Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “Ivy League

American Dreams and College Nightmare: Higher Education as a Source of Hope and Anxiety

This post originally appeared on Compass Education Group’s blog.


It’s happening again.

In the early days of April 2015 headlines like “New York Teen Harold Ekeh Gets Accepted to All Eight Ivy League Schools” (Thompson), “New York Teen Gets Accepted to All Ivy League Schools” (Inskeep & Montagne), and “Long Island High Schooler Accepted by All 8 Ivy League Colleges” (Shapiro) appeared in major news media outlets like NBC News and NPR. As these proclamations appeared, touting the success of high school senior Harold Ekeh, all I could think was:  “It’s happening again.”

For those who follow such things, there are particular months in the year when certain types of education stories tend to appear; timed to coincide with the release of admission decisions and the start of a new academic year, profiles on college admission and higher education follow a fairly predictable pattern in American mainstream news media. It was, for example, around this same time in 2014 that headlines like “High School Student Goes 8 for 8 in Ivy League College Admissions” (Morton & Ferrigno) appeared, publicizing the similar accomplishment of Kwasi Enin. In 2013 Americans were exposed to the infamous “To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me” (Weiss), an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal that articulated a high school senior’s frustration at being told to “be herself” only to discover that that self was apparently not worthy of admission.

Although “To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me” evidenced a particular lack of understanding with regard to the ways in which diversity can function in the admission process, the presence of the article—along with the other stories mentioned—is worth noting as it highlights a particular emphasis on the culture that can surround college admission in America. Beginning with an examination of how some Americans perceive, understand, and talk about college admission, this post will then proceed to offer theories for how some Americans have come to this point in their relationship with higher education before moving on to discuss implications for current and future practices. Please note that this is not designed as a comprehensive overview of the topic but instead aims to offer argumentation in the hopes of engaging readers in informed discussion of the college admission process.

What We Talk about When We Talk about Admission

A close examination of stories surrounding college admission in April 2015 suggests the emergence of two themes that are distinct but related:  (1) how students are dealing with their admission decisions and (2) profile pieces that culminate in the attainment of admission to a particular institution or institutions. In some ways, the former is potentially helpful as it can provide some insight into the pressures faced by young people applying to American colleges and universities. The latter, however, epitomized by stories like those of Harold Ekeh, Kwasi Enin, and Munira Khalif, present a rather more insidious danger for they work to perpetuate anxiety even as they proffer hope.

On their surface, articles like “New York Teen Gets Accepted to All Ivy League Schools” offer a form of celebration for a student who managed to achieve a task thought to be particularly difficult. Ostensibly combatting anxieties around declining admission rates at highly selective institutions—anxieties that news media itself sometimes plays a role in amplifying—stories like those of Ekeh and Enin seemingly remind us that the impossible is, in fact, possible. Taking nothing away from the efforts of the students, what is truly being lauded here, however, is not the achievements of the students themselves but rather a reaffirmation of the central American mythos:  that, in America, hard work and playing by the rules is rewarded. On some level, perhaps we want to believe that it is possible for anyone—here it should be noted that many of the students who have been profiled are children of immigrants—to come to America and succeed through effort and merit.

If we accept that these sorts of news items work to confirm our beliefs regarding the way the world works and thus offer a measure of solace, the price that we pay is that articles like “High School Student Goes 8 for 8 in Ivy League College Admissions” work to reinscribe a hierarchy that ultimately condemns many more than it glorifies. Instead of leading us to interrogate the current state of affairs, stories like those of Ekeh and Enin can cause us to become staunch supporters of the status quo by propagating a sense of hope for us as individuals, if not necessarily for us as a group. Put simply, the achievements of these few only matter because so many others will try and fail.

Moreover, the structure of these stories matters:  written by people like Anne Thompson, who is NBC News’ chief environmental affairs correspondent (i.e., not an education specialist) and reported on in segments like Good Morning America’s Pop News, which features the “buzziest stories of the day,” the fact that they are fundamentally human interest pieces distracts us from being able to talk about higher education in a more meaningful way. We are not asked to question why this hierarchy of elite schools is maintained and to what extent we should internalize schools like the Ivies as the preeminent institutions of higher education. Instead of asking what type of post-secondary experience is best for us or our children, we instead ask our young people to largely conform to a system that puts forth a particular vision of success.

(Re)Framing the Discussion

Part of the problem, as noted in the recent books Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be:  An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania (Bruni, 2015) and Excellent Sheep:  The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Better Life (Deresiewicz, 2014) is the way in which, when thinking about higher education, contemporary American culture tends to place an emphasis on entrance (i.e., admission) and exit (e.g., job placement, graduate school acceptance, etc.) but not necessarily on college itself as an experience. Perhaps we focus on these markers because they are more digestible—to talk about acceptance to an elite school acts as a shorthand for a much larger discussion surrounding a specific type of achievement and success—but a fixation on these indicators also shields us from having the much more difficult conversations about what college is for.

To ask, “Why am I going to college?” is not necessarily the same as “What is college for?”—the latter almost inevitably involves a deeper discussion regarding the role and purpose of higher education in American culture along with questions like “What could higher education be?” and “What should higher education be?”

This should not suggest that one’s college experience must necessarily involve philosophical questions regarding the life of the mind and whether higher education represents a space for personal growth but rather that we should, for each of us, achieve a clarity of purpose regarding the time that we spend in pursuit of higher education and even if such a path is indeed right for us! Do we think of college as a type of credentialing process that aids in securing a particular type of job? Do we see college as a space to explore intellectually and to interact with difference in its many forms? Do we want college to serve as a securer of social mobility in America? Do we expect college to produce individuals who can think carefully, act confidently, and become meaningful contributors to their communities?

It is by asking ourselves these types of questions—and thereby gaining a modicum of clarity—that we can then begin to resist the dominant hierarchy of educational institutions in America if we so choose. The answers to these questions are not mutually exclusive, nor should we think that they will be the same for each individual student. By deciding that our values and our goals do not necessarily align with an educational pyramid that culminates in Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, we can then begin the process of searching out which schools are in fact the best fits for us based on what we prioritize the most. For example, we can contemplate what a low admission rate (i.e., being highly selective) means for a particular institution but we must then go one step further to ask ourselves whether this meaning is in fact something that we value; to simply say that a lower admission rate indicates that a schools is “better” in some fashion is to miss the point of the exercise.

A Call for New Assessments

But understanding what we want out of higher education is only one piece of the puzzle:  true progress happens when we see an alignment between what we expect of colleges, what colleges expect of us, and how the admission process works to facilitate that match. College admission offices must not only struggle with “What is college for?” but, more specifically, “What is the purpose of my institution?” and, further, “How do current admission practices forward the goals of the university?”

That is, to what extent does the current application structure allow admission offices to determine whether students will embody the hopes that the institution has for them? How does an application purport to assess the skills and talents that students now present?

Early attempts to recognize the media capabilities of students came through efforts like Tuft’s video supplement and, later, Goucher’s video application. On its surface, this move seems to be a positive one, for it recognizes that some of the students in this current generation have learned to express themselves digitally; what resulted, however, was that many of the publically-available supplements resemble reality show audition tapes. And although this might be embarrassing for students, it is hardly their fault:  admission offices have largely failed to help students to understand why media literacy and the presentation of the digital self is of value to the school and therefore how the videos will be used and evaluated. Students are therefore left to rely on the logics of attention that they have internalized growing up:  reality show audition tapes.

In contrast we might consider the newer efforts of some admission offices like Bennington College, whoseDimensional Application marks a departure from the traditional application in a way that is perhaps more productive. Asking students to be active participants in the creation of their application—and thus the presentation of themselves to the admission committee—ideally causes students to reflect on their own strengths (and weaknesses) and how those might be incorporated into Bennington’s community. In short, the Dimensional Application represents a move toward an interactive choice-based assessment that works to engage students in their own process of learning. Although it is too early to tell whether the Dimensional Application has indeed served its purpose, we might benefit by putting it in conversation with the work of scholars like Daniel L. Schwartz and Dylan Arena, who argue for a movement away from knowledge-based assessment (2013).

Ultimately, the road to a brighter future is not through stories like “Kid Who Got into All 8 Ivy League Schools Didn’t Speak English 10 Years Ago” (Jacobs, 2015) but rather through a careful and sustained conversation about the role of higher education in America, one that does not ebb and flow throughout the calendar year. It will be hard work to disentangle ourselves from the dominant modes of thought that have dictated college admission since the creation of the hierarchy in the late 19th century but the potential benefits are great.

Works Cited

Bruni, F. (2015). Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania. New York: Grand Central Publishing.

Deresiewicz, W. (2014). Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. New York: Free Press.

Inskeep, S., & Montagne, R. (2015, April 20). New York Teen Gets Accepted To All Ivy League Schools.Retrieved April 20, 2015, from NPR:

Jacobs, P. (2015, April 20). Kid Who Got into All 8 Ivy League Schools Didn’t Speak English 10 Years Ago. Retrieved April 20, 2015, from Business Insider:

Morton, L., & Ferrigno, L. (2014, April 2). High School Student goes 8 for 8 in Ivy League College Admissions. Retrieved April 20, 2015, from CNN:

Schwartz, D. L., & Arena, D. (2013). Measuring What Matters Most: Choice-Based Assessments for the Digital Age. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Shapiro, E. (2015, April 5). New York Teen Harold Ekeh Gets Accepted to All Eight Ivy League Schools.Retrieved April 20, 2015, from ABC News:

Thompson, A. (2015, April 7). New York Teen Harold Ekeh Gets Accepted to All Eight Ivy League Schools. Retrieved April 20, 2015, from NBC News:

Weiss, S. L. (2013, March 29). To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me. Retrieved April 20, 2015, from The Wall Street Journal:

Race and Education (Again)

One of the biggest challenges that I faced in helping students to think critically about pop culture and the world around them at large was helping them to think through the role that anecdotes played in their thought processes. “To what extent,” I would ask, “can or should a personal account constitute proof and how many data points are necessary to make a case?”

The answer was always, “It depends.”

A story can be a form of qualitative evidence but the question is always “evidence of what?” What I tried to convey to students was that what counts as evidence depends on what question(s) you’re asking:  arguing that something can occur, does occur, and consistently occurs are all very different propositions and students would often conflate the three.

It is with this background that I considered Kevin’s blog post for today along with the larger story that it gestures toward. It comes as no surprise that various entities are using the story to meet their own ends, often employing it in order to confirm what they already know about the world but yet I am worried about the same thing that troubles Kevin:  I fear that students and families will confuse what is possible with what is probable.

My worries about Enin perpetuating the model of the all-star student aside, I have spent some time thinking about the invocation of race in response to the original stories. I have not yet delved into the bowels of College Confidential (because that takes a special kind of fortitude and I might need to go wine shopping), but the comments on Reddit have been rather interesting to follow. Indeed, it is sort of difficult not to think about how discussion over Enin comes to stand in for a larger set of issues that surrounds race given the temporal proximity to the controversy surrounding #CancelColbert.

Without taking anything away from Enin or his achievement, I am saddened that the media coverage of the media coverage of him has focused on this case without largely incorporating the ways in which the story is already being invoked in conversations about affirmative action (see, for example, the comments of Valerie Strauss’ “Can we stop obsessing on the Ivy League?”). More importantly, how do we read this story against items like a recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation that confirms the continued existence of the achievement gap? Or the way in which “black” and “male” intersect with education in America? Additionally, even if we were interested in limiting the scope of our inquiry to a sample that looked at high-achieving black students, how does the focus on this one part of Enin’s story override the very real discussion that need to happen about the experience of minority students in these settings? Or the challenges that Enin might face in college, at a school like Harvard?

Ultimately I think that this story can be used to think through the ways in which dominant American culture can work to cultivate aspirations while systemically undermining those hopes. In recent years, I have been influenced by Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism to think through the promise of higher education in America and the connection between structures of hope and political passivity.

A Is for Admission: The Insider’s Guide to Getting into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges

A Is for Admission:  The Insider’s Guide to Getting into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges

Chris Tokuhama


Hernandez, M. A. (2009). A Is for Admission: The Insider’s Gide to Getting into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges (Revised ed.). New York: Grand Central Publishing.[1]


Despite Hernandez’s assertion that she has called for reform (xiii), there does not appear to be much evidence for this stance other than pieces published for The Huffington Post on abolishing the SAT and doing away with the Common Application. Although Hernandez’s position on the SAT is more forcefully argued, neither article adds anything particularly compelling to the on-going conversation surrounding either topic, with the Common Application piece seeming more reactionary to recent troubles than anything else. Undercutting her position somewhat are write-ups[2] that suggest that Hernandez is indeed invested in the status quo of college admission as she has developed a company that profits from helping families navigate this process. In particular, a set of articles that discusses Harvard’s decision to terminate its Early Action policy (on Good Morning America and The Huffington Post) suggests that Hernandez is narrowly focused on students’ desires to be accepted by highly selective schools. Furthermore, the assertion that a single group (e.g., athletes) is the “problem” of perceived inequality in college admission is short-sighted and irresponsible. Ultimately, although Hernandez might be interested in tinkering with some of the components of the college admission process, she does not appear invested in rethinking it or interested in working to dismantle the anxiety-ridden culture surrounding it.


One of the main issues with this work is Hernandez’s propensity to generalize across the Ivy League (a term that itself has shifting boundaries depending on how the author feels like employing it at a given moment) based on what seems to be limited (i.e., four years) experience at a single institution (Dartmouth). Hernandez often does not provide sufficient evidence for claims that extend beyond her own opinions and it remains incredibly difficult to separate out the solid-but-general advice from the statements that simply seem like bad information. Moreover, although one can see how discussing each of the individual elements separately might make it easier for readers to initially comprehend them, isolating the components has the effect of severely limiting the way that readers can potentially think about how these parts come together to form a complete application. Hernandez’s book is also riddled with conflicting information, including contradictory stances on privilege and standardized testing. The larger picture that emerges from this practice is the position that Hernandez is interested in encouraging students to mold themselves in whatever way they can to seem most advantageous to the admission committees, essentially gaming the system in the process. Although a larger discussion of particular topics could help to tease out nuance and further develop a view that contains both critique and praise, the ability of Hernandez to argue her positions does not do justice to the ideas themselves.


Introduction – From the outset, Hernandez seems prone to bits of doublespeak, mentioning how the prestige associated with the Ivy League is of a “superficial nature” (xv) while also maintaining a college counseling practice that caters to—or at least establishes its reputation by—students interested in these very same prestigious institutions (xiv). In employing such language as “precious offers” (xx), Hernandez implicates herself in a practice that stokes anxieties in order to proffer solutions. Also convenient is Hernandez’s criteria for credibility—having worked in an Ivy League admission office—as this justification neatly aligns with Hernandez’s own credentials. Given Hernandez’s background as an entry-level officer for four years, however, we must question the degree to which her perspective on the Ivy League admission process is limited to her own institution and how her limited experience informs her perspective on the larger workings of the industry. Further suggesting that Hernandez is capitalizing on a perceived ability to provide clarity and calm is the assertion that readers will be privy to “the secret formula used by all the Ivy League schools” (xxi) although a “formula” as such does not exist.[3]

Chapter 1 – Although experience would suggest that the general age demographics that Hernandez provides are accurate, her description of these groups warrants some scrutiny. Noting that junior staff tend to be recent graduates, Hernandez describes them variously as “not very experienced in admissions,” knowledgeable “because of their firsthand experience,” and “extremely qualified to judge candidates in terms of their intellectual potential” (1-2). A more careful consideration of this group would consider the implications of this practice (e.g., how choosing applicants because of their similarity to readers can perpetuate class inequality) and the degree to which “not very experienced in admission” intersects with “extremely qualified to judge candidates.” In contrast to these risk takers are the “lifers” or seasoned staff, a group that, Hernandez suggests, is comprised of individuals who did not graduate from highly selective colleges and are removed from students. In describing admission officers at selective schools Hernandez endeavors to validate the perspective that she offers (as a Dartmouth graduate) while simultaneously reinforcing a false hierarchy between professors and professional staff.[4]

Continuing the practice of presenting contradictory messages, Hernandez repeats her unfounded accusation that admission officers might resent children of wealth (i.e., wealth will hurt you in the process) immediately after mentioning how Daniel Golden’s The Price of Admissionfocuses on the way in which class advantage challenges notions of meritocracy in Higher Education (i.e., wealth will help you in the process). Hernandez’s solution, then, is to be wealthy but pretend like you are not (6).[5] Here Hernandez misses a great opportunity to discuss, in detail, the way in which various applicants present items of value to the university and the extent to which class or wealth is one of these. In treating the subject this way, Hernandez creates a false antagonism between “bitter” undereducated admission officers and persecuted rich families. It seems highly irresponsible for Hernandez to cast the relationship between applicants and admission officers in this way and doing so has an effect of shunting families away from a real consideration of how and why something like wealth is noted in an application. Frankly, suggesting that readers are “threatened or jealous” (8) of applicants is rather insulting and Hernandez’s case for comparison completely ignores how one can make an argument for a student’s ability to maximize resources in a way that has nothing to do with being resentful.[6] Of course, this is not to suggest that an honest discussion about the ways in which the college application process is subject to bias is unwarranted but it would seem that Hernandez’s framework does nothing more than to push her own agenda.

Chapter 2 – To her credit, Hernandez cautions parents against obsessing over pre-schools as a means to ensure college acceptance, instead advocating for the development of an environment that will foster intellectual curiosity. Hernandez provides generally solid advice about taking a challenging curriculum in order to prepare students for college, noting that individuals are judged against the typical academic program for their high school (13). Given this statement, Hernandez’s earlier comments about wealth and jealous on the part of readers is questionable for the advice provided here directly contradicts the reasoning she provided in the example on page 8. Hernandez also continues to invalidate her earlier position about the relative value of young vs. seasoned staff by suggesting that older admission staff have the experience necessary to understand the subtleties of schools’ curriculums—in some ways, one might argue that this type of cultivated perspective makes the lifers better able to admit students even as they run the danger of falling into a rut.

The position that Hernandez’s guide will help readers “know exactly when you need to do what” (14) suggests that her work supports a type of “checklist” mentality in which parents and students are merely seeking information to be used in a results-oriented fashion. What Hernandez is really promoting here is herself as guru, capitalizing on anxiety to pass off general information as revelatory. Interestingly, Hernandez later cautions students against being obsessed with grades after telling them how academic performance in high school is important; again, the key here for Hernandez is for students to avoid seeming like they are something that can be construed as negative.[7] Hernandez also makes a gesture to decouple success from attending an Ivy League but one remains skeptical given that she has decided to build a business around—and is writing a book on!—getting students into the Ivies.

The most beneficial section of this chapter is the sketching of a four-year plan (22-28) that provides solid, if readily available advice, even as it fails to mention how to convince an unwilling student to adhere to it. Based on the type of information provide it seems evident that Hernandez’s target audience is a family who is 1) moderately aware of college-going practices if not exceedingly knowledgeable and 2) already motivated to attend college (most likely an Ivy given the focus of the book). Finally, although Hernandez concludes with helpful advice that test preparation is often about test-taking skills and structured/disciplined approaches as opposed to “learning,” she continues her pattern of withholding/soothing by noting that students who score 650+ in practice tests probably don’t need prep courses but also that many of her students employ an SAT tutor or strategist (31). Hernandez also continues to demonstrate either a lack of knowledge regarding the building of a class or an unwillingness to engage with it as she again broaches the notion of how inequity manifests in the admission process. Despite valid criticisms about the “coachability” of the test, Hernandez’s comparison between the “normal” student with a 730 Critical Reading score and the hockey player with a 500 is so divorced from context that it is rendered meaningless (32). In fact, it is unclear whether Hernandez has really thought through her own advice for although she notes that admission officers’ primary consideration is “What will they add to our college?” (17) she continually makes a point about the ways in which the system can advantage “kids of big donors, minority students, VIPs, and the like” (32). The obvious connection to make here is that the athletes, minority students, and VIPs contain some sort of institutional value and that Hernandez perpetuates the sense of unfairness by refusing to push readers to see the situation from a point of view larger than their own. It remains unclear why Hernandez quotes Peter Schmidt’s Color and Moneyat length (32) given that the very solution to the situation described is one she denounces earlier (8), for if a test like the SAT has demonstrated bias, it is therefore more important that admission officers take context into account—including factors like the applicant’s ethnicity, background, and resources—in order to interpret the data meaningfully.

Chapter 3 – Chapter 3 begins with an overview of Early Decision/Action policies, with Hernandez choosing to focus on Early Decision as it is a widespread practice amongst the Ivies (loosely defined). Hernandez notes that Early Decision applications tend to have a higher admit rate (35) but also that the pool of applicants tends to self-select and represent a particular demographic (36). Instead of becoming overly concerned with the way that Harvard’s decision to end Early Decision impacts applications at other Ivies, it would seem that Hernandez would do better to extrapolate on whether the abolition of Early Decision served students as a whole and, if so, to what it extent it might do so. Moreover, Hernandez does not speculate whether the increased admit rate seen across the Ivies is due in part to the self-selecting nature of the pool (i.e., is the sample of better “quality”?), a desire to simplify enrollment practices (students admitted must enroll), or both. Additionally, the information that Hernandez provides for students who have been deferred seems like the same general advice one would give a student who has been waitlisted or who is appealing a deny:  contact the admission office to gain a general sense of what weaknesses (or omissions) might be present in the file, contact the office in writing to reaffirm your interest, and provide any missing or substantive materials.

Chapter 4 – Hernandez includes information on the recentering of the SAT, which might have been helpful in 1997 when the book was published (and still holds historical interest) but is not exceedingly applicable in the revised version of 2007. Hernandez also continues to indicate that her target audience is comprised of well-off (if not rich) non-minority students/families as she indicates that readers should shoot for 740+ but also notes that the low 600s might be a strong score “for an economically disadvantaged applicant” (54).

It also remains unclear the extent to which Hernandez truly understands admission policies at other schools given her “theory” of why schools do not permit score choice on the SAT. Although Hernandez introduces valid criticism about score choice discrepancies between the ACT and the SAT, her guess that institutions would retroactively apply superscoring to applicants after they had been admitted seems ludicrous (55)—it seems much more likely that admission officers would note the scoring trend and use the superscore to render an admission decision.

That being said, while Hernandez provides a reasonable recommendation that students should not take the SAT more than three times (57) and offers rationale why a student might take the ACT over the SAT, her implication that institutions do not consider ACT subscores does not seem correct.[8] Moreover, Hernandez repeatedly mentions that institutions engage in superscoring out of self-interest which, while possibly partially true, does not engage with a discussion of College Board best practices on how the scores should be used, nor does it address the larger issue of the degree to which external measures like the U.S. News & World Report rankings influence institutional behavior.

Chapter 5 – Hernandez’s rationale for the importance of SAT Subject Tests over a high school transcript is, at best, weak given that it is a territory manager’s job to understand the grading scales and policies of the high schools in his or her region. Hernandez stands on better footing with the argument that SAT Subject Tests provide a standard measure but does not quite reconcile this with her arguments why the SAT Reasoning Test should not be used (56). In creating a framework that pits the transcript against standardized test scores Hernandez creates false distinctions; the much more difficult concept for readers to grasp is the way in which all of the elements of an application inform each other and the “picture” that an admission officer develops of a student is constantly evolving as new information is considered. Here Hernandez’s comments gesture toward the way in which the scores of AP and Subject Tests might more accurately reflect what the tests purport to measure but Hernandez herself does not make such claims or explore the larger implications of the role of testing in education. What does it mean, for example, that admission officers might side with the story told by a test over the recommendation of a teacher (64)?[9]

Chapter 6 – Although Hernandez notes that applications receive separate scores for academic and extra-curricular components, the structure of her book continues to work against her as she overemphasizes the roles that these rankings play in application evaluation as she writes, “The 9/6 would be a certain admit, while the 3/4 would probably fall short of admission” (68).[10] Hernandez emphasizes the importance of the academic ranking but also wrongly suggests that the “most helpful way of reporting grades is really a weighted rank” (69) when the real approach is to endeavor to understand what the transcript tells you and how the class rank may add information.[11] In general, the focus of this chapter also seems to be misplaced as it encourages readers to “estimate [their] chances of being admitted to an Ivy League school” (69) without the proper training or information to do so. While good advice would focus on what might help make an application competitive, the emphasis on a formula and calculations—and thereby nudging readers toward thoughts on how they can game the system[12]—is not productive although it would seem to provide an answer that is initially more satisfying.

The majority of the chapter is devoted to a discussion of the AI or “Academic Index” used in application evaluation at Ivy League schools. According to Hernandez, the AI is calculated by summing (1) the best SAT/ACT score divided by 10, (2) the average of the three best SAT Subject Tests divided by 10, and (3) the converted rank score (70).[13] In understanding the calculation of the AI, it becomes clear why Hernandez puts such an emphasis on test scores and class rank but such attention is not warranted as the AI is not used in the way that Hernandez implies. Although Hernandez correctly identifies the AI’s vital function in the recruitment of athletes, the formula is not directly related to admissibility although it may evidence a correlation due to its components.[14] As Bill Pennington writes in The New York Times:

The primary purpose of the Academic Index,[15] known as the AI, is to compare the academic qualifications of athletes as a group to the academic qualifications of the student body over all at each institution. Ivy League universities have committed to having a cohort of recruited athletes that calculates to no more than one standard deviation below the overall student body.

So what about those applicants with Ivy dreams but no athletic aspirations?

Applicants should know that the index is not intended to be used as a yardstick to determine whether an aspiring high school student is Ivy League material – or more to the point, someone who is going to survive the intricate admissions processes of some of the nation’s most selective colleges and universities.

The repercussions of this misrepresentation are huge as Hernandez goes on to discuss an applicant’s competitiveness in terms of his or her AI score and therefore focuses the attention of the reader on an incomplete understanding of how the process actually works. Hernandez even irresponsibly states, “you should have a sense of just how competitive it is at the most selective schools and how a few extra points in the CRS, and therefore the AI, can turn a marginal candidate into an easy admit” (90).[16] Much more helpful is the discussion of the criteria that inform the academic ranking (83-86) with follow-up advice on pages 91-95, but Hernandez does not seem to realize that the concept of academic ranking is parallel to, but separate from, the notion of the academic index.

Chapter 7 – In writing, “Perhaps the easiest and most effective way to override a mediocre AI” (97) Hernandez continues with the theme of ready fixes in the vein of “if not X, then Y.” Again, the conceptualization that pits these elements of the application against each other is counterproductive to readers developing a sophisticated understanding of how the holistic review process works at selective institutions. Moreover, instead of a comprehensive discussion of testing, Hernandez contrasts AP scores with SAT Subject Test in order to underscore the importance of AP tests; here a more responsible discussion would entail an examination of the strategy that admission officers employ in order to attempt to ascertain a student’s academic potential and what roles a transcript and testing play in that process. Hernandez further demonstrates this shortsighted approach by placing an emphasis on the AP Scholar awards as tangible markers/achievements instead of helping readers to understand that the title is valuable only insomuch as it is an indicator to understand the pattern presented by the scores/tests themselves.

Chapter 8 – Ignoring the bad advice that institutions won’t know if you submit materials a little late (105), Hernandez touches upon an interesting point with regard to high school visits by counselors. In suggesting that counselors endeavor to get to know the intricacies of the high schools in their regions, it also seems prudent for students to remember to advocate for themselves and to explain unusual circumstances if applicable. The rest of the chapter (109-114) is largely concerned with a generally solid overview of the file review process.

Chapter 9 – Although the basis for Hernandez’s opinions remains unclear, Chapter 9 opens with a discussion of the Common Application and its merits before proceeding to walk readers through the application components. Hernandez unsurprisingly continues with her limited perspective on her topics, considering the Common Application detrimental “because it seems to stifle creativity and lends itself to dull responses” (117) while downplaying the role that Common Application plays in accessibility for students who are not as familiar with the college-going process. Hernandez notes that the Common Application does not necessarily represent the epitome of simplicity or efficiency, she does not make a solid argument that the drawbacks of the Common Application outweigh its benefits.

Hernandez continues to provide incomplete and unhelpful advice, this time with respect to ethnicity, as she writes, “Clearly for minority students who are black, Latino, or Native American, it is a distinct advantage” (118) without properly contextualizing why those particular attributes might be desirable for an institution and why they might also not necessarily be. Also seemingly inaccurate is the assertion that admission committees think that a student is “hiding information” if the student declines to indicate an ethnicity (118).

Hernandez seems intent on encouraging students to game the system as she advises that they show interest in less-popular majors. While a student who is legitimately interested in a smaller department might catch the attention of readers, fit for major is much more important as is the number of students that an admission committee is willing to admit for a given program. It becomes increasingly evident that Hernandez lacks a degree of self-awareness as she further advises students against listing a pre-professional emphasis because of a misguided notion that liberal arts colleges will hold this against applicants—the real issue here, it would seem, is the way in which liberal arts colleges are not necessarily interested in students who are only focused on a career, which is exactly the same kind of results-oriented thinking that Hernandez promotes in her book.

Later, Hernandez again insists on an unproductive invocation of privilege as she writes that the primary purpose for including parental information on the Common Application is so that admission officers can determine socio-economic and legacy status (121). Although Hernandez is definitely correct in suggesting that these things are of note, the more responsible way to consider their impact is in conversation with the application as a whole; although the word “narrative” is often overused as metaphor in the admission process, one can think about how each of the elements of the applications provides clues to a student’s “story” and parental information is not important because it serves as a flag for privilege but because it has the potential to guide a reader’s thinking as to the context in which a student grew up and is applying to college from.[17]

It should be noted that Hernandez provides good advice on how to handle the extra-curricular section, however, suggesting that students prepare a list that is both easily read and supplementing this with a description of what the activities are and what one’s role in them is (124). In some ways more important is the notion that students should pursue their passions (127), although the caveat would be that one must also be able to articulate the value of these endeavors to the admission committee. What Hernandez misses here is that admission committees might be more interested in why a student chose to do a particular activity or seek to understand why something was meaningful to the student.

Ironically, given the shortcomings present in her own work, Hernandez chides Boykin Curry and Brian Kasbar’s Essays that Worked:  Fifty Essays from Successful Applications to the Nation’s Top Colleges for failing to contextualize the admission essay in the larger picture of the college application. Although Hernandez notes various clichés in the application essay (131), her narrow framework does not allow her to investigate why these clichés are not particularly helpful for applicants; instead, if we were to return to the theme of readers trying to glean information about a student’s personality, preparedness, and fit for the institution, we might be able to see that clichés do not necessarily benefit students because they do not provide useful information for admission officers. It is precisely because of her own limitations that Hernandez does not seem able to consider how admission officers’ desire to “get to know” students continually reflects itself in the various application components under discussion. Furthermore, Hernandez is not able to situate the emphasis on personality and sense of self in the application essay in a broader historical context.[18] Hernandez’s suggestion that students focus on a small moment is apt, however, as it reminds readers that although it might seem paradoxical, specificity can to a wide audience. The larger question to ask students is what they hope to convey through the essay and if their writing indeed communicates that message.

After a rather solid explanation of the role of the guidance counselor’s letter of recommendation (140-145), Hernandez turns her attention the high school transcript. In direct contradiction to what she wrote on page 64 regarding test scores and grades, Hernandez now writes, “Most highly selective colleges would rather have a student with slightly lower scores but still high enough to be competitive in the larger applicant pool who is top in his class and is a force to be reckoned with in class discussions” (146). In reading her work, it becomes obvious that Hernandez is attempting to appease the client who is concerned with the particular area that she is focusing on at the moment. Following up almost immediately with another statement that needs to be explicated, Hernandez mentions that between 75-90% of applicants are capable of doing the work at an Ivy League (149-50). In and of itself, this statement seems like a good message to give students—here we assume that this is true for Hernandez provides no evidence to support this claim—but this assertion also calls Hernandez’s charges against athletes, legacies, and ethnic minorities into question (32) for we must then ask whether admitting these students is truly “unfair” if they can most likely do the work. Hernandez then concludes the chapter with generally solid advice about the interview process (153-160).

Chapter 10 – Chapter 10 contains a perfectly fine overview of the committee process and the kind of thinking that tends to occur within it. Of note here is, of course, the way in which the information that Hernandez provides in the previous nine chapters does and does not manifest in the committee process.

Chapters 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15 – In Chapter 11 we find information on athletic recruitment that is largely irrelevant for most students and even for athletes. The information provided, while perhaps interesting, is not helpful for a recruited athlete and it is in fact doubtful that a recruited athlete would even be reading this book in the first place. Hernandez also continues to evidence faulty reasoning—or perhaps a poor grasp of statistics—by making a point of noting that athletes at Dartmouth “are accepted at a roughly 62 percent rate—much higher than the overall acceptance rate of 20 percent” (177) without mentioning that the applicants from the athletic pool are a self-selecting group that often doesn’t actually “apply” until after their agreements with coaches have been made and admission hinted at. Similarly, it is unclear where Hernandez is getting her numbers from as she makes an assertion that legacies are admitted at twice the rate of other students (183) and Hernandez seems to ignore that students with legacy status might not be representative of the application pool as a whole.

In contrast to her earlier position on VIP/development applicants (32), Hernandez now notes that development cases constitute such a small percentage of the pool that their effect is negligible (190-191). Hernandez’s position on privilege might initially seem complicated for although she often warns against displaying it (121), she also uses phrases like “If you want to read the best book on exactly how much money it takes to get into a competitive school like Harvard” (190). Upon reflection, however, one realizes that no contradiction exists for Hernandez as her constant message to students is about how to effectively beat the system.

Chapters 16, 17, 18, and 19 – The discussion of affirmative action policies deserves a much richer treatment than the one given here by Hernandez:  in addition to a more careful consideration of the ways in which particular ethnic groups have experienced disadvantages, Hernandez’s work would also benefit from investigating the relationship between individual institutions and Higher Education generally. Similarly, Hernandez’s argument falls apart as she continually tries to think through systemic issues at the level of the individual.[19] Much of the theoretical heavy lifting in Hernandez’s work seems to be delegated out to other authors—it should be noted that many of Hernandez’s statements in this section include some variation of “in my opinion” and are “based on my experience, which is hardly forceful argumentation–and here Hernandez references Peter Schimdt’s Color and Money:  How Rich White Kids Are Winning the War over College Affirmative Actionat length (197-200). Without understanding the full context of Schimdt’s arguments, it is difficult to evaluate his claims but one thing of note is the assertion that “working-class whites are the true minority” (198), to which the one might also add “rural.”

It is also unclear whether Hernandez actually reads her own writing as she says, “Admission officers don’t ordinarily assume ethnicity from one’s surname or geographic area” (200), which is good advice but in direct contrast to her earlier statement that “if you are Michael Chan, for example, it’s going to be fairly obvious that you are Asian” (118). The more pressing issue in this section of the chapter is that Hernandez’s inability to think through admission policies results in her arriving at potentially erroneous conclusions, particularly about the effect that affirmative action might have on Asian Americans (201).[20] For example, Thomas Espenshade, professor of Sociology at Princeton, acknowledged the score gaps referenced by Hernandez in interviews with The New York Times and Inside Higher Ed but also mentioned the following in the latter:

In an interview Thursday, Espenshade, said that “all other things equal, Asian-American students are at a disadvantage relative to white students, and at an even bigger disadvantage relative to black and Latino students.” But he was quick to add that “this doesn’t mean there is discrimination.”

He noted that the modeling he has done is based on quantifiable measures such as grades and test scores. “We don’t have access to all the information an admissions dean does,” he said. “We don’t have extracurriculars. We don’t have personal statements or guidance counselors’ recommendations. We’re missing some stuff.”

Those who assume that average scores indicate bias may not understand the many factors that go into college admissions at elite private colleges, he said. “The fact that these institutions are looking for a multiplicity of talent is more understood in some communities than others,” he said. “There might be a tendency of many Asian-American students to think that academic credentials are going to carry not only the most weight, but all the weight, in who gets admitted, and that isn’t so.”

Further suggesting that the public should not jump to conclusions was a piece in ColorLines:

“Negative action is what was the basis of the cases 20 years ago and that’s what’s being alleged in these current cases,” said Khin Mai Aung, director of the educational equity program at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Negative action, which Aung explained as being based on “a feeling,” should not be confused with affirmative action, “which is a legal way that folks from underrepresented communities, which can be defined in a lot of ways, are given beneficial consideration” in a process that is holistic and by no means automatic.

If it turns out that Asian-American students are being held to a higher standard, that would have nothing to do with affirmative action policies designed to increase the diversity of an incoming class, Aung said.

In sum, the debate over affirmative action policies, their intent, and their efficacy is one worth having but Hernandez seems ill equipped to enter into such a discussion and irresponsibly writes about the issue despite not having a solid theoretical foundation in the subject.

Chapter 20 – This chapter discusses the wait list but does not provide any advice that goes beyond the ordinary.

Related Material

Review, Scott Anderson –

[1] The original version was published in 1997 and Hernandez notes that very little has changed (xiii) although numbers have been updated where appropriate.

[2] See “10 Secrets for Top College Admission,” “I Can Get Your Kid into an Ivy,” and “Dirty Secrets of College Coaches.”

[3] This should not suggest that common general guidelines might not exist among the Ivy League schools but Hernandez’s language is one that eschews nuance in favor of promising a straightforward solution when the process involves much more subtlety, nuance, and apparent contradiction for those not familiar with it.

[4] At one point Hernandez even goes on to write, “Many of the people who will be judging you went to less prestigious colleges and sometimes begrudge those who have had more opportunity than they have had” (3).

[5] Here, it should be noted that according to her own company’s website, Hernandez charges up to $40,000 for a complete package of college counseling.

[6] It is exceedingly unclear why Hernandez continually picks at this thread. See page 128 for another mention.

[7] Although Hernandez’s advice might appear to be healthy on the surface, in context it becomes apparent that avoiding the perception of “grade grubbing” is important because admissions committees look for people who are truly interested in learning—which ultimately means that Hernandez’s entreatment is a means to an end (i.e., admission) and therefore utilitarian.

[8] Although institutions might convert composite ACT scores into equivalent SAT scores, they do not necessarily assume equal section subscores and it seems highly unlikely that institutions superscore the ACT.

[9] If this is even true. Hernandez notes her personal preference and makes a claim that this is a widespread practice but offers no evidence to support this. Hernandez also claims that “most [admission officers] value high scores and decent grades much more than decent scores and high grades” (64) but again provides no evidence for this. It would seem that the interpretation of the scores and grades would depend on contextual clues from the student’s application, including background and the nature of the high school attended. While decent scores and high grades might be explained by grade inflation, high scores and decent grades might indicate a student who does not produce sustained effort.

[10] Here Hernandez assumes that all other components of the application are competitive but a more accurate discussion would look at how the rankings inform a decision rather than determining it.

[11] It would seem from Hernandez’s description that the AI is directly related to the academic ranking although an explicit connection between the two is not made clear.

[12] Indeed, Hernandez even devotes a section on “how to override the AI to make it more equitable” (69)!

[13] It should be noted that Hernandez does a poor job of explaining the statistics behind the converted rank score and readers will probably have to rely on tables provided by Hernandez—which must be assumed to be accurate—in order to calculate this figure. Incidentally, a search for “converted rank score” + “Ivy League” returned results that were somehow associated with Hernandez, suggesting that this might not be a widespread term.

[14] Hernandez address the correlation on page 87 but wrongly suggests causality (66) when the truth is that the factors that go into determining a high AI also represent the same factors that influence admissibility. AI seems like a poor proxy for competitiveness (generally) and feeds into the desire to quantify one’s chances for admission.

[15] See also, “Before Recruiting in Ivy League, Applying Some Math

[16] But, Hernandez insists, “the AI is not the all-important number that people try to make it out to be—it is simply one way to measure academic strength” (258).

[17] Hernandez later muddies the waters as she writes that the percentage of the senior class attending a four-year institution “is used along with other factors, such as parental occupation, level of education, money spent per student in the school district (usually form the high school’s profile), to determine what obstacles the student may have face growing up in a particular area” (140).

[18] Also of note is the unquestioning way in which Hernandez’s preference for the “slice-of-life” essay itself conforms to a clichéd practice that includes opening in medias res and with a line of dialogue. This should not suggest that this technique is not effective but it does point to the way in which Hernandez continually seems unable or unwilling to reflect on her own advice.

[19] Worse, perhaps, is the way in which Hernandez continually relies on individual cases to make a point despite the fact the reader likely does not have the ability to contextualize these cases against the entire pool as admission officers tend to do. At their worst, many of these examples can be seen as akin to evidence created by a researcher in order to support a pre-determined conclusion.

[20] For a much more considered approach, see a post on Priceonomics. Hernandez also notes that “Several lawsuits have been brought by Asian students against top colleges” (201) but fails to mention that the charges in the Jian Li case were later dropped.