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In Harvard Schmarvard, a witty new volume on college admissions by Washington Post education reporter Jay Mathews ’67, the author attempts to head off college bound students and parents’ college admissions hysteria.
Mathews’ main message is simple—that the Ivy-or-bust attitude held by many rankings-obsessed, pathologically competitive students needs to be calmed—although his 300-page guide also deals with technical topics ranging from college admit weekends to wait lists.
And who better to attempt to end the hysteria than an actual Harvard graduate? In addition to graduating from Harvard College, Mathews attended the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences for two years in pursuit of a degree in East Asian studies.
“Only a Harvard grad can know what a Harvard education is really like, and how little, despite its many good points, it has to do with success in life,” Mathews, who is also a Crimson editor, wrote in an e-mail.
Mathews described the admissions craze that has evolved over the past couple of decades as a “mass psychosis” affecting students and parents alike. His playful tone tries to mock the gravity of an admissions process that Mathews thinks has spun out of control, leading to a country full of pushy parents and ulcer-ridden 9th graders trying to stay ahead of the curve through resume polishing and relentless test preparation.
In Harvard Schmarvard, he attributes the greatest hysteria to private schools like Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C., but he also includes top public high schools like Mamaroneck High in New York’s Westchester County in his analysis of the admissions craze.
But the “most intimidating high school magnet of them all,” writes Mathews, is Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Virginia, which he describes as a place where “students pile on AP courses like extra blankets in winter.”
Mathews also examines the hardships of going to a top high school when it comes to the admissions process. Although college admissions officers are reluctant to admit it, Mathews lays out the cold truth that they do limit the number of accepted students from a single school.
“When you apply to Wedontwant U, the selective university of your dreams—whoops!—you find seventy other kids with 1,500 SATs at your magnet school have done the same thing,” Mathews writes.
The “mass psychosis” of the college admissions process involves both students and their parents, but Mathews said that parents are worse when it comes to playing the admissions game
“Young people, by and large, are excited about beginning their adult lives, and get over any disappointment at being at a lesser-known school the minute they check in at their new dorm,” Mathews said.
Throughout the book, Mathews interweaves his own story as a parent of a college-bound student. His daughter, Katie, is a senior at the Sidwell Friends School.
“My children have had to suffer two parents with various Harvard degrees, who have spent a lot of time as alum interviewers for the old alma mater, and they have rightly complained about it,” Mathews said.
He half-jokingly writes that if he and his wife “do the college thing wrong,” they will “descend to parent hell.”
Katie was accepted early decision at Pomona College in Southern California.
Mathews also claims in Harvard Schmarvard that low-income students, many of whom are first generation college students from inner-city or rural schools, have a “definite advantage” in the applications process. But while suburban kids need to “chill out” about the process, he writes, students from low-income backgrounds should become “more anxious,” taking such measures as beginning standardized testing before senior year.
He writes that the SAT was designed for the “few emeralds in corn silos—students bright enough for the Ivy League but stuck in Midwest high schools Harvard never heard of.”
Yet Mathews is quick to humble and caution students about their ultimate college decision.
“Keep in mind that if you go to Harvard you will not actually be at the center of the world and are not guaranteed a life of pleasure and fame,” he said. “God blesses people who don’t think they’re great just because their college was born before George Washington.”
Is there anything special about Harvard graduates? Mathews wasn’t quick to offer any ego- boosting praise, but he did admit that “we tend to know more about history and science than other people” and we might often read newspapers at a higher rate.
“Other than that,” Mathews said, “we are nothing special.”
—Staff writer Lisa M. Puskarcik can be reached at email@example.com.
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