When Pittsburgh Allderdice senior Suzy Lee Weiss received rejection letters from four Ivy League universities, she was devastated. On the advice of her sister, who works for The Wall Street Journal, she wrote her feelings down, culminating in an opinion piece she sent to the Journal entitled, “To All the Colleges That Rejected Me.”
In her op-ed, Suzy, who has stellar grades and SAT scores, wrote that colleges lied to her about just being herself:
“For starters, had I known two years ago what I know now, I would have gladly worn a headdress to school. Show me to any closet, and I would’ve happily come out of it. “Diversity!” I offer about as much diversity as a saltine cracker. If it were up to me, I would’ve been any of the diversities: Navajo, Pacific Islander, anything.”
Little did she know at the time that the op-ed would be the spark that flamed a national conversation about the college admissions game, even landing her a guest appearance on the “Today Show” several weeks ago. Though Suzy explained on national television that her letter was tongue-in-cheek, the Internet has been abuzz with responses and comments, some supportive and scathing, touting an “ain’t that the truth” understanding.
So should Suzy have started a “fake charity” or have been born to a “tiger mom” or “cured a disease” as a roadmap to campus, as she jokingly laments?
It couldn’t hurt.
“There is certainly some merit to what she said. When applying to extremely competitive colleges like the Ivies, you’re going to have to have something in your academic or extracurricular profile that helps to distinguish you as a student,” said Connie Pollack, owner of Pollack Educational Consulting in Pittsburgh.
She said that some schools are more “numbers-based,” looking primarily at scores and grades, but many schools do look at what the student will bring to campus.
“I think students do have a right to be cynical. The process has gotten so competitive; each year it seems the level of difficulty to get into schools has risen a little bit. If they have a good college list that is well rounded and they definitely have options for schools they feel they can be accepted to and want to go to, that’s what is important,” said Pollack.
Part of the problem is that more kids than ever are applying to college, so the colleges have no choice but to raise their own admissions standards.
Eva Gelman, owner of the Pittsburgh-based College Quest, said, “Admission is not a fair thing. Too many of our students are applying to the same top 15 to 20 schools; it becomes very, very competitive. Ivies or near-Ivies are receiving thousands and thousands of applications.” Gelman said that last year alone, Harvard accepted fewer than 2,000 of its 35,000 applications. She said that on average, though, about 80 to 85 percent of the applicant pool would be admissible at Harvard based on grades and scores. “The applicant pool is getting larger but the freshman class isn’t; they can’t admit everyone they’d like to. Colleges can afford to be more selective in how they craft that freshman class.”
Plus, Pollack said that students now apply to colleges through a common applications process, which allows students to apply to multiple colleges via one application. “It is making it more difficult for colleges to know who is going to enroll in their institutions.”
Gelman said that schools strive for a high “yield” rate, which is the percentage of admitted students who actually matriculate, a number based on their own historical data from previous years. “Colleges want students who want them. The more students research a school, visit it, contact that school, the more likely they will enroll if they’re admitted and will be happy, successful thriving students.”
Ed Gelman (Eva Gelman’s cousin) is Suzy’s guidance counselor at Allderdice. “We have many kids getting into these schools. In Suzy’s case, there’s no definite answer as to why or why not,” he said.
He thought Suzy’s op-ed was “funny and well-written. I think she is reiterating what people already know: that there is more than test scores and grades; there is a third part of the package, and it’s what you can offer to the campus.”
So, is it essential to work with orphans in Africa, as Suzy referenced in her letter, simply to beef up your college application?
Absolutely not, says Pollack. Nonetheless, she said, “If they find that going to Africa is an experience they want to have because it aligns with who they are already and this experience would add something new and meaningful, then why not go, but not all students can afford to go to Africa for this type of experience. Don’t go to Africa simply because you think it will help you get into college! There are certainly other ways that students can distinguish themselves, be a leader, and make a difference in the world.”
For now, the debate unwittingly begun by a local high school senior continues to rage. Even some college newspapers have picked up on her comments. Recently, Muhlenberg College in Allentown printed a response, written by the arts and culture editor, concluding:
“The college recruitment and admissions process is currently flawed and needs to be rectified. Suzy has a frighteningly valid point; ethnicity, rare skills and seemingly pointless extracurricular activities often overshadow true aptitude and intelligence. When colleges are ready to sift through the fluff in applications, schools will be filled with a higher percentage of cognoscente students.”
The college newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis took the opposite stand:
“Although the undertone that many students are not good enough for top colleges may have some truth-value, the means were largely inappropriate. Instead of lauding her for her courage or offering her jobs and internships, the public should let this become a lesson that the world is tough and not everything is a given.”
Both Eva Gelman and Connie Pollack praised Suzy for initiating the national conversation.
“What she did was to step up as a peer, as a role model in her age group to say, ‘This is difficult and what can we do about it?’ It was a way for her to vent and get her perspective across,” said Pollack.
Suzy, who enjoys writing, told The Chronicle, “I definitely feel like I hit a nerve with people. Whether they agreed with the article or not, they had something to say about it.” She has no regrets, saying she’s developed a thick skin in response to some of the negative feedback that has popped up on the Internet.
“I’m definitely glad I wrote the letter; it started a huge conversation. People are contacting me from high schools all over the country that they are discussing it in their English classes. It proves the power of the pen,” said Suzy, who hopes to publish more essays and short stories, with a focus on satire and comedy. She added that people in her own age group who have contacted her are 100 percent in agreement with her perspective.
Eva Gelman doesn’t feel that Suzy is too “saltine” to be admitted to the Ivies or to any excellent college. However, “That is part of the mystery of the application process,” which Gelman likens more to an art than a science. Nevertheless, “She makes a point about diversity. The dialogue is great; I think that the education of understanding college admissions is important.”
“If this starts people thinking how to reform this unfair system then maybe that will be good,” commented Suzy.
But traditional campus life will have to wait a bit for Suzy Weiss.
In a deal made with her parents in the event she did not get into an Ivy League school, Suzy has decided to take a gap year and enroll in Kivunim, a program that will be based in Israel but will allow her to travel to many countries while studying Hebrew and Arabic. She’ll apply the 30 college credits she’ll earn to the University of Michigan in her sophomore year. Because Ivy Leagues would not accept these credits, she said that it is “kind of a blessing in disguise because I think this next year is one I wouldn’t have traded for an Ivy League degree.”
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read Suzy’s Op-ed in its entirety, visit the Wall Street Journal’s March 30 online edition at wsj.com or follow the story at tabletmag.com.)