playing to play (and not to get into college)

Hilary Levey Friedman, the author of this month’s Brilliant Book Club pick Playing to Win, has a favorite gate. It is the one that gave her access to Harvard Yard and all such a yard entails. I walked through a similar gate in New Haven, Connecticut, but, unlike Levey Friedman, who says she wasn’t preened for an elite education, I was a carefully sculpted product of my mother’s ingenuity. I was raised with an emphasis on being ‘well-rounded,’ ‘a complete package,’ partly for its own sake but partly because this is how you got into an Ivy League university in 1995. When I was applying for college, my mother knew that academic achievement alone wasn’t enough to gain me entrance into the archway of my choice.

Like some of the kids Levey Friedman chronicles in her fascinating sociological study of America’s competitive youth culture – the subset she calls the ‘generalists’ – I participated in many after-school activities. Most of which I didn’t enjoy. I played the saxophone for a while, though I am essentially tone deaf. I was in Model Congress, where I wrote a Bill advocating for the conversion of abandoned missile silos into cryonic storage tanks (I’m not kidding). I know I did some community service or other because that was a box that needed to be ticked, but I can’t now recall, for the life of me, what it consisted of. My passion was for running, which I was good at (even if not university-level good) and it was this, once I was in high school, that came to take up the majority of my free time.

All of these activities, the loved and the merely tolerated, were well-documented on my college applications. Those sheafs of paper (they were still paper in my day) that shoot unadulterated panic into the hearts of teenagers and parents alike. I remember the process of filling them out, painstakingly, on my mother’s ‘Brother’ typewriter, the woodpecker-like tsk-ing of the correction tape working its magic on my myriad mistakes. In addition to the transcript of my grades and the laundry list of my extra-curriculars, there were the dreaded essays, the portrait pieces, which I typed out over and over again until they passed muster.

One of my essays was about being an anglophile. It was cute because I used British spelling: replacing the harsh American ‘z’ with the gentler hiss of an ‘s’ in words like ‘characterise’; partnering ‘o’ with the strangely superfluous ‘u’ in words like ‘harbour.’ I had spent the summer after my sophomore year of high school at Cambridge University – in a ‘Summer Discovery’ program(me) – and I knew I wanted to go back to this country of rain and crumpets and chronic apologies. What I didn’t know is that not only would I return for graduate school, first in London and then in Oxford, but I would ultimately settle and raise my own kids here.

My time at Oxford was illuminating in many ways, one of which was the exposure it gave me to the clockwork of another educational system. Let me tell you: there are serious differences between the way the Americans do it and the way the Brits do. I graduated from Yale with a degree in Classics, which was my ‘major,’ but also with the vaguer prestige of a ‘liberal arts’ experience. At Oxford, by contrast, undergraduates ‘read’ only one subject throughout their three-year stay. It is the classic dichotomy between depth and breadth, the hedgehog and the fox.

This call for early specialization is in part responsible for the very different nature of the admissions process in the UK and in the US. At Oxford, admissions is not centralized. There is a standard form (UCAS), the simplicity of which might bulge the eyes of an American parent. It includes some past exam grades, but for the most important exams (the A-levels) there appear only predicted grades, because these tests have yet to be taken. If you get called to interview, on the basis of this form, two or three of the tutors in the subject that you have applied to study, at the college-within-the-college you have applied to study it, will decide whether you get offered a place there. The only opportunity you have to mention any extra-curricular activity is in a single personal statement of roughly 650 words, where the guideline is to show ‘what makes you suitable’ for the course you are applying for.

My husband was a law tutor at Oxford for several years and he ran the undergraduate admissions at his college. The job of the admissions tutor, he says, is to assess intellectual ability and aptitude in regard to the particular subject of study. Unlike how Levey Friedman describes the kind of students Harvard is looking for, ‘ambitious individuals who are not afraid to take risks’ across a whole range of endeavors, what he was looking for was something much more pointed: the kid he wanted to be discussing the constitution with in an individualized tutorial at 9am on a Monday morning. This person, he says, very well might not be the student who was playing rugby or singing in the choir over the weekend. It is more likely to be the one staying in, diligently preparing his or her essay and poring over the law reports.

At Oxford, it is not that the interviewer doesn’t consider the candidate as the sum total of his or her experience. It is that the parts of that experience are not weighted separately, like melons at the marketplace, in quite the same way as they are in the US. As Levey Friedman makes the point: ‘That…colleges and universities consider admissions categories other than academic merit is…uniquely American.’

Top-tier education in Britain is about precisely that: education, narrowly construed. It is about mastery of a subject. Accordingly, versatility and a competitive edge are not the axes on which the admissions decision turns, as Levey Friedman characterizes the US system. The goal is not to admit a jack-of-all-trades. Nor is it to admit the future valedictorian. There is none. While somebody has to come top of the class at Harvard, this isn’t the case at Oxford. Any number of students can get a first class degree. You don’t need to edge anybody out to be the best.

It’s just as well I live in Glasgow and not New York, where I grew up. We are one of the least scheduled families I know. My children do a lot of sports, but mainly in the backyard. The older one takes violin lessons, but these run during school hours. Their day is long enough as it is and, at eight and six years old, I don’t feel the need to lengthen it, for the sake of their career prospects or to stave off my own guilt.

I can’t tell if I under-schedule as a reaction to my own childhood or simply because it is my instinct and I feel safe following it in the knowledge that my kids won’t suffer as a result. They don’t ‘need’ a check-list of activities to get into a good university here and they certainly don’t need to be accruing such ‘credentials’ in primary school. Sure, people where I live might take their children to a couple of extra-curricular classes during the week. But nobody speaks of these things in the college-admissions-driven way Levey Friedman systematically outlines in Playing to Win.

When my kids come home at 4pm, they do their homework and then they play. Not to win, just to play. If they have a swimming lesson on the calendar one day, it isn’t so they get into Oxford in the future. It’s so they don’t drown.

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See the other thought-provoking posts Playing to Win has inspired at the links below:

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “playing to play (and not to get into college)

  1. This post belongs in the Atlantic. So happy to see such rich discussion here. I was groomed for a large, state agri university so I wasn’t attuned to the extracurriculars to gain admission. I wish I would have been poised to give it a shot but that’s not how it went. I’m afraid that my own regrets will steer my mothering too far in the other direction and I’ll find myself pushing because no one pushed me. I’m going to read that book so thanks for highlighting it.

    • As I have discovered one of the core components of parenting– both while researching this book and becoming a mom myself– we always want what we think is best for our kids, often what we didn’t have. Will be interesting to see how things change from generation to generation. Good luck to you and your kids!

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  3. Lauren- this is absolutely fascinating. I was riveted reading about your upbringing and educational experiences, particularly the contrast between the U.S. and British systems. I am so naive about much of this, I will admit. I went to a nice private Lutheran liberal arts college where I received a wonderful education- “grooming” never occurred to me. Your own story ties in so beautifully with this book. I really loved this!

  4. I loved raising my kids in England. They did all of their activities at school, I never ran around like a nut job from this to that. There was no shyness about tracking kids for music or sports or math from the earliest of ages, and for moving them if and when they changed. The best athletes and the best English students need to be stretched and in this system they are. When we moved to the US, my kids had to wait for 2 years to get back to the work they had been doing in England when they left. I missed the land of chronic apologies and high expectations for kids.

  5. Love love love this analysis and now I may have to read the book (mark of a good essay?) I am not sure how I feel about being evaluated on how good you are – and how good a few tutors think you might be – in one area of study. It is something I thought about while in Germany this summer, where tracking and specialization begins very early, and it is tough to change that path. I asked a lot of questions of the mom of teenaged kids. I think about it as my kids approach middle school, where I breathe a sigh of relief in many ways that admissions to some Honors programs are based largely on one test and not on a ton of complicated factors (including race and demographics, which is a HUGE factor in college admissions in the U.S. – I am sure the book discusses it). My kids are also not over scheduled – at least relative to others around them in Manhattan.

    Obviously I can relate to your high school activities, given my proximity to them, but it is funny that I don’t feel exactly the same way. My mom did not know what I was doing (mostly I told her what she had to pay for and when she had to pick me up!) Like you, I know I also “checked the box” for community service and I did it because I knew I had to for college. I was the editor in chief of the paper mostly because I loved it, but I knew it was something I could highlight on my application and that was important to me. And I stopped competing in skating at a point in high school where I thought it would interfere with studying, which is how I spent most of junior year.

    Once at Harvard, I appreciated the diversity of activities and interests the kids had, well beyond academics. (My younger sister, who spent much of high school competing in elite figure skating with amazing success, and who graduated Harvard two years ago, having thrived there, is a case in point.) I can see pros and cons to both systems.
    Rich stuff!

    • You must be older sister to Emily and Sarah Hughes– quite the impressive family, even without the figure skating connection based on what I have read!

      Comparisons to other educational systems is always interesting, and the UK seems to have it figured out slightly better than places like France or many Asian countries when university admissions is SOLELY based on one standardized test (and this gives rise to practices like government regulations of lights out times so over-stressed students actually sleep…).

      But to be clear, the Oxbridge system has its flaws too. 1) When I was at Cambridge, where I did an MPhil, I was in a women’s college and many were advanced undergraduate students who were returning for a second BA. Turns out that choosing what you want to do forever when you are 19 isn’t exactly realistic. 2) The interview-based system Oxbridge employs is *extraordinarily* class biased. The grooming for the interview and even the knowledge of applying to colleges within colleges is information reserved by the elite in many cases. It’s not even how other major universities operate within the UK…

  6. It’s funny. I identified with HLF’s preface. When I crossed the metaphorical gate on to Dartmouth’s campus, I felt the same way as she, in retrospect: clueless. I did a ton of activities growing up — sports, dance, theater, student government — but they were all things I liked to do. I was busy because I am a busy person. My parents had NO CLUE what it took to get into an Ivy League school (they went to college in Brooklyn); the guidance counselor of my middle class suburban high school recommended I go to a state school from a neighboring state. (?? I know…) Perhaps I got into Dartmouth on the strength of my grades and extra-curriculars. It certainly wasn’t the result of any prepping or grooming, believe me.

    Regarding liberal arts education versus specialization, when I lived in Italy, I noticed this early “tracking” and wondered how kids at 14 were supposed to know “what they wanted to be when they grew up.” Now, I question my earlier criticism. When I was in high school, I wanted to study biology. At Dartmouth, I started out pre-med, but soon sank under the weight of my lack of academic preparation relative to my peers. I switched to psychology and ultimately to anthropology. For grad school I went to Columbia for business and int’l affair before ending up in a career of healthcare finance and ultimately, hospital administration. To this day, I am fascinated by anatomy, biology, health and wellness. I don’t think it’s an accident I ended up in healthcare despite my circuitous path. I guess I did know what I wanted to be at age 14 after all.

    Wonderful essay, and I agree with the first commenter that it belongs in the Atlantic! So honored to be writing alongside you.

  7. Great essay! While there is a tremendous amount of grooming that takes place in the US, and particularly in certain communities, when it comes to college application, I do think that the tide is turning a bit. The NYT recently reported that Bard College has changed its admissions policy to consider what students can do on an actual research paper, rather than all the activities, grades, and high test scores they can cram into their high school years. At least among some segments of the population, there is a very real backlash against the kind of box ticking, mythical ‘well roundedness’ that has been increasingly emphasized for years. While it may be unrealistic to expect a young kid who is still exploring to specialize, exploring itself should feel like just that—not like a schizophrenic mix of Chinese/fencing/newspaper/track/photography club. One idea that I was raised with was that it was important to find something we liked, that we were also good at. The ‘you can be anything idea’ is less valuable to me than the idea that you can be something, if you get in touch with who you are and what you like, and slowly develop that part of yourself. The simplicity of this approach resonates more for me every year. I do believe it leads to much more happiness and personal success in the long run than some abstract and general notion of success that requires positioning oneself for every opportunity at once.

    • On the one hand it is true. But Bard is a true outlier here and actually many state schools that never cared a whit about extracurrics (beyond their sports teams, of course) now have essays, etc. and look beyond mere GPA and test scores. Also, to write those Bard essays you need access to considerable resources that many kids simply don’t.. Will be interesting to see what happens!

  8. Sarah

    Lauren – This is fascinating. I don’t know very much about college admissions elsewhere, so this was really interesting to read. I graduated from a small liberal arts college that is always in the top of the US World Report rankings, so not an ivy, but an “elite” school that I had also been, I supposed, “groomed” for. My parents even hired a private admissions counselor to help us through the process and help me complete my applications and essays!

    I agree with you that play should be about play, not about the competition or about college admissions. And I worry that we do send a mixed message to kids – we tell them to be “well-rounded,” but then we also tell them to be accomplished and dedicated in their field. Oh, I cannot imagine what it will be like when my kids are applying to college!

  9. Loved reading this. Though I can’t help but notice that in some ways your kids’ childhoods will likely prepare them for the elite system in which they currently live– Oxbridge. Find what you love early and pursue that!

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