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  • Writer's pictureThe Bossy Bookworm

Review of Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be by Frank Bruni

"Does a prestigious college make you successful? Or do you do that for yourself?"

But for every person whose contentment and fulfillment come from faithfully executing a predetermined script, there are at least ten if not a hundred who had to rearrange the pages and play a part they hadn't expected to, in a theater they hadn't envisioned.

Life is defined by little snags and big setbacks; success is determined by the ability to distinguish between the two and rebound from either. And there's no single juncture, no one crossroads, on which everything hinges.

I apologize up front for the high density of quotes from author Frank Bruni that follow. My copy of this book is highlighted to within an inch of its life because I found all of this so interesting. I'm actually impressed with how many perfect quotes I didn't include.

Anyhoo, I have a senior in high school and I'm currently solidly on the sidelines of college application hustle and bustle, so it seemed like time to finally read these promising, helpful-seeming books about the consideration and application process.

In Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, insightful, thorough, down-to-earth New York Times journalist (and UNC alum) Frank Bruni considers the "terrifying and occasionally devastating" process of applying to college--and the dangerous potential belief that a young person's worth could (and often may) feel determined by which schools offer the student admission and which do not.

A yes or no from Amherst or Dartmouth or Duke or Northwestern is seen as the conclusive measure of a young person's worth, a binding verdict on the life that he or she has led up until that point, an incontestable harbinger of the successes or disappointments to come.

What madness. And what nonsense.

For one thing, the admissions game is too flawed and too rigged to be given so much credit. For another, the nature of a student's college experience--the work that he or she puts into it, the skills that he or she picks up, the self-examination that's undertaken, the resourcefulness that's honed--matters more than the name of the institution attended.

Bruni explores reassuring data showing that endless colleges can serve as jumping-off points for happy, fulfilling, successful careers and lives. He emphasizes that it's what a young person does with the opportunities available to them that makes the difference.

He rejects the idea that there's any "shortage of top-notch scholars who find everything they're looking for and more" at their colleges, despite not all being "the survivors of a screening process as intimidating as Stanford's."

Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be offers varied ways to think about college and the increasing pressure and weight put upon the acceptance/rejection equation for a young person. A senior in high school is, after all, entering into a jumping-off point for their lives, rather than realizing the culmination of a life's work at age 17, and the college selection process should reflect the boundless options that exist:

  • "Do the kids getting into their top-choice schools have greater potential? Or do they just have a better understanding of the system and how to work it?"

  • "Somewhere along the way, a school's selectiveness--measured in large part by its acceptance rate--became synonymous with its worth."

  • "...many of the talents and strengths that wind up fueling someone's achievements don't necessarily emerge or play a part in the college application process, and aren't honed in the classrooms of exclusive schools."

Bruni reassures the reader by citing successful figures in various professions, many who are well-known, and the wide array of colleges they attended. The majority of their alma maters do not appear on Top 50 lists, and when interviewed, the individuals emphasize the unexpected twists and turns of their lives and the importance of making their own opportunities. They generally eschew the idea that adhering to a more rigidly set out life plan or attending a more exclusive institution might have better led them to their current success.

College is a singular opportunity to rummage through and luxuriate in ideas, to give your brain a vigorous workout and your soul a thorough investigation, to realize how very large the world is and to contemplate your desired place in it.

Those four years [are] clearly seen as the staging area, not the actual operation; as the throat clearing, not the aria.

Bruni also explores research that attempts to separately consider institutions' elite names and their graduates' success stories (or salaries). The likely reality: "at a certain level of intelligence and competence, what drives earnings isn't the luster of the diploma but the type of person in possession of it."

He digs into a fascinating 2011 study by Princeton economist professor and former Council of Economic Advisors chairman Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale, an analyst with Mathematics Policy Research. One of their study conclusions: "The average SAT score of schools that rejected a student is more than twice as strong a predictor of the student's subsequent earnings as the average SAT score of the school the student attended."

This seems to be because students are "self-sorting" as they apply to colleges, and the most ambitious young people (who often find success in life, including financial success) "are applying to the most elite schools." Therefore the confidence, assertiveness, and follow-through of applying to elite schools is likely "the key to future earnings."

Krueger tells Bruni, "Another way to read my results is: A good student can get a good education just about anywhere, and a student who's not that serious about learning isn't going to get much benefit."

So much is out of young people's control when it comes to college, yet they may be feeling intense pressure to meet the achievement standards and messages of "if you do X, you deserve/will achieve Y" that have been reinforced by society, parents, and/or peers.

There's so much excited, anxious, and confused college talk swirling around today's teens before and as they apply to college, I found the common-sense tone and messages of Bruni's book reassuring and sound.

Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?

I recently read another book about college admissions, the fascinating, frustrating, intriguing Who Gets In and Why.

Stay tuned for my upcoming review of The Price You Pay for College by Ron Lieber!


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