like this trend for cynics in leadership is even more pronounced throughout the world. What can we do to change this?

  7. Holy cow, you mean to tell us that the children of the rich are scheming, soulless bastards? Knock me over with a feather!

  8. So this is what it's come to, eh? Back in '77 when I applied to the University of California, all I had to do was to complete the application, submit my high school transcript and SAT results. Yeah, I know UC isn't Ivy League but it was pretty damned good. And cheap!! Back then it was, anyway. Cheap, I mean. Nobody I knew then, including myself, did any volunteer or charity work; and certainly not as a prerequisite for admission. Not then, anyway. Hell, everyone I met there came from a family whose net worth must have been 10 times my family's net worth.

    I guess I must have come from that last class of high school graduates that squeaked in under the door 5 minutes before midnight when the door slammed shut and all the political and social indoctimation began.

    So, I suppose it's really no wonder that I feel like John Spartan when everyone chuckles because he doesn't know how to use the three seashells. I don't know how to use the three seashells either.

  9. Well said. I see two types of "volunteers," the self-proclaimed saints who announce their works to everyone. These are the types you describe (and yes, they are almost always Progressive types) and then the invisible ones. These never seek the limelight for their works, just the opposite,(if you can pry a reason out of them, it usually a dismissive, "I thought I could help out some". They deflect any effort to highlight themselves.

  10. Well, there we go. Hypocrisy and dishonesty for self gain. Humanity, the human touch has disappeared. All today has to do with net worth .

  11. The veneer of charity is most profoundly on display at charitable organizations. The most glaring example? Susan G. Komen For The Cure. It's founder, Nancy Brinker, boldly stated on Good Morning America in September that she wanted to transform breast cancer into a "chronic treatable disease." Brinker and Komen have no intention of ending breast cancer, a disease that (by my back of the envelope calculation) is ~$50 billion/year industry. With Vincent Tuohy's first preventive breast cancer vaccine twice torpedoed by Komen, and with work on the human breast cancer virus (thought to be involved with at least 40% of all cases) just about extinguished, and with the incidence of breast cancer having doubled in the past thirty years, the race for a cure is a lie. As a fellowship trained breast cancer surgeon (Memorial Sloan-Kettering), I am shocked by the reality of all of this. I am doing my best to fight it, really, but what a tilting at windmills exercise it has been. K. T. Ruddy, MD (

  12. This is not cynicism.

    This is an initiatory ritual, which 'would be members of the elite' must go through.

    In order to reach our materialistic society's pinnacle, one has to become part of a herd, a small herd, but a herd anyway.

    This herd follows a specific path, away from the one taken by the huge herd of 'regular guys'.

    Among other things, this path leads its followers to spend time doing community service and volunteer work, then to become member of selected fraternities and, later in their life, to join a golf club, skip lunch to play squash with a top executive, pay top money for opera tickets, move heaven and earth to get invited to a museum exhibition's grand opening, grease a waiter's hand for a seat in a fashionable name it.

    Those who manage to follow the path all the way to the top are certainly smart, but they are not wise.

    The wise think, whereas the smart only believe.

    And thinking leads to seek freedom from the herd, to move away from the common path and search for one's own path.

    On one hand, being wise generally means being somewhat isolated from both the smart elites and the average masses. But, on the other hand, it allows to see through the game of those who are pulling the strings, and not to fall for their tricks.

    Click on my name to visit my blog.

  13. Wonderfully written GL.

    “Cynicism is an unpleasant way of saying the truth.”

    However, as "Brunolem" so rightly points out, it is all about joining a herd, believing that you are special because your parents spent large amounts of $$$ to get you into the best schools.

    I look for life experiance, i would much rather hire someone who has climbed Everest, than have gone to Harvard.

    I was interviewed for a job in the past, the interview went well, as i was about to leave the man interviewing me asked me to remove my suit jacket and turn around, i thought it a strange request, but did as he requested.

    When i asked him what the purpose of this exercise was, he replied "i wanted to see if you had pressed the back of your shirt"
    If it had been creased, i would not have employed you, he stated, and with a handshake he welcomed me as a new employee.

    There is a simple truth to this concept, which is lots of people cut corners or do things they do not want to do to get ahead, i pressed the back of my shirt, simply because thats the way i am, and the standards i keep.

    And it is by standards that all people are judged.

  14. I went to the Ivy League 20 years before you (Columbia College, class of 1975). Grades, SATs, and outside interests were important but I don't remember "community service" much at all. The schools were less competive then (Columbia College was still all male and there were less foreign students) so applying was less cut-throat. On the other hand, I went to a public high school, not prep school, so wasn't "prepped" for college the way prep school students were.

    I agree with you that this "requirement" of community service breeds cynicism and perhaps even a rejection of true community service later in life. Being forced to help the community can breed resentment later on.

  15. RealityZone sent me and this writeup is one helluva doozy.

  16. It's why staight shooters like Chris Christie are popular.

  17. I stopped reading at FMF three way.

  18. 'One thing people don’t realize about cynics is, they are inherently conservative.'

    A good screen, then, for a post in the ruling class.

  19. I started to read at FMF..

  20. >thats the way i am, and the standards i keep.

    Try capitalizing your I's then hotshot.

  21. Hello,? can you see me?

  22. Supply and demand equals competitiveness at top schools. Community service simply became another requirement to narrow the field akin to higher SAT scores. Same amount of Ivy league schools yet the population is up 4x not to mention foreign students. If folks stop going to college and applications drop they will forget about community service. The kids are not cynics they just know what it takes--it doesn't mean they are happy about it.

  23. Namaste From India,

    A dropout told me the other day, that, Engineering+MBA does't prove that you are knowledgeable, but, it proves one thing for sure, that you are from elite family.

    I have been following you for quite some time and you are too good. Can't afford to miss any of you commentaries.

    On your personal front, looks like you need a trip to India in search of something. Other elites, Beatles did that in 60's ;)

    And 'F' that Anonymous who stopped reading at FMF three way. There is no place for these B******S here. May be that Anonymous is Eunuch Timmie G*******r.

    From India

    1. Anonymous:

      You dropout friend is clueless.

      I have two engineering degrees (Lehigh, MIT) and an MBA (UCLA) -- and I'm from a middle class family, and the first generation to go to college.

      After working for 30+ years, I can assure you that I'm far more "knowledgeable" than most people I know, including (and especially) Liberal Arts Ivy-League grads.

      And the reason for this is that in college and grad school, I learned HOW to think, rather than WHAT to think. I also learned that actual results achieved count for far more than "effort" and "good intentions". Most important, I learned that just because everyone has an equal right to an opinion, that doesn't necessarily mean that everyone's opinion is equally thought-out and hence of equal merit.

      Perhaps you are confusing computer programmers with "real" engineers -- I assure you there's a huge difference. (I've worked both as an R&D engineer, and have written software as well, so I know about which I speak.)

  24. Trivia question:
    Does anyone know how we get the name "Ivy" League?
    Don Levit

  25. Excellent observations! I am an American who also lived in Mexico and Chile... What you are noticing isn't just the Ivy League, this is American education.

    To be honest, groups like Engineers Without Borders were WAY larger in the Ivy League school I went to than in the state school where I went for undergrad.

    The cynicism you are referring to not only pervades the Ivy League, but ALL aspects of America. The Ivy just produces the eloquent suits that can rhetorically defend it.

  26. Hi Gonzalo,

    I think there are two types of situations to which the term "cynical" is applied.

    One is the type that you refer to, which is close to "lying." People say and do what is expected of them, for self-interested reasons.

    The second type of "cynicism" is a natural process of learning. it is the mental adjustment of the way things really are, gleaned from experience, compared to the way things are supposed to be or generally perceived to be.

    I never did any community service, but got into college anyway. Being in college made me a cynic of the second type, although to be honest it took another twenty years to more fully understand the gulf between reality and perception. A stint as a journalist helped.

    NL (Dartmouth '93)

  27. So true! I attended Columbia recently (in the '00s), and I also had a relatively "nontraditional" background for the Ivies (though not as much so as yours). I felt exactly the same when I got onto campus. It was really depressing.

  28. cynicism is the misunderstanding that everything in the universe is connected.

  29. Well done. Having been on the fringes of Ivy culture from time to time, I've had similar thoughts. You nicely weaved it into a single cloth. Thanks.

  30. I went back to college after marrying in my mid-twenties. I was shocked - it was like being in 13th grade. I was utterly appalled at the total lack of ambition and 'who gives a shit attitude' that 90% of the students had. This was a state school, and also in the South - which may explain the correlation between illegitimate babies and number of teeth - but still no excuse.
    The thing that really pissed me off was credit hours that were given for so-called worthy causes/community service: Professors from the various Science departments giving grades for attending Al Gore's speach on campus, or giving hours to students who were participating members of the 'Students for a Vegan Life' club; and by participating I mean holding "meat is murder" protests outside the campus KFC.
    Credit or passing grades could be recieved for almost any do-good, feel-good, fluffed-up bullshit, as long as it was ultra liberal and socially responsible. I mean, who doesn't think that the Transvestites of Middle Tennesse (all 3 of them) need to have some kind of representation?
    I'm too nauseated to be cynical. Almost zero college kids know how (or are expected to by their parents) to hold down a job or be resposible for themselves in any manner. I can't believe that we expect them to graduate and become productive (and re-productive) members of society. College is nothing more than a government subsidized Head-Start program for adults. So, does anyone REALLY think that there is hope for America's future?
    How's that for cynical?

  31. "The price of everything and the value of nothing."

    That pretty much sums it up.

    While we're on the subject, I've always wondered if Alexander did get out of Diogenes' light.

  32. I read you often. I enjoy your posts. I am about to graduate from FIU here in Miami. I am going to do a POST-BACCALAUREATE program at MIT because I am interested in MED School. I am that rare bird who is doing volunteer service at present because I want contribute to society in my own small way.

    I understand your gist though and now many students who are as cynical as you describe them. I don't enjoy their company. I hate their rotten attitude. I am hopeful for mankind and people in general. I believe there are more good people than bad. I feel good about my life and am hopeful for the future.

    I love your essays and await the hyper-inflationary collapse which I await with positive outcomes since I believe we as the human family will all come closer together. Call me crazy but hey it's the way I am.

  33. where can we buy your novel, gonzalo? it sounds interesting...

  34. A fascinating article and thank you for sharing with us. The people you describe are "The Best And The Brightest." This was the same crowd that got the US into Vietnam, They are in power regardless of who is president. You have wonderful observations about them.

  35. And you think that the current crop of clowns is different from the last crop of clowns? Or many of the previous generations of jackasses that proceeded them?

    Has Human Nature suddenly changed?

    What is different is that you just recognized a longstanding truth. You figured out that all of these assholes are completely and totally full of shit.

    Welcome to my world . . .

  36. Excellent article and I loved the sheer humanity and honesty of your writing. References to Thai Sticks, FMF's and pot deals brought a smile to my face!! I concur with the older Ivy types (Penn 78 here) on the community service stuff. Although I did a gap year and took a slow boat to China(taiwan in those days) and learned Chinese after prep school out of a passion for Chinese philosophy, I still didn't get into Yale although I came from a Yale legacy family - Father, Grandfather, Uncles etc. It was the beginning of the anti-preppy elite times in the Ivies where having a 3rd after your name and coming from a New England prep school was a definite count against you. But it was still a time when folks studied what they wanted (well excepting the Wharton types) because they were interested in the subjects as opposed to the cold calculation you see these days. I interview for Penn here in China and see so much cold cynical calculation here in applications from 17 year olds and it really is saddening. I am sort of nostalgic for the old "elites" as so much of what I have seen with the younger generation of Ivy applicants is the aspiration of nouveau riche families to gain status through their children.. a most uncultured lot when it comes down to it.

  37. Gonzalo, thank you for this piercing glance into the obvious. Yes, it's hypocritical but so what? Every elite system has its rules, please suggest a better one. It reminds of the saying, "Democracy is a terrible system but we have yet to invent a better one."

    You yourself came from Chile. What other countries do aspiring young men and women look to build their lives?

  38. ...and THIS is why the meek shall inherit the earth. No pretense, no posturing, no politics, no pride. Just simply a love that conquers all.

    - Seedwesow

  39. Coming to this discussion a bit late as I only discovered your site today through an old link from "Jim's Blog", but will add my two cents on one point. You asked:

    "I have no idea when simple academic merit was replaced by this perverse con-game of community service and volunteer work. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it was an outgrowth of the student movement of the 1960’s. Did the required do-goodism become necessary for admission in the ‘70’s, or in the ‘80’s?"

    I don't have a full answer but I do think that the advent of affirmative action is at least a partial explanation. At the risk of sounding cynical [tat-DAT-dat], in order for affirmative action to "work", admissions administrators needed something other than mere grades and SATs to hang their hats on in justifying admissions. This led to giving weight to all kinds of "life experiences" in order to admit academically underqualified minorities. Over time, this tendency spilled over into ALL applicants (including, and as your post makes clear, eventually primarily people who were not relying on affirmative action for admission) trying to burnish their credentials with various do-gooder activities. "Well, no, I wasn't raised in the ghetto by a single mother surrounded by drug dealers and thugs...But I did go to the ghetto every Tuesday afternoon to tutor underprivileged children" etc. etc.

    Let me add that I would not be surprised if this trend has been used to serve the ends of both affirmative action AND anti-affirmative action. To wit: administrators needed a reason NOT to admit all of these hyper-(academically)-qualified Asians. Do-gooder extra-curriculars gave them a reason to discriminate against Asians with stellar scores but "boring" backgrounds in favor of whites who had merely great grades but plenty of selfless, save-the-planet extra-curriculars. (And, of course, Asians have long since caught up with this and know how to play the game in spades. And so the whole process evolves and keeps going.)

  40. When I went to high school back in the 90's all of the honor students and those who had advanced placement systems were all involved in charities and such and I know that almost all of them did it to be competitive when applying for university. Valedictorian of my school also went to an Ivy League btw. It was a formula that we all knew about; grades and extracurricular activities plus charities/clubs etc were all needed to get accepted. Just good grades by themselves were not enough. If you wanted to go to college this was the game you played.

  41. As the parent of a valedictorian with fantastic SAT and AP scores, accomplished musical endeavors, tangible leadership skills, and solid community service activities, I can only think that my son's lack of "diversity" is what kept him from being accepted to the Ivy League schools to which he applied. Many of the essay questions asked students to expound on adversity in their lives and how they overcame it. My plain-Jane, middle class student hasn't had to overcome adversity, but that doesn't mean he hasn't worked his tail off for the past six years and achieved phenomenal success for his efforts. Apparently, that's not enough.

    Meanwhile, Harvard alone raked in somewhere between $1.5 and $2.6 million in application fees (35,000 applicants x $75 per application = $2.6 million, minus fees from those students who were able to use fee waivers--and I think I'm being generous at 42% of the applicants). Not that my son wasn't sent scores of letters and packets and postcards and emails encouraging him to apply to all of the Ivy League schools. His test scores got him recognized, but apparently something happened between sending the letters and reading his application...or were they just trying to rake in application fees. Given that Harvard only accepted 5.8% of those who applied this year, I do wonder.

    My son will be happy at Cal Poly SLO, but because we are not destitute and have squirreled away some money for a rainy day and/or retirement, whichever comes first, the federal government thinks that we can pay more than half of our annual income to cover one child's college expenses. (I'm sure the neighbors who have bought toy after toy and vacation after vacation and who have nearly been foreclosed on because they have no money in their bank account will be offered much more in financial aid than we have been.) Getting into an Ivy with all of its financial aid would have been nice, but I suppose there were many more international students who deserved those spots and all of that funding.

    My son belongs in a great four-year institution; we just need to figure out how to pay for it--and I do mean "we," not "he." In America, the parents are on the hook for their student's college education just as much as the student is--even his loans need to be cosigned. So, the next time my son needs to write about overcoming adversity, I think he will have no trouble finding inspiration. What a silver lining.

  42. UGH! to Anonymous above and ALL other posters, after picking my daughter up off the floor that Friday March 29th 2013 from the rejects of Ivy Leagues and top schools, I had no words that could answer her "why?". She too as you describe your student had all the makings of a top tier(top in her class 99 percential, tons of community hours, leadership roles, sports, piano and the list goes on and on. She received tons of marketing mail/packets encouraging her to apply, emails from the college UMRP (minority recruitment program) and going so far to include aplication fee waivers but the why is something we will never know and the reason for my post. I want to assure all that look for the WHY and conclude that their student didnt have that "hook" of diversity in their blood is still not the answer of why the rejection... my daughter is documented American Indian and hispanic and was rejected. I am not bitter, its life... and fair it is not. I only wished I had taken my rose colored glasses off and set a different expectation for myself and my daughter. Who knew!

  43. Well written. Call me cynic, but aren't you just promoting your book here?

  44. I don't buy it. Coming from both an Hispanic AND old-line New England family, I think you're missing something.

    Americans love to tell foreigners outrageous things. It's a form of humor.

    Also, the old line always downplays or says something cynical about their good deeds--it's a form of modesty. Often you say the opposite of what you mean. This also affects the expression of many people in the US.

    So people say 'not bad' when they mean it was very good, or 'fantastic' to mean it is terrible.


Whether you agree with me or not, thank you for your comment.

If you liked what I wrote—or if it at least made you think—don’t be shy about making a payment. The PayPal button is there for your convenience.

If you have a question or a private comment, do feel free to e-mail me at my address