The ghosts of Yale applicants past

RHYMES with crazy Lenore Skenazy  thumbnailBY LENORE SKENAZY

On Sunday, I went to my local Queens bakery at 9 a.m., 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., and each time sat across from a friendly, open 18-year-old. These New York City students shared their hopes, dreams, and what they do in their free time. One researches drone strikes in Somalia. Another teaches the disabled to ski. A third measures the size and shape of snake skulls.

That’s typical for this group. They are all applicants for early admission to Yale.

Me, I’m an alumni interviewer. That means I help lighten the Yale Admissions Department’s load by volunteering to assess half a dozen candidates each year. This is my 15th or 16th go-round, and it always gives me great delight.

But this year, it also gave me pause. That’s because another alum, Ben Orlin, just wrote a piece in the Los Angeles Times titled, “Why I Won’t Re-enlist as a Yale Alumni Interviewer.”

His beef is that “the whole process is so spectacularly insane that participating in it — even in such a peripheral role — feels like watching spiders crawl out of my tear ducts.”

The insanity is not the kids — they’re great. Nor is it Yale — it can’t take everyone. The insanity is the giant disparity between the number of stunning applicants and the number that get in: “For every bed in the freshman dorms, 20 kids are lining up, at least five of whom are high-school rock stars,” wrote Orlin. “From that murderer’s row, admissions officers face the impossible task of picking just one. There’s no right answer.”

He feels for all the students who have done so much, and are likely to take their rejection personally. (Don’t we all?) What these kids can’t know is that they are just as amazing as the ones who get the thick envelopes, but they may be the 15th top debater who also spent a year teaching calculus in Kenya. No school needs 15 of the same thing. Thus some get in, but others get bumped for a dancer-sculptor-beekeeper from Utah, or spear fisher (with perfect SATs) from Spain.

So on Sunday, as I spoke with the hopefuls, I felt compelled to mention to them “The Ghosts of Applicants Past.”

There was the girl so fascinated by rhetoric that she learned Ancient Greek. She wanted to read the first philosophers to describe speaking techniques like, “I won’t mention the defendant’s past as a thief, because that is not relevant to this case.” She loved the way information got sneakily embedded. But she also loved neuroscience, so she was doing lab research on Alzheimer’s. Her modest little goal was to figure out  if the way information gets into our brains is related to how it leaks out.

She did not get in.

Another year I met a young man from a Manhattan public high school who admitted that during middle school computer class, he would hack a friend’s screen to suddenly show cartoons when the teacher was walking past. By the time he was in high school he put his computer skills to more serious work by starting a web-design company for local businesses. If some of the coding got too hard, he’d farm it out to Russian programmers and pay them part of his fee. By his senior year he’d turned his attention to the medical field and got an internship at a local teaching hospital. He discovered something (I couldn’t understand what) about how plaque builds up in arteries, and had come up with a new, cheap way to dissolve it. Ten medical school professors came to hear his lecture. When one objected that his idea wouldn’t work, he showed him how it would. This kid applied to Yale and MIT.

I hope he got into the latter, because he did not get into Yale.

Then there was the young woman who was producing a documentary on a French fashion muse from the ’70s. No dice. And another student so fascinated by the French Revolution that she did original research on the guillotine jewelry of that time. She didn’t make the cut.

Meanwhile, a young man I had a hard time interviewing because he had so little to say, did make it in. I gather that he was spectacular at math. But he got lost navigating from Union Square to our interview at a Starbucks on First Avenue and 17th St. and arrived late.

Which is not to say Yale gets it wrong. It took many of the students I’ve recommended. But Orlin got it right, too: Ivy admissions are an opaque process, not to be taken personally. The good news is that by the time students think they’re Yale material, they usually are.

Even if they don’t get in.

Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker, author of the book and blog Free-Range Kids, and a contributor at Reason.com.