There's a nice article written by Michael Winerip in the New York Times of a couple days ago about his personal experience as an alumni interviewer for Harvard, whose admissions process he has witnessed over the years as it has become impossibly selective. According to Winerip, "[the] kids who don’t get into Harvard spend summers on schooners in Chesapeake Bay studying marine biology, building homes for the poor in Central America, touring Europe with all-star orchestras." Who does get into Harvard, one wonders. It certainly seems to help if one has a distinctive biography in an environment when even a title like editor of the school newspaper or valedictorian are run-of-the-mill. Of course, the students who have such unique opportunities available tend to be of well-off families who have a sophisticated understanding of the modern college application process.
It all makes me long for the days where everything after elementary school wasn't just one big effort to get into a selective college, where one didn't have to be so prepared, and where high school summers were a time for lazing and working a lowly job. Winerip says that during his summers, he "dug trenches for my local sewer department during the day, and sold hot dogs at Fenway Park at night." Though it is hardly at the level of researching for a NASA project, as one of his interviewees did, there is some merit to spending those hot summer days doing unglamorous grunt work. It sure makes one value their educational opportunities when one has to file papers all day or dig ditches, knowing that some people spend a lot longer than a summer in such jobs, and it punctures any sense of entitlement--that loathsome syndrome with which some Baby Boomers have imbued their children--that those who are less familiar with "a hard day's work" often feel.
As Winerip says of his own realization that seeing his children attain a Harvard degree (which they didn't) was not the end-all be-all achievement for him as a parent: "I came to understand that my own focus on Harvard was a matter of not sophistication but narrowness. I grew up in an unworldly blue-collar environment. Getting perfect grades and attending an elite college was one of the few ways up I could see." There is life beyond Harvard.