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Posted at 05:03 PM ET, 03/30/2011

The silver bullet for college admissions

Ah, spring, when a young person’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of — college admissions results.

As I type, thousands of American families are waiting with bated breath for the proverbial fat or skinny envelope from that elusive tier of elite four-year institutions — or, as I like to call them, “schools that fare poorly in March Madness.”

They say there’s no way to guarantee you’ll be admitted to a good school. But surely that’s wrong. If I’m certain of one thing in this life, it’s that there are plenty of guarantees.

After all, most elite universities will admit valedictorians and reject valedictorians. They will admit some people who scored 2400s on the SAT and reject others, admit Mr. John Winthop Harvard Harvard IX and reject Miss Columbia Yaleton Yaleton XI. Sure, they say they are “filling out a class” and “mixing well-rounded individuals and well-lopsided individuals.” But that seems so, well, nebulous.

There must be some secret. Hire a college counselor? Get SAT tutoring? Surely it had to be stranger than that, or everyone in certain Zip codes would be totally fine.

No, there was a shibboleth that would guarantee acceptance! A package to mail? A password to murmur during the interview? I racked my brain. Sure, I had gotten into college, but that was pure luck, something fortuitous I must have done by accident, not any particular merit I possessed. Probably I had used the word “glabrous” on the eighth line of my essay, or an anonymous convict I’d met in the marshes as a child had deposited a mysterious package of Expectations at the admissions department on my behalf.

All I had to do was figure out what it was. Perhaps it was something you could send in the mail. “Live turkey?” I asked Stanford Dean Bob Patterson. “Deceased turkey?” “We did not receive any turkeys of any kind,” Patterson replied.

“A box with a cat in it that might be either alive or dead, depending on physics?”

“That has never been something that I have experienced.”

But at Harvard, this wasn’t totally beyond the pale. Dean Marlin McGrath noted that the university had received all kinds of mysterious supplements — origami lobsters, life-size papier-mache self-portraits, poorly taxidermied squirrels. (“This was not good, and it fell apart in the file room.”)

I was beginning to worry. If mailing a taxidermied squirrel to Harvard wouldn’t guarantee admission, what on earth could be done? Work hard, hope for the best, accept the element of randomness?

Never! There had to be items I wasn’t thinking of. “A picture of me with Charlie Sheen that makes it very clear that I am not a prostitute,” I suggested to Princeton media officer Emily Aronson. “A signed copy of the Boxcar Children. Signed by David Hasselhoff.” I sensed ice forming on her upper slopes but sallied onward: “The head of Shia Leboeuf, attached to the body of Shia Leboeuf, so I guess just a visit from Shia LeBoeuf?” Silence. “A DVD of Robert Redford in ‘The Great Gatsby’?” “A daguerrotype of a celebrity, which shows persistence because you need to expose those for a long time without getting chased from your hideout in the bushes? A Pritzker prize?”

Emily took all these items down with the kind of patience usually associated with Old Testament figures. She was not hopeful that anyone would get back to me. “Even just an e-mail saying ‘no,’ ” I suggested. I was losing hope.

Where was the bright logical thread in this whole process?

“There really is no silver bullet at all. We use a comprehensive holistic approach to our admissions process,” Dean Patterson told me.

How about if I rescued the admissions department from falling off a cliff under only mildly suspicious circumstances?

They would have to recuse themselves.

This deal was getting worse all the time.

I began to confront the sickening truth that there might be no silver bullet. The process might be exactly what everyone had been saying it was all these years — unpredictable, rewarding bizarre accretions of accomplishments, impossible to gauge in advance. Writer Andrew Ferguson, in his book “Crazy U,” observed that the people who, junior year, develop a sudden interest in Saving Darfur Through Literature are the amateurs. Your whole life, up until the point of mailing the envelope, should revolve around the question, neatly lodged in the back of your mind: “How will this look on my application?” Actual enthusiasm for literature or history? Actual care for the rest of your community? Actual devotion to field hockey? Indistinguishable from the Applicant Facade.

Was that it, then? A secret yearning to look good on paper, undergirding everything — was that the real silver bullet?

Surely that couldn’t be right. It was too depressing. But I knew taxidermied squirrels wouldn’t do the job, so what other options did you have?

How about $100,000, in unmarked bills?

No, that’s just tuition.

By  |  05:03 PM ET, 03/30/2011

Tags:  college, kids these days

 
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