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The Sagas of Mary and Sandy

By Marty Nemko

(based on true stories)



The daughter of a friend, I’ll call her, Misguided Mary, had always dreamed of attending a designer label college. Her parents shared her dream. After all, it would open all those career doors, and besides, it would be cool to have that Harvard decal on their car’s rear window.

So when Mary started the 9th grade, her parents had already hired an expensive college consultant. The consultant recommended that to maximize Mary’s chances of admission to a designer-label college, she needed to take six solids and as many honors and especially Advanced Placement courses as possible.

Sometimes Mary would cry, overwhelmed with all the work, and always had to scramble to get all it all done. Not surprisingly, much of what she crammed in, she forgot soon after the test.

The consultant told her not to dabble but to focus on one extracurricular—that impresses the colleges. The consultant recommended lacrosse because even designer-label colleges are usually short of students who can play a minor sport.

Her parents hired her a private lacrosse coach, and she spent her summers at lacrosse camp. Not surprisingly, all the lacrosse practices and games on top of six hard solids, left little time for relaxing and just being a teenager.

She took the PSAT as a sophomore and “only” got a 1270 (Better than 87% of students that took the test.) That scared her because the profiles for students admitted to institutions like Harvard and Stanford suggested that she needed around 1400. So, in the fall of her junior year, she enrolled in one of those $900 SAT prep courses. That swallowed up even more time: the time it took to get driven to and from the class, the class time, and the nightly SAT-prep homework assignments.

Adding that SAT prep was the straw that strained the camel’s back. Her GPA declined slightly: from 3.9 before the SAT, down to a 3.7. This is ironic because grades count much more than SAT scores in college admissions.

When Mary took the SAT in March of her junior year, she was understandably stressed, not only from her heavy load, but because of the pressure from friends, parents, and herself to do well on the test. She felt her future hung on how well she’d do. Not surprisingly, despite the prep course, her score only increased 20 points to 1290. (Actually, this is in line with College Board studies which find that—contrary to what test prep companies say—the average test prep student’s score increases by only 28 to 45 points.)

In the summer of her junior year, she spent part of the summer at Harvard Summer School ($6,200) even though she was sick of school. Her consultant suggested, “It couldn’t hurt to show more commitment.”

Mary started her senior year stressed out, burned out, but again taking six solids, including two honors and two Advanced Placement courses, plus lacrosse, plus studying one more time for the SAT. Her score increased to 1350, and she was delighted.

Mary was scared that nonetheless, her profile was marginal for a designer-label school. So she decided to give herself an edge: She’d apply somewhere Early Decision. Her consultant explained that Stanford or Harvard were not realistic, but she had a shot at another Ivy League school—the University of Pennsylvania, especially if she applied Early Decision—Penn takes almost 40 percent of its class Early Decision. The clincher was that she heard that Penn had among the world’s most prestigious business majors.

Mary got into Penn, and everyone was thrilled—until they saw her financial aid package. Early Decision students often get a bad package because the colleges don’t have to worry about competing colleges. Of the $175,000 four-year pricetag, her parents would have to come up with $100,000 in cash, take $50,000 in loans, and Mary would have to hold a part-time job throughout her four years. Mary’s parents didn’t want to deny their child their long-standing dream, so they said they’d pay.

In early April, Mary flew from her home in California to Penn’s “party” for accepted students. Not unusual, there was a late cold snap—Mary, who had lived in California all her life, didn’t realize how cold cold can be. She also didn’t realize how different the students are back East: more aggressive, more formal. Mary started to feel nervous about her decision to attend Penn, but having applied Early Decision, she didn’t have a choice—she was required to attend.

Not surprisingly, when Mary arrived at Penn to start school, she was more burned out on academics than excited. She was also glad to get away from the pressure of her parents, and was very nervous about whether she was smart enough to be at an Ivy League school. That bad combination led her to a freshman year noted more by partying than by studying. The result was a 2.4 GPA.

At the beginning of her sophomore year, she applied to be a business major, but because of her freshman-year GPA, she was rejected. She decided to major in what she thought was a similar major: economics, but the more she got into the major, the more she realized the economics major was mostly math, not her strength, nor her interest.

Mary decided to struggle through the econ major because starting another one would add a semester and cost her parents $20,000 more.

She graduated, but with only a 2.7 and with the feeling that she was hardly an expert on economics, especially compared with her Ivy League peers.

Nonetheless she figured that a degree from Penn would open career doors. After more effort than she anticipated, she landed a position as an analyst for a financial services firm in Philadelphia. She had not intended to live back East, but having attended college there, that’s where most of the on-campus recruited jobs were.

Mary arrived at her job with a $45,000 loan to pay and a bad case of the imposter syndrome. The Ivy League name on her diploma didn’t begin to boost her self-esteem.

Unfortunately, Mary’s story is common. Loren Pope, author of Colleges That Change Lives writes, "A 1994 study of Ivy graduates 25 years later reported in the New YorkTimes said, 'One fourth of Harvard’s class of 1958 had lost their jobs, were looking for work, or on welfare, just when their careers should be have cresting.' The autobiographic sketches written for their 35th reunion 'did not radiate with expressions of success and optimism' said author and Yale professor Erich Segal. ‘Quite the contrary, they seemed like a litany of loss and disillusion.’ And Harvard was not alone. Alumni groups at other Ivy League schools, the story added, 'are reporting that their members in growing number are suffering from the upheavals in corporate America. If there is a lesson in all this it is that a degree from a college like Harvard is no longer the lifetime guarantee or success in careers that it used to be.”

A Princeton University study compared the lifetime earnings of students who were accepted to designer-label colleges but attended lesser-known colleges with the earnings of students who attended the designer-label schools. The two groups earned an equal amount. Why? It’s the kids that matter. You could lock Ivy-caliber students in a closet for four years and they’ll earn more than other people. Also, the advantage of the designer label on the diploma is outweighed by the stress of being in a four-year pressure cooker filled with the nation's 0.00001% smartest, most driven students. Fran Schumer, in Most Likely to Succeed: Six women from Harvard and what became of them reported that the anorexia and binge drinking at Harvard was so pervasive that the toilet pipes in the women's dorms had to be replaced each year because they had eroded from all the stomach acid.

* * * * *

Like Mary, Savvy Sandy was also attracted to designer-label colleges, but for the right reason. She knew she’d thrive best when her classmates were tops. But Sandy was committed to the idea that she would only do things that would better herself, not things just to impress a college admissions committee.

So she took five, not six, solids per semester. And she didn’t reflexively choose the honors or AP course. She decided based on how good the teacher was, whether she was interested enough in the subject to want to spend more time studying it, how hard the rest of her program was, and how time-consuming her extracurriculars would be. So Sandy took some honors and AP courses but only half as many as Mary. This allowed her time to have a social life and to breathe.

Sandy wanted to dabble even if it wouldn’t impress the college admissions committee. So she explored: she took a photography class, a papermaking class, tried out for cheerleaders, wrote some poetry, and went on a Christmas trip to Costa Rica.

By her junior year, she found that she most enjoyed writing. So, little by little, she did more: some more poems, then an occasional article for the student newspaper. She even submitted an article to the San Francisco Chronicle. But she always stayed in balance: moderate studying, moderate social life, a variety of extracurriculars. She was able to get a 3.9 with a moderate amount of study.

Sandy took the PSAT not in the sophomore year, but in October of her junior year and got the same 1270 Mary did, but instead of signing up for a $900 SAT course, six weeks before the May administration, she spent 15 minutes a few nights a week with the $25 Inside the SAT/ACT software program.

Sandy ended up with a 1320 on the SAT. She realized that retaking it would require more time and more studying, taking more time away from her studying for school grades, which count more than the SAT score. So 1320 was it. (That, of course, was higher than 92% of all students who took the test!)

As Sandy began her senior year, she realized that because she had not been an extracurricular star and because she “only” had a 1320 SAT, she probably was not going to get into a Harvard or Stanford.

She decided that schools like Penn probably weren’t worth it. She did a little homework and found out that because her parents, like Mary’s, earned $80,000, her family would be jeopardizing their financial security to pay for a brand-name private college.

So Sandy decided to apply to four of the public universities in California, any of which would cost her family 50% less. Her top choices were Berkeley and UCLA, not just because of their prestige, but because she knew she’d do better with bright classmates. Her backup schools were the University of California at Davis and the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Surprised, she was only admitted to Davis and Santa Cruz. As balanced as her attitude had been, this saddened her more than she had anticipated.

She was about to turn in her letter of intent to attend Davis when she heard that a surprising number of even outstanding high school graduates take an Interim Year: a series of interesting non-academic experiences. Many private colleges, including Harvard, encourage students to do this. Unfortunately, the University of California requires students to reapply. But because Sandy wasn’t thrilled with the idea of going to Davis and was ready for a break from academics, she figured she’d take the risk. She had heard that with a year’s worth of interesting experiences to write about in her admission essay, her application might curry more favor.

She spent the year in the Leap Now program, which allowed her to do adventure travel in Nepal, volunteer work in South America, plus three mini-internships in the US.

Those experiences were impressive in her college applications and not surprisingly, now she was admitted to the University of California at San Diego.

Now refreshed, Sandy, unlike Mary, was ready to make the most of college. To avoid the megalecture classes, she signed up for the special freshman seminars. She volunteered to do research for a professor she liked. She asked another of her favorite professors to guide her in an independent study of Panama. Those experiences yielded great recommendations, so she landed, in her junior year, an internship at the Agency for International Development.

Despite not having an Ivy League degree, by having lived a balanced life, she had acquired more people skills, which impressed her colleagues at AID. That, plus her high school trip to Costa Rica, her independent study on Panama, and LeapNow interim year, meant that, after she graduated, when a paying job opened at AID, she got it. Sandy now works on facilitating US physicians going to rural Central and South America to train locals to be medics.

Importantly, Sandy’s self-esteem is far stronger because it is based, not on a designer label on her diploma, but on what she has accomplished.

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