Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “The Chronicle of Higher Education

Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College

Crazy U:  One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College

 Chris Tokuhama

Bibliography

Ferguson, A. (2011). Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Author

Andrew Ferguson, currently a senior editor at Weekly Standard, is a political journalist who has written for publications such as Time, The LA Times, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post. Ferguson was also a speechwriter for George H. W. Bush.

Summary

Written by a reporter from the perspective of a parent, Crazy U manages to combine some of the elements of both approaches into a readable book that follows a year in the college admission process. Although Andrew Ferguson’s book manages to avoid many of the pitfalls of the parent memoir, the work does not seem as thorough as other journalistic enterprises, although it benefits from a mind that is trained to ask contextual questions. Although nods to the larger landscape of Higher Education are mentioned in sections, Ferguson’s retains a focus on selective college admission. Strongest in areas where external information is readily available (e.g., the SAT), Ferguson’s book is also weakest in explaining the workings of the admission process (e.g., application review and discussing meaningful differences in evaluation between private and public institutions).

Notes

Introduction – Ferguson takes pains to note that the situation described in his book is, in some ways, atypical as the vast majority of students are able to be accepted to college and attend for a cost that is not exorbitant. American students, Ferguson notes, already have advantages with regard to education when compared to their peers around the world and that the popular imagination is concerned with “high-class problems” (3). This contextualization of the process for an individual student is helpful to maintain perspective. Ferguson evidences a humor twined with an understanding of a broader picture (e.g., with respect to history or to global higher education) that seems both palatable and educational. Additionally, Ferguson describes his own college experience not only in terms of academic experience but also social and life experiences, which suggests that his approach to the subject of college admission and college attendance might differ from the typical “fear-based” tactics designed to capitalize on anxiety

Perhaps the most significant contribution here is Ferguson’s provocation that, despite the attention and money lavished on it, we don’t really know what we expect out of Higher Education.[1] Ferguson notes that Americans tend to focus on things (9), which seems astute although “tangible outcomes” (i.e., job, graduate school, etc.) might seem like a better term.

Chapter 1In discussing Katherine Cohen, Ferguson touches upon an important point with regard to the industry that has developed around college-going:  to what extent do entities incite anxiety in order to profit from offering a solution?“That’s what Kat[erine] was selling:  the kind of expertise that could only come from a professional who had helped make the process mysterious in the first place” (16). Discussion of this is of course related to a larger set of cultural practices (e.g., television news and advertising in general) that manufacture anxiety in order to peddle “solutions” but we must also consider how college-going can represent a high-stakes one-time transaction and, as such, present a temptation to maximize profit at the expense of relationships.[2]

Although he does not go into depth, Ferguson does take readers through a miniature case study (18-22), which, via Kat, gives readers some insight into the criteria used to evaluate an application in a holistic review process. In response to this, Ferguson notes, “It guaranteed that teenagers would pursue life with a single ulterior motive, while pretending thy weren’t” (23) and his statement is important to keep in mind as we consider the ways in which “authenticity” is perceived, manifested, and valued in the college admission process. The intertwining of a malleable teenage identity, expectations set by college admission, and branding—“So the first great task consuming our children as they step into the wider world is an act of marketing, with themselves as a product” (23)—is an important issue to wrestle with as we think return to the question of what we want Higher Education to do.[3]

Continuing to show that he has some sort of perspective on the process, Ferguson also observes that college admission can become less about students and more about parents’ egos, writing “children quite often served as proxies for status and parental self-worth” (26-27).

Chapter 2 – Ferguson includes a brief history of the development of American Higher Education (33-35), which is important as it allows readers to understand how the democratic promise of education in America became ingrained in our collective psyche:  citing milestones such as 1862’s Morrill Act, which established land-grant colleges, and 1944’s G.I. Bill, which caused a resurgence in college attendance after World War II, Ferguson underscores how social mobility became linked to higher education in the popular imagination. Ferguson goes on to suggest that one consequence of the democratization of higher education was an effort to reestablish social stratification via a hierarchy based on brand name, which in turn created a sense of anxiety about which college a student would attend as opposed to if a student would attend.[4]

Harkening back to the American focus on tangible results, Ferguson notes that the development of the U.S. News & World Report rankings in 1983 reflected a cultural shift in an emphasis on credentials over learning (38). Linking the development of the rankings to an earlier “Most Influential Americans,” Ferguson highlights the role of perception and reputation in a metric that would otherwise purport to be objective (41).[5] The existence of the rankings facilitated—but did not create!—the transformation of education into a commodity serving as a de facto Consumer Reports for higher education. Ferguson suggests, however, that U.S. News & World Report isn’t solely to blame for focusing the public’s attention on particular metrics as institutions could do more to share information about student outcomes as collected through things like the National Survey of Student Engagement. More important, however, is the parallel between the ranking system’s effect on colleges/universities and the college application’s effect on students with regard to the way in which the affected parties pattern their behavior after what is perceived to be of value (49-53).[6] Finally, although one can conceptualize the rankings as an agent of commercialization, one cannot ignore that the rankings also hold value as they represent one of the ways that outsiders can begin to make sense of the college admission process.

Ultimately, the larger issue that the mention of U.S. News & World Report raises is the role of commerce and commercialism in education, which is traditionally seen as a space that is removed from outside influence.[7] American institutions of higher education are of course influenced by corporations and donors in ways that range from athletic teams, named buildings, and endowed chairs but the perception is that higher education continues to exist in some kind of bubble.

Chapter 3 – Throughout this chapter, Ferguson continually touches upon the theme of information management. In discussing the titles of various books related to college admission, Ferguson introduces the important notion of the rhetoric used to promote or sell college admission; parsing out self-help elements and inevitably invoking insider/outsider dichotomies, Ferguson also notes that the guides are directives that aim to remove uncertainty or contradiction (59-60). College guides in particular seem subject to use of the term “insider” (61) and  Ferguson also notes that the popular college books like Fiske Guide rely on faulty methodology[8] based on potentially small sample sizes and prone to investigator influence (60, 63). Of particular importance here is the way that guides package and present information to an audience who might not be equipped to make sense out of the data themselves. Noting that “discrepancies usually arose only on matters of objective importance” (62), Ferguson suggests that the books’ almost universally similar tone resulted from their desire to function as reassurance or validation (63). What these books recognize, and cater to, is the perspective that an individual parent/student has on this process as little effort is made to encourage critical reflection on how an individual institution can be compared against others and if any one particular way of doing so is the “best” way. Reassurance, then, seems like the antithesis to individuals being challenged in a way that may ultimately be beneficial for them, if stressful.[9]

In a similar vein, a discussion of College Confidentialshowcases the way in which a desire for “on-demand” information undercut by a lack of critical thinking skills[10] can produce less-than-helpful results for users. Perhaps unkindly, if not untruthfully, Ferguson describes College Confidential as follows:

What it is, is a Web site where people from all walks of life, from every income level and background, create a communal space without fear of reprisal and in a spirit of perfect openness, so they can spread misinformation, gossip, and lunatic conjecture to people who are as desperate as themselves. (66)

Ferguson cuts to the heart of the matter, suggesting that many of the threads on College Confidential are really inquiring about how a student can get into college and the tragedy is that the vast majority of the responses are informed by nothing more than anecdotal experience (66).

Chapter 4– Although not explicitly stated, Ferguson connects the simplistic/direct thinking of College Confidential with a larger practice in the space of college admission:  the kind of thinking that students must demonstrate in order to succeed on the SAT is not about embracing subtlety or complexity—counter to how things often are in the “real” world—but rather one of conviction and single answers. But perhaps Ferguson’s real contribution is his identification of the SAT as “a flash point where questions of class and culture, wealth and politics, race and gender, the purpose of higher education and even our varying definitions of merit rub against one another” (77). As example, Ferguson includes statements by Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, that point to the SAT’s early history and the ways in which the test was used in order to maintain structural inequality (79-80).[11] Ferguson helpfully goes beyond this and broadens the scope via mention of Christopher Jencks and David Riesman’s The Academic Revolution (1968) in order to suggest that the test may also reflect structural inequality in American life (81-82). One must then question whether the test is revealing inequality, creating inequality, or both. In recounting a brief history of the SAT(82-88), Ferguson notes that the “holistic” method employed by many selective schools today has roots in discriminatory practices that arose in response to unintended consequences of standardized achievement testing in the 1930s (83). Later, this position would be challenged by James B. Conant as he assumed the presidency of Harvard and championed the ideal of meritocracy. In effect Conant shifted the focus from achievement—which reflected existing inequality based on opportunity—to aptitude in the form of the SAT; here Conant wanted to focus on the ability to learn rather than mastery of material itself.

Ferguson also raises the question of how accurately the SAT measures anything meaningful, while also hinting that a more careful consideration of the interplay between testing and curriculum must occur (92). Reports from the College Board have indicated that SAT scores are correlated with freshman year grades but also that high school GPA alone is a better predictor than pure SAT scores. Ferguson also suggests that the SAT, like all contemporary measures of merit, reflect income inequalities (94, 99-100). In response to criticism, the focus of testing has again shifted in an attempt to capture “noncognitive skills” (95) and non-traditional intelligences.[12]

Finally, the mention of standardized testing’s role in the college admission process underscores that making sense out of large amounts of data is not a problem unique to applicants and their families—the origins of the standardized test were in a system designed to sort and classify a large number of applicants and the question then becomes how those criteria reflect the values of entities that make the test and use the test. In a parting anecdote Ferguson also demonstrates the power of the test for, despite his criticisms, Ferguson refuses to disclose his score on the Math subsection!

Chapter 5 – A major theme of this chapter is the rhetoric that surrounds college admission, from the way in which parental anxiety manifests in the college admission process to college slogans—currently more concerned, it seems, with a student’s journey and the abstract notion of success than any particular ideals—and viewbooks that tap into a structure of affect as opposed to facts. The invocation of feeling harkens back to Chapter 1’s themes of presentation/reputation and marketing.

Although the public might be resistant to conceptualize Education as a consumer good (at least initially), we can use the discussion of branding to consider how institutions must endeavor to distinguish themselves when their “products” are ostensibly of similar quality. On some level, each school has an identity comprised of things like color, slogans, and mascots but the messaging for selective colleges seems quite similar (117). Furthermore, on the opposite end of the spectrum, one might argue that despite institutions’ expressed desire for diversity the challenges of the application process at selective schools tends to ensure that students share a core set of traits (124).

Chapter 6 – Largely concerned with the difficulties of conveying oneself to admission committees via an intermediary (i.e., the college application), this chapter tries to get at the question of what schools are really looking for and how they go about collecting this information on the application itself. Ferguson notes two things of interest here:  the first is question whether the nature of the application favors extroverts[13] and the second, more important observation, is that the identification and presentation of an “authentic” (as deemed by readers!) self is challenging for young writers.[14] Ferguson argues that this entreatment to “know thyself” gained popularity as Baby Boomers began to occupy positions of influence.[15] Later, Ferguson also suggests that the type of introspection required by college admission essays stands in direct contrast to the way in which white, middle-class culture in America structures the lives of teenagers (139).

Although Ferguson does not consider what admission offices want out of the personal essay, I suggest that the form’s popularity has something to do with the dominant ideology of “fit” and that while readers may not be actively reading an essay in order to determine fit, they are interested in feeling like they got to know the student a little bit better. Rightly or wrongly, this particular stance by readers might result from the way in which admission officers are often tasked with advocating for students in the admission process and memorable applicants can provide the foundation for a case to admit. Ferguson’s inclusion of the Georgetown University prompt (“write about a current world crisis and propose a solution”) begs the question of whether essay prompts can be focused on demonstrating critical thinking and subsequently gaining a sense of passion.

Chapter 7 – Ferguson mentions that college tuition began to rise faster than inflation beginning in the 1970s but does not provide a reason for this other than an observation that health care and education are the two perennial growth sectors in America. Although Ferguson makes a comparison between car salesmen and the tuition discounting practices of institutions, the analogy seems slightly off as it seems more likely that colleges and universities are looking at budgets across the class as opposed to a series of individual transactions. Nevertheless, the more pertinent issue that Ferguson raises is that colleges are not necessarily obligated to, or interested in, reducing student debt. Via a conversation with Richard Vedder, a professor of Economics, Ferguson also suggests that much of the additional money has come to be spent on institutional bloat (177). Finally, in discussing the value of a college degree, Ferguson suggests that a diploma has become used as an unofficial signifier in the hiring process with the abolishment of employment tests (179).

Chapter 8 – Although the justification Ferguson provides for the high turnover rate in college admission is a bit misleading, his mention of the age gap (i.e., “missing middle”) in the profession deserves further examination (182). If Ferguson is in fact correct about the age demographics of the profession—no data is provided—we might speculate that such a structure would have implications for the enactment of admission policy:  what does it mean, for example, to have a process that is overseen by committed individuals but who delegate the day-to-day to recent graduates who might not have a real interest in admission?

Also frustrating is Ferguson’s assertion that a form of reverse affirmative action is taking place (184-185) without providing data to support this claim. Although anyone following Higher Education can likely affirm the concerns over the shortage of males (generally, although there are exceptions in fields like Engineering) the charge that the white men receive an advantage remains unsubstantiated. Ferguson also relies on anecdotal data from an unnamed “ex-counselor” to describe enrollment targets (185) and this same ex-counselor mentions the importance of a hook, which should be related back to the purpose of the admission essay in Chapter 6.[16] It seems, for example, that one might produce a productive discussion by reading the concept of “fit” against the perception of having a “hook” and the crafting of a class.

Toward the end of the chapter, Ferguson seems to engage in a bit of the speculation that he decried in Chapter 3’s discussion of College Confidential as he retells the fate of a friend’s daughter (194). Also problematic is the way in which Ferguson equates a “safety school” with “undesirable” in a way that reinforces the prestige hierarchy (195). Ultimately, although Ferguson raises some interesting questions, it seems evident that his knowledge of the actual college admission process is the weakest element of the book.

Finally, Ferguson also includes a brief section on the ambiguity of “likely letters” and the additional stress that they can cause. For those in the industry, the language of the letter makes it exceedingly clear what it is (and what it implies) but Ferguson’s anecdote should be taken seriously as a warning about how official materials can be interpreted by their intended audience.

Chapter 9 – Recalling the discussion of the value of a college degree in Chapter 7, Ferguson asks readers to wrestle with the tension created by increasingly customizable majors—driven by student/customer demand!—and the ability to track what that major actually represents (210).

[1] This is actually a very pertinent question that has been discussed in publications like Times Higher Education, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and in multiple articles in The New York Times, including a series titled “What Is College For?

[2] Ferguson later expands upon this duality, noting in Chapter 2 how university/college administrators will often engage in practices that they claim to be harmful (e.g., rankings, reliance on standardized testing, pricing out the competition, etc.) as a result of being locked in a sort of arms race for students and the tuition that they represent (38).

[3] The potential far-reaching effects of this are suggested later in Chapter 2 as Ferguson writes “And childhood now was a matter of setting life goals and arranging your activities in pursuit of them” (30).

[4] I think we must complicate this picture a bit by thinking about how the established American universities also served as the basis for the development of social networks that would intersect with social mobility and class. The aspiration, then, to attend a top tier school might have existed prior but the motivation for such an endeavor may have changed as a result of the democratization that Ferguson describes.

[5] The rankings have been criticized as a sort of “popularity contest” as 22.5% of the ranking comes from a school’s reputation among its peers. See also the Institute for Higher Education Policy’s “College and University Ranking Systems” for additional information. For its part, U.S. News & World Report argues that reputation has value (46).

[6] See also page 44.

[7] The exception to this, as Ferguson notes in Chapter 7, is in matters of financial aid.

[8] Thinking about this in conjunction with the controversy surrounding U.S. News & World Report, one might ask a deeper question about the “correct” way to go about quantifying the college experience. Given the current discussions in Higher Education, it seems as though the American public has yet to come to a consensus.

[9] The question then becomes how one goes about working to infuse “good information” into the public’s consciousness and, more importantly, how to encourage a culture in which college admission becomes talked about in a rational manner.

[10] For example, in message boards like College Confidential readers must invest an extra amount of work to try to think critically about who these posters are in a process that can include researching a poster’s history, looking at the frequency distribution of posts in order to detect possible paid posters, and the sometimes next-to-impossible step of determining a poster’s credibility on a particular topic. For similar discussion with respect to Amazon reviews, see an episode of Slate’s Culture Gabfest.

[11] For example, we can consider how the Educational Testing Service (under contract from the College Board) validates its test questions:  it assumes that high-scoring students should get a particular item correct, which means that the values and perspectives of these particular students become ingrained in the test in a tautological process. See also recent evidence that racial bias in SAT questions persists. See also page 89 for more information on developing questions.

[12] See Robert Sternberg’s “Rainbow Project” and Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences.

[13] Later Ferguson also mentions “narcissism” and “exhibitionism” (142).

[14] See also, “Some kinds of passion wouldn’t appeal to the admissions committees” (141).

[15] Although this claim is unsubstantiated in the text, one might be able to make a case that an increased focus on the inner life has certainly manifested in culture with the introspection of the hippies to New Age thinking in the 80s to a focus on feelings in the present.

[16] Although it is entirely possible that the percentages quoted by the anonymous source on page 185 are correct, there is no way to know whether this numbers are generalizable across institutions.

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Admissions Confidential: An Insider’s Account of the Elite College Selection Process

Admissions Confidential:  An Insider’s Account of the Elite College Selection Process

 Chris Tokuhama

Bibliography

Toor, R. (2001). Admission Confidential: An Insider’s Account of the Elite College Selection Process. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin

Author

After a career as an editor in academic publishing, Rachel Toor worked for three years in undergraduate admission at Duke University before eventually becoming an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Eastern Washington University. Despite the positions that Toor makes evident in her book Admissions Confidential, Toor has not made significant contributions to Higher Education or college admission reform despite working for The Chronicle of Higher Education, a platform whose audience would be highly interested in such a discussion. In fact, Toor’s recent work for The Chronicle centers mostly on writing—which makes sense given her background—and does not touch upon the issues that she seemed so passionate about in her book. (Toor did write an article called “Picking the Right College is a Vital, Unimportant Process” soon after her departure from Duke that is essentially a reprinting of material that appears in Admission Confidential.) More damning is Toor’s decision to work as a private college consultant, charging up to $200/hour according to a 2006 article in Business Week, indicating that while she remains associated with the profession, she has no real desire to change it. Toor’s book is also cited in a piece by Daniel Golden in The Wall Street Journal about relaxed admission standards for wealthy applicants; Golden would go on to write The Price of Admission on this same subject.

Summary

Although she expresses a desire for her work to compel the public to ask informed questions about the process, Toor does not actually structure her book in a way that is conducive to this. Instead of using examples as an entrée to a topic that should be interrogated, Toor often includes unsubtle jabs and then, at the conclusion, suggests what she would like to see without offering any productive means of how to achieve her idealized vision. Admissions Confidential contains sections of seemingly solid advice, mired in work that can be described as self-indulgent. Ultimately, Toor’s project would have been better served had it endeavored to answer the questions that she raises in the final pages.

Notes

Introduction – At first glance, the introduction seems to indicate that the following book adheres to many of the tropes of the volumes in the “insider’s guide” genre:  featuring a fresh-faced (i.e., inexperienced) staff member who uses a smattering of jargon to establish competency and authority, Admissions Confidential offers readers the chance to glimpse the inner workings of a process that many Americans are keenly aware of and yet rather unknowledgeable about. Of note is the way in which the author’s tone indicates her position relative to the profession of college admission:  confessing that she sought job in admission due to a desire for something “not as intellectually demanding” (5) and writing that, after a meeting with the Director of Undergraduate Admission, “it seemed clear to me that I was going to be offered a job” (7) suggests that Toor holds a modicum of disdain for her former colleagues and their vocation.

What becomes clear, in retrospect, is that Toor holds herself in higher esteem than she should—ironic, given her later comments about her colleagues—as she aspires to ascend to the ranks of prestige conferred by the status of being an academic. On page xii Toor writes, “Ethnology is the discipline of looking closely at a specific culture, trying to get a sense of what you can learn not only about that narrow strip of interest but also what that might ultimately tell us about ourselves” and, in doing so, displays her two major flaws. Throughout her book Toor makes it clear that academics, in general, exhibit a sort of higher-order thinking that Toor regards as superior and the definition of ethnology employed in this way only supports this position. Worse, however, is that while the quote points to the very valuable practice of attempting to understand a culture on its own terms and being self-reflexive about one’s positionality relative to the group in question, Toor herself frequently fails to embody this practice.

Chapter 1 – Toor evidences a position that is contradictory, if not hypocritical, as her opening critiques the hierarchy of the University and the mystique surrounding it (noting on page 16 that “smart people” can be found elsewhere) while simultaneously repeatedly making a point about the credentials of her colleagues. For example, Toor’s observation that “none of the associates had gone to elite schools” (18) could be used as the foundation for a larger point about the ways in which choice of college does not determine success in life, the juxtaposition of that statement with Toor’s prominent story of her own undergraduate education at Yale yet again points to a measure of elitism on the part of Toor.[1] Toor also seems to be quite ambivalent toward privilege, describing her own in an uncritical fashion (31) while taking pains to point out that of others (24, 29-30). Toor also fails to mention the ways in which she was complicit in a process that she feels is inadequate (23) and one also begins to suspect how good Toor was at her job (24, 28). In contrast to Toor’s approach, however, is Victoria,[2] a former PhD student, who seems to embrace the idea of a good admission counselor as one who is also an educator.[3] Although one can see how an instinct to be a teacher may cause friction with elements like file review or time constraints, the instinct seems to be aligned with the most helpful and professional service. In and of itself, Toor’s attitude is not necessarily an issue but the lack of self-relexivity weakens Toor’s ability to make a substantive argument about the state of college admission. An observation about class and age on page 31, for example, could have been parlayed into an interesting critique on how a lack of diversity in the admission committee might affect the committee’s values but it is unsurprising that Toor does not expand upon this given her shortcomings in being critical about her own perspective. Ultimately, Toor’s unwillingness to grapple with the implications of her unexamined biases are only problematic as her work aspires to be more than a memoir about her experiences as a college admission officer.

Toor also makes bold claims like, “If you gave the actual statistics about who, when all is said and done, gets into highly selective schools, people would walk away not only discouraged, but disgusted” (18) As exemplified by the quote, the largest issue here is that much of Toor’s writing remains at the level of opinion or observation and fails to transcend to the level of well-argued critique. Condemning everything from the information sessions to the quality of the tour guides, Toor seems to be writing toward an audience who already views the college admission process as she does:  with suspicion and contempt.[4] Worse, however, is Toor’s failure to provide adequate support for her assertions, phrases like “From what I understand” (22) indicate a lack of due diligence and a mind that is not highly interested in fully understanding the topic that is being written about. Ultimately, what becomes apparent is that while she writes about college admission based purely on personal experience—a limitation acknowledged in the introduction—Toor does not have perspective on the field as a whole or, more importantly, how college admission functions in the larger landscape of higher education.

Chapter 2 – In describing her school visits, Toor demonstrates a marked unwillingness to engage in relationship building (39) or to use her time in order to get to know the nuances of the schools that she will be responsible for (42). Toor’s recounting also evidences a lack of self-awareness regarding the role that she plays in the context of the admission profession—indeed, everything seems to be about her. In some ways, this tendency might be excusable if Toor was, like many of her colleagues, in her twenties but it does not seem unfair to expect more from a woman who, at the time, was in her mid-thirties. It is no surprise, then, that Ezra Stiles Prep’s purport to focus on character—here Toor does not deign to comment on the extent to which this is actually true in the school’s culture or how similar qualities may manifest at other institutions—resonates strongly with Toor in manner that goes uncomplicated.

It should be noted however that Toor’s description of the holistic review (45-53) is quite good but is also prefaced by a comment that her packaged message to students regarding the process is not quite true (44). In this, we again see Toor’s proclivity to make statements in the form of asides that remain unsupported, although they may represent interesting lines of inquiry or critique.

Chapter 3 – Toor seems intent on indicating that she is better than her fellow admission officers, beginning the chapter with an anecdote about how her Sunday runs provide an opportunity for her to engage in stimulating conversation with academics (the implication being that her colleagues do not provide this type of interaction). The remarkable privileging of how Toor views the world is reaffirmed through the recounting of an admission presentation for students on page 63:  Toor not only manages to convey a sense that her truth is more salient than what she says on behalf of Duke but also demeans the intelligence of her audience by suggesting that they are either too apathetic or ignorant to pursue the real situation.

Given Toor’s frequent ambivalence about the information conveyed in her speech, one begins to question why she is even working there in the first place. While one cannot fault Toor for failing to internalize the message used to sell Duke, one must also wonder why, if the practice was dishonest and/or abhorrent, Toor remained in the job for three years. Harkening back to chapter 1, there is a way in which Toor refrains from commenting on her complicity in a process that she seems displeased with and, more importantly, fails to extrapolate from this experience into a larger argument about the state of college admission at the time.

Toor’s limited understanding of her job and its potential also manifests in her conceptualization of herself as a “good recruiter” (71) and nothing more. Misunderstanding the opportunity for providing a service as a counselor or a teacher when faced by applicants who might initially appear less competitive, Toor further entrenches the notion that her perception of what she does limits what she might otherwise do.

Chapter 4 – It remains unclear why Toor chose the job of college admission given that she does not seem to have any particular interest in students who are not relatable. In reference to deferring Early Decision students, Toor writes, “Some—the ones who are most persistent and annoying through early December—I argue to have denied, rather than deferred, so that I will not have to endure more months of pestering” (82).

Regardless, Toor makes two important observations:  that Early Decision tends to favor students who are knowledgeable about the college admission process (84)—here, again, Toor makes a point about privilege but does not expand upon the implications of this and/or wrestle with the various ways that privilege functions in college admission— and that files might present differently when viewed individually and when read against the pool as a whole. Toor goes on to provide a solid general overview of the admission evaluation criteria at Duke (88-107) but seems unable to refrain from inserting her own asides, in a way that indicates that she is not really truly interested in trying to understand the trends that she sees before her.[5] Toor’s information, though generally accurate, is not necessarily helpful as its presentation creates a kind of checklist for highly anxious parents and students; although the mechanics of evaluation are similar at many selective schools, Toor’s description supports a mentality that is geared toward gaming the system instead of trying to think about what the rating systems are designed as incomplete measures of. Toor feeds into the fixation over quantitative measurements—things like standardized test scores, class rank, and GPA, from the outside perspective—instead of working to explain that admission committees seek certain values and have come to use particular markers as support of the existence of those values.

Chapter 5 – Toor’s insistence on inserting herself into the writing as some sort of character continues with the introductions to chapters. Often providing little purpose other than talking about the state of her romantic life or, more often, discussing some aspect of running, these asides are, at best, self-indulgent. In some ways, however, this focus on self is instructive for it reminds the reader that admission files are read by individual officers and that each of these readers is also a person, replete with quirks. Without knowing the readers personally, it is rather impossible to predict what will resonate with a particular individual.

The evaluation is not completely subjective, though, as Toor nods to auto-admit and auto-deny criteria. Although Toor refrains from noting that these criteria are generally used more as guidelines to help readers focus on files that need deliberation, she also demonstrates here that she is not, in fact, an advocate for her students as she does not take the time to understand an unusual grading system (120). Unsurprisingly, Toor includes a sample of essays (125-139) that resonated with her but does not delve into why these particular essays were memorable. Worse, Toor fails to use her skills as an editor to deconstruct and analyze the patterns present in these essays in order to provide lessons for readers about how teenagers tend to write college admission essays. There are, for example particular types of appeals that applicants tend to make and particular styles that are seen or understood as more successful (by both applicants and readers).

Chapter 6 – Focusing on the preliminary stages of the review process, Toor emphasizes that readers consider applications in the context of school group. Although it seems unlikely that school group represents the only context in which applications are considered, it seems fair to suggest that school group is the primary context in which applications are considered when they are up for deliberation. Toor presents the inclusion of athletes’ file—noting that they are often near the bottom of the school group in terms of GPA—with a rather even tone considering her stance on development and legacy but conveniently forgets to point out that while athletes may not always seem to be the smartest students, they possess an irreplaceable institutional value for particular colleges and universities.[6] Characteristically, Toor does not connect her own love with Duke basketball—evidenced through the anecdote that opens the chapter—with the value of athletes on campus. Moreover, that Toor views an athlete as being admitted “behind her back” (155) suggests that she sees herself at the center of a process that is fundamentally not about her; as an admission officer Toor serves on a committee that is tasked with bringing in a class and Toor has been delegated responsibility on behalf of that committee but does not mean that she is privy to the entirety of that committee’s operations.

Interestingly, Toor does not seem to be completely unaware of herself as she mentions that, “I am notoriously bad at certain kinds of details” (153) and it is to her credit that she attempts to structure her work in such a way that mitigates this.[7] What would be more valuable, however, would be Toor’s expounding on the implications of understanding one’s limitations as a reader, both for her and for the profession as a whole.[8]

Again missing an opportunity to demystify the process, Toor mentions that “with so many qualified applicants, all they need do is give us one small reason to doubt them and we’ll just pick someone else” (158), which goes against the philosophy of reading to admit and being the student’s advocate (45). There is of course a way in which a reader is looking at the application with a critical eye and must ultimately render decisions about who will be admitted and who will not but Toor’s tone here suggests the attitude of a jaded admission officer.

Toor ends the chapter with a brief discussion of independent counselors and raises the point that some families might be obtaining the services of these individuals out of a fear of being disadvantaged. Toor does not, however, expand upon this point to consider the implications of fear in the college admission process and how this might drive a host of actions that she has observed; ultimately, it is this failure to develop a “big picture” view of the process that prevents Toor’s work from adding anything significant to the conversation around college admission.

Chapter 7 – Although Toor does not address this directly, this chapter asks readers to wrestle with the notion of what it means for files to be presented by a territory manager in committee—hence the notion of advocacy introduced earlier in the book—and how quickly this process takes place.[9] Toor fails to touch upon the important message for students that time constraints both in the file review and committee process mean that students must think carefully about what parts of their application are going to be salient to a reader; a useful exercise might be to think about what information can be gleaned from the application in a review that takes less than fifteen minutes and how the student’s application can be summarized to a committee in a very brief amount of time.

Toor also mentions Duke’s positive stance on affirmative action, but subsequently notes that most of her colleagues in the office may have struggled upholding this. Here Toor fails to address why her colleagues may have had difficulty internalizing Duke’s position on race in college admission—the age and relative lack of sophistication among new staff along with a possible discussion of latent racism in the South seems pertinent—and also misses an opportunity to juxtapose the attitudes of her colleagues with her own opinions regarding athletes and legacies.[10] Ultimately, Toor comes across as elitist as she sees herself as the sole enlightened member but this belief is perhaps without merit for although Toor notes that there are philosophical underpinnings for affirmative action, she does not discuss what they are. Furthermore, Toor continues to demonstrate her scholarly inadequacy through her inability to convince her colleagues to reconsider their positions on the subject; one suspects that although Toor feels otherwise, this situation speaks largely to her deficiencies as well as possibly those of her colleagues. Toor’s points about the nature of the college experience for minorities (184) remains valid but should be placed in a larger context about education as it is not merely relevant to college admission. Toor further evidences her shortcomings at the end of the chapter as she writes, “In some idealized imagined future, there would be no need for a weekend like BSAI. Nor would there be a need for specific recruiters” (185). Without support, this statement is nothing more than an unoriginal assertion and worse, Toor provides no tangible solutions that suggest how to get from the present to her future.

Chapter 8 – It remains unclear if Toor, in retrospect, has perspective on herself during her first year in college admission. That she writes of her fellow committee members, “They don’t get my pretentious little joke,” (191) suggests a modicum of self-awareness while also delivering a jab at her former colleagues.[11]

One also begins to wonder about the Toor job performance (although she must not have been horrible at her job if she lasted three years) for she makes a fairly large error in overlooking a development case (192) and also does not seem to be willing to take the time to understand how the process actually functions. In some ways, Toor’s desire to spend time talking about her “clear admit” student (197) is understandable but also unnecessary for the student does not need to be discussed in detail if he or she is truly a strong candidate. It is also unclear what Toor means by being a “mere advocate” (198) and why this is necessarily divorced from being able to think critically about what she is doing.[12] Through her writing, it seems as though Toor has convinced herself that she is some sort of maverick in the midst of a system that is flawed, if well-meaning. What Toor continues to miss here in her admission of a fault is that this is precisely how the admission committee is designed to function:  the process is comprised of humans and the hope is that, collectively, the officers will keep each other in check. Toor will later acknowledge the human element in the last chapter (243) but in a way that suggests the admission process is arbitrary in nature. In and of itself, the critique of college admission being personal and fickle is a fine one to take but Toor does not develop a cogent argument to this effect.

Chapter 9 – Here Toor again mentions an error on her part (230) and it is unclear why she chooses to include these mentions. Toor does not seem to be asking the reader for sympathy but neither is she using the opportunity to explain how the admission process is human. In this moment one sees an opportunity for Toor to contextualize the errors made by her and her colleagues in a way that puts all of them on a similar playing field.

Chapter 10 – Toor notes that one of the primary advantages of attending a selective college or university is the diversity of students one is exposed to and yet also suggests that the environment can have a homogenizing effect. It seems evident that Toor has a romanticized notion of who these students are prior to attending college and one also wonders if this fixation on independence is connected to the way in which Toor sees herself. Based on anecdotal evidence, Toor makes the claim that students become less interesting as seniors but it would seem that it would behoove Toor to think carefully about whether this is true and, if so, to what extent. Additionally, in this, Toor continues her proclivity for wading into arguments that, while important, remain out of her demonstrated depth:  issues of retention, graduation, undergraduate experience are significant topics in Higher Education but Toor’s treatment is neither thorough nor substantive. Toor raises solid questions about the function of Higher Education on page 240, but is ultimately unwilling or unable to provide answers to her provocations.

Despite some flaws, Toor’s last chapter is clearly her strongest as she begins to muse on relevant themes in Higher Education, although she does so without thinking through how these issues are related to college admission in a meaningful way. Toor’s position that the college admission process perpetuates inequality is not an original argument and is better argued elsewhere. Toor excels at observing areas that warrant attention but falters when making recommendations about things that she would like to see—not because her dreams are unrealistic but because she does not make a sufficient case of why her alternative would be any better. Toor continually complains about race and class inequality but does not actually provide tangible solutions to remedy the situation.

Related Material

NACAC book review – http://www.nacacnet.org/research/PublicationsResources/BookReviews/Reviews/Admission/Pages/Admissions-Confidential.aspx

[1] Later, Toor also writes, “Will the Ivy League and other highly selective schools ever be so enlightened? Probably not.” (26)

[2] See page 28 but also the description of the associate counselor who had been on the high school side on page 19.

[3] See comments from Dan Lundquist, former Director of Admission of the University of Pennsylvania.

[4] It is also perhaps telling that the book chooses to include a blurb from Publishers Weekly that reads “The book’s real audience is parents who will read anything that might give their kids an edge.” This does not seem complimentary.

[5] Toor, for example, notes that Holden Caulfied from The Catcher in the Rye and Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby are both frequent subjects of college essays and are both frequently misread. Although anecdotal evidence would suggest that Toor is not wrong in this conclusion, one should question why so many students—from so many different backgrounds—continue to “miss” the message of the book. In other words, one must ask what is it that students are pulling from the book and why does such a message resonate with them (and what might this tell us about who these students are)? See, “Gatsby’s Green Light” in The New York Times.

[6] The theme of institutional value is discussed in greater detail on page 211, with no additional insight by Toor.

[7] Toor later writes that “I knew that since I am bad at details, generally sloppy, and don’t care as much as I know I should” (179), which begs the question why she is in this profession and to what extent she is a representative voice.

[8] This is unrelated to a discussion of college admission per se but this same sort of instinct may have served Toor well in interrogating why she seems to lean on jargon in this section. One suspects that using abbreviations and code is deployed to help the reader feel as though they are “on the inside,” and represents a ploy that is separate from helping outsiders to understand the process through solid information.

[9] See page 180 for writing that raises the issue but does not explore it.

[10] Complicating matters is Toor’s claim that she has thought extensively about issues of race, class and privilege in the opening of Chapter 8. What is striking about this story, like so many of Toor’s others, however, is the way in which she manages to make even this revelation important in so far as it relative to her.

[11] Later, on page 250, Toor admits that she held disdain for her colleagues but never interrogates why she might have felt this way or what it really says about her.

[12] This is complicated by a story near the end of the chapter where Toor seems to embrace exactly what an advocate of students is supposed to do (213-214).

 [CRT1]Append later with summaries and bibliographic entries


Love out of Nothing at All?: A re-examination of popular culture’s presence in the college application

Key phrases:

College application essay, identity as narrative, popular culture, digital media literacy, self-branding

Session type:

Structured talk (30 minutes), discussion (30 minutes)

Target audience:

Secondary school counselors, CBOs

Abstract:

Harry Potter. Twilight. Video games. Twitter.

 The media environment that surrounds today’s applicants seems rife with topics that likely sit high atop lists that solemnly declare, “Bad Essay Ideas.” And, perhaps, not without reason, for the typical college application essay is one that often treats these subjects (along with more traditional ones like leadership, sports, or community service) lightly, evidencing a cursory understanding of the material at best. Students seem to struggle to infuse meaning into activities that appear on resumes, attempting to convince admission officers—and perhaps themselves—that these pursuits constituted time well spent.

 But what if we could encourage students to rethink their engagement in these activities, while also challenging them to respond to the question, “Why does this matter?” Instead of asking students to conform to a process that privileges particular activities over others, how might we inspire young people to cultivate genuine interests while simultaneously thinking critically about the implications of their actions? Similarly, how might we encourage adults to recognize the potential nascent political themes of Harry Potter, see young people negotiating family structures and gender roles through Twilight, witness creativity and collaboration through video games, and understand how Twitter can develop the skill of curation? Instead of promoting the chasm between digital media/popular culture and education, how can we use the space to promote the skills that our students will need to be competitive in the 21st century?

Description:

College attendance and completion (at a four-year institution) has come to represent a significant demarcation in American society with studies showing a positive correlation between obtainment of a bachelor’s degree and total lifetime income. But more so than a mere economic advantage, higher education represents an opportunity for social mobility and the accumulation of social/cultural capital. If we accept that college attendance represents at least a partial transformative experience, we realize that understanding who is accepted is important.

Informal reports from educators (an opinion pieces in The Chronicle of Higher Education) have hinted that the current generation of college students display a wide range of skills and intelligences but also appear to be distracted by social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter while in class, suggesting that digital media is generally seen as inhabiting a space separate from education (although this might be changing, albeit slowly).

However, I suggest that some of the types of skills professors desire (e.g., critical thinking, academic inquiry, engagement, and risk-taking) can be, and are, cultivated through pop culture and digital media use/production but it is my belief that, as a whole, the undergraduate admission process systematically devalues participation in such spaces, privileging more traditional—and readily understood—activities. There seems to be a potential disconnect, then, between selection criteria and the skills that schools hope to attract; if an institution values traits like proactivity, are admission officers fully sensitive to the range of ways in which such a trait might present or manifest? Or have we become overly influenced on quantitative measures like GPA and test scores and the relative stability they purport to provide? If such a bias exists, a possible effect of the college application structure (and the American educational system) is to cause those involved in the admission process to internalize a mental barrier between digital media and education.

It seems evident that the admission selection process (as reflective of an institution’s values) plays a large part in shaping who is able to attend a given school. Highly-selective schools, however, seem to have a disproportionate amount of influence in American culture as their practices create a stance that other colleges and universities either aspire or react to. Therefore the position that highly-selective institutions take on the integration of digital media and education likely has a trickle-down effect that affects the admission profession as a whole and is likely internalized by college counselors and high school students who aim to be accepted by these schools.

Ultimately, I hope to foster discussion between high school students, high school college counselors, and admission officers that examines how we collectively conceptualize and articulate the value of the connection between pop culture, digital media and education. I argue that higher-order skills can be cultivated by youth practices such as remix but that incongruent language employed by youth and adults makes recognition of this process difficult. After giving a short talk that explores the ways in which the everyday practices of youth can be seen as valuable, I will ask participants to join in a discussion that seeks to uncover strategies to enable youth to articulate their process and how we can challenge our peers to become more sensitive to the manifestation of traits that mark a “successful student.”


 

Biography:

A 6-year veteran of undergraduate admission at the University of Southern California (Los Angeles, CA) Chris Tokuhama was responsible for coordinating the University’s merit-based scholarship process and 8-year combined Baccalaureate/M.D. program. Working closely with high school populations, Chris became interested in issues that ranged from self-harm to educational access and equity, which has helped to inform his current research interests in digital media literacy, learning, and youth cultures. In addition to his role as an advocate for youth in Education, which included a Journal of College Admission publication on the effects of branding in the admission process, Chris studies the relationship of personal identity to the body as a doctoral student in USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Employing lenses that range from Posthumanism (with forays into Early Modern Science and Gothic Horror), the intersection of technological and community in Transhumanism, and the transcendent potential of the body contained in religion, Chris examines how changing bodies portrayed in media reflect or demand a renegotiation in the sense of self, acting as visual shorthand for shared anxieties. When not pursuing his studies, Chris enjoys working with 826LA and drinking over-priced coffee.