Getting into a top college has become a mad scramble, but in his sensible and sensitive book, “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be,” New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wants to help young people understand the urgent truth of his title.
In this sense this is a personal book. After prep school in New England, Bruni made the unusual decision to forgo Yale in favor of UNC-Chapel Hill. He writes lyrically about his experience in North Carolina, which, to his prep school friends, was tantamount to exile, but where he found passionate teachers. He also discovered that his classmates were more likely than those of his siblings (who went to elite New England colleges) to have “part-time jobs off campus to help pay the tuition” than “second homes on Caribbean islands.” He learned something about the rarity of his own privilege.
He wants to remind young people that what they get from college has almost everything to do with the attitude they bring to it and almost nothing to do with where it stands in the pecking order of prestige. Most Ivy League colleges accept around 2,000 students each from an applicant pool that in some cases approaches 40,000. Colleges, he writes, have surrendered to the perverse idea that an institution’s quality has something to do with how many young people it can make unhappy by turning them away.
Some of Bruni’s stories are both amazing and, alas, not amazing. A girl tries to prove her academic seriousness by writing in her application essay that rather than curtail a discussion with her French teacher, she urinated on herself. A boy tries to demonstrate his pluck by writing that he’s undiscouraged by the fact that his genitalia are small. Looking over their shoulders are, more than likely, parents who “meddle and wheedle and marshal whatever resources they have toward the goal of a college that gleams in the public eye.”
As valuable as this book should be for anyone who takes it to heart, it’s important to remember that its focus on very selective colleges – and on the students who aim to attend them – pertains to only a tiny segment of our society. Unfortunately, our less heralded institutions - from small private colleges to large public community colleges – along with the millions of students they serve, are unlikely to be the subject of a comparably impassioned book.
Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be
218 pages. Grand Central, 218 pages