You’re reading a post by a high school drop out.
In a manner of speaking. I more or less stopped going to high school half way through my senior (final) year. I wasn’t a vagrant (I wasn’t a “flunky”) nor was I brilliant (a savant heading off to MIT on scholarship.) It’s just that I’d turned 16, and according to the basic requirements of my school, I was done anyway. So I took only one academic course (AP English) while spending the rest of my time involved in student government, (elected positions of leadership.) Busy with non-core courses until June, I then donned the synthetic gown, the shiny mortar board, and walked up to get my diploma. Easy.
What classes did I take to fill my time? Student government, symphony orchestra, special string ensembles, A Capella choir, debate, public speaking, released time for religious instruction and an hour-long lunch break. I spent much of my time in rehearsals for drama and musical productions. With other students, I traveled regularly and regionally for orchestra, theater and competitive speech competitions. I got “A’s.”
And I took Driver’s Education. I got an “A” in that class by mastering parallel parking on a couple of acres adjacent to the school, a swath of asphalt decorated with fluorescent safety cones like oversized candy corn decorating a gray cake. Cruising that parking lot was like visiting an amusement park. This meant that at the same time I got that high school diploma, I also got a newly-minted US driver’s license. When I tell this to my non-American friends, they just can’t fathom it. They also squint at me, and nod at why I’m such a weak mathematician.
In many places outside of the US, getting secondary education degrees, like getting driver’s licenses, is designed without much amusement (or fun) in mind. Instead, it’s the great sifter. It’s designed to be rigorous, even ruinous. Just ask the woman who stood in front of me in the line in Singapore where we were filing in to take the written exam to qualify for that country’s driver’s license. “My sixth time,” she whispered while sweat shimmered on her forehead and she rocked on her heels a bit, arms clenched against her belly as if she was birthing an alien.
Or ask the South Korean, Polish, and Finnish high school-aged students profiled by journalist Amanda Ripley in her new book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. (I will return to this book and the linked article in my upcoming posts. Thanks to Janina, one of our readers here, who sent me the link. Provocative reading!)
This year, US colleges will receive more applicants than ever before. What’s more, these applicants will come from more diverse secondary schooling systems than any previous year. Some will probably come from South Korea, Poland and Finland. I get dizzy (and for a moment just the slightest bit anxious) learning about what other cultures deem as “best and bright,” and when I skim the statistics about other US college applicants. Thank goodness I do so only for these posts on education; normally, I’m not a rabid follower of such graphs and predictors. I’m no way a Tiger Mom. In our home, whenever we speak the word “Ivy” it’s about leaves, not League.
But my kids are heading to college. Two already have, two will yet. And the younger ones are facing an even more competitive college application scenario than the oldest two did, just 5 and 8 years ago. It is impossible to escape the roiling undercurrent of competition in today’s college entrance process, or the fact that the admissions process, complicated and unreliable as it is, depends primarily on numerical indicators to sift through the thousands of profiles piling up this very hour. Those numerical indicators seem to favor (who’s surprised by this?) numerical or quantitative skills! Many colleges don’t even consider the written part of the SAT, a major disappointment for someone like our children, whose strengths (and who’s surprised by this?) lie in languages, critical thinking and verbal/written expression.
This all colors one’s GPA, of course. GPA is, for most if not all universities, the first numerical benchmark to determine a student’s ranking. But the problem with GPA is that while some post-secondary institutions have manpower and time to consider the nuances of such numbers, many do not. Certain classes, like instructors, like high schools, like countries – will produce widely varying grades. I pointed to this in my last post. Not all these differences can be justly weighed.
Stop and think for just a moment: You and I know, while peacefully reading this post, that an “A” given for Driver’s Education (or student government or cheerleading) in an average US public high school is lightweight – featherweight – an easy “A”. We understand it’s nowhere on the same weight scale as a 7 (A+) given to a Full IB Diploma student in a HL (Higher Level) Chemistry course in a college prep school. The problem is that many colleges do not make the distinction between heavy, welter or featherweight.
(Should they first distinguish that driving or cheering not be part of any high school’s academic curriculum? That such grades not be included in the GPA in the first place?)
To simplify the process, college admissions personnel are looking first at the cumulative GPA and test scores. A high number on either can be a foot-in the admissions door. When heavy (rigorous, college-level, mercilessly graded) courses combine for a lower GPA, that can mean the admissions door is summarily closed. The fundamental problem, I believe, is that weighting grades (or courses or instructors or overall high school or even country reputations) is too nuanced and subjective an undertaking to be carried out fairly.
So what can one do? The response I hear often is to counterbalance a “weak” (below 3.5) GPA by building a portfolio of leadership and extra-curricular strengths. Design solar powered homes in Costa Rica, they say. Start a soup kitchen in Detroit. Run for office. Discover a planet. Whatever you do, you’d better stockpile your extra-curriculars. Theater. Speech. Orchestra. Cheerleading. Driver’s Ed.
And you see we’re back where we started.