I am fascinated by any non-fiction books that deal with college admissions. After all, I have a masters degree in higher education, and I feel like everyone in my field should be required to do a year in an admissions office. Most of the books that I read, however, are from the journalis’ side, doing an investigation of multiple schools at once or the admissions process in general. What I like about Ferguson’s book is that he’s a parent and he looks at it not only as a journalist, but as a dad going through what can be a heart-breaking process.
Ferguson has done a lot of research, which I appreciated greatly. College admissions and its (sometimes sordid) history is a big deal, and it makes me happy when authors do a thorough job doing their investigating and reporting on the matter. In fact, I think this book could be used in a graduate program like the one I completed because it’s basically a condensed, way more interesting version of the $100 textbooks I had buy (and read if I wanted to pass the comps the first time!). And it’s written with such good humor! Anytime a book leaves me amused, in a good way, I am happy.
Oh, to be sure, there are things I disagree with vehmeantly in this book. For instance, one of the people Ferguson interview tells him, “‘A school’s reputation helps you get a good job… It helps graduates get into graduate school. Reputation counts. The rankings should reflect that.'” Here’s the thing. I went to a small, brand-new college. It was so new it hadn’t yet earned its WASC accreditation when I started (but it did, as soon as it had its first four-year class, and it earned it with flying colors). And then I went to a small graduate school. Not Harvard or Yale or Brown, but schools that worked amazingly well for me. While I did look up my graduate school to see its rankings, my decision to attend it wasn’t based at all on that ranking, expect perhaps because it wasn’t the number one or two schools. You know what? When I graduated, I got a fantastic job. I make a lot of money. I did that without the “pride” of having attending a top-ranked school. I did it because I got involved and did internships and worked my butt off and networked, not because I went to a school whose name shows up frequently in the media or in ranking books.
I digress. While I don’t agree with this person’s thoughts, I did appreciate that they were there, because it allowed the book to be much richer, having all viewpoints taken into consideration.
There are a lot of topics in here that were very thought-provoking for me. For instance, there is big talk all of the time about how the SAT is skewed naturally to benefit white kids. So ETS, who designs the SAT, puts a huge amount of regulation of its test. Ferguson explains just a few examples of this regulation:
The question was part of a test of verbal reasoning, and the form it took required the test taker to relate pairs of words to each other: ‘a runner is to a marathon as a — is to a —.’ Four choices were given. The correct answer was ‘oarsman/regatta.’ The question’s bias against poorer kids is pretty clear: anyone raised around the boathouse had an automatic advantage in getting the question right.
Each question on the exam goes through four reviewers, and then goes to someone specially trained as a “sensitivity reviewer.” From there, questions are either accepted, rewritten and put through the process again, or discarded. It’s a very complicated process. Throughout the novel, Ferguson raises the idea of the SAT not being fair to disadvantage students, but he brings it full circle and relates other aspects, such as the admissions process in general as well as financial aid, rankings, etc. It’s very interesting to see a concept like this threaded throughout the book.
A lot of people have freaked out after reading this book and said it’s terrible because all it’s going to do is scare parents and kids when it comes to the college admissions process and it cannot actually be like that. Well, I’ve got news for you. It is. I have worked at a very large public school, a moderate public school, and a small public school, as well as worked very closely with private schools of various sizes. I spent two summers as an orientation leader. I work closely with parents and students every single day in my job, and guess what? It’s totally like this. College admissions is a stressful, hateful time in the lives of parents (mostly), who in turn try to infect their kids. Ferguson captures this cutthroat culture all too well, and I am so thrilled his son managed to escape relatively unscathed.