Frank Bruni: “A Generation Of High School Kids Throws Darts At The College Dartboard”

An overflow crowd filled the Westport Library yesterday, to hear Frank Bruni talk about college admissions.

Go figure.

The award-winning New York Times journalist — who has covered presidents and popes, served as chief restaurant critic, and now writes a wildly popular Sunday column — was here to talk about his new book.

Frank Bruni bookIt’s called Where You’ll Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote To The College Admissions Mania. On this topic, of course, Westport is one of the most manic places on the planet.

Bruni, who is 50, grew up in an area similar to Westport — a place that could give us a run for our (college-leads-to-Wall Street) money.

But even though there was an implied competition back then, based on college stickers on the backs of cars — and even though Bruni joked about going to a school (the University of North Carolina) supposedly less prestigious than those of his siblings — he said things today are far, far worse.

Which is why he wrote his book.

Bruni said that as he realized he knew so many contented and accomplished people — and that they’d gone to an enormous range of colleges — he understood that all the admissions talk has been focused on the wrong thing.

“We should focus much more on how students choose and use college, than on how to get in,” he said. “‘Success’ comes not from where you go, but from figuring out a school’s landscape, and how to till it.”

Frank Bruni

Frank Bruni

Citing examples from his book, Bruni talked about schools like Rhode Island School of Design (where the founders of Airbnb went), and the University of Waterloo (which produced the most number of graduates with successful Y Combinator venture capital pitches).

Last year, Bruni taught a course at Princeton. Though he was “in some way in awe” of the school, he realized that many students were tone deaf about their place in it, and the world.

One eating club tradition is “State Night.” Students dress, and act, “as if they went to a state school,” he said.

Part of the reason is that high school students in places like Westport hear messages about the perceived differences between private and state schools (and see “rankings” of every private school too).

College pennantsPart of the reason too is that some students spend so much time trying to “get in” that they don’t care much about what happens once they do.

“We have a generation of kids applying to 18 or 20 different college. They’re throwing darts at a dartboard. They can’t understand what all those schools offer. So once they get there, they don’t know what to do,” Bruni said.

Audience members had plenty of questions.

They wanted to know what Bruni thought about the importance of “making connections” at highly competitive schools. (He thinks that students at those college are already on the path to success. “If you’re someone who reaches far, it doesn’t matter which school gave you its imprimatur. You’ll get there.”)

There are plenty of reasons for this admissions mania, Bruni noted — and it’s not only parents who share the blame. Colleges “cynically” take measures to drive down their acceptance rates — like not requiring SATs, or sending information to students who are clearly not qualified — so their yields will look more impressive in the US News & World Report rankings.

The overflow audience at the Westport Library.

The overflow audience at the Westport Library.

Bruni says it’s important for “influencers” — teachers, counselors, anyone talking with students — to change the tone of conversations.

Of course, those conversations often begin at home. “Kids should not feel that where they go to college is a validation — or repudiation — of their parents.”

The crowd was large and appreciative. Bruni’s message was especially important for teenagers to hear. But there were very few of them in the audience.

I guess the sophomores and juniors were at SAT courses.

And the seniors were home, waiting to hear from 18 or 20 colleges.

7 responses to “Frank Bruni: “A Generation Of High School Kids Throws Darts At The College Dartboard”

  1. Marcia Wright

    I took no SAT prep classes and had little guidance in selecting colleges. My mom picked my college by its price; it was the most expensive school I got in to, and so she assumed it was the *best* one for me. It was a large, private university (which was why it was costly); I was coming from a prep school that had 96 in its graduating class.
    The school did go to the Orange Bowl my freshman year, but I didn’t know what the Orange Bowl was. Talk about a square peg in a round hole.
    Now, the process of college entrance is big business complemented with hype. It’s more stressful than it has to be.
    Yes, it’s true; the school I attended was not a good fit for me, but there was little stress in the *getting in* process. And, personal issues prevented me from transferring.
    From my 30(+) years as a Westport teacher, I know that with all the SAT prep and private college counselors, some kids still wind up at schools that are not a good fit.
    I think it’s time for this admissions mania to end.

  2. Mary Ann West

    Little is said about students that transfer for their Sophmore or Junior year, once they get their feet wet, take some of the classes, they will have a better idea of what works best for them. There is less competition to get in and the school can see how well he or she handles college-level work.

    For my daughter, it meant transferring from a small Boston suburban college to a large urban setting in Washington DC, where she graduated without regrets.

    It’s not where you start, it’s where you end up.

  3. In the movie, “The Graduates,” the famous word of advice to the recent college grad was “plastics.” My two words of advice over the years to friends with high school kids were “state schools.”

    I said this as a graduate of Yale and the University of Connecticut School of Law. I felt that the overall quality of the professors at the two schools was basically the same. Yes, I understand that I am comparing teaching at an undergraduate institutuon with that at a graduate school but, still….

    The point is, college education has become so expensive today and I wonder whether, in most cases, it is really worth it to pay so much extra for a degree from a private school. Having said that, I do still feel that a prestigious school at the very top such as Yale is worth the extra cost. And I firmly believe that a private school with a particular renowned program or field of study that a kid is interested in pursuing is also well worth the extra costs (or if you feel that your son or daughter will thrive only in the environment of a small college campus),

    But, really, unless you have considerable wealth and money is no object, is the investment put into the costs of an education at a private college truly worth it today?

    • Hi Fred,
      Just received the recent “Economist” in the mail today, with the cover: “The whole world is going to university, Is it worth it?”. An interesting article, indeed.

  4. Great piece! Thanks!


  5. Staples, to me, is perceived as a private high school in that college entrance is tallied and relayed back to each class. Does Inklings still print a “Class Directory” each June? Public high schools where I live simply wish the student well. Both private and public students end up at the same universities, equally qualified, with the latter often more successful in the end, never having to live up to unreasonable expectations. Happily, tuition where I live is reasonable for all.

  6. Bruni is one of the invaluable sage voices in the college admin game wilderness. Here’s a couple others – Bill Deresiewicz’s writing…his book, Excellent Sheep, an indictment of the prestige name-brand, herd mentality; antidote to which can be discovered here – Colleges That Change Lives; and true one-stop shopping for anxious parents, Lynn O’Shaughnessy – she does in person presentations, also online instruction for parents, incredibly valuable financial advice and much of it available for free on her blog / newsletter or buy her book, The College Solution.