April 16, 2012

How to Play the Game

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It would be too easy to lament that somehow — miraculously — college acceptance rates for the elite schools have dropped another few percentage points for the umpteenth year in a row, reaching rates so dismally low that you could probably win the lottery before getting into Harvard. It would be even easier to cry over our obsession with selectivity and rankings when they mean very little in the long-run.But these arguments have been so often repeated and milked dry that both sides — the applicants and the university gatekeepers — have become numb to them.  But what we haven’t talked about is how these low acceptance rates have brought out the worst in the applicants and have come to homogenize our universities.  In a twist of fate nowadays, you have to fit the Ivy League mold even more in order to separate yourself from the rest of the 242,000 applications.See, the college admissions process is a very exclusive game and in order to emerge successfully from it, you have to faithfully play by its rules. And as the college application process becomes ever more cut-throat, these rules will become ever more finicky and relevant.We Cornell undergraduates should know since we’ve been playing it our entire lives. It began the moment we exited our mothers’ wombs. Our parents knew that we would end up in the Ivy League even before we heard about it. And from that moment on, it was a rat race to work at the best internships, join the most clubs, play the most instruments and receive the most varsity letters.It was about faking those smiles for your high school teachers to get those shining recommendation letters. It was about exaggerating your accomplishments on your resume by leveraging all your financial resources. The most egregious example was the parents who spent thousands of dollars to self-publish their son’s manuscript in an effort to label him as a published author.It’s about showing up at your interview with a freshly dry-cleaned and ironed suit with a handpicked tie from Brooks Brothers, fawning over your interviewer’s background and feigning interest in his experience at Yale.In short, it’s about conforming to their standards, sucking up to those above you, stepping over those below you and swallowing your self-dignity.And don’t think that once you enter the exclusive gates of these elite schools, you can simply quit. No, it keeps going even after you receive your college diploma and the game just gets more complicated, with more people to please and more social ladders to climb. It’s still about finding the administrators and professors or the bosses and managers at the top of the bureaucracy and jumping on their coattails.And what does society eventually receive as the product? It’s gifted with the graduates from these prestigious institutions — the leaders of tomorrow who will eventually be running our country’s banks and hospitals and occupying our political offices — who have been doggy-trained to please their superiors and step over their underlings. The more troubling question that we must ask ourselves is what they will do once they finally reach the top.And that brings us to the problem of diversity. And this diversity is different than the one that university presidents love to speak about, illustrated by the expensive glossy brochures that feature a rainbow array of minority students surrounding a token white male. It doesn’t concern race or religion or sexual orientation.Instead, it’s about the privileged and the unprivileged. This diversity is about the insiders and the outsiders, those who live inside gated communities and those who live in the inner-cities. And with college loans and tuition soaring, the rules of the college admission game have become ever more expensive and exclusive, favoring only those who can afford to play by them.And unfortunately, the statistics reflect this separation and inequality. According to the Century Foundation, only three percent of undergraduates from 146 selective schools came from the bottom quartile in terms of family income. At the University of California at Los Angeles, some 40 percent of the freshman class came from families earning from than $100,000 annually.Sure, these universities release mission statements and create task forces pledging to broaden our university’s student body and help minorities achieve their goals. But as long as we are choosing from the same pool of applicants who could afford to and have lived along these commandments their entire lives, the diversity at our top universities won’t change much.And so the bachelor’s degree, supposedly the societal bulldozer intended to even out all our socioeconomic bumps and valleys, has become just another express line to even greater inequality. Now, just to become a part of the so-called one percent, you already have to be a part of it.

Steven Zhang is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at szhang2@cornellsun.com. The Bigger Picture appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Steven Zhang

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