From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

Crabby makes a few end of summer suggestions…

Who knew that a movie made in 1989 with the flimsiest story and oldest high school students you can imagine would strike so closely at the absurdities of the college admission process? For a 90 minute primer on the various indignities of the process from students’ and admission officers’ viewpoints, you could do worse than How I Got Into College. With travel and application season rapidly approaching, this should be required viewing to balance the stress of being an admission officer or a college applicant.

The premise is simple: Marlon (Corey Parker, at 24 playing a high school senior) has a crush on smart girl Jessica (Lara Flynn Boyle) and figures if he goes to the same college she does he might be able to date her. Unfortunately, his SAT scores threaten to keep him out of Ramsey College, where Jessica’s planning to attend. This thin thread is just an excuse for some terrific vignettes about the terrors of testing, the vagaries of admission committee decisions (with one dean played by Anthony Edwards), and the problems of trying to “be yourself” when everyone else is yourself, too.

Don’t worry about the shoulder pads and 80s hairdos, just enjoy the ride. I guarantee anyone with any connection to the college admission process will see at least a few moments of excruciating truth, whether it’s in the marching band at the college fair or when Jessica is waiting for her interview. And enjoy especially Phil Hartman and Nora Dunn as sly and dubiously effective independent counselors. 

Have a great college season! 

In a more serious vein, pick up Hold Fast to Dreams: A College Guidance Counselor, His Students, and the Vision of a Life Beyond Poverty, by Beth Zasloff and Joshua Steckel (The New Press, 2014). Like Crabby, Josh at one time college counseled the overprivileged, Josh at Birch Wathen Lenox, a private high school in Manhattan. Transitioning to a public high school in Brooklyn, Josh has to adjust to advising students with backgrounds very different from those at BWL, and virtually none expecting that they can attend college.

What makes this book particularly interesting is that not only are ten students and their paths to college detailed, but Josh’s changing expectations and assumptions can also be traced as well. With a background in counseling students for “elite” colleges, Josh has to adjust his outlook and learn about a whole other range of colleges and universities in order to be able to help the students the Secondary School for Research think about, apply to, and attend college. 

At first he works had to get his students into highly selective colleges like Williams and Colby, banking on his own faith in their ability to adjust and do the work despite their many academic shortcomings and personal struggles. As he experiences the realities of their lives, however, he realizes there is much more to the process at SSR than simply aiming students at the big boys. Working the channels he developed at BWL as well as putting in the one-on-one time necessary for good college counseling, he does what he can to make things happen for his students, something that most public school students in urban settings don’t get. Just his ability (and willingness) to call an admission officer and advocate for a student puts his counselees way ahead of the game, something only elite public and private school counselors usually know they can do.

Some of Josh’s students end up at “elite” colleges like Bates and Skidmore; some stay and some return to New York for family or personal reasons. Much of the last part of the book is devoted to his interactions with Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, which agrees to take several SSR students, with varying results. The interactive process that unfolds among counselor, students, and the college is told well and everyone acquits him/herself well as they try to bring low-income first generation-college students into the mainstream of American college life. 

Each student profiled in the book has a compelling story, and Josh goes out of his way to make sure they have choices for their post-high school lives. He realizes by his second year at SSR that that is really the important part of his work–making sure that students understand their options, rather than simply ending up wherever chance takes them. Just this fact affects their energy and motivation in school. He is clearly a dedicated college counselor, one who becomes involved in his students’ lives because he knows how high the stakes are. Finally, he sees that attending an “elite” college or even a four-year college isn’t the answer for every student, even the most capable, and he devotes himself to helping them achieve their goals, not his. 

The book itself might have benefited from a more objective co-writer (Steckel and Zasloff are husband and wife) to give it more of an edge when discussing the social issues surrounding the SSR students and the system within which Josh works; this is clearly a love letter to Josh as much as anything. The writing is solid and free of jargon; the students’ lives are presented clearly and compassionately. As a record of the complexities that challenge students from low income and first generation-college backgrounds when considering college, this book goes to the head of the class.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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