You Aren't Where You Went

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If the ides of March spelled trouble for Julius Caesar, mid-April makes millions of Americans wary -- and without knives or men in togas. The gainfully employed must lock 'n' load their No. 2 pencils for the annual showdown with the Internal Revenue Service (guess who wins), while high school seniors face an even more fateful reckoning: By April 15, the annual college admissions sweepstakes is finally over, and students must decide where to start the rest of their lives in the fall.

"Getting in" is a key concept here. For Americans aged 14 to 17, acceptance by the college of their choice has become something like the quest for the Holy Grail -- a long, arduous, quasi-mystical trek with enigmatic directions and no guarantee of success. Success? There's no guarantee you'll come out with all your teeth, judging by the media accounts of recent weeks. Terms like "frenzied," "scary," "crazed" and "brutal" make this year's college admissions cycle sound less like an academic competition than a World Wrestling Federation event.

And indeed, successful questers are thin on the ground this April, as the nation's elite schools have become even more so. Harvard, Yale and Columbia, for example, posted all-time low acceptance rates -- 7.1, 8.3 and 8.7 percent, respectively -- which meant, in effect, that each college found itself forced to reduce over 90 percent of a shining 2008 applicant pool to a flaming Gotterdammerung with acne. Oh, the humanity...

Let's lighten up, folks. This ivy-strewn status race has clearly gone overboard. No one is more status conscious than Russians, yet you don't see 17-year-olds putting each other in half nelsons at the gates of Moscow State University.

Granted, the college admission ritual is considerably different here. Russian high school seniors don't apply to universities, for starters. They apply to individual departments, called faculties, acceptance to which may be vastly easier or more difficult within a single institution. Beyond that, applicant pools can be very different for paying customers (above or below board) and those seeking traditional merit-based admission. In any case, while entry to the most hallowed halls of Russian academia is highly prized, the race to get there does not bear apocalyptic overtones -- at least not yet. Meanwhile, millions of young Americans perceive admission to a prestigious college as nothing less than the origin of their adult identity -- "You are where you went" -- or of a new identity for the family whose standard they bear. Or both.

Elite U.S. colleges can indeed help show that you and yours have "arrived." The Kennedy saga -- from undereducated immigrant Patrick to Harvard-educated J.F.K. in four generations -- is one famous paradigm. On a grittier level, note the sequence of the nation's most beloved crime families, the Corleones of "The Godfather" and "The Sopranos" of cable television. Each clan gradually scales the educational heights, from minimal to middling to Ivy League, with Dartmouth (Michael Corleone's alma mater) and Columbia (Meadow Soprano's) serving as reputation launderers and dynasty legitimizers.

Sociologists call this "upward social mobility" in a "functional meritocracy," and most people assume it's a good thing -- part of the American Dream. Well, yes and no, as F. Scott Fitzgerald pointed out. Fitzgerald gave us a lasting archetype of the upwardly mobile, self-invented American in James Gatz, an unprepossessing Midwesterner who remolds himself into wealthy, Oxford-educated Jay Gatsby in order to win the fair Daisy Buchanan away from her polo-playing, Yale-vetted husband.

Gatsby fails and "The Great Gatsby" ends tragically, yet the hero remains a sympathetic character to Americans. His ambition and drive embody "the pursuit of happiness" we hold so dear. But Gatsby is wrong. He mistakes attributes for essentials, and this wrongness remains insidious.

The green light on the Buchanans' dock, which Gatsby watches devotedly, famously symbolizes the hero's earnest and flawed hope for success with Daisy. After 14-year-old Chinese immigrant Jinzhao Wang read "Gatsby" this spring in her Boston high school, she quickly drew an analogy. "My green light," she told a New York Times reporter, "is Harvard." Her quest has begun.

Striving is good and achieving is even better, but they both need a focus that's worthy of the effort. Harvard, Yale, Columbia, MGU -- these are means, not ends, to be looked through more than at. Listen up, kids: It's less where you go than what you do. Relax and go do it.

Trust me on this. My family's legit.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.