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Writing About Running

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Does your college application essay feature running? An expert offers a few simple rules for using your sport as your subject.

By Rachel Toor

As featured in the Web Only issue of Running Times Magazine

You’re a runner. You’re applying to college. You want to write your application essay about running.


Ask: Is what you’re going to say about running different from what thousands of other applicants might write? Chances are, it’s not.

When I worked in undergraduate admissions at Duke University I read a whole bunch of essays about running. Most of them were indistinguishable, even those that took place in the mind of a runner during a race. By the end of the essay, after far too much time in the prison-house of someone else’s consciousness, I would be screaming to go for a run myself and would have learned no more about the writer than that he had won/lost/finished the race and that it was hard.

Only one of those running essays stands out. It was by a kid who had been a soccer player and used to make fun of the runners with their itty-bitty shorts. After running a 2:10 800m as a freshman, he decided maybe there was something to running after all. He got a nickname, 2:10 Ren, and became a runner, happy to wear the shortest shorts he could find. The essay was smart, funny and self-deprecating. It made me want to get to know him.

When he showed up on campus, I tracked him down and we became friends, meeting for weekly breakfasts at a local diner. I learned that Ren had run a 4:17 mile in high school. When I asked him about why he didn’t write about that, he said he didn’t want to seem like he was bragging. (I mentioned him in a column for Running Times called “Speed Goggles”.)

College admissions officers don’t have a lot of time to spend on each application. After a thousand or so, you feel like you’re reading the same essay over and over. You’re able to boil it down to a simple description (dead grandmother), an equation (running=life) or a word (violin).

When you teach creative writing, as I do, you hear from lots of people who say they love to write. For the record, I do not love to write. Like Dorothy Parker, I love to have written, but I find the work of putting those words on the page far more exhausting than running the gnarliest 50K. Writing requires discipline and patience and multiple revisions. Pick up any running club newsletter or click on a friends blog and you will see hundreds, maybe thousands of words, but most of them are not arranged in a way that makes you want to read them.

In an essay, what matters is not the subject but what you make of it. If you did the Boston marathon as a bandit when you were sixteen, bully for you. (Well, not really, since I don’t approve of bandits.) So what? What does that say about you? Why should I care? You ran the anchor leg of the 4 x 400m and you made up a huge time deficit so that your team could win the state championship? Big honking deal. I’d be more interested if you dropped the baton and lost, because that would give you something to think hard about. Winning doesn’t afford that many opportunities for emotional growth.


We get the word essay from the 16th century French writer Montaigne. His project was to essai, to try to figure out some things about himself and the world. That’s your goal: The “personal statement” required by the college admissions process is an opportunity to explore who you are and where you fit into the world. If you can do that by writing about running, go for it. But understand that you are not writing about running you are writing something about yourself. You don’t have to answer big questions. In fact, once you start sounding like you have the answers, you’re in danger of writing one of those mind-numbing “In society today” essays. Instead, you have only to pose an interesting question and wrestle with it.

Here’s what I believe about writing: We write to make people fall in love with us. If you can’t imagine someone reading your stuff, write a journal. College admissions officers are generally nice people, sometimes smart enough to have been admitted to the universities from which they are now rejecting thousands of applicants, who read huge numbers of files from identically-qualified students. Its a human process. Much has to do with personal preference and the reality of the numbers. There’s nothing you can do if the person on whose desk your file lands loves Eagle Scouts and student body presidents and hates poetry and you happen to be an anarchist poet who never goes outdoors. But that doesn’t mean you can’t write an essay that will show off who you are and why you would be someone they’d want to meet.

When I work as a college counselor with high school students, I ask them to come up with a list of 20 (yes, 20) possible topics. Usually, at the top of the list is running, or something like it whatever their “thing” is. Then a few more easy and obvious ideas (being on the debate team; parents’ divorce; death of a dog). Then it gets hard, and I encourage them to think about small things that might say something about who they are and what they care about. What do you love? What makes you furious? That’s usually when the list starts to get interesting, and items that they thought were discrete appear to have connections. How is running related to the parents divorce and the death of a beloved dog?

Coming up with a good topic is hard. One of the things we say about my field “creative nonfiction” and the ways it’s different from journalism is that its about something other than what its about. So while running may seem to be the focus, there’s got to be something bigger, more universal, and also smaller, more specific, that the essay addresses. Understanding that an essay has to be about something is hard; figuring out what that aboutness is can be painful. Often we get there by writing.

In your closet you have 15 different pairs of running shoes. What does this say? Are you the girl who is afraid of missing out and who, once she finds something she likes, will stockpile many boxes of the same kind of shoe? Or are you that guy who is always trying something new, and so has shoes that are minimalist, pimped out with LED lights, and bundled up in Gore-Tex? A look into the closet can be a look into the soul. You can write that essay if you use details that are vivid and specific, if everything you tell us could only be coming from you.


In a personal essay, getting the tone right is a challenge. Often first drafts are stiff and stuffy, where the writer seems to be wearing someone else’s clothes and looks uncomfortable, maybe even a little fraudulent. I ask my students to write their first drafts in the form of an email to me. Tell me a story, I say. This exercise can help shake off some of the writerly pretentions they find appealing and that make me, as a reader, want to retch. Instead, they tend to write in ways that are more honest and more direct.

One of the best pieces of advice about writing an essay Ive ever heard is from Montana writer William Kittredge. He says: “Tell a story. Have some thoughts.” That’s what an essay is narrative and reflection, layered like lasagna or tiramisu.

Tell me a story. That part is usually easy. Then we have to figure out what the story is about. I ask questions. It will be clear to the writer why what she included was important. It may not, however, be clear to the reader. Connections and implications need stitching, and sometimes unstitching.


Starting with a Quote

Beginning writers want to reach out and grab the reader by the throat. This can be, for the reader, kind of unpleasant. Beginning writers do it because they don’t trust the reader to be interested, and they don’t trust their own skills to bring her in. So they resort to tricks. But starting with a disembodied line of dialogue without context is usually confusing, disorienting, and just plain annoying. Its a gimmick, and it looks like a gimmick.

Find ways to bring the reader in by being honest and reflective and self-critical. Work hard to come up with a good first line, but don’t make it scream.

Using the Present Tense

I know graduate professors of creative writing who will reject any applicant who sends in an essay written in the present tense. Beginning writers believe that the present tense can bring a sense of immediacy. It can, in fact, create a hyperventilating sense of YOU ARE THERE, but that’s not what your goal should be.

In an essay, the action is less important than the reflection. It’s not the race, its knowing how to feel about it afterward. William Wordsworth defined poetry as the “spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquility.” In fact, if the topic is hot something that is difficult or painful to write about the most effective tone will be cool. Don’t tell the reader what to feel, just let her feel it. The past tense allows you to show yourself as a person who thinks, understands, criticizes, reflects.

Too much dialogue

What is easy to read was hard to write. Many people don’t realize that dialogue requires art and craft to do well and that in real life (which is, after all, what an essay is trying to capture), people don’t say what they mean and often speak at cross-purposes. Fiction writers know that dialogue must do something beyond give facts. It characterizes and captures, it highlights and reveals. In a 500-word essay, you can use it like seasoning: Too much will be overwhelming, but a little bit, a little zest, a little zing, can help.

When you’re writing in the first person, you don’t add much by quoting yourself. You’re already telling us what you think, so unless you said something shocking, you can report it rather than putting it in quotes. And while were on dialogue, I might as well remind you that all you need is “he said”, or “she said”. These are called “dialogue tags”, and we read right over them. We get stuck, however, when the writer calls attention to them: “He whined.” “She squealed.” And we can become derailed when the verbs have nothing to do with speech. “‘You’re hot,’ he leered.” “She smirked.” Or when burdensome adverbs are added. “‘You’re fat,’ he said, cheekily.”

Word choice

Adverbs are not your friends. They, like exclamation points and clichés and the use of italics for emphasis, are the refuge of the weak and the lazy. Write with strong nouns and verbs. Beginning writers tend to overdo it: Too many adverbs, too many adjectives, too many words. And not only that, too many fancy words. Step away from the thesaurus. Don’t use a word unless you have spoken it in daily life. And don’t use phrases you use all the time. You know what I mean: clichés. Its a fast way to get ideas on the page, to express them in language that comes readily to mind and fingertips. If you must, go ahead and write the clichés on your first draft. Then revise them out with images that are fresher and more specific.

Be aware that often writing can go bad when it looks like creative writing; when you see the effort of reaching for description, all you see is effort. Like running, the best make the work invisible. Be clear, be honest, be natural.

To be Not to be

Any student of history should know about the dangers of the passive voice. If you say that the buffalo disappeared from the plains, or the war was started, you risk letting the bad guys off the hook and not giving credit to the heroes. It can also lead to flat, dead prose. You can spiff up your writing by limiting use of the form of the verb to be. Is, am, are, was, were you know. Finding ways around it will force you to use stronger verbs. And it will make the writing tighter.

Too long

My favorite quote, from Pascal, says, “I would have written you a shorter letter but I didn’t have the time.” Write long and then cut, cut, cut. You do not have a captive audience. Whether it’s a 500-word personal statement, a magazine article, or a book, no one has to finish reading. Your job involves keeping the reader in mind. Every paragraph, sentence, and word has to earn its keep by doing some useful work. Once you get a draft down, cut it by 20 to 30 percent. You can discover the same joy in cutting your work as you can in shaving seconds off your 5K time. No one likes flab.


After you have a draft of your essay, set it aside. When you spend a lot of time reading and rereading what you’ve come up with, you run the risk of memorizing your sentences, lending them the ring of inevitability. You want to let it sit long enough to be able to see it with fresh eyes. Then read it out loud to someone else who has a copy of her own. Listen to where it hitches. Let her point out where you have spoken words you did not write and then go back and fix them. Make sure she can hear your voice coming through.

A bad essay won’t keep you out of college but a good essay could help you get in. More important, it’s a chance to learn how to write about something you love in a way that makes other people understand why you do what you do and who you are.


Orwell Rules (from “Politics and the English Language” — a must-read essay for everyone)
–   Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.
–   Never use a long word where a short one will do.
–   If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
–   Never use the passive where you can use the active.
–   Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
–   Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Rules to ignore
–   Never begin a sentence with “But” or “And.”
–   Never use contractions.
–   Never refer to the reader as you.
–   Never use the first-person pronoun “I.”
–   Never end a sentence with a preposition.
–   Never split an infinitive.
–   Never write a paragraph consisting of a single sentence.

Every high school student should read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and many will enjoy and learn from Stephen King’s On Writing.

MSN Money,

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Parents are spending tens of thousands on advisers to shape their kids’ game plans

Even valedictorians are finding it hard to land spots at the nation’s most-selective colleges, so “Ben” wasn’t about to take chances. Over the past four years, the New Jersey father of two has spent about $30,000 for guidance from Michele Hernandez, a Lake Oswego, Ore. college counselor who charges up to $36,000 per student for advice on everything from what courses to take to how to spend summers.

“We have regular kids who are pretty bright and nice and do a lot of activities,” says Ben, who, like many interviewed for this article, requested anonymity. “We were looking to give our kids whatever advantages we could.” Both sons were accepted by their first-choice schools: small, private colleges that admit about 25% of applicants.

Despite the soaring cost of college, a growing number of families are paying as much as a year’s tuition, room, and board on independent consultants such as Hernandez. They seek advice not just on completing applications but also on the raw material that goes into them — courses and extracurricular activities. That means bringing these advisers on board as early as eighth or ninth grade.

Although college admissions officers take a dim view of these unregulated advisers, the Independent Educational Consultants Assn., a nonprofit in Fairfax, Va., estimates that some 22% of the freshmen at private, four-year colleges this year have used them.

Some advisers say they’re turning away potential clients. Hernandez began offering four-day “application boot camps” for about $8,000 last summer to accommodate overflow from her practice, which currently numbers 60 clients. “We’re very selective about the students we work with,” says Victoria Hsiao, a partner at IvySuccess in Garden City, N.Y., which charges up to $28,500. The firm has about 100 clients right now and has served about 1,000 since opening nine years ago.

The guides say their goal is simply to find a good match for each student. But with the nation’s most-selective colleges receiving record numbers of applications, they say they must also help their clients stand out. High school students “often don’t know what’s typical and what’s interesting about themselves,” says Rachel Toor, a former admissions officer at Duke University who charges up to $200 an hour. “I try to figure out what it is about them that’s going to get an admissions officer to fall in love.”

What you get depends on how close your child is to attending college. When a client signs on just before senior year, the focus is generally on the application process. Most counselors do not make calls to admissions officers on clients’ behalf. But they urge students to express a strong interest themselves by, for example, contacting professors whose research is of interest and attending lectures. To prepare her 200-odd clients for interviews, Katherine Cohen, founder of New York’s IvyWise, which charges up to $30,000, videotapes practice sessions for those who need it. Advisers help students compile activity resumés and athletic videos to send to coaches. They also help brainstorm essay ideas and edit drafts. The goal: to get students to write in a compelling way about a revealing experience or aspect of their personalities. A Princeton University student from a Western state says Hernandez urged him to explore “what home means to me and how heading east will never change the Western part of me.” Students whose parents hire consultants earlier receive guidance on much more. Some counselors say they steer students to unusual activities. IvySuccess encouraged a girl intent on Massachusetts Institute of Technology to enroll in beauty pageants, an activity that’s not typical of the school’s applicant pool. She was accepted. Counselors also help students think of ways to demonstrate a serious commitment to their interests. Cohen, whose agency advises on admissions from preschool through grad school, suggests submitting history papers to The Concord Review, a journal that publishes high school authors. She has introduced clients interested in internships to contacts in film, art, publishing, and on Wall Street. “To get into a top school, you have to show that you’re different and that you’ve done some amazing things,” Hernandez says, repeating a theory that most counselors espouse. Advisers say they are also seeing demand from students with learning disabilities. “Anna” relied on Cohen in her final three years at a private school in California to help her choose a challenging mix of courses that left time for theater: Anna’s credits include an off-Broadway play. Working partly at Cohen’s offices the summer before senior year, she polished off her applications ahead of deadline. “I don’t work well under pressure,” says Anna, who plans to major in theater and music at Brown University. Are the services worth it? Most advisers claim a high success rate in getting students into first-choice schools, but it’s impossible to verify their data. Anyone can set up shop —such counselors’ ranks have doubled, to about 3,000, in the past five years — because the field is unregulated, and practitioners aren’t required to have experience in college admissions or high school counseling. College admissions officers say such advice makes sense only for students at high schools that lack adequate guidance counseling. Some applicants “end up with a whiff of packaging that undercuts their candidacy,” says Bruce Poch, Pomona College’s dean of admissions. Many officials also worry that students are learning to put success above everything else. They point to Cohen client and Harvard University student Kaavya Viswanathan, who admitted plagiarizing portions of her novel about a high school student’s obsessive pursuit of Harvard. Cohen had introduced Viswanathan to a literary agent. “I have a fear that this [sort of counseling] is undermining people’s sincerity,” says Tom Parker, dean of admissions at Amherst College. Parents claim they get their money’s worth. Sometimes, they say, a third party can motivate kids in ways a parent cannot. For example, Hernandez nixed one of Ben’s son’s summer camp plans. “She said: ‘You’ve got to broaden your horizons,”‘ Ben recalls. The teen enrolled in a physics program at a university instead. “You never know whether you really need a counselor,” he says. “All you know is you gave it your best shot.

Rachel Toor, Running Times Magazine

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Senior Writer

As featured in Running Times Magazine

Rachel Toor didn’t start running until she was 30 years old; before then, while on vacation with friends she would lounge around in a black bikini reading 19th century novels and eating Oreos while everyone else went for a run. Now she considers anything shorter than a half marathon not worth the bother of lacing up running shoes; you could call it the zeal of the convert or just plain obsessive. She’d rather run a 50K on the trails than a road 5K. In fact, she rarely runs road races, except as a marathon pace team leader. She has won a handful of tiny, boutique trail marathons in beautiful places: North Carolina, California, Montana, and the Himalayas.

Having tried on and doffed a couple of careers (scholarly publishing and college admissions) Rachel is now finishing a graduate degree at the University of Montana, where she currently teaches writing. She is the author of four books her most recent, The Pig and I, has been translated into French and Russian. (It might be better in French.) Rachel writes for Chronicle of Higher Education (a national weekly for academics and other eggheads), still has a running column in her former hometown paper (Durham Herald-Sun), and her work has appeared in other running publications, Glamour, Reader’s Digest, and Happen, the online magazine for She is now, inevitably, working on a novel.

Rachel grew up in upstate New York and graduated from Yale, where she learned how to talk about books she hadn’t read and only ran when she was late for class. Her mother, a designer, made a website for her: Rachel is tethered to her internet connection and loves receiving email from RT readers.

Princeton vs. Yale: Post-Frenzy Boredom in Admissions?

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By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, August 16, 2002

Last summer, the big news was Enron — and the president of the United States falling down and bonking his head after choking on a pretzel. This summer, it’s still Enron, plus WorldCom and AOL Time Warner and Martha Stewart — but no snack food has threatened our national security. There have been, however, at least a couple of great news stories.

Take the invasion of the snakehead, an immigrant fish from China that can grow up to three feet long, walk on its pectoral fins, and spend as much as three days on land, eating everything in sight, including, maybe, small children and dogs. How could you possibly find a story that tops the snakehead for banner-headline giggles?

Easy. By discovering that, for no apparent reason, Princeton trespassed on Yale’s admissions efforts. In April, an associate dean and director of admissions at Princeton used his office computer to read confidential information about applicants posted on Yale’s admissions-office Web site. There was apparently nothing to be gained — all decisions had already been made — and it wasn’t exactly high-tech espionage. More like low-tech peeping. Yes, unquestionably it was ethically troubling, but move over, Martha? Make room, WorldCom? This belongs on the front page of The New York Times?

Is the interest by the news media merely a case of Ivy-Leaguenfreude, an irresistible and collective joy in seeing the elite shattered, laid low by either arrogance or stupidity? Is it because, after so many stories about the white-knuckle anxiety that surrounds admission to highly selective colleges — the pressure, the competition, the cutthroat, sometimes hinky tactics on the part of applicants — the focus has now shifted to those doing the admitting and their own world of pressure, competition, and cutthroat, sometimes hinky tactics?

Or is it simply the case that folks are figuring out that, like Big Business, the Roman Catholic Church, and Martha, the Ivory Tower might be less than pure? The news this spring that one of the Ivies, no name needed, was considering allowing kids to enroll who had broken a binding commitment to another among the august group of institutions only heightened the sense of outrage. Is this what we’ve come to? Is this college admissions in the age of Enron?

Then there’s the secrecy. The work of the admissions office is shrouded in darkness — even faculty members rarely know who staffs it or how it works. Which one of us doesn’t want to lift the veil and do a little peeping of our own? Especially those parents among the reading public who have a very real fear — there’s no other word for it — of the whole process.

I’ve worked in admissions, and I don’t believe that, as a business, it is corrupt. It just lacks imagination. No one grows up wanting to be a college-admissions dean. It’s a profession that people fall into, people who like to be around universities but don’t really have the desire, or perhaps the knack, for scholarly work. And it allows you to sit in judgment without ever exposing yourself, sort of like being a psychiatrist.

A few years ago, the Journal of College Admission started a column asking admissions deans to contribute essays answering the questions on their own applications. They asked me to write one. “I’m not a dean,” I said. “Ask a dean.” “I have,” said the dean who began the column. “No one will do it.” That response, he said, bespoke a silence more embarrassing than any essay written by an applicant.

When I worked at Duke, there was talk of having admissions-staff members take the SAT, to remember what the test was like and perhaps be more sympathetic to students who had to endure it. You would have thought, from the reaction, that it was a proposal for each person to take a 75-percent pay cut.

Even if they don’t take a lot of intellectual risks, however, admissions professionals do have that pressure. Gotta get better and better classes, gotta keep an eye on those rankings. With trustees and alumni and administrators looking over their shoulders, they scramble to get more applications. More applications, same number of acceptances — you do the math. U.S. News & World Report certainly does.

There’s another factor. You spend the fall traveling to high schools around the country, giving the same talk five times a day to students who look interchangeable and ask identical questions. Then you spend a couple of months at home, buried to your elbows in applications that are mind-numbingly similar. You read the same insipid essay over and over. Your eyes glaze over at the predictable lists of extracurricular activities. The teachers’ recommendations come out of the teachers’ computers year after year; sometimes you recognize not only the sentence constructions but also the sentences.

Then there’s the frenzy of activity in early spring, making the decisions, selecting the class. Each year, you make a small number of people very happy. And a larger number very mad, including the coaches, trustees, and professors who are all pushing their applicants. The development office reminds you about those buildings that need rebuilding and the state of the endowment.

At last, every application has a decision. It gets entered into the computer, the mail goes out. You relax. You clean your house, walk the dog, see your family again.

You have to show up at work. But now, when you go in, your desk is pristine. You play endless games of FreeCell. You take long lunches, walk around beautiful grounds on lovely spring days. More FreeCell.

Perhaps an analogy would help. A bunch of you kids are home alone. School’s out. Your parents are at work. Nothing to do. Tired of swimming and playing kick the can, you get an idea.

The wealthy and intimidating neighbors down the street have gone away. They left the keys to their house in plain view (OK, hidden under a rock behind a shrub, but still not hard to find). “Let’s just go in and snoop around a little,” you say to your friends.

You walk right in through the front door, marvel at the expensive furniture, even recognize some of the fine art on the walls. Tread on carpets older than your own country. Then you go into the kitchen. Behind the jars of fancy mustard, shoved behind the brie and portobello mushrooms, way in the back of the refrigerator, you see a brick of Velveeta and a can of Spam. Someone else checks out the medicine cabinet. Jackpot! A prescription for Viagra! And in the drawer by the bed — oh, my. Oh, my!

You have done no harm, you tell yourself and each other. You’ve just looked, touched not a thing. When the neighbors come home, you sidle up to them and make Velveeta and Viagra jokes. You can’t understand why they get so upset.

Don’t get me wrong. The Princeton snooping is a serious issue, a breach of not only ethics and confidentiality, but also plain good sense. One of the most important questions asked on any college application concerns disciplinary violations. Applicants are expected to come clean about any lapses in integrity. The notion that the people sitting in judgment of them might not feel the need to abide by similar standards does not sit well, nor should it.

But we’re talking FBI investigations here of someone who makes a whole lot less than the CEO of some huge corporation. Someone not motivated by greed, but maybe just boredom.

And, let’s face it, the snakehead is also a serious issue. Those suckers could disrupt the environment, especially if they start marching on their little pectoral fins toward Washington, eating everything in sight. On a hot summer day, in a year filled with real tragedy, it is kind of fun to read about such things.

My 3 Stanleys

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The fearlessness and linguistic facility of a trio of provocative writers should serve as a role model for academics

By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle of Higher Eduction, Chronicle Careers, September 16, 2008

I suffer, on occasion, from a desire to please. When a published essay of mine gets a big, positive response, I am delighted. When people tell me something I wrote was muddled or wrong, it stings. Often I agree with them. That stings even more. I’d like not to care. I’d like to be confident enough in my judgments and abilities that I trust myself more than I do others.

In other words, I’d like to be a Stanley.

I have known three Stanleys: an African-American Angelino, a Texas Methodist, and a Rhode Island Jew. They are much alike. Two are even friends. When I find myself slipping into a crowd-pleasing routine — comfortable, anodyne, hesitant — I try to channel one of those Stanleys.

I’d never heard of Stanley Crouch when the collection of previously published essays that would become his 1990 book, Notes of a Hanging Judge, landed on my desk with instructions to “work with the author.” I was an editorial assistant at Oxford University Press and discovered quickly that there would be no working with this author; the best I could do was try to keep up.

Stanley — large, loud, aggressive (I heard that he’d been fired from The Village Voice for fistfighting with a colleague) — was a great, alternative role model for an overachieving good girl. The forcefulness of his opinions was appealing, even if those views were, at times, icky. About Toni Morrison’s Beloved, he writes, “Above all else, [it] is a blackface holocaust novel. It seems to have been written in order to enter American slavery into the big-time martyr ratings contest, a contest usually won by references to, and works about, the experience of Jews at the hands of Nazis.”

Instead of finding him offensive, as many did, I was amused. I appreciated his brashness. If I didn’t agree with him, I didn’t argue. I just settled in to listen to his riffs. The breadth of his knowledge and curiosity made it a pleasure. He was just plain fun to be around.

Stanley Crouch’s writing career has taken off since we last spoke. In addition to continuing to work on music, race, politics, and culture, he published a couple of novels. For a while he was on 60 Minutes. Now he has a column in the New York Daily News. He makes his Stanleyness work for him, even if it can get him punched out.

When I arranged to meet Stanley Hauerwas for the first time, he told me the number of his office in the Duke Divinity School was “double O seven.” It wasn’t. It was 009. But someone had once told him he looked like Sean Connery.

He’s written a gazillion books. He moves fast, thinks hard, and talks loud. He pushes himself physically. When I worked on his 1994 collection of essays, Dispatches From the Front: Theological Engagements With the Secular, he ran every day at high noon in the company of graduate students, even in the sticky North Carolina summer. Once I went along and outran him up a hill. He screamed out a word that rhymed with itch and said, laughing to his male acolytes, “See, women can be jerks, too.”

In a passage in Dispatches From the Front, Hauerwas writes: “Stanley Fish, my friend and next-door neighbor, likes to remind students who express admiration for Milton’s poetry that Milton does not want their admiration, he wants their souls. I lack Milton’s art, but my ambition can be no less than Milton’s. I must try, like Milton, to change lives, my own included, through the transformation of our imaginations. I must do that using the leaden skills of the theologian.… Thus, I tell my students that I do not want them to learn ‘to make up their own minds,’ since most of them do not have minds worth making up until I have trained them. Rather, by the time I am finished with them, I want them to think just like me.”

Hauerwas criticizes those to whom he is closest: Christians. He’s a pugilistic pacifist, an intense hater, and an equally intense friend. He hates liberalism. He is sometimes portrayed as conservative, but it’s not that simple. What he hates, he says, is what the enlightenment has done to those who want to take their faith seriously. In 2001 Time magazine named him “America’s best theologian.” Hauerwas criticizes those to whom he is closest: Christians. He’s a pugilistic pacifist, an intense hater, and an equally intense friend. He hates liberalism. He is sometimes portrayed as conservative, but it’s not that simple. What he hates, he says, is what the enlightenment has done to those who want to take their faith seriously. In 2001 Time magazine named him “America’s best theologian.”

The son of a bricklayer, he has an astonishing work ethic. He also has a potty mouth. He swears like a sailor, whether during a lecture at Oxford or speaking to blue-haired church ladies. When I asked him about his language once, he said, “I hate how civility works to disempower the lower classes.” Civility, he says, is also the language of the church. “People think you need to protect God,” he says, “but the truth is, God can take it. Read the &#$! psalms.”

When Stanley Fish was my boss, as director of Duke University Press, I once complained to him about a manuscript submitted to me by a famous academic. This author had written the same book over and over again, I carped. Stanley stopped me and said, with unusual gravity, “Not many of us have more than one good idea.”

Stanley Fish parlayed his column in The Chronicle into a similar gig with The New York Times. Now he’s upsetting people far beyond academe.

In his book There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It’s a Good Thing, Too, there’s an essay called “The Unbearable Ugliness of Volvos.” In it, the Jaguar-driving author writes: “I acknowledge that the statements I have made are too sweeping and admit of innumerable exceptions: that some Volvos are beautiful, that no one here now owns or has ever owned a Volvo; that the life you experience in your various departments is characterized by amity and generosity; and that your relationship to the rewards and privileges of the profession is straightforward and healthy. I further acknowledge that I am necessarily (and multiply) implicated in the critique I have presented; that I have been a member of the academy for 30 years, in which I have been an eager participant in its economy, often providing, as I have here, the desired beating for those who have assembled to receive it; that every sin of which I have accused others is writ large in my own performance. And finally I acknowledge that there is no justification whatsoever for that performance, that it is irresponsible, self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing, and entirely without redeeming social or intellectual value. It is just something I have always wanted to do.”

I don’t have the guts, or perhaps the intellectual chops, to be a Stanley. But those three plucky writers are, I want to suggest, good role models — not just for me but for academics in general. The fearlessness of the three Stanleys, the depth and breadth of their interests, their willingness to weigh in on big topics, their senses of humor, their ability to wield language, sharp and strong, like a weapon, are qualities I admire and find lacking in much academic work.

At the risk of sounding like a Stanley, we could all benefit from a little Stanleyness.

Rachel Toor is an assistant professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University in Spokane. Her newest book is Personal Record: A Love Affair With Running, and her Web site is She welcomes comments directed to

Who Will I Disappoint?

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Choosing which story you get to tell.

By Rachel Toor

As featured in the September 2012 issue of Running Times Magazine

You would think by now I’d know to expect it, but you’d be wrong. The nagging conversation that takes place in my head in the later stages of a race occurs each time as if it had never happened before. Oh right, I think. I know how this goes. But each time, this debate, this discussion with myself, surprises me. It never feels like a rerun.

It goes like this: Who are you trying to impress? Or, more precisely, Who are you afraid of disappointing? When I get to the part in the race where it starts to feel hard, when I want to give up, I talk to myself. Often I’ll get to a point where, if this were a real conversation with a real other person, I’d be so annoyed and frustrated I’d leave the room.

Maybe there are people who are truly self-motivated, who don’t need attention and praise. That’s noble. I am made of weaker stuff. I care what others think about me; I care about how I will tell the story when I have to say, out loud, how things went. For me, shame is a useful motivator. I like to trumpet my successes because it helps me to hear not that I’m better than people think I am, but better than I believe I am; I hate to admit defeat or to recap a bad performance because it plays into my self-doubt. I try to restrain from the Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda refrain but it’s hard not to make excuses and stick to Didn’t.

The prospect of telling the story, of having to narrate my body-bruising crashes and scarring burns, my train wrecks, my wall-hitting, ball-dropping, face-falling failures can be enough to keep me going, to make me try harder. The act of having to report — to a coach, to a friend, to a potential lover — that I wasn’t as good as I should have been, didn’t try as hard as I expected to, that I gave up, gave in, collapsed, foundered, is a force that I am not sure I will ever be grown-up enough to ignore.

No doubt this performance expectation was instilled in me long ago, by a father who asked, if I brought home a test with a score of 99, why I didn’t get 100, who edited every paper I wrote in high school and never thought they were good enough, who was generous with things but Scroogey with compliments. No doubt perfectionist tendencies get nurtured like orchids, coming in different colors, different shapes. No doubt some of this has helped me in life to achieve, if not to feel content about, what I’ve accomplished.

Sometimes, when I was leading a race, I would think about the pleasure of being able to tell the story. No need for excuses, for explanations. I won. It’s not usually a compelling tale. Tolstoy famously said that happy families are all alike, and we know that’s not true. They are just less interesting than the unhappy ones. The story of winning is hard to tell without seeming obnoxious and self-satisfied, unless, of course, it comes with the challenges of Odysseus. The irony is that often, when I was leading a race, I would become too interested in recounting it and, like a tragic Greek hero, see fate intervene. I’ve gone off course in a 50K after leading the race for 27 miles. I’ve done that more than once. I’ve gotten cocky and pushed aside the fear of failure only to bring it on.

Even now, when I’m less likely to be at the front of the pack, I still get bogged down in mental debate.

The conversation goes something like this: Go ahead and slow down. You’ve got nothing to prove. No one cares about your times. The difference of two minutes, of 30 seconds, is nothing. You’ll race again and do better. You’ve raced before and done better. This is not worth it. There’s no reason to suffer when there are people in the world who are suffering for things that are serious, not play.

The response goes like this: You can do anything for seven (or 57) minutes. You will feel so good when it’s over. You are strong. You are tough. You are stronger and tougher than those you will beat. You can do better. You will care later. The writer in me bristles as I repeat cliches that coaches and teammates spew to provoke desired outcomes.

At some point, you make a choice. At some point, you stop having the conversation. You make a decision. You take action. You just do it, or you don’t.

Who will I disappoint? Of course, when I start hearing that nagging question, I know that the only answer that matters is: me.

The great essayist Joan Didion wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” The truth is, some stories are more useful than others. We make choices that allow us to pick which ones we get to tell.

Early-Decision Programs

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Featured in

By Tamara Holub


In early-decision programs, high school students apply early to their first-choice college and receive an admissions decision by December of their senior year. These programs are binding, meaning that if a student is accepted to a college through the early-decision process, he/she must rescind all applications to other colleges, and sign a contract to attend the college granting early admission. By signing a binding contract, a student forfeits his/her chance to compare financial aid and enrollment packages from other institutions. Students are allowed to have only one early-decision application pending at any time (National Association for College Admission Counseling, 2001)

Early-Decision Versus Early-Action Programs

Early-action is a similar, but non-binding, program. Students who apply through early action receive a response from the college ahead of regular decision applicants, and, in accordance with new guidelines set by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), may apply to other colleges without restriction (NACAC, 2001). The number of both early-decision and early-action applicants has been steadily rising for the last decade (Fallows, 2001). About 270 colleges and universities offer early-decision programs (Loftus, 2002). According to a recent study by NACAC, of colleges surveyed that had either an early-decision or early-action program, 50 percent of institutions responding reported an increase in the number of early-decision applicants; 31 percent reported a decrease; and 19 percent reported no change (“NACAC Study,” 2002). Eighty percent of institutions responding to the same survey reported an increase in the number of early-action applicants, and 20 percent reported no change (“NACAC Study,” 2002)

Positive Aspects of Early-Decision Programs

The growing popularity of early decision has spurred debate among college administrators, high school counselors, parents, and students about the consequences of the program. Early decision benefits students who are certain which college they want to attend regardless of what financial aid might be available to them from other schools. Being accepted early also eliminates the stress associated with applying to multiple schools and maximizes the amount of time available for students to plan their new lives at a particular college.

Criticisms of Early Decision-Programs

Much of the current literature on early decision focuses on the negative aspects of the program. A major criticism of early decision is that it seems to favor students from upper middle-class backgrounds, especially those who attend private schools or public schools in affluent suburban districts (Toor, 2001). Rachel Toor, a former admissions counselor at Duke University, says:
“The early program decision works together with other factors that reinforce class lines. The people whose parents can pay for elite private high schools, shell out additional thousands for ‘independent college counselors,’ visit campuses and meet with the ‘right people,’ and, yes, who know that applying early can give them a boost – they are clearly at an advantage” (Toor, 2001, p. B16).

Many college admissions counselors admit that students who apply early have a better chance of being accepted than students who apply through regular decision (See Loftus, 2002, p. 70). The favorable acceptance statistics across the board for early-decision admissions have influenced many high school students to feel that they have to apply early in order to maximize their chances of getting into a good college. A 2000 study of five years of admissions records from 14 selective colleges by Christopher Avery and colleagues at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government shows that this may be true (as cited in Fallows, 2001). Avery’s study found that the competitive value of an early-decision application was equivalent to 100 SAT points more than a regular decision application (as cited in Fallows, 2001). Admission rates for early-decision applicants are higher than for regular-decision applicants. For example, in 2002, Johns Hopkins University admitted 59% of its early-decision applicants compared to 33% of its regular-decision applicants; the University of Pennsylvania admitted 38% of the early pool compared to 16% of the regular pool (Loftus, 2002, p. 70). Thus, students feel pressed to maximize their chances of getting into a school instead of taking the time to research schools and identify one or more offering a good fit. (Gerson, 1998, p.68)

Early-Decision Programs and College Rankings

Another controversial aspect of early decision is that colleges use the program to increase their rankings in U.S. News & World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” (See Fallows, 2001; Ehrenberg, 2000). According to James Fallows, a former editor of U.S. News & World Report, a college’s selectivity and yield are two statistics used to determine college rank. Selectivity measures the difficulty of being admitted to a school and yield measures the proportion of students who attend (Fallows, 2001). Every college has a target number of students for acceptance each year. When a college admits a large portion of its entering class through early decision, it can send out fewer offers than it would have to without early decision. Thus, early decision increases a college’s yield and selectivity, potentially moving the college higher in the U.S. News rankings. Many argue that colleges who use early decision mainly to increase their rankings are performing a great disservice to students.

Cornell professor Ronald Ehrenberg, who has studied the controversy surrounding college rankings, argues that “It is reasonable to suggest that we would be better off as a society if institutions limited the number of students that they enroll through the early-decision process” (Ehrenberg, 2000, p. 90). Many colleges insist on maintaining their early-decision programs, claiming that they would be at a disadvantage if they ended their programs if their rivals did not do the same (See Ehrenberg, 2000, p. 90; Arenson , 2001, p. D1)

Ending Early-Decision Programs

Administrators at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill discontinued their early-decision program in 2002 because an internal analysis showed that the program worked against minority and low-income students. Their study revealed that 82 percent of the early- decision applicants were white compared to 69 percent of the applicants from later applicant pools (Lucido, 2002, p. 28). Also, applicants from the early-decision pool were less likely to apply for need-based aid than applicants in early-action or regular-decision applications (Lucido, 2002, p. 28).

In 2002, Mary Washington College in Virginia decided to end its early-decision program “in response to growing complaints that such programs add unnecessary stress to the increasingly intense process of applying to colleges” (“Va. College,” p. A3).

Defying NACAC Guidelines

Both Yale and Stanford Universities announced in November of 2002 that they will drop their early-decision programs in 2003, with applications for the 2004-5 academic year. Both universities plan to adopt a nonbinding early-action program that—in defiance of NACAC policy—forbids early applicants to their schools from applying early to other colleges. NACAC policy stipulates that students are free to apply early to multiple colleges, as long as no more than one application is under a binding early-decision program. Yale University President Richard Levin called the NACAC policy “‘ill-founded'” and said that ”’colleges should be able to set their own policies about admission'” (Young, 2002).


College and university administrators across the country are increasingly being called upon to reexamine their early-admission programs and their negative consequences. Though it is too early to determine the fate of the majority of early-decision programs-whether they will be maintained as they are, replaced by early action programs, modified in some new way, or ultimately discarded-there is clearly a movement afoot that advocates change.

Getting the Inside Edge

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Featured in The magazine Washington live by. Washingtonian Online

Want to Know How to Get In to a Good College?
Go to the Pros in the Admissions Game—School Counselors.

By Alicia Abell

Contributing editor Alicia Abell wrote about private-school admissions in November 2002.

Two schools topped Nell Constantinople’s college wish list: Northwestern, a big university outside Chicago, and Middlebury, a small college in Vermont. But how to get into one of them?

Nina W. Marks, Constantinople’s college counselor at DC’s National Cathedral School, set the strategy. Apply early decision, Marks said—the odds are better. And bet on Northwestern. It accepts a bigger percentage of applicants than Middlebury, and its admissions office would give Constantinople a leg up because her mother is an alum.

The final move in Marks’s game plan: The counselor called Northwestern’s dean of admissions and talked over her student’s application.

In the end, the plan worked: Constantinople got in.

Stories such as these are the stock and trade of NCS. About 80 percent of the school’s graduates are accepted to their first-or second-choice school. At least a quarter enroll at Ivy League schools.

Parents and students say that Marks, a Harvard alum who has directed NCS’s college-counseling office for more than a decade, deserves a lot of credit for this success. She is so plugged in to admissions offices that college reps even call her at home to talk about applicants.

NCS is not the only private school working the phones when it comes to college admissions. Many put a premium on helping their kids get into college. While public-school counselors typically work with 200 or more students, the load for private school counselors is usually a quarter of that. This gives them time to meet with students, get to know them, and identify the best “fit.”

Some counselors, like Marks, oversee virtually every element of the application; others offer advice and information but leave control of the process in the hands of the student. None can promise happy outcomes, but all aim to give kids an edge in the college-admissions game.

The mechanics of most private-school college-counseling programs are similar. An introductory College Night during the junior fall is standard, followed by individual meetings with counselors starting in the spring of the junior year. Some schools—including NCS, DC’s Maret, and Bethesda’s Georgetown Prep—also meet with sophomores and their parents.

Though most parents stand aside after these initial meetings, some join in with gusto. Leonard King, director of college counseling at Maret, says he meets with parents as many as six times and fields their phone calls and e-mails.

Schools vary in how they see their role. Some serve simply as a resource, while others manage each senior’s application.

“A more progressive, student-centered school may give a lot of the responsibility to the students, whereas others may be more top-down and adult-managed,” explains the School Counseling Group’s Peter Sturtevant, a former Maret teacher and college counselor who has been advising kids about colleges for almost 20 years.

At Sidwell Friends in DC, counselors get involved when asked, says 2000 graduate Molly Browne. “They would look over your application or read your essays if you wanted them to, but nothing was forced on you. You could seek out as much or as little help from the school as you wanted.”

NCS is not so laissez faire. Coursework for seniors each fall includes a weekly seminar nicknamed “College 101,” which covers the nitty-gritty of applications. The class even has a syllabus and a text—the school’s legendary college handbook, which includes résumés as well as a tally of where NCS graduates have enrolled.

Students also are urged to attend an essay-writing workshop and prepare rough drafts of their application essays during the summer before senior year. Marks usually reviews the final versions. “Like with everything, the girls are taught to do not an A job but an A-plus-plus job on college applications,” says the parent of a current senior. “Marks is emphatic about perfection.”

Some schools have a lot of influence over where students apply, even creating an initial list of schools to consider—a task usually left to the applicant. Maret’s King does this to get students to look at a broad array of schools. Other counselors create the list to make sure that too many of their kids don’t apply to the same colleges, hurting each other’s chances.

Marks often advises girls where to apply based on NCS’s track record with the school, her relationship with its admissions office, and the number and caliber of the other NCS girls applying. “One thing we do that’s different from other schools is that we really try to have a strategy,” Marks says.

Marks gives students a straightforward assessment of their chances of admission to a school based on grade point averages and SAT scores. This “dealing in facts,” as Marks calls it, is aimed at making appraisals less personal, but it can hurt feelings.

“Kids resent when they want to apply to Yale, for example, and Nina tells them no,” says a parent. Knowing Marks’s clout in admissions offices, some families are reluctant to reject her recommendations.“We went to look at colleges,” says another parent, “but in the end, Nina decided which school was right for my daughter.”

Another Marks strategy is to urge her students to apply early, when the odds of getting accepted are better. In recent years, some 75 percent of the NCS senior class has applied early decision or early action. It’s an unwritten NCS rule that those who get accepted will enroll, regardless of whether they applied through a nonbinding early-action process.

This strategy, which gives colleges certainty about NCS applicants, appears to pay off: More than half of NCS students who apply early get in; the national average is a third.

Colleges “know that the girls who apply early from NCS will go,” says Nell Constantinople, a 2001 graduate.

Many counselors take two or three trips a year to scout schools that they’re talking to kids about. “Colleges change, just like high schools change,” explains King. “I want to know if the colleges I’m recommending live up to what they say they do.”

College visits also help counselors match students with specific schools, says King. “I try to jot down notes to myself, such as ‘See so and so when you get back; they would really like it here.’”

Colleges sometimes sponsor campus tours for high school counselors. These often include useful presentations by admissions officers, says Roger Frantz, counselor at O’Connell High School in Arlington. “What the colleges and universities are looking for changes from year to year. So I keep going to these meetings to hear about the newest desired crop of candidates.”

“For example, MIT is interested in ‘underrepresented’ minorities like Native Americans, Central Americans, and Eskimos (but not Asians), while Stanford University wants an applicant’s personal essay to be Pulitzer Prize quality and a piece ‘that only a student can write.’”

Several schools organize college tours for students. Bullis and Sandy Spring Friends School take juniors to visit nearby colleges. Over spring break, teachers at Landon usually take vans of five to ten students—one heading north and one heading south.

The best counselors are talented and versatile. “You need to be organized, personable, hard-working, articulate, a strong writer, good on your feet, willing and able to reassure anxious parents and kids,” Sturtevant says. “You really do have to have it all.”

A key factor is experience. King, one of the most respected college counselors in the area, has been at Maret for 31 years. “Being there for that long, I’ve established some credibility with colleges,” he says.

Counselors with experience in college admissions often have good contacts and inside information on the process. Georgetown Visitation’s Suzanne T. Colligan has worked at several colleges, including Georgetown, George Washington, and Trinity in DC. Holton-Arms’s Tish Peterson is a veteran of Boston University, Georgetown, and George Washington. Bullis’s Eric Monheim worked at Kenyon College in Ohio. Kenya Smith of Edmund Burke has done admissions at Ohio Wesleyan and Kalamazoo College.

Gonzaga’s Jodi Hester, a former admissions officer for Grinnell College in Iowa and Johns Hopkins University, knows that college reps spend much of the fall on the road visiting high schools. They appreciate the smallest courtesies—snacks for the car or directions to the next stop. “When you’re doing that kind of work,” she says, “it really can make a difference.”

Many schools try to establish strong relationships with colleges and admissions officers. They visit schools frequently and invite college officials to their campuses. Maret and NCS each host more than 100 college reps a year.

Such visits help a college understand a school’s curriculum and grading. They also give counselors the familiarity to call a school on behalf of a student.

When Sidwell’s Molly Browne aced the verbal section of the SATs on her second try, her counselor knew exactly whom to contact at her first-choice school. “This is great,” the counselor said. “I’ll fax it right over.”

Some counselors call colleges in February—after applications have been read but before decisions are made. They talk about students’ strengths and weaknesses, respond to questions, and supply additional information that might help a kid’s chances.
These phone calls often give counselors an early read on the college’s decision. In her book Admissions Confidential, former Duke admissions officer Rachel Toor writes. “I go down my school group and tell the counselor ‘likely’ for the students whom I know will be admitted, ‘possible’ for those who will be placed on the waiting list, and then ‘unlikely’ for the ones I’ve already auto-denied. Everyone understands this code.”

Maret’s King tells colleges when he thinks they’re misreading an application; in some cases, he fills in relevant personal information, such as a divorce. But if it’s clear an applicant doesn’t meet the school’s expectations, he doesn¹t fight the decision.

Gonzaga’s Hester takes a similar approach. “I will say, ‘Did you see this?’ or ‘Did you miss that?’ But I’m not going to beg anyone to accept a kid,” she says.

Michael J. Ortiz, a counselor at the Heights School in Potomac, says lobbying for students doesn’t help that much. “We think our students’ applications speak for themselves. A kid tends to reach the level he¹s ready for.”

In her book, Toor describes most counselors’ campaigns for students as a nuisance. “I would not trust many of these people to recommend a good restaurant, let alone give me an honest assessment of an applicant’s intellectual abilities,” she writes.

Still, Toor admits that she found a few counselors whom she could rely on to help sort students. “At a handful of schools, I actually used the counselors to help me with the kids I wasn’t sure about.”

Good counselors, she wrote, offer “helpful and insightful things about each student who’s applying and what sets them apart from the others.”

At NCS, parents are convinced that Marks is a counselor colleges listen to. She calls every school that each of her students has applied to, although she says she won’t oversell her kids. With NCS, colleges “get what they think they’re getting,” she says.

“I think the admissions people trust her,” says a former NCS parent. “It makes their job easier if someone else can weed through the applicants and say, ‘This is the kid for you.’”

“She’s in a class by herself,“ says Abigail K. Wenner, whose daughter Becca is a senior. “I don’t think there’s anyone in the DC area—or probably the country—who does as good a job as she does.”

Colleges Bend Rules to Admit Rich Applicants

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Featured in College Journal from The Wall Street Journal

By Daniel Golden, Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal From The Wall Street Journal Online

Despite her boarding-school education and a personal tutor, Maude Bunn’s SAT scores weren’t high enough for a typical student to earn admission to Duke University.

But Ms. Bunn had something else going for her — coffeemakers. Her Bunn forebears built a fortune on them and, with Duke hoping to woo her wealthy parents as donors, she was admitted.

Afterward, her parents promptly became co-chairmen of a Duke fund-raising effort aimed at other Duke parents. “My child was given a gift, she got in, and now I’m giving back,” says Maude’s mother, Cissy Bunn, who declines to say how much the family has contributed to the university.

Most universities acknowledge favoring children of alumni who support their alma mater. But to attract prospective donors, colleges are also bending admissions standards to make space for children from rich or influential families that lack longstanding ties to the institutions. Through referrals and word-of-mouth, schools identify applicants from well-to-do families. Then, as soon as these students enroll, universities start soliciting gifts from their parents.

Duke says it has never traded an admission for a donation. “There’s no quid pro quo, no bargains have been struck,” says Peter Vaughn, director of development communications. While it won’t comment on individual cases, the university notes that financial gifts from parents are used to update facilities and provide financial aid, among other things. Duke says it has never traded an admission for a donation. “There’s no quid pro quo, no bargains have been struck,” says Peter Vaughn, director of development communications. While it won’t comment on individual cases, the university notes that financial gifts from parents are used to update facilities and provide financial aid, among other things.

The formal practice of giving preference to students whose parents are wealthy — sometimes called “development admits” — has implications for the legal challenge to affirmative action, which the U.S. Supreme Court will hear April 1. Special admissions treatment for the affluent has racial overtones, at least indirectly. Reflecting the distribution of wealth in America, the vast majority of major donors to higher education are white. Defenders of minority preference say such advantages for white applicants are precisely why affirmative action is still needed.
Top schools ranging from Stanford University to Emory University say they occasionally consider parental wealth in admission decisions. Other elite schools, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, say parental means don’t influence them. “I understand why universities leverage parent contacts to enrich themselves,” says Marilee Jones, dean of admissions at MIT. “If somebody’s offering them a check, why not take it? But I honestly think it’s out of control.”

While children of the wealthy have long had advantages getting into colleges, a look at how “development” admissions works at Duke shows how institutionalized the process has become at some major universities.

Under-endowed compared with rivals such as Harvard, Princeton and Stanford, Duke has been particularly aggressive in snaring donors through admissions breaks. Widely considered one of the nation’s top ten universities, Duke accepts 23% of its applicants and turns down more than 600 high-school valedictorians a year. Three-fourths of its students score above 1320 out of a perfect 1600 on the SATs.

Yet in recent years, Duke says it has relaxed these standards to admit 100 to 125 students annually as a result of family wealth or connections, up from about 20 a decade ago. These students aren’t alumni children and were tentatively rejected, or wait-listed, in the regular admissions review. More than half of them enroll, constituting an estimated 3% to 5% of Duke’s student body of 6,200.

The strategy appears to be paying off. For the last six years, Duke says it has led all universities nationwide in unrestricted gifts to its annual fund from nonalumni parents: about $3.1 million in 2001-2002. A university fund-raising campaign recently met its $2 billion goal. While 35% of alumni donate to Duke, 52% of parents of last year’s freshman class contributed to the university — besides paying $35,000 in tuition and room and board.

Students admitted for development reasons graduate at a higher rate than the overall student body, Duke says, although their grades are slightly lower. These applicants are held to the same lesser standard as some top athletes; not whether they can excel, but whether they can graduate. “There’s never been a case where I think the student can’t be successful at Duke, and the student is admitted,” says admissions director Christoph Guttentag. Students admitted for development reasons graduate at a higher rate than the overall student body, Duke says, although their grades are slightly lower. These applicants are held to the same lesser standard as some top athletes; not whether they can excel, but whether they can graduate. “There’s never been a case where I think the student can’t be successful at Duke, and the student is admitted,” says admissions director Christoph Guttentag.

Caroline Diemar, a Duke senior, says she favors maintaining minority preference for college admissions because she knows from experience that well-connected white students get a boost too. The daughter of an investment banker, she applied early to Duke despite an 1190 SAT score. Her candidacy was deferred to the spring.

She then buttressed her application with recommendations from two family friends who were Duke donors, and she was accepted. “I needed something to make me stand out,” says Ms. Diemar, a sociology major with a 3.2 grade point average, below the 3.4 average of the senior class. “Everybody at Duke has something that got them in.” The lesson she learned: “Networking is how you go about everything.

After she enrolled, Duke recruited Ms. Diemar’s parents to serve as co-chairmen of a fund-raising effort. Her father, Robert Diemar, declined to say how much he has given to Duke. “We support all of our five children’s schools,” said Mr. Diemar, a Princeton alumnus. He said Duke accepted his daughter on merit.

The practice of giving preference to the children of potential donors has caused fissures on Duke’s campus, with some worrying that it dilutes the student body’s intellectual vitality and undermines racial and economic diversity. In November 2000, a report to the trustees by a university committee on admissions called for a one-third cut in applicants accepted for development reasons. Mr. Guttentag says he plans to reduce such admissions to about 65 this year to achieve “greater flexibility” in shaping next fall’s freshman class.

Duke President Nannerl O. Keohane thinks the Supreme Court should uphold affirmative action because preferences for children of potential donors is “disproportionately favorable to white students…. The two are definitely linked, and it seems odd to me to allow one sort of preference, but not the other.”

The University of Michigan, defendant in the affirmative action case before the Supreme Court, wants to continue to allow preferential treatment for minorities. It also gives preferential admissions treatment to children of potential donors — but only if they’re white or Asian.

Discretionary Points
Under the 150-point “Selection Index” Michigan uses for undergraduate admissions, a review committee may award 20 “discretionary” points to children of donors, legislators, faculty members and other key supporters. Minorities underrepresented in higher education — Hispanics, African-Americans and Native
Americans — qualify for an automatic 20 points, but they are ineligible for the discretionary points. The university says less than 1% of admitted students receive this edge.

The late Terry Sanford, Duke president from 1969 to 1985, practiced donor preference on a large scale. Mr. Sanford, a gregarious former North Carolina governor, used his wide circle of contacts in business, politics and the media to elevate Duke from a regional to a national university. According to Keith Brodie, Duke’s president emeritus, Mr. Sanford would personally meet each year with the admissions and development directors to ensure special attention for 200 of these friends’ children applying to Duke. More than 100 would ultimately enroll.

As president from 1985 to 1993, Dr. Brodie says, he removed himself from the admissions process, resisted lobbying by some trustees, and trimmed the number of underqualified students admitted due to donor preference to 20 a year. “A Duke education is too valuable an asset to squander,” says Dr. Brodie, a professor of psychiatry, who was criticized as president for a lack of fund-raising zeal. “University presidents are under greater pressure than ever to raise money,” he adds. “I suspect many of them have turned to admissions to help that process.

Harold Wingood, who was senior associate director of admissions under Dr. Brodie, recalls that 30 to 40 students per year were upgraded from “rejected” to “wait-list,” or from “wait-list” to “admit” due to their family ties. “We’d take students in some cases with SAT scores 100 points below the mean, or just outside the top 15% of their class,” says Mr. Wingood, now dean of admissions at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “They weren’t slugs, but they weren’t strong enough to get in on their own.”

The numbers have increased under Ms. Keohane, Duke’s current president. Duke says it admitted about 125 nonalumni children in 1998, and again in 1999, who had been tentatively rejected or wait-listed prior to considering family connections. It accepted 99 such students in 2000. Similar data aren’t available for 2001 or 2002, the school says.

Ms. Keohane says she didn’t intentionally increase the number of wealthy applicants given a leg up. She says “it is possible that the numbers drifted upward” during the recent $2 billion-fundraising campaign because “more people in development expressed interest in candidates. But this was certainly not a policy directive, or even a conscious choice.”

The system at Duke works this way: Through its own network and names supplied by trustees, alumni, donors and others, the development office identifies about 500 likely applicants with rich or powerful parents who are not alumni. (Children of major alumni donors are given similar preference in a separate process.) It cultivates them with campus tours and basic admissions advice; for instance, applying early increases their chances. It also relays the names to the admissions office, which returns word if any of the students forget to apply — so development can remind them.

The development office then winnows the initial 500 into at least 160 high-priority applicants. Although these names are flagged in the admissions-office computer, admissions readers evaluate them on merit, without regard to family means. About 30 to 40 are accepted, the others tentatively rejected or wait-listed. During an all-day meeting in March, Mr. Guttentag and John Piva Jr., senior vice president for development, debate these 120 cases, weighing their family’s likely contribution against their academic shortcomings.
In her 2001 book, “Admissions Confidential,” former Duke admissions officer Rachel Toor recalled that most admissions officers “hated to see these kids get in” because they were “the weakest part of our applicant pool.” Nevertheless, most of the 120 students are admitted.

Once these children of privilege enroll, the development office enlists their parents as donors and fund raisers. According to Dr. Brodie, Duke’s parent program originated as a forum for parent concerns about safety issues, but it has evolved into a fund-raising vehicle.

A committee of more than 200 nonalumni parents provides its volunteer army for the four classes currently at Duke. Committee members usually give at least $1,000 to Duke, and the eight co-chairmen and the national chairman much more — including at least two seven-figure gifts endowing faculty chairs.

Membership in the parents’ committee is by invitation only and is overwhelmingly white. Lately, one affluent Chicago suburb — Lake Forest — has dominated its higher echelons. Lake Forest luminaries on the committee have included department-store heir Marshall Field V, who has given at least $100,000 to Duke; Paul Clark, chief executive of Icos Corp., a biotech firm; Robert DePree, chairman of corn-meal maker House-Autry Mills Inc.; and investment banker Willard Bunn III, Maude’s father.

The Lake Forest couples are social friends, serve on many of the same Chicago-area boards and several sent their children to the same private elementary school, Lake Forest Country Day. They write recommendations to Duke for each other’s children.

‘Pretty Intimate Group’

Susan DePree, Robert’s wife, describes the Duke parents committee as a “pretty intimate group” but not “clubby.” She declined to say how much she and her husband have contributed to Duke, but says they solicited at least one six-figure gift from a parent-committee member.

Maude Bunn, whose family lives in Lake Forest, attended an elite boarding school in Lawrenceville, N.J., where the Bunn Library opened in 1996. She says other Lake Forest parents recommended her to Duke.

Cissy Bunn acknowledges her daughter didn’t fit the academic profile of a Duke student. “She’s bright, she had good grades, but she doesn’t meet the superstar status,” Mrs. Bunn says. “Did my normal child take the place of somebody who could really make a difference in the world? Sure, yes, to an extent. But there are so many things you can lose sleep over. I’m happy for me and my child.

Maude Bunn says she initially felt very awkward at Duke because her admission “wasn’t necessarily on my own merits.” But these days, the sophomore says she is thriving. “The more time I’ve spent here, I feel more and more confident — they didn’t have to take me if they didn’t think I was equal to all the other students they are admitting,” she says. “I’m doing just as well as everybody I know if not better.” She is studying art history and wants a career in fashion.

Now her younger sister Meg, a high-school senior, is applying to Duke. Maude says the family likes Meg’s chances. “The people my mother works with for fund raising told her, ‘It’s really hard to get the first child in,’ ” she says. “After that, sisters and brothers are easier.” Duke says it, like many universities, gives some preference to siblings.

Mrs. Bunn says she’s not twisting anyone’s arm. “I told them, ‘If she’s qualified at all, that would be lovely,’ ” she says. “If she gets in, I’d be happy to stay on the parents’ committee.”

As college admission becomes increasingly competitive, parents try to help their children’s chances in any way they can. Duke accepted Jane Hetherington in 2000, despite SAT scores in the mid-1200s and what she calls “average” grades in high school. She attributes her acceptance to a “wonderful recommendation” by Norman Christensen Jr., then dean of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, a graduate program. She got the recommendation after one meeting with him.

At the time, her father, John Hetherington, was vice president of Westvaco Corp., a paper-products firm that had donated to the school, sponsored research there and hired some of its graduates. Mr. Hetherington asked a family friend on the school’s advisory board to have the dean interview Ms. Hetherington.

Mr. Christensen, a Duke professor, says he was impressed by Ms. Hetherington’s devotion to environmental studies. The student’s father later reciprocated by arranging a meeting between the school’s new dean and Westvaco’s chief executive officer, hoping the company would increase support for the school. Nothing came of it, says Mr. Hetherington. (Westvaco merged with Mead Corp. last year.)

“I don’t feel we benefited from anything you would describe as the traditional white power structure network,” says Mr. Hetherington, who is now a Republican state representative in Connecticut and favors a “sunset law” for affirmative action. He doesn’t think his position affected his daughter’s acceptance into college. “It worked out for some reason,” he says. “In all candor, we got lucky.”

College Admissions Officers Look for More Square Pegs

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Featured in TIME in Partnership with CNN

Forget about raising those perfectly-rounded Renaissance kids. Colleges now are looking for more angular students

Last week the office of public affairs at Middlebury College dispatched a press release to education reporters cheering the soon-to-arrive class of 2005. There’s the young man who’s appeared in “Scientific American Frontiers with Alan Alda,” the recent Russian émigré who launched a successful magazine and the Kenyan-born, India-raised student who founded a nationwide human rights coalition. And finally the professional clown who toured the U.S. performing in Circus Smirkus.

Like colleges everywhere, Middlebury was deluged with a record number of applications — 5,400 — for the 515 seats in its freshman class. Which means that, as every parent, teacher, student and guidance counselor well knows, the competition for admission has grown exponentially fiercer in recent years. The not unsubtle subtext of Middlebury’s communiqué is that unless you’re a world-renowned peace crusader — or Alan Alda sidekick! or circus performer! or something else truly eccentric! — the odds of getting into an elite school have lately shrunk to Powerball-like improbability.

Much of this is a simple matter of math — more and more kids are applying for a set number of spots. But as Rachel Toor, a former admissions office at Duke University, explains in her newly published tell-all, “Admissions Confidential,” colleges like Duke are now casting about for a different breed of student. For years, the conventional wisdom has held that admissions committees rewarded all-around applicants (hence the whole generation of parents who’ve nourished their children on a steady diet of piano lessons, soccer games and pottery classes from birth). Today, writes Toor, “most of the students I meet on my travels are BWRKs. That’s admissionsese for bright well-rounded kids. You know, the ones who do everything right. They take honors classes, study hard enough to be in the top 10 percent of their class, get solid 1350s on their SATs, play sports, participate in student government, do community service (sometimes even when it’s not required). They’re earnest, they’re hardworking, they’re determined. They do everything right and most of them don’t have a chance of getting in. . .unless they discover a protein or publish a novel, they are going to look a lot like all of the other qualified applicants.” Instead, Toor says, admissions officers are drawn to “angular kids, those with a much more focused interest or talent.”

There are some upsides to this new approach. Who, for example, wants to sit in a seminar brimming only with trombone playing, letter wearing football players who chaired their student governments? What’s more, looking beyond renaissance students, who tend to be children of privilege, has allowed admissions officers at elite schools to inject a measure of meritocracy into a process that, at an earlier point in history, largely consisted of the guidance counselor at Andover telling Harvard University which students it should admit. The downside, in Toor’s view, is that with no agreed upon standard of admission, the individual whims of committee members hold much greater sway.

Toor and her colleagues go to bat for students they dub “mini-mes.” Toor herself is a leftist marathoner who falls for socially conscious students who write their essays about running. She also champions a young woman whose answer to the Why Duke? essay begins “because it isn’t Yale.” (Toor, a Yale alum, writes of her own college years: “While I was there I never used the words ‘Yale’ and ‘happy’ in the same sentence.”) “I was personally most turned off,” she confides of her first year on the job, “by the Junior Statesmen of America and by kids who started investment clubs at their schools.” Nor did she look kindly on applications that seemed too polished, sensing the handiwork of a pricey college consultant.

I witnessed the “angular” approach for myself two years ago when Cornell University permitted me to observe its admissions meetings. In Cornell’s distinct parlance, renaissance students were dubbed “spread too thin.” The admission officers also had a highly refined ability to detect whether kids were undertaking activity after activity to pad their resumes — or out of genuine enthusiasm. Sometimes this was just a hunch, other times committee members added up the time students claimed to spend on various extracurriculars only to realize the total exceeded the number of hours in a school week. In the final decision-making process, idiosyncrasy trumped well-roundedness nearly every time.

Which, in the end, is actually a good thing. As scary as it seems to conceive of admission decisions hinging on an officer’s personal politics or mood, there is something comforting about the randomness of it all. It makes signing up one’s third grader for violin, judo and Boy Scouts suddenly seem senseless. Or hiring a $20,000 college consultant to help package your child. Or doing anything other than relaxing and letting your child pursue what he or she actually wants to do — even if that means going off to join the circus.