Frank Bruni Takes On College Admissions Insanity

It’s not easy to keep one’s footing through the college admissions frenzy. In his new book, journalist Frank Bruni offers perspective and balance that can help ease the process.


If you’re a high school student in the midst of taking SATs, completing Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes and generally stressing about college admissions, Frank Bruni has a message for you: Relax. Don’t think there’s only one college that’s right for you. He also offers this thought to keep in mind for the end of the process: Welcome rejection.

Bruni, a New York Times journalist, has written on topics ranging from Italian food to George W. Bush. His latest tome, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, seems a strange book for a childless author to pen, but despite that—or perhaps because of it—he does a fine job arguing for a sea change in the way America regards college admission.

Filled with anecdotes and backed up with research, the book seeks to dispel the myth that admission to an “elite” college should be the only goal of our children (and their parents). Instead, the author demonstrates that success in adulthood has to do with more important factors than the college a student attends.

Students and Families in a Race

Bruni admits right off the bat that his book is aimed at those households in which a premium has been placed on higher education—sometimes for generations. But let’s not forget that large numbers of Americans simply go to whichever public or state university admits them. According to Bruni, that’s actually a plan worth considering.

His intended audience—students and their families in a race to get into the “right” college—will likely include many Foreign Service families, although FS students who are overseas, thankfully, dodge some of the stateside admissions mania.

In the United States, the situation has become so frenzied that, in some families, the pressure to go to a certain Ivy League or other prestigious school has been present before the child in question is even born. Bruni interviews a distraught parent whose 3-year-old did not get admitted to a high-end New York preschool because she didn’t think to prep him before the admissions event.

Bruni primarily wants to discourage the thinking among students that there is only one perfect college for them.

It is into this overheated atmosphere that Bruni introduces an idea that is not new, but is still commonly disregarded: What if someone told you that you could go to one of many dozens, even hundreds of U.S. colleges, get a great education and end up after graduation following the same career path as Yale and Harvard grads?

The author primarily wants to discourage the thinking among students that there is only one perfect college for them—the one in the Ivy League or at Ivy League level, or the one that their parents went to 30 years ago, or the one that U.S. News & World Report ranks in the top 10.

The Benefits of Being Turned Down

In fact, says Bruni, not only is it virtually impossible to get into the top-tier schools, but those institutions don’t necessarily offer anything that can’t be found at other, less selective and often less expensive schools. He opens his narrative with several anecdotes about students who had their hearts set on Ivy League colleges but were turned away. What happened when they went to so-called lesser schools? Not quite what they expected.

As big fish in smaller ponds (and that “small pond” can also mean a big state school’s honors program as much as a tiny liberal arts college), they often got extra attention from professors, including mentoring, internship and research opportunities. They were on the dean’s list. They had time for social activities and sports. They made friends who came from diverse backgrounds. In short, they flourished. Not only that, but they came to look upon their initial rejection as a blessing in disguise.

These stories, along with often inspiring quotes from happy people who attended less prestigious colleges, make up the heart of the book. They are accompanied by the results of both formal and informal studies that demonstrate that, for the most part, the name of one’s undergraduate institution is rarely a defining factor in later success. Character and work ethic are more important.

Some of these studies are not new and have been cited in earlier books. So why does the college admission feeding frenzy persist?

Both formal and informal studies demonstrate that, for the most part, the name of one’s undergraduate institution is rarely a defining factor in later success.

Feeding the Frenzy

First, there are simply more kids applying to college. Between 2001 and 2011, the percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in college rose by 32 percent. Bruni doesn’t dwell too much on this statistic, but it is significant.

His primary focus is on two relatively modern changes to the college admissions process: the Common Application and the U.S. News & World Report college rankings. Each in its own way has contributed to the college admissions race.

The Common App, as it’s called, has streamlined the admissions process so that instead of filling out individual paper applications for each college, a student can now hit the “submit” button online, sending one application to many schools. Not surprisingly, this has led students to file more applications than ever before.

More applicants mean more rejections, because most colleges cannot admit more than a certain number of students: There just isn’t room, despite an increase in on-campus construction in recent years. (That improvement in facilities is often due more to competition with other colleges than a desire to add more beds. College administrators count on 17-year-olds being drawn in by state-of-the-art fitness centers and vegan cafeterias.)

Then there are the rankings. When U.S. News & World Report started its college rankings in the early 1990s, it struck gold. The list rapidly became not only a moneymaker for U.S. News, but an easy way for students (and their parents) to select colleges. It also fueled a system which colleges try to “game.”

For example, the college can increase “selectivity” by encouraging more students to apply and then rejecting a higher proportion of them. Several colleges have been penalized for inflating their numbers—and those are just the ones who’ve been caught.

When U.S. News & World Report started its college rankings in the early 1990s, it struck gold, and fueled a system which colleges try to “game.”

The metrics used by U.S. News in determining a college’s worth are also largely subjective, and Bruni is quick and forceful in dismissing them.

An additional factor is an increase in the number of foreign students applying to U.S. universities. The overwhelming majority of American college admissions offices are not need-blind when considering foreign student applications. In other words, if a student from another country can pay full tuition, he’s a very competitive applicant.

A Controversial View

In addition to explaining the mechanisms behind college admissions frenzy, Bruni interviews several luminaries, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, an alumna of the University of Denver. She intended to become a concert pianist, but ended up taking an international affairs course that changed her life and provided her with a fine mentor in Professor Josef Korbel. (In an interesting coincidence, Korbel was Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s father.)

The book gets a bit controversial in its examination of the character of today’s elite students. Bruni interviews plenty of past and present Ivy League professors and administrators who describe their students with phrases like “self-satisfied,” “too linear in their thinking” and “a little fragile.” They point out that students who have checked all the right boxes to get into a prestigious school tend to believe that by following a formula, life will turn out the way they intend.

Although Bruni might incite criticism in his characterizations (and to be fair, he genuinely likes the students he has taught at Princeton), there is more than a grain of truth in his theory that the U.S. college admissions culture has created a generation of students who see getting in as the ultimate prize and the measure of their self-worth, rather than simply the opening of a door to new experiences and growth. He makes a good point about struggle and rejection creating a stronger person.

One of the people he cites is William Deresiewicz, whose 2014 book, Excellent Sheep, takes a dim view of the Ivy League. Although Deresiewicz’s book, op-eds and talks on campuses have provoked both irritation and admiration, Bruni agrees with some of his assertions. “An elite school composed almost entirely of young men and women who have aced the SATs or ACTs,” writes Bruni, “isn’t likely to be the most exciting, eclectic stew of people and perspectives.”

The book gets a bit controversial in its examination of the character of today’s elite students.

Bruni is not the first to write a book like this, of course. Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews penned the ground-breaking Harvard Schmarvard 12 years ago, and Bruni’s book is, at least in its early chapters, simply an updated version of Mathews’ book. And the late Loren Pope’s Colleges That Change Lives has had a great deal of influence not only as a book, but also as a website and even a traveling presentation.

All three experts urge calm in the midst of application frenzy, and all argue in favor of the often-overlooked schools that provide an education as good as, or perhaps better than that offered by more selective institutions. While similar in intent to its predecessors Where You Go does not offer admissions advice, as Mathews’ book does; nor does it profile alternative colleges in depth, as Pope’s book does. But it does offer up-to-date statistics and inspiring profiles, written in Bruni’s evocative prose.

Some Questions

That’s not to say there aren’t flaws. What are we to make, for example, of the author’s notion of success? He casts a critical eye on today’s students who possess a more narrow focus, tending toward more practical majors that will lead to lucrative jobs.

Yet the adults whom Bruni holds up as examples tend to be successful in their work and in their earnings. Yes, they do speak about passion, and the not-always-easy route they took; but their success is nonetheless at least partially defined by their relative wealth.

In today’s recession economy, who can blame any student for choosing a major that will lead to financial rewards? That said, it’s important to note Bruni’s insistence that college should be the one place where interests can be expanded on; where personal growth should be the goal as much as finding a well-paying career.

It also gives the reader some pause that the students profiled, who for various reasons attend non-prestigious undergraduate institutions, quite often end up earning advanced degrees from Ivy League schools. While his point is that it doesn’t much matter where you go as an undergraduate, Bruni, perhaps unwittingly, still portrays Harvard and its ilk as a worthy goal for graduate school.

Foreign Service kids have experienced culture shock, frequent moves and cross-cultural adaptation.

The implication is that a graduate degree from an Ivy League institution or its equivalent (i.e., Stanford, MIT, etc.) still matters in some circles. That cachet may well be valid if the level of coursework and the intelligence of one’s peers live up to the school’s reputation. Still, some may find this a mixed message.

FS Kids, in Particular

How does all this affect Foreign Service kids? Well, they often have an edge in the college admissions process, especially if applying from overseas. Say all you want about highly-touted D.C.-area high schools like Walt Whitman and Thomas Jefferson, but you can’t ignore the fact that the competition among their students—and parents—is fierce.

That competition is toned down in most international high schools, because many of the school’s students aren’t applying to U.S. universities at all. And the disadvantages of not having a plethora of AP or IB courses, or a standard U.S. government course, for example, are generally outweighed by the appeal of a global nomad who has made his or her way in different foreign cities.

Unlike most of their stateside counterparts, Foreign Service kids have experienced culture shock, frequent moves and cross-cultural adaptation.

Despite these advantages, however, FS families would do well to listen to Bruni’s advice and not let college acceptance become a measure of self-worth. One hopes that Foreign Service children are way past playing that game.

Still, it’s so very easy to get sucked into the fray, and for that reason and others, Where You Go Is Not Who You Will Be provides a reassuring and crucial remedy for college admissions fever.

Francesca Kelly might herself be considered part of college admissions frenzy, coaching kids on their college application essays. You can find her at A writer and frequent contributor to the Journal, she’s also married to Ambassador Ian Kelly and has seen four children through the college process.