A Reading Report: Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be

Frank Bruni’s work, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, is all the rage right now in the college counseling scene. Bruni was the keynote speaker at IECA’s 2015 Fall Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona. I saw him as a talking head on one of the major news networks. This book was NACAC’s book club pick this fall. So, I had to read it. I loved it...almost.

In my recent talks for parents of 8th, 9th, and 10th graders, I included Bruni’s book on my resource list for these elements:

1. An excellent discussion of the source of and problems with ranking colleges

2. A reminder that college acceptance/denial does not define a person’s inherent qualities and character

3. For those economically-minded (think "return on investment"), a plethora of cases where perceived prestige was not required for career success

And here’s where my "almost" comes in. I take issue with a few of Bruni’s assumptions and comments:

1. The title of the book itself somewhat seems like a subtle reinforcement of the very message Bruni is trying to refute. Saying "Where you go is not who you’ll be" implies that colleges themselves churn out particular types of students. Yet, Bruni spends a lot of time talking about large, public schools producing high achieving, fulfilled individuals, as if these are anomalies. So, does that mean that these schools are expected to churn out subpar individuals and those who "break the mold" are supporting his "not who you’ll be" part? If you go to a large, public school, you won’t turn out to be what large, public schools represent and typically produce? I’m having a hard time articulating this clearly, I think, but, at its core, the title seems a poor one. It gives colleges the power to create a person. Eh! Hopefully you get what I'm saying, but if not, just move along to the next point.

2. Bruni assumes much about the decisions of admissions officers. As a rule, I’m pretty sure that admissions officers typically decline to comment on the reasons for a student’s rejection. Or, if they are willing to comment, Bruni did not state that he tried to get such comments. Toward the end of the book, he discusses an applicant to Brown who was deferred and then denied. There is much "woe is she" talk about the fact that the supposedly only blemish on her record was her 24 on the ACT (out of 36 possible points). She puts forth a creative effort supported by her teachers to address the low score. But, Bruni concludes her application saga with Brown’s rejection. I’ll add here that I actually listened to this book as an audiobook, read by Bruni. His tone when he delivers the news of Brown’s rejection is dripping with frustrated finality. First of all, I don’t care how bad you are at taking tests: a 24 is a good indicator that Brown is not a good match for you. Secondly, even if Brown was willing to forgive the 24, who is Bruni to presume (or at least suggest to the reader) that there was nothing else going on with her application that made the admission committee hesitate? And, as I tell my students, with the most selective colleges, the rejection also says more about the university’s priorities than about the student’s record. Brown perhaps had a student with a similar profile that year who also happened to be first chair violin, Brown’s prominent violinist was graduating, the music department was clamoring for a replacement, and the spot was given to the student who had a specific skill Brown was looking for. Bruni repeatedly makes assumptions about reasons for rejections that paint admissions officers as draconian gatekeepers. I call that unbalanced.

3. Of course, I also have to address the assertion that the rise of people like me (independent educational consultants, IECs) is a source of the "college admissions mania" Bruni cites in his subtitle. I’ve heard similar comments about test prep professionals. Most IECs are not part of the problem, but part of the solution. In my practice, and in expectations of my professional organization, IECA, I seek good match colleges for students, not ways to get them in. Yes, there are certain IECs, whom Bruni cites, who charge exorbitant fees to unlock the secrets of admissions to the most selective schools. But, in my experience, the most respected IECs in the field are the ones looking for the best fit schools, where students will be, in the words of Dr. Steven Antonoff (a leader among IECs and also one of my UC-Irvine teachers), "happy, able to thrive, and pushed but not shoved." This philosophy, to me, seems like a response to the mania rather than a cause of it.

If you have a college-bound student, give it a read. But, as with all things we read, don’t check your brain at the door!