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Frank Bruni investigates the madness of the college admissions process, and offers a needed new perspective.

Book Review: ‘Where You Go Is Not Who’ll You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania’ by Frank Bruni

“For too many parents and their children, getting into a highly selective school isn’t just another challenge, just another goal. A yes or no from Amherst or Dartmouth… or Northwestern is seen as the conclusive measure of a young person’s worth, a binding verdict on the life that he or she has led up until that point, an uncontestable harbinger of the successes or disappointments to come. Winner or loser: This is when the judgment is made. This is the great, brutal culling. What madness. And what nonsense.”

Frank Bruni has the good sense to argue that adult life may begin with one’s acceptance into a college, but it does not end there. Students are responsible for what they make out of their education, whether at an elite or less well known university. As he states, “Great educations aren’t passive experiences; they’re active ones.” He builds up his case by noting that several prominent and successful leaders in our society attended smaller, less “prestigious” colleges. Condoleeza Rice, for example, attended the University of Denver as an undergraduate. Steve Jobs, of course, dropped out of college, as did Bill Gates. Did Rice and Jobs and Gates turn out to be losers? Failures? Not exactly.

Bob Morse, who heads the college rankings program at U.S. News & World Report, did not go to Harvard, Yale or Princeton. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Cincinnati before getting his MBA from Michigan State. As Morse has concluded, “It’s not where you went to school. It’s how hard you work.”

Bruni notes that some students will feel more comfortable at a small college offering a “more intimate academic environment,” even if schools like Kenyon, Denison, St. Lawrence or – a school I’m adding to his list – the University of the Pacific (UOP) are “less venerated than Princeton, Brown and Cornell.” For some, small colleges are “ideal environments: especially approachable, uniquely nurturing.” (UOP hangs banners reminding its students that it offers “Professors who know your name.”)

In this calm, forthright book, Bruni tries to reduce the “madness” of the college admission process, noting that there are several inherent flaws and biases that applicants have little or no control over. For example, a particular college may need a couple of trombone players for the band. If you are the first or second trombone-playing applicant, you may get a large packet offering you admission and a scholarship. If you’re the third trombonist applicant, you’ll likely receive a thin envelope containing a rejection notice. If life, as John F. Kennedy stated, is not fair, than neither is the process of determining who gets into our colleges and universities.

Students who suffer the consequences of unfair admissions policies will learn that it will not be their last experience with life’s unfairness. What counts is their positive response to adversity and their perseverance in making the best of whatever circumstance they have to settle for.

Bruni’s book would be an excellent purchase for high school students who feel threatened by the highly competitive process of seeking admission to a so-called “elite” university. Reading his book may help such students to calm down, and feel encouraged to investigate various colleges, not just the “status” schools that their classmates lust after. (Any school can offer a fine, valuable education to students ready to demand a lot from themselves and their environment.) This book is also a near indispensable guide for the parents of current high school students.

Where You Go… reminds the reader, young or old, high school student or adult parent, that “there’s no single juncture, no one crossroads, on which everything (in life) hinges.” Some, in fact, will find that a valuable lesson can be learned via being rejected by one’s top choice universities. One young woman, a graduate of the famed and “charmed” Phillips Exeter Academy, was rejected by all five of the colleges she applied to. She states that, “There’s a beauty to that kind of rejection, because it allows you to find the strength within.” That young woman started up a new federally-supported public elementary school in Phoenix, Arizona. A loser? Hardly.

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About Joseph Arellano

Joseph Arellano wrote music reviews in college for the campus newspaper and FM radio station. In recent years he has written book reviews for several publications including San Francisco Book Review, Sacramento Book Review, Portland Book Review and the Tulsa Book Review. He also maintains the Joseph’s Reviews blog.

For Blogcritics, Joseph writes articles about music, books, TV programs, running and walking shoes, and athletic gear. He believes that most problems can be solved through the purchase of a new pair of running shoes.

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